| Origin of the
word "Bella Bella" - By Jennifer Carpenter
All sources consulted are unanimous in identifying the word as
applying to the tribe(s) living in the vicinity of Milbank Sound
and Fort McLoughlin and to the community/settlement that grew up
around the site of Fort McLoughlin on Campbell Island after the
fort was established in 1833.
The earliest accounts also refer to the native people
encountered in this area collectively as "Indians of Milbank"
(Anderson: 1834)and as "Haeeltzuk" (Tolmie: 1834/1963) and
acknowledge that these terms refer to a number of distinct
groups, closely related yet following separate chiefs and living
in their respective separate villages "at varying distances of
from five to twenty-five miles apart" (Tate:1888).
The derivation of the word "Bella Bella" is extremely
problematic. In its earliest transcriptions it is generally
written as one word or as a hyphenated word Bilbilla
(Tolmie:1834/1963), Bel-Bellahs (Dunn:1844), Billbillahs
(Ross:1842). Transcription as"Bella Bella"does not appear until
the latter part of the 19th century.
Published accounts and manuscripts give four different
explanations of the deri-vation of "Bella Bella":
- That it is an adaptation of the name of a tribe.
Bella Bella, Campbell island, Lama passage. (Pronounced by the
Indians "Pil-palla.") An adaptation of the name of a tribe
residing in the neighbourhood. The Hudson's Bay post established
here in 1833 was named Fort McLoughlin, but after the erection of
the fort the surround-ing Indians gathering around it, the place
gradually became known as Bella Bella, the name adopted,
generally, for the Indians of the vicinity by the officers of the
company. Dr. Tolmie, who was sta-tioned at Fort McLoughlin,
1833-1834, gives the name of the princi-pal tribe as the
Bil-Billa or Haeeltzuk Indians; John Dunn, trader and
interpreter, also stationed here about the sameldate, and again
later, spells the name Bel-Bellahs. (Walbran: 1909.)
Some have claimed the name to be of Spanish origin, but the
Spaniards in their explorations, did not reach this area. In
truth, it is de-rived from the original name of the natives who
lived in-that region --on and around Milbank Sound. They
constituted the northern division of the Kwakiutl nations, and
were known to the early traders as Bil-billa or Bel-bellahs.
Eventually the name in its present spelling was used to designate
the largest grouping of these people around the Hudson's Bay
Company fort in McLoughlin Bay. (Large 1968:1)
- That it derives from the native pronunciation of "Milbank"
(Milbank sound, named in 1788- Walbran: 1909).
Bellabella (an Indian corruption of Milbank taken back into
English). The popular name of an important Kwakiutl tribe living
on Milbank sd. Brit. Col. Pop 330 in 1901. (Hodge: 1912)
As we have already stated the name of the post was Milbank,
pronounced by theIndians something like B'mel-bal, and it was not
until the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned the place, that it
received the name Bella-Bella, unquestionably from the Indian
pronunciation. Some of the old Hudson's Bay officers still call
it Milbank. (Rate: 1888)
There does not seem to me to be any conclusive evidence in the
regard to a tribe being called Bil-palla or Bel-Bellahs. At the
time I arrived there in 1889 these tribes were genera1ly known as
Moses Knight told me that the name Be11a Bel1a arose out of an
Indian's attempt to pronounce the word Mi1bank and a white man
wrote it down as Bil-Bella. There might have been a Pil-palla
tribe, but the evidence docs not seem to me to be conclusive.
Some of your older Indians might be able to tell you. (undated ms
in United Church Archives, Union Theological Seminary, Vancouver,
penciled note: II Rev. R.B.Beavis?")
- That it is Spanish in origin:
Some whites, and even some of the natives, ascribe "Bella
Bella" to the first Spanish explorers thus: One of the sailors
was struck by the beauty of several of the local belles and
exclaimed, "Bella! Bella!" (Olson 1955: fn,p.32O)
Bella Bella originates from the Spanish word "Bella , " an
abbreviation of the names Arabella and Isabella. The Indians
pronounce it "Pil-Palla." (Nicholson 1959: Victoria Daily
- That it derives from a local place name or geographical
feature in the Heiltsuk language.
The name Bella Bella is a corruption of the place name pe'lbah
("flat tapering point") which is a low flat point (at low tide?)
just south of the present village. (Olson 1955:320)
The existence of a location or geographical feature named
pelbala (point north of Waglisla village) and pelbalaila (point
between 'Qelc and Waglisla) has been confirmed by recent research
(Rath ca 1978).
Of the four explanations, number 3 seems to be the most
popular explanation given by present-day Elders in Waglisla
usually with reference to the beauty of Old Town (Old-Bella
Bella} and the people (see misc. accounts in Heiltsuk Cultural
Education Centre resource collections}.
With reference to explanations number 1 and 4, it is
consistent with the given derivations of other Heiltsuk tribal
names that a group be named with reference to a place or
geographical feature, for example Isdaitxv, people of Isda. Or
the Kokyet tribe, Kokyet being an English-speaker's transcription
of the tribal name in Heiltsuk, 'Qvuqvayaitxv. The close
correspondence between "Bella Bella" and pelbalaila and
Bel-bellah and pelbala is com-pelling. However, the recorded
listings of the main tribes that amalgamated to form the Bella
Bella Band do not include metion of a Bella Bella tribe, the term
generally being used interchangeably with Heiltsuk as a
Unless further data comes to light, for example as to whether
Bella Bella (Bil-billa, etc.) is used before the establishment of
Fort McLoughlin, it is diffi cult to definitively settle the
issue of its derivation from a local place name or a
(mis-)pronounciation of Milbank.
Unquestionably it is a term that refers to the collectivity of
Heiltsuk tribes, who amalgamated at the former site of Fort
McLoughlin on Campbell Island, and to the name of the settlement
and the formally registered Indian Band and Reserve subsequently
surveyed and established there.
Sequence of Settlements known as "Bella Bella"
Great Britain Admiralty Chart No.2449, Lama Passage to
Seaforth channel, 1872, shows "Hudson's Bay Co. Trading Post" in
McLoughlin Bay, and "Bella Bella Village" on the group of islands
off Denny Island that subsequently became Bella Bella I.R. no.
14A, Indian name Papalemcma1a,(allotted as a result of the Indian
Reserve Commission of 1913 and surveyed in 1926}. We know from
Tolmiels accounts and recorded testimony of contemporary Heiltsuk
elders that it was, in fact, a village site.
Great Brit. Admiralty. Ogden channel and adjacent passages,
chart 1901, corrected to 1901, shows "Bella Bella Village" and
"Settlement Wharf" in McLoughlin Bay.
Great Brit. Admiralty. Lama passage and Seaforth channel,
1908, shows "Bella Bella Deserted Village" on the group of
islands of Denny Island (see above) and "New Bella Bella" at the
site of the present-day Waglisla.
By the late 1800's, the settlