On the eve of European contact the Tsimshian had lived along the Skeena and Nass Rivers and adjacent North Pacific coast for thousands of years. The Tsimshian depended on the intensive exploitation of salmon, supplemented by other fishing and by hunting and gathering. For at least part of the year they lived in villages, and their economies relied on regular, seasonal migrations to other locations for specific resources.
All Tsimshian were members of hierarchical kinship groups in which status differences were inherited. Kinship groups from the same village owned contiguous territories for fishing, hunting, and gathering. At elaborate potlatches the giving of luxury goods validated status and title. The system was financed by the corporate (kinship-group) production of surplus goods that could be exchanged or traded over long distances. Raiding for property and slaves was common.
The Coast Tsimshian who wintered in Prince Rupert harbour were well located to exploit a variety of resources and to participate in coastal and interior trade. In the early spring they migrated in kinship groups to the Nass River to trade and fish for eulachon. From there many people went to the outer islands to hunt sea mammals and gather shellfish. In summer, they moved to villages and campsites along the lower Skeena where they fished for salmon and gathered berries. In the late fall, their canoes laded with dried salmon and trade goods, they returned to the winter villages.