Posted on

When the name British Columbia is brought up, it might evoke images of forested trails, towering mountains and bright blue lakes. This isn’t surprising as the Canadian province is home to six national parks, a testament to the area’s stunning natural beauty. And for me, having ample space to spend time outdoors is key. So, adjusting to British Columbia would not be a difficult change for me, most certainly.

Or, let’s not forget about its cities and other metropolitan areas. With more than 5 million people calling the province home and tens of thousands more coming from around the world to work and live here, British Columbia’s cities are a hub of the hustle and bustle that characterize many metros. 

But, British Columbia is neither British nor is it in any way related to Columbia in South America. So, why is it named so? 

British Columbia’s Name Origin

Before the name British Columbia, the province that is now called as such was known by different names. In the south, the area was referred to as “Columbia,” a moniker taken from the Columbia River. Meanwhile, the central part of the province was known as “New Caledonia,” a name given to the area by explorer Simon Fraser. But, even before then, the Indigenous people living near the river call it by different monikers. 

Indigenous Names

Before the southern and central parts of the province were known as Columbia and New Caledonia, respectively, the local name for the Columbia River (and its surrounding areas) meant “the big river.”

The National Park Service shares that the Columbia River was called “swah’netk’qhu” by the Sinixt people. They used to live in the upper parts of the river in the Arrow Lakes area. In the middle course, the Sahaptin (Ichishkíin Sɨ́nwit)-speaking peoples called it “Nch’i-Wàna” (or “Nchi wana”). Today, this area is Washington. Meanwhile, in lower Columbia where the Chinook tribe lived, the river was known as “Wimahl” (or “Wimal”).

Pre-Colonial Monikers

European explorers who came across the area also know it by different names. In the early 17th century, Martin de Auguilar, a Spanish maritime explorer, found the river, and maps of the era called it simply “River of the West.” Some even thought it was an estuary of the mythical Straits of Anan. Historians today believe that Anan referred to the Chinese province that Marco Polo described and the Straits of Anan to be the Spanish version of the Northwest Passage. 

In the late 1770s, Spanish explorer Bruno de Heceta mapped the estuary, confirming its location after catching sight of the river in 1775. Spanish maps of the late 18th century called the river Río de San Roque or the Saint Roch River.

Meanwhile, British Major Robert Rogers called the river “Ouragon” in 1765 in reference to “ouisconsink” river in Wisconsin. In 1778, American captain Jonathan Carver spelled it “Oregon.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter he wrote to explorer Andre Michaux on January 23, 1793, used this name: “It would seem by the latest maps as if a river called Oregan interlocked with the Missouri.” 

  • Columbia

The great river which flows from the Canadian Rockies into Washington state in the U.S. finally received the name Columbia River from American sailor Robert Gray who named it after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. The Columbia Rediviva was the first vessel to explore the river and its region.

  • New Caledonia

In 1806, Canadian explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser named the central and highland plateau region of the province “New Caledonia” (“New Scotland”). The name was in reference to Scotland. Although Fraser had never been to the country, British Columbia reminded him of how his mother used to describe the Scottish Highlands. 

Fraser was affiliated with North West Co. as an explorer, trader and partner. The fur trading company dominated the trade in the interior of British Columbia up until it merged with the Hudson’s Bay Co. 

The area was also known as New Hanover, a name given to it by British explorer Captain George Vancouver, and British fur trader James Colnett called it North West Georgia. However, the North West Co.’s years of dominance in the fur trade ensured that the name New Caledonia stuck. 

British Columbia

It wasn’t until 1858 when the province became a colony of the British empire that it became known as British Columbia. Queen Victoria gave it this name to avoid the colony being confused with South America’s Columbia and New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific Ocean which was then under French influence.

The Queen made the region a crown colony to get it under British control. She saw the need for law and authority to rule the area which was then undergoing a rapid population expansion because of Gold Rush fever. 

The name would also differentiate it from the American Columbia, or the American section of the Columbia District. American Columbia would later become known as the Oregon Territory after a treaty. One of the 10 provinces and three territories that make up present-day Canada, British Columbia is bordered by Alaska in the north and by Washington State, Montana and Idaho in the south. 

The name British Columbia became official on August 2, 1858. From then on, all other names gradually disappeared from general use. 

How Canadian Places Are Named

In 1897, the Geographic Board of Canada was created. Its task was to come up with names for mountains, lakes and other geographical places in the country. The government body is now known as the Geographical Names Board of Canada, but the power to name geographical places has rested with the provinces since 1961.

So, before the power to name places was bestowed on any government body or provinces, European settlers had several conventions for coming up with names. 

“When settlers first came, they tended to apply names that referenced people or events or places from the countries that they had come from,” Genevieve Weber, manager of programs and services with the BC Heritage Branch, told the CBC. But, this was not often the case. 

“Another very common … way of coming up with names in British Columbia are anglicized versions of Indigenous names,” Weber continued. 

What Is British Columbia Named After?

These names gradually became accepted, and you’ll find them used on old maps and other documents. Since the names were so commonly used and known by the public, the geographic names office formally recorded them as the official names that we use even until today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.