The early levels of the Prince Rupert middens show that far fewer people lived there 4,000 to 5,000 years ago than at the time of first contact with Europeans. Midden debris accumulated at a slow rate at all village sites. However, the basic economic pattern is established at this time.
From spring until fall, the small household groups travelled to temporary camps spread over a large territory to obtain seasonally abundant resources. They then returned to winter in their coastal villages around Prince Rupert harbour.
Few features can be recognized, but indications are that houses were considerably smaller than those of later times. No evidence of status differentiation in the house constructions has been found. Even in the earliest period, however, the houses were lined up parallel to the beach.
About 1500 B.C. a larger population is reflected in rapid midden build-up, larger village sites and the construction of larger houses. Heavy woodworking tools associated with house building and canoe making coincide with the appearance of the larger houses.
By this time, village settlement patterns show definite evidences of ranked social structure, with the house of the highest ranking chief standing in the centre of the house row, and the houses of lesser lineage chiefs extending out in both directions in descending order. The houses of village chiefs were larger and more elaborate than the others.
The Northwest Coast cultural pattern is in full stride by A.D. 500, and most of the cultural elements in existence at the time of contact with European explorers can be recognized in the latest levels.
Clear status differentiation is apparent. The social ranks are reflected in the differences in burial patterns and grave furnishings. Nobles are treated to elaborate grave goods such as weapons for the men; while the women have shell and amber pendants, shell beads and copper earrings. Commoners have simple burials with no trappings. Slaves or captives are buried without boxes or are mutilated.
Although rapid build-up of village debris, particularly shellfish remains, was most rapid from this period, the number of house sites appears to have been fixed by tradition. Lineages, or house units, held their individual house sites along with a variety of seasonal resource areas, such as fishing, hunting and collecting grounds, to balance their annual cycle.
During a period of 50 years following the time Europeans first visited the Prince Rupert area in the 1780s, the Tsimshian had sporadic contacts with explorers and fur traders. Trade goods were introduced from these sources, but they had little effect on the overall prehistoric pattern, and the Tsimshian way of life remained relatively unchanged.
The Tsimshian TodayFort Simpson in the winter of 1873. Built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1834, Fort Simpson became the home of the Tsimshian people from Prince Rupert harbour. The fort comprised a trade shop, a warehouse, officer's quarters, a mess hall, and houses and shops for Bay Company employees. Two bastions, each with four guns, were situated at opposite corners of a 5.5 meter palisade of thick cedar planks. The post was closed in 1911. After 1915, when the last buildings were burned down the settlement came to be known as Port Simpson.
In 1834, the Hudson's Bay Company built a fur-trading fort 32 kilometres to the north of Prince Rupert harbour. Around this time the Tsimshian, about 2 500 in number, abandoned their winter villages around Prince Rupert and resettled in Fort Simpson. By the early 1860s, disease had reduced the population by one third.
In 1862 about 50 people, encouraged by a missionary, William Duncan, left Fort Simpson and moved back to the village of Metlakatla, one of their old village sites in the Prince Rupert area. There Duncan set up a model Christian community, and the population grew to a thousand residents. A second split in the community, resulting from a dispute between Duncan and the Anglican bishop, led the missionary and 800 of his staunchest supporters to move over the border to Alaska in 1887. By 1905, most of the public buildings at Metlakatla had been destroyed by fire, and the village declined in importance. Today, the population is very small.
The major Coast Tsimshian community in British Columbia is Port (Fort) Simpson, a thriving town boasting a cannery.
The city of Prince Rupert offers an urban centre and employment in the fishing and forest products industries. Economic patterns have changed little from the ancient past to recent times, with the sea and the forests still providing the major resources.