A History of Bella Bella
Originally, Heiltsuk people occupied more than 50 major villages spread across their vast territory. They used the intricate network of waterways to travel from well-established winter villages to numerous seasonal camps situated on salmon streams, along ancient trading routes, and on far-flung outer islands. When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century there were several Heiltsuk villages on the various islands near the present-day location of Bella Bella.
In 1833 the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort McLoughlin, a heavily fortified fur trading post, on what is now McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island. The Heiltsuk already had a well-established trading network on the coast, but the Hudson's Bay Company sought to supplant indigenous people as middlemen in the fur trade wherever possible. Still, the officers at Fort McLoughlin found the Heiltsuk would not allow themselves to be pushed aside.
Despite initial hostilities, within a few years a new Heiltsuk village was established in close proximity to Fort McLoughlin. The Heiltsuk became well known as skilled and savvy traders and developed a lucrative, if uneasy, business relationship with the fort.
The Heiltsuk knew the village as ’Qélc, but Europeans recorded various other names for the village, perhaps derived from the local geographical name Pélbála, that eventually gave rise to the modern English name Bella Bella. Members of Heiltsuk-speaking tribes from across the region who gradually relocated to the village over the next sixty years became known as the Bella Bella Indians.
When Fort McLoughlin closed in 1843, the site was abandoned by Europeans. The village of ’Qélc remained and the Heiltsuk continued to trade with the steamship-based trading system that replaced the fort.
In the winter of 1862-3 a devastating smallpox epidemic took a massive toll on the Heiltsuk population across their territory. Many villages were wiped out entirely, and most others didn't have enough people left to sustain them. Survivors from the various Heiltsuk tribes gradually amalgamated at Bella Bella, which is centrally located in Heiltsuk territory.
In 1866 European traders reoccupied the fort site at McLoughlin Bay and established a small store and a post office. Then, in 1880, Bella Bella (’Qélc) became the focus of Methodist mission work on the central coast. The villagers were encouraged to abandon their traditional bighouses and seasonal camps in favor of European-style houses.
However, because most of the suitable building area on McLoughlin Bay was "claimed" by the Hudson's Bay Company, there was a scarcity of land on which to build such houses. By the turn of the century most of the greatly diminished Heiltsuk population resided in Bella Bella (’Qélc), which had become crowded.
In 1897 the Heiltsuk, making the decision to move, surveyed a new town site three kilometres north of McLoughlin Bay. This place was known to the Heiltsuk as Wáglísla (meaning "river on the beach"). Building progressed quickly and by 1900 the people of ’Qélc had relocated to the new village, which boasted large European-style houses and Heiltsuk-run businesses. This new community was called New Bella Bella.
For a time the prosperous new Heiltsuk village was a busy centre of trading and shipping activities on the coast. Within a decade the village was the second largest on the coast, with a hospital, school, sawmill, fire hall, wharf, warehouse, and planked roads with streetlights. Residents contributed to, and shared in, the success of nearby ventures like Ocean Falls and Namu.
In 1914 a cannery was built on Denny Island. The store and post office at McLoughlin Bay were moved to the small town that grew around the cannery. Along with the post office went the name "Bella Bella", which was inherited by the new Denny Island settlement, giving rise to a confusion of names that persists today.
As the century progressed, diminishing resources and the decreasing dependence of industry on remote communities caused New Bella Bella's existence to become more isolated and precarious. Ocean Falls and Namu eventually became ghost towns and the cannery on Denny Island fell into ruin. The community on Denny Island relocated to nearby Kliktsoatli Harbour, where an airstrip was built in WWII, becoming Shearwater.
But New Bella Bella (Waglisla) was revitalized by the building of an airport and BC Ferries terminal and continued to grow and prosper. Today this vital, contemporary community is simply called Bella Bella.
Today the ’Qélc village site, all but disappeared, is known as Old Bella Bella or Old Town. McLoughlin Bay, connected now by road to Bella Bella, is the site of the BC Ferries terminal, a Heiltsuk fish processing plant, and a salmon hatchery. The old Hudson's Bay Company land is now owned by the Heiltsuk.
Bella Bella Today
Bella Bella, formerly known as Waglisla, is a small but vibrant coastal community in the beautiful and remote area now referred to as the Central Coast of British Columbia, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Bella Bella is the home of the Heiltsuk First Nation.
Our community of approximately 1,500 residents is a contemporary town with modern facilities and amenities. We are distinguished, however, by deep roots in our history, our culture, and our environment.
Despite our location on the famed Inside Passage, Bella Bella is remote and isolated. Because of the distance to all major urban centers - and even from other villages on the coast - Bella Bella is largely independent and self-contained. Travel is possible, however, on scheduled flights from our airport and via ferry from the BC Ferries terminal at McLoughlin Bay.
Bella Bella boasts a number of community and independent economic ventures, including a large grocery/general store, two mini-marts, a liquor store, fuel services, a restaurant, a bar, an RCMP police station, the Koeye Café and a community library.
Medical services include a hospital, clinic, dentist, and pharmacy. Our independent community school serves K-12 students while the Heiltsuk College offers a variety of courses for students upgrading their high school credits, pursuing short trades courses, or preparing for post-secondary education away from the community. Individual proprietors offer bed & breakfast accommodation and taxi services. In addition, Heiltsuk economic ventures are now evolving to include activities like sustainable ecotourism.
However, like many First Nations communities, Bella Bella is faced with serious challenges that threaten our prosperity, our culture, and our way of life. The collapse of the salmon fishery has undermined one of the oldest occupations in Heiltsuk history. Heavy industry like logging and mining no longer seems profitable or sustainable. Consequently, unemployment is high and attendant social problems are ongoing concerns. Bella Bella is addressing this situation by seeking to develop new, sustainable ventures through the Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation that will provide jobs while preserving our traditional values and way of life.
With the promises of modern white society having gone largely unfulfilled, our community has engaged itself in a dynamic and energetic cultural revival. We are swiftly repairing the lapse in our traditional knowledge, language, and cultural activities left in the wake of missionaries and residential schools. Cultural revival projects in Bella Bella include the building of a community bighouse, regular singing practices at the singers' house (a replica scale bighouse), a growing collection of traditional canoes, a language nest for young children (Sasum House), and a strong cultural program in our school.
As a modern First Nations community, we strive to exist positively in two worlds. We seek to take advantage of regular transportation, a broad range of educational opportunities, and emerging job sectors while upholding traditional values and the cultural legacy that has kept our nation strong for millennia.