BEFORE THE EUROPEANS
British Columbia’s attachment to Canada has always been tenuous. Not just politically and socially, but geographically as well. In the almost inconceivable reaches of geological time, some billion years ago, whatever continent existed in the western hemisphere of our globe split apart somewhere west of where the Rocky Mountains are now. In the Northwest, the split ran through what is now the extreme eastern parts of Washington State and British Columbia. Whatever land existed west of that split was rafted off on the fiery mantle of the globe as a tectonic plate, much as a lump of butter skids across a hot griddle. It is believed to have skidded off somewhere to the northwest, and probably became part of Siberia and northern China. We believe that because rocks in eastern Siberia and Northeast China exactly match the rocks of western Canada of the same age, while the present rocks of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia are a total mismatch with the rest of North America.
After the western continent lost its western portion in this way, the Pacific Ocean, or whatever ocean was out there, lapped at a broad coastal plain where the Rockies are now, probably looking similar to the Atlantic coastal plain of today. For about 800 million years nothing happened, at least nothing we know about. But roughly 200 million years ago, things began to move. The Atlantic Ocean opened, splitting the existing land mass into Europe and North America. The opening of the Atlantic Ocean created the continent of North America and pushed it westward. As the Atlantic Ocean opened, shoving North America west, the Pacific Ocean shrank, and old ocean floor was pushed down under the edge of the westward advancing continent.
When ocean floors are driven down into the hot mantle of the earth, they melt. Ocean floors are composed of all the sand, gravel, and silt that eroded from the hills and mountains, ran down the rivers, and formed beds of sediment under the seas. Along with the sand, clay and silt were the minerals contained in the original mountains, ground fine by their long tumble to the ocean. When these old sea floors were shoved down into the mantle and melted, they were lighter than the surrounding rock since they contained water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. This lighter melt rose through the surrounding heavier rock as lava. The water it contained, at several thousand degrees Centigrade, dissolved the mineral grains, and carried them along with the rock to the surface in plumes of mineral-rich superheated liquid. This boiling soup of water and minerals cooled, and deposited those minerals in fractures of the surrounding rock.. If the surrounding rock were limestone, it acted as a sponge and soaked up the mineral soup. If it were impermeable granite, the minerals were laid down in thin veins. If the rising mineral bearing plume encountered a lake or swamp at the surface, it flattened out and spread as a horizontal bed of mineral enriched lake bottom sediment which, heated from below, slowly turned to stone. In time these new, mineral-rich rocks would be shoved up as mountains. And in time these mountains would in their turn be eroded away, and tumbled down the rivers to form new seabeds. Such beds would, in the fullness of geologic time, be shoved under another moving tectonic plate, and melted, recycling the minerals again into ascending columns of superheated water. The earth constantly recycles its constituents in this way, and will continue to do so. In distant time our junk-choked land fills will be worn away, tumbled into rivers, and the old bottles, tin cans, and wrecked cars distributed as tiny grains of mineral in sea floor sediments. And those grains will eventually be melted and dissolved to plume upward into the surface rocks to be mined all over again by whatever or whomever does the mining, some hundreds of million years from now.
In our area of B.C. and Washington, 200 million years ago, with the swallowing of old sea floors, the western coastal plain was crumpled up and forced against the continent. All its sedimentary rocks now form what is known as the Kootenay Arc, a tightly folded belt of limestone and sandy rocks that marks the former western edge of North America. Underneath, the molten ocean floor with its water and minerals rose toward the surface, forming volcanic vents and bulging up huge masses of granite lying below the old smashed up coastal plain. The great Nelson batholith which underlies most of the central Kootenay, was one of those rising bulges of old ocean crust.
