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Effects of Early European Contact

Initial European Contact. 1791–1850

Spanish exploration

The Spanish were the first Europeans to see the Semiahmoo people. In June 1791 Don Francisco Eliza in command of the San Carlos, and the schooner Santa Saturnina under the command of Jose Maria Narvaez set out to make an examination of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and El Gran Canel de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera(the Gulf of Georgia). In early July, the Narvaez expedition anchored in Semiahmoo Bay, near the mouth of the Campbell River, commanding the entrance to what is now known as Drayton Harbour - named by Narvaez as San Jose. Narvaez's Chart shows the location of the Semiahmoo Village and Lake Terrell.

Narvaez 1791 map

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver began his survey of the coast, and on June 12, 1792 he entered and began a reconnaissance of Semiahmoo and Boundary Bays. Contact with the Semiahmoo was not made, as no description of them or their campsite was given, except that of the unoccupied fishing camp where present day Point Roberts now lies.

(see Subsistence Activities - fishing)

James McMillan, in the winter of 1824, led a party from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River north to locate a site for a fort - Fort Langley – near the mouth of the Fraser River. Traveling north through Puget Sound the party reached Semiahmoo Bay on December 11, 1824. Due to bad weather, the party camped near the mouth of the Campbell River for two nights. Details of the location of the Semiahmoo camps is not recorded, but local people showed the expedition the route to the Fraser via the Nicomekl and Salmon Rivers.


Establishment of Fort Langley

Fort Langley was established as a Hudson's Bay trading post in 1827, and after 1839 the post became an important center for agriculture; supplying Russian posts in Alaska, and Hudson's Bay posts on Alaskan territory leased from the Russians. The fur trade and agricultural interests at Fort Langley had a distinct influence on the Semiahmoo people. A culture that had previously been subsistence hunting and gathering now became oriented towards the sale of these commodities to Fort Langley. White contact, through Fort Langley, brought a number of new commodities to the Semiahmoo.

After the first decade or so the staple items of trade had become blankets, muskets, powder, shot, cloth, molasses, rice, bread, and biscuits. Secondary items used as presents included tobacco, beads, buttons, brass wire, chisels, needles, thread, knives, scissors, stockings, and apples.
Wilson, The Impact of the White Man

Potatoes were probably introduced by the Fort Langley traders soon after 1827. Potatoes were generally planted and dug up by women, and their cultivation and use fitted rather easily into native gathering practices.


Trapping of land animals, which was not very important in pre-contact times, grew in importance with the market for furs provided by the traders. The introduction of the steel trap further stimulated this activity. Practices associated with hunting, the use of the snowshoe; and with skin-dressing, the use of smoke in tanning were introduced by Hudson's Bay Company employees.


Measures of wealth also changed. Added to canoes, nets, fine skin garments, slaves and native blankets as items of wealth were guns, traps and Hudson's Bay blankets. Other items introduced by whites were tobacco and alcohol.


Firearms, introduced by the beginning of the nineteenth century changed the character of hunting land game and sea-mammals. The gun also changed the balance of power among the coastal Indians. Raids by northern Indians who had received guns as early as 1791 grew with intensity. The increase in raids resulted in defensive measures - largely the building of forts or stockades. The two Semiahmoo forts were probably built in the 1820's or 1830's and their design might have been inspired by the forts built by the Europeans.


Population Decline

The decline in Indian population was very noticeable in this contact period. In 1854 the Semiahmoo band's numbers were reduced to 250.* Raids by Northern Indians and smallpox epidemics were largely responsible for the decline. Smallpox, however, was not the only disease that cut deeply into the Indian population. Epidemics of measles, influenza, tuberculosis and others also took their heavy tools. Shortly before 1850 the Halkomelem speaking Snokomish were almost entirely wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. A few survivors joined the Semiahmoo and the Semiahmoo became the heirs to the Snokomish territory.
*Suttles, Post–Contact Culture Among the Lummi Indians


In the early 1850's the bulk of the Semiahmoo settled just north of the present International Boundary near the mouth of the Campbell River, to use the former Snokomish village site and weir site. This was the location of the Semiahmoo camp when the first white influx and settlement occurred.


The Arrival of European Settlement

The late 1850's, after 1857, and the early 1860's were probably the most significant years in Semiahmoo history. During this period European influences remade the native economy, and modified the native culture. The subsistence food gathering life was replaced as the Semiahmoo people actively took up employment within the European society. The Catholic Church was also involved with these changes to the local cultures and virtual wholesale conversion was achieved among the Semiahmoo. The Semiahmoo Camp became a focus for surveyors, miners, and trails from Semiahmoo Bay. By the end of the 1860's the Semiahmoo economy and culture hardly resembled that which existed in 1850.



There was apparently little contact between the Semiahmoo and Christian missionaries until the early 1850's. Regular contact with priests began only after the arrival of the Oblate Fathers, who established their headquarters at Esquimalt in 1857. A report by Father Louis D'Herbonez, dated February 15, 1861 and printed in the Oblate Quarterly, says that the Semiahmoo had then built their chapel in preparation for the missionaries visit. The church referred to was built in the 1860's and was located east of the mouth of the Campbell River, slightly east of the present day Legion Camp**.
**Mamie Charles, Interview February 12, 1971

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