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History of North America’s Pacific Northwest

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This region is quite rich in its history of native people, explorers, and settlers.

Early History: The Native Americans and First Nations


For thousands of years, the only people who occupied, and lived in, the area that we refer to as the North Pacific Coast region were the Native Americans. They, of course, were not uniform in culture and looks; they differed somewhat from each other. Tribes of Athabaskan speakers in the southern part of the region, now northern California; the Chinook (see picture) farther north in the Columbia River basin that separates Oregon from Washington state; several tribes of First Nations in what is now British Columbia, including the Salishan, Nootka, Kwakiutl, Bellacoola, and Tsimshian tribes; in the Alaskan part of this region were the Haida and Tlingit tribes. Some sources suggest that Algonquian speakers existed in the southern part of the North Pacific Coast Region, in present-day northern California, but further research suggests that the tribes that spoke Algonquian languages existed farther east, going no further west than the Rocky Mountains except perhaps a few pockets here and there. (Aderkas, 2005) (Muckle, 1998)

There were numerous numbers of tribes that spoke Athabaskan languages before western colonization, and most of them occur in the northwestern portions of Canada, as well as in large sections of present-day Alaska. But a few of those tribes also existed in what is now present-day northern California, as well as in present-day New Mexico and Texas. Among those from the Pacific coast of northern California are the Hupa tribes, the Mattole, and Eel River tribes, which included the Wailaki, Lassik, Nongatl, and Sinkyone tribes.

The Chinook were a family of tribes that existed along the Columbia River basin in what is now Oregon and Washington states. These tribes were some of the Native American tribes that were encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition as they travelled up the Columbia River to its mouth on the Pacific Ocean. The Salishan occupied the area in Washington state and British Columbia around Puget Sound, where Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver lay, including Vancouver Island, and occupied land as far inland as Idaho and Montana. The Nootka, Kwakiutl, and Bellacoola tribes existed farther north up the coast from the Salishan, in British Columbia, and the Tsimshian existed in areas that are now northwestern British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska. A majority of the Haida and Tlingit may live in Alaska, particularly the mainland and archipelago that is part of the panhandle of Alaska, but some also live far enough inland to be part of British Columbia in Canada.


So, where did these Native American and First Nations people come from? The story used to be like this: some mongoloid people, who originated in northeastern Asia, perhaps present day Siberia and Mongolia, who were big game hunters, came over on a land bridge between Asia and North America, on what became known as Beringia, during the last time that land bridge was open, between 25 and 14 thousand years ago, and were kind of stuck, so to speak, in present-day southern Alaska until 12 thousand years ago, when the glaciers melted enough to allow the mongoloids, known as the Clovis, to trek farther south, and eventually, as the glaciers melted more, were able to multiply, eventually covering most of the North American continent by 10 thousand years ago, and as different groups became divergent and isolated from each other, started to develop different cultures and languages, including those in the Pacific Northwest.

As new evidence comes to light, and as anthropologists, archeologists, and geneticists have been doing research, they are starting to see a different picture, where there may have been several different migrations from different places, ranging from not only central and northern Asia, but also India, southwest Asia, Australia, and perhaps even Europe through the ancient Neanderthals. The people that are now known as Native Americans and First Nations most likely had several different origins, with several different migrations occurring over time, with as many as four or five different genetically variant population groups. Some archeological sites date as far back as 17 thousand years ago (Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in western Pennsylvania), and another as far back as 12,500 years ago in a Chilean site in South America. In fact, when comparing archeological sites in North and South America, by dating analysis, many of the oldest sites date to South America rather than North America, which seems at odds with the standard understanding of the origins of Native Americans and First Nations (Smith, 2007).

These tribes spent most of their time hunting, fishing, and foraging, although there seems to be some evidence that many of them did know how to practice gardening, to be able to grow more food, as staples to the food they hunted, fished, and foraged for. Some of these tribes, such as the Tsimshian, knew how to build watercraft that allowed them to go out into the open ocean to fish for salmon, of which there were plenty. Many of them had their own cultural rituals that separated themselves from neighboring tribes, including their own building types, their own marriage ceremony rituals, religious beliefs, art, language, clothing, and so forth, ad infinitum.

The Age of Exploration

Eventually, white explorers from Europe started to roam this land. This included the famous Lewis and Clark from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who came west in the Columbia River Basin. But, before the Lewis and Clark expedition there were some other explorers, Russian, Spanish, and English, which helped to complicate the claims of each of these nations in the Pacific Northwest Region. Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in the service of the Russians, between 1728 and 1742, led to the occupation of the area which became Alaska by the Russians. The Spanish explorer Juan Perez sailed north, in 1774, from his base farther south, leading to much of what today is known as the American Southwest to become part of the Spanish occupation area, which eventually culminated in the nation of Mexico – this is what led the Spanish to start putting military posts along the coast of California, because they saw the Russians to the north as a possible threat, which eventually was proved unfounded. Captain James Cook, an English explorer, claimed the Pacific Coast of America for the British Crown between the latitudes of 43° and 60° north, putting a wedge in between the Spanish and Russians. To further complicate the claims to this region even more, a trading ship from the New England area reached the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, establishing a claim for the United States. So, there were four nations that all claimed land in that area.


Vitus Bering, as previously stated, was Danish, having been born in Denmark in 1681. He joined the Russian Navy in 1703, during what was known in the Baltic States as the Great Northern War. Over time, having acquired respect and experience, eventually was asked by the Russians, in 1728, to command an exploratory expedition whose starting point was the Kamchatka peninsula that juts south off of Siberia in eastern Asia, this Kamchatka Expedition was meant to see how far Siberia went east, since it was not known then whether Asia and North America were a single landmass or not – after heading eastward, passing the easternmost point of Siberia, in what is now called the Bering Strait, and after realizing the northern coast of Siberia kept heading westward, decided to head back to the Kamchatka Peninsula before the winter season approached, believing his job to be done. A few years later, in 1741, he went on a second expedition, in which he discovered the southern coast of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. These discoveries by Bering helped seal the claim by Russia to the area that became known later as Alaska (Frost, 2003).


Juan Perez was a Spanish explorer who in the 1700’s, who was the first European to find, explore, and document the islands off of the western coast of modern-day Canada and British Columbia, which he did around 1774. He was also the first to the coast of present-day Washington. The Spanish, having occupied the land that is present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States, had heard about British and Russian occupations of lands farther north up the Pacific coast of North America, so they set about to find, research, and document the coastline. It was on Perez’s second expedition up north that he ended up dying near Vancouver Island (Sanchez, 2004).

Captain James Cook was a British explorer who helped to make detailed maps of Newfoundland and the lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence before going into the Pacific Ocean on other exploratory missions. It was his third voyage, from 1776-9, that allowed him to explore the western coast of the present-day United States north of Spanish settlements in California, after having first discovered the Hawaiian Islands, which allowed him to explore the area that is referred to as the Pacific Coast Region, all the way up to the Bering Strait, before returning to the Hawaiian Islands, where he died in a scuffle with native Hawaiians. His first two voyages gave him most of his fame, though, for it was in these voyages, 1768-71, and 1772-5, that gave Captain Cook most of his fame, because in them he circumnavigated the globe, was the first European to circumnavigate the islands of New Zealand, and was the first to explore the eastern coast of Australia, among other things (Colingridge, 2003).

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