As North America continued to be pushed westward across the globe it encountered whatever islands happened to be in the eastern Pacific at that time. Some were large islands on the order of the size of Japan or Borneo or New Zealand. The collision was very slow, a few inches a year, but the force was immense, so great that these small island continents welded themselves onto North America. The first was the Okanagan micro-continent which welded onto the Kootenay Arc some 100 million years ago. The melting of its basement rocks in the mantle formed a chain of volcanoes which erupted about 50 miles inland all along what are now the Okanagan Highlands and Monashee mountains. A new west coast was formed approximately down the line of the Okanagan Valley and the Columbia River into Oregon.
Fifty million years ago the Cascades micro-continent, was encountered and welded itself onto that Okanagan Coast. Its chain of Cascaded volcanoes, again about 50 miles from the new coast, are still occasionally active today. The next micro-continent to collide, is the present Vancouver Island, moving inexorably toward the mainland at 2 inches a year. Some millions of years onward, when it is welded onto us, it will have its own chain of volcanoes down its spine as well.
It is evident, that geologically considered, British Columbia does not belong to Canada, or even North America, at all. Our land is a collage of large, Pacific Islands, assembled haphazardly onto the continent by welds of once molten rock.
Spookily, our human history reflects the geological record. Isolated in deep and narrow valleys between the old volcano chains, human communication had always been difficult. The Aboriginals, living in their mountain-divided domains, developed some forty different dialects of seven main language groups, a greater diversity than in any other North American region, a mark of the isolation in which they developed.
And we Ex-Europeans of the B. C. Interior today, dotted in small settlements along winding valleys remote from the centers of culture and power, exist, in some ways no unlike aboriginal societies, culturally self sufficient and socially self absorbed, almost as though these were the still wild Pacific Islands, uncertainly joined to an unknown continent. In the depth of winter, even today, with the mountain passes closed or rendered dangerous by snow and avalanches, we inhabit, in our tiny, fragmented colonies, the ancient Pacific night.
At the time of the first European contact with the Aboriginals, the best estimates are that there were perhaps 100,000 Indians living in what is now British Columbia, and perhaps another 100,000 in what now comprise Washington and Oregon. The more northerly forest peoples lived in mountain valleys and pockets of grasslands along the rivers. All these northern Indians subsisted on the plentiful salmon of the rivers and the game of the grasslands. Trails and river corridors permitted trade during the summers with the Indians of the Coast. Winter brought total isolation, and a dependence on stored food.
South of approximately the 48th parallel of latitude, the dense fir and cedar forest gave way to open grassy plains of the semi-arid Columbia Plateau. The grasslands Indians living here had all acquired horses by the end of the Eighteenth Century. The horses of the Mexicans had been spread northwards by persistent Indian trading and theft, and a semi-nomadic horse culture, similar to that of the Great Plains east of the Rockies, was adopted by the Columbia Basin Indians. The ownership of horses allowed annual treks over the Rockies to kill buffalo, the meat being packed back on horses for winter food. North of the 48th parallel, only the Kootenay Indians had horses, as they had extensive grasslands in the East Kootenay to pasture them. Ownership of horses permitted much more trading and intercourse between bands, and the Salish language, with its many dialects, prevailed as the means of communication. By the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the grasslands Indians ranged over the entire Columbia – Snake Basin and were allied by marriage with their neighbours. North of 48 the Indians lived in isolated pockets of grassland, and only in summer were in communication with their neighbours. The forest trails and mountain passes were the summer links between the Kootenais and the Lakes (Sinixt) Indians, the Shuswaps and Okanagans. As well, the passes though the Bitterroot and southern Rocky Mountains linked the Kootenais with the Flatheads and were used each fall by the buffalo hunters coming and going.
Today our annual auto trips, always dreading snow, across the succession of mountain passes to visit relatives in Calgary or Vancouver, or to consult some obdurate government bureau in Victoria, duplicate exactly the family treks of the Aboriginals two centuries before. In British Columbia, more than in any other province, our geography determines our customs, just as it always had those of the First Nations. Their borrowed horse culture made these trips possible for them; the automobile makes it possible for us. The Columbia Basin Indians counted their wealth in horses; we count ours in automobiles, and deface our homes with two and three car garages.