Reading Bella Coola

Olsens
My great-grandparents, Konstanse Fyhn & Ole Olsen on their wedding day in December 1914.

Although my interests typically are centred on Vancouver Island, lately I’ve also been exploring my family’s history. Before my great-grandparents moved to Vancouver Island in the mid-1930s, they lived in Bella Coola. After immigrating separately from Norway in the early 1900s, they both eventually settled at Hagensborg, a Norwegian community about 20 kilometres east of Bella Coola.

Hagensborg, originally known as Kristiania, was the 1894 stopping point for a group of Norwegian settlers coming up from the United States. The group was led by Rev. Christian Saugstad whom hoped to establish a utopian Norwegian colony there. While not part of the original group of approximately 80 colonists, my great-grandparents joined their fellow Norwegians once the community had been established. They married there in 1914, and had a family of nine children.

In order to gain insight on what their lives might have been like, and to know more about the Norwegian immigrant experience in British Columbia, I began searching around for some books. Luckily, between the titles I had already had at home, my dad’s collection, and university and public libraries, I’ve been able to put together an impressive reading list that should keep me busy for quite a while.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve found so far:

Olsen, Hank. Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2003.

OlsenBook

This is a self-published book written by my great-uncle about the family’s time in Bella Coola. Apparently it was received with mixed feelings within the family itself – a sure hint that it will be an interesting read. I can’t wait! This is probably going to be my best opportunity to get a sense of what my relatives’ experience was actually like. Even if the story has been romanticized or embellished some what, it’s likely my best source for describing the specific time period, people, and events I am most interested in.

Green, Marcy (Olsen). “An immigrant’s journey: The Olsen family”. Vancouver Sun. 29 April 2008. pg. B3. Online at: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/bc-150/featured-articles/norway+bella+coola+1909/897449/story.html

This article based on family stories and legends gives the account of my great-grandparents’ experiences of immigrating to Canada from Norway. In 2008, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the colony of British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun invited readers to send in written submissions which shared their families’ histories as a way to reflect on and celebrate the experience of ordinary British Columbians. My dad’s first cousin, another grandchild of the couple featured, submitted this article.

Wild, Paula. One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.

So far I’ve only just glanced at this book, but I was excited to see it includes information from an interview with one of my great-uncles (not the one that wrote the book) about the 1934 flood which was the impetus for the family to move away from Bella Coola.

My great-grandmother and seven of her nine children, including my grandmother whom was just five years old at the time, were stranded on the island they lived on after the two nearby bridges were washed away in the flood waters. Luckily, the family was rescued by members of the local First Nation in canoes, but their home was severely damaged. Shortly after, they left Bella Coola, moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Fish, Gordon. Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula. Sound Heritage Series 36. Victoria, BC: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982.

This book gathers together oral interviews concerning three of the province’s ethnic communities: Bella Coola (Norwegian), Cape Scott (Danish), and Sointula (Finnish). A bulk of the Bella Coola sections are based on oral interviews CBC radio producer Imbert Orchard conducted with Milo Fougner and siblings Ted and Anne Levelton, whose fathers had arrived with the original group of Norwegian settlers. These are supplemented with additional interviews done for the BC Archives by the author Gordon Fish.

Made up of excerpts from these interviews, this book doesn’t read like a stuffy scholar writing about a far-flung community. The stories and memories are captured in the speakers’ own voices. It’s like the interviewees are sitting in the room with you, telling you their story in their way. This text serves as a valuable record of the people and families who were actually in Bella Coola at the time it was growing as a Norwegian community.

Johnny
This photo is found in the Dreams of Freedom book and is captioned as “Bella Coola fisherman hauling in salmon gillnet”. A Clifford R. Kopas photo, my grandmother thinks that this is a picture of her eldest brother, Johnny.

Kopas, Cliff. Bella Coola. Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press, 1970.

Faa, Eric. Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918. Victoria, BC: Runestad, 1995.

These books include lots of great information about the Norwegian settlement in Bella Coola. Unfortunately, the time period discussed for the most part pre-dates my great-grandparents’ arrivals in 1909 and 1914. Understandably, a lot of research focuses on the original group of Norwegian colonists, but as my relatives were not part of this first group, I think it’s going to be tougher to find information about Bella Coola when they were living there. However, I’m sure these books will still be interesting and useful for understanding how the community came to be, and what it was like to live there.

And one that I haven’t put my hands on yet, but will be looking into:

Solhjell, Peter. Spuds Among the Stumps: Norwegian Immigrant Settlement Photos, Bella Coola, 1896-1897. Hagensborg, BC: Solly’s Pub, 2008.

The pictures in this book also pre-date my great-grandparents’ arrival in Bella Coola by over 10 years, but I still think it will be an excellent resource, especially for getting a visual sense of what the community might have looked like when they arrived.

While I’ve certainly got a lot of reading ahead of me, it’s easy to be motivated when you feel like you’re discovering a part of your own history. I look forward to learning more about an area of BC that I’ve never visited (I predict I’ll be planning a trip after this research is through), and to becoming more familiar with the great-grandparents that I never got to meet.

One thought on “Reading Bella Coola

  1. Marcy Green December 16, 2018 / 4:52 pm

    Thank you for including my Vancouver Sun article, Dalys. I had a number of older Norwegians from Bella Coola look me up and phone me, eager to tell me their stories. I encouraged them to also tell their family members.

    Like

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