British Columbia’s recorded history began with European explorers searching for the legendary Northwest Passage to the Orient. It was on the west coast of Vancouver Island, just 96 kilometres north of the Long Beach unit of Pacific Rim National Park, that Captain James Cook of the British Navy first set foot, in 1778, on the land now called British Columbia. Captain James Barkley followed in 1787, arriving in Barkley Sound in search of sea otter pelts. But Cook and Barkley were not the first men to perceive this land’s wealth. Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of man along this outer coast of Vancouver Island for at least 4,300 years. The oral histories and knowledge of the legends of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation claim they have been here since the time the world was created.
The cultural resources of this park are based on evidence of man’s presence derived from 3 sources: archaeological site surveys, oral histories (family stories and observations, passed from generation to generation by knowledgeable native elders) and written and pictorial documentation compiled since first European contact.
Within Pacific Rim, approximately 290 native archaeological sites have been identified so far. These sites represent the physical evidence of man’s involvement in resource extraction (shellfish processing stations, bark-stripped trees, fish traps, felled trees for building canoes) or an indication of previous village sites and camps. These sites are often in the form of midden development (earth knolls built from a layering of soil and accumulated village refuse) and fallen structures. Investigations of these sites provide a valuable insight into the lives and culture of the people who lived there.
Most of what is known about past population estimates, composition and territories of local native groups is based upon the knowledge of elders and observations of others recorded over the last two hundred years. Within and surrounding the area now known as Pacific Rim National Park, populations are estimated to have been over 9,000 people at the time of first European contact. Twenty three independent native groups held traditional territories with 21 main village sites scattered throughout the 3 park units. Today, these 23 independent groups are survived by just 6: the Tsheshaht, Ucluelet, Tla-o-qui-aht (Clayoquot), Huu-Ay-Aht (Ohiaht), Ditidaht and Pacheenaht. This dramatic decline is attributed to a number of factors.
Before European contact, these native groups were rich people compared to many contemporary native groups of North America. Their focus was the sea and the forest, which provided sustenance in the form of food, shelter, clothing and spiritual associations. Their livelihood was based on the immediate environment. The forest provided foodstuffs, both plant and animal. Western Red Cedar met a diverse range of their needs: bark for the weaving of clothing, blankets, containers, planks, posts and beams for long house building and material for dugout canoe construction. The sea was a transportation network as well as an abundant source of provisions. Salmon, cod and halibut were caught for immediate use, or dried for winter provisions. Marine mammals, including sea lions, seals and whales, were sought for food. Everything was utilized, including their hides, oil and bones. Marine mammals, along with other animals, played important spiritual roles within the native culture in addition to providing direct sustenance. This bountiful environment enabled the native people to develop a rich and complex society.
Dramatic and profound changes to all aspects of native life occurred after contact with European explorers and traders. Changes in population and group composition and the patterns of subsistence and settlement were the most significant. With the foreign traders came epidemics of infectious diseases, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and dysentery, against which the native people had no defence. Having no knowledge of quarantine, individuals tried to escape by fleeing their villages, only to carry the disease into other populations.
The mortality caused by internal warfare and epidemics was devastating. In the relatively short period of eighty years, the native populations of the west coast dropped by an estimated 75 to 90 per cent. The result was a disruption, realignment, or total disappearance of previously distinct political groups.
Traditionally, tribal groups lived year-round at a village site, taking advantage of the diversity of resources available within their defined territories. These original territories became enlarged with the amalgamation of disease-reduced populations or annexation through conquest. New seasonal patterns of settlement and subsistence developed to take advantage of these acquired resources, such as better salmon streams, defensive sites, or improved beach access within their enlarged land base.
In the late 1800s, native groups began to pursue new economic opportunities provided by increasing numbers of settlers. The production of dogfish oil, dried halibut and salmon, and offshore sealing further altered traditional life patterns. These new wage earning opportunities occurred most often in the spring and summer, leaving only the fall for traditional pursuits. Tribal village sites became established closer to the trading centres of white settlers. Flour, sugar, tea, molasses and potatoes purchased from these settlements supplemented salmon as the major food resource, displacing traditional dependence on native use of berries, root plants and other local food sources.
Initially, settlers trickled into the west coast area, to the trading posts associated with the fur trade and the whaling industry. Eventually, coast forest and fishing resources were also exploited, creating more industry and employment and sparking the interest of potential homesteaders. A prosperous export lumber trade developed. In the late 1800s minerals were discovered in the surrounding hillsides and in the gold-bearing sands of Florencia Bay. At the turn of the century the vast stocks of salmon, halibut, cod and herring triggered the formation of a fishing industry. Salmon fishery became the most valuable fishery on the west coast. Canneries, fish buyers and processing plants for a variety of species were established throughout coastal areas. These industries continue to be major employers for the communities adjacent to park lands.
In the days of the sailing ship, the west coast of Vancouver Island developed a history of shipwrecks. Since 1803 over 240 ships have foundered along this coast, hence its reputation as the “Graveyard of the Pacific”. The government of the day made several efforts to reduce this carnage. A manned lighthouse was built at Cape Beale in 1874 to warn ships away from the dangers of this coast. Then the West Coast Telegraph was constructed between Victoria and Cape Beale and was completed in 1890, along with a second lighthouse at Carmanah Point.
Following the tragic 1906 wreck of the passenger steamer, Valencia, in which 126 lives were lost, the original telegraph line connecting the west coast with the outside world was further developed to become the “Lifesaving Trail”. Construction of the third lighthouse at Pachena Point, near the wreck site, began the following year. Ultimately, the Lifesaving Trail was only pushed through from Bamfield to Carmanah Point, with downgrading along the way, as costs proved prohibitive. Beyond Carmanah, the trail remained the original primitive telegraph line. These developments helped to save many lives as shipwrecks continued to occur regularly.
After the 1940s, with the development of more sophisticated navigation equipment eclipsing the technology of the past, trail maintenance was discontinued. Today the trail is known as the West Coast Trail and, having undergone a major redevelopment by the Canadian Parks Service in the 1970s, is one of the best known and most challenging hikes in North America.
During World War II a large airfield was built on land now surrounded by the Long Beach unit of the park. As a result of this military installation, a road was built connecting the two communities of Tofino and Ucluelet. In 1959 the Long Beach area was linked to the outside world with the opening of Highway 4, though not with a hard-surface road until 1972.
The lands within the park, and each of the communities that surround it, tell intriguing individual stories of human settlement and development. Their histories weave together to form the fabric of today’s society, and the eventual establishment of these lands as part of the Canadian National Park System was brought about, in part, by the recognition of their unique heritage value. The histories of the Nuu-chah-nulth people, and the saga of foreign settlers, have left their mark on the landscape. The imprints of this history represent a valued park resource, integral to understanding and appreciating the varied heritage resources of the land now called Pacific Rim National Park.
Pacific Rim is a national park reserve, due to the existence of a comprehensive claim submitted by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in October 1980. The federal government accepted the claim, which covers all of the area of the park, for negotiation in June 1983.
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