"Bella Coola - circa 1873"
Original watercolour 18" x 28" by Gordon Miller © 1987

Sixty miles up the coastal fiords of Burke Channel and Bentinck Arm the Bella Coola River empties into tide-water. On the south bank at the river mouth, on or near the present site of Bella Coola, the village of Qomq'-ts was built. The natives were of the Salish linguistic stock, although Bella Coola is a corruption of the Kwak'wala "Bilgula".

The Bella Coolas (now known as the Nuxalk) were the first coastal Natives to greet Alexander MacKenzie when he emerged from the interior in July, 1793. However, MacKenzie was not the first European they would have met. Just a month earlier, a boat from H.M.S. Discovery under Captain Vancouver had made contact with members of the village. After these auspicious encounters the traditional Native routine was largely undisturbed for many decades. With the exception of occasional trading excursions by Hudson's Bay Company vessels, Qomq'-ts was ignored by Europeans until the Caribou gold rush, when the valley was used as one of the entry points to the interior. In 1869 the Hudson's Bay Company established a post at Bella Coola, and when they moved out thirteen years later, they sold it to an ex-factor, John Clayton. He began farming and built a salmon cannery. Christian missionaries followed in 1884.

The painting depicts Qomq'-ts as it was photographed in 1873. The scene varies little from MacKenzie's description of it exactly eighty years earlier. Although the H.B.C. trading post had been open for four years, the village shows no evidence of European influence. The spectacular painted house fronts often indicated ownership by persons of high rank. The planks forming the facade could be as wide as five feet, split in one piece from a cedar tree. The large baskets are traps for catching salmon in the rivers.

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