Spain and Great Britain were the first countries to establish European contact with British Columbia. A ship under the command of Juan José Pérez Hernandez, a Spanish captain, is popularly believed to have been the first European expedition to see its coastline in 1774. His expedition communicated and traded with local native populations. He also announced Spain as the ruling owners of this new land. Esteban José Martinez founded the first colony, a fort in Nootka Sound, in BC in 1789.

James Cook, sailing under the British flag, landed on Vancouver Island in 1778. The two ships commanded by him stayed on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island. British fur traders worked with First Nations tribes to develop a successful operation. Spanish interests grew defensive of these British advancements, and a dispute led to several years of considerations. Eventually, both countries were granted equal trading rights.

George Vancouver, a British naval officer traveling with James Cook, spent much of his time completing the mission of mapping the coast. Many names he gave to the places he traveled still exist. Completion of this mission was a major boon to British claims in BC.

Inland regions saw more Europeans with the turn-of-the-century. Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson all made significant early expeditions through the region. Each was an employee of the North West Company.

  • Alexander Mackenzie came from the East in 1793. He explored the central BC Chilcotin Plateau, as well as more northern reaches.
  • Simon Fraser spent much of his time establishing settlements along the fur trading route between Montréal and British Columbia. Fort McLeod, Fort St. James, Fort Fraser, and Fort George were all his doing. A botched expedition, believed to have been charting the Columbia River, drew the ire of many of his assistants.
  • David Thompson, eventually named it the Fraser River. Simon Fraser had previously named another river the Thompson River for his colleague. David Thompson was more successful in mapping the headwaters of the Columbia River. His expeditions also came to assist the Canadian government in choosing the 49th parallel as the border with the US. Thompson spent his love life with a mixed race (commonly referred to as a Métis) First Nations woman named Charlotte Small. They eventually had 13 children together, and his family often accompanied him on adventures.

Fur traders and mapmakers dominated the limited number of settlements in British Columbia until nearly 1860. It is a popular timeframe for "True West" mythologies and dreams surrounding manifest destiny. Relying on nature for everything certainly paid off some, but the discovery of gold would prove to usher in a new era!