BC Facts     Home     BC Lists


By R. Rathwell

The crown colony of British Columbia was proclaimed November 19, 1858. It was bounded by the USA, Rocky Mountains, Finlay and Nass Rivers, excluding Vancouver Island and all other islands south of the 52nd parallel. The capital was Fort Langley, followed by New Westminster. On July 28, 1863 the boundary was extended to 60 degrees latitude and 120 longitude. The Colony of Vancouver Island and the Colony of British Columbia were united November 19,1866 with Victoria becoming the Capital. British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada as a province July 20, 1871.

That's how we came to be a province. So where did the name come from? Well, let's start with the "Columbia" part.

Prior to the 1846 settlement of the boundary between British and United States territory west of the Rocky Mountains, most of present-day BC was part of the jointly occupied Oregon Territory. But that wasn't the sole name given to the area. Other names had been given to this area, some having origins from much further back.

In 1792 Captain Robert Gray, from Boston, re-discovered the river which the Spaniards had named "Rio de San Roque" some 17 years earlier. Ignorant of the Spaniards' prior discovery, Gray named the great river after his ship, The Columbia. In the following years the vast area drained by the Columbia River was referred to increasingly as the Columbia Country. When the Hudson's Bay Company set up two administrative areas west of the Rockies, they named the northerly section "New Caledonia" and the southerly "Columbia".

After the Treaty of Washington in 1846 fixed the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the US, most of the Hudson's Bay Company's Department of Columbia (the southerly part) became American territory. And, as you can probably surmise, when the Oregon Territory was divided between Canada and the US, the States kept the name "Oregon". So, on the Canadian side of the previous Oregon Territory (what is now BC), the two names given by the Hudson's Bay Company were used. "New Caledonia" was still applied to the northerly part while "Columbia" was used for what remained of the southern part of the territory.

As this remaining area was to become a crown colony, there was need for a single name for the colony. There was quite a bit of debate as to what name should be used. At that time it appeared that New Caledonia was gaining favour as the name to be given to the new territory. But, as with any major decision in BC, there were quite a few people who didn't like that idea. Namely because the name New Caledonia was being used by the French in the South Pacific.

The person who came up with a solution was none other than Queen Victoria. The matter of the name of the new crown colony had been referred to her and she replied:

The Queen has received Sir Bulwer Lytton's letter. If the name of "New Caledonia" is objected to as being already borne by another colony or island claimed by the French, it may be better to give the new colony west of the Rocky Mountains another name. New Hanover, New Cornwall and New Georgia appear from the maps to be the names of the subdivisions of that country, but do not appear on all maps. The only name which is given to the whole territory in every map the Queen has consulted is "Columbia", but as there exists also a Columbia in South America, and the citizens of the United States call their country also Columbia, at least in poetry, "British Columbia " might be, in the Queen's opinion, the best name.

The previous quotation is taken from a letter by Queen Victoria to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Colonial Secretary. Her advice was taken and our province, a crown colony at that time, was officially proclaimed as British Columbia in 1858.

[Mr. Rathwell is Coordinator of Volunteers and Education at one of Victoria's most popular tourist attractions, Craigdarroch Castle (Operated by the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society), 1050 Joan Crescent.]

BC Facts     Home     BC Lists     Top