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British Columbia, not Fraser

January 21, 2015

In a footnote last week I hinted that there was a really interesting story behind the name of my province. I mean, we have so many rivers, why name it after the Columbia? Heck, why name it after a river at all?

Note that I’m both not a historian and not really fact-checking as I write, so I might be wildly off-base, but hopefully not. I’ve got a good memory anyway.

So, at one point in the 1800s, western North America looked something like this:

Yellow: what was then Oregon Country or the Columbia District, depending on if you were American or British, and what is now Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

Pink: what is now California and adjacent states and was then claimed as Spanish territory

Green: Rupert’s Land, also known as any land in now-Canada that was owned by fur trading companies and was west of Ontario

They called it the Columbia District because David Thompson, the “first” European to explore the area, travelled most of the length of the river and because it was a very important supply route. We don’t know why they called it Oregon Country. No, really. It’s like Canada that way.

Oh, Canada

Oh, Canada

Anyway, because Thompson was British, and Vancouver and Cook were also British and did most of the coastal exploration, the Brits claimed the entire area was theirs. Because Lewis and Clark had overwintered at the mouth of the Columbia, the Americans claimed the whole area too. This was obviously not going to last. Things got heated. Eventually, in the middle of peak Manifest Destiny expansionism, an American president won on the campaign promise of “54’40 or bust!” But then he backed down and opted for the 49th parallel instead—which is, coincidentally, where the BC-WA border still is.

This did not stop the Americans. Technically, yes, but then someone discovered gold on the Fraser River and a whole lot of (unsavory) Americans flooded up from the American goldfields. To stop things blowing up again and absolutely cement its claim on the area, the British government created a second crown colony in the Pacific Northwest.*

Basically, we’re British Columbia because the UK wanted to be absolutely clear on who owned us. Hint: not the Americans. The Canadian self-definition goes waaaaaay back.


* This didn’t stop the unsavory Americans from causing things to blow up anyway.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    February 6, 2015 11:28 pm

    Plus the Queen chose it. She was a very helpful lady.

    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      February 7, 2015 12:20 am

      She was indeed.

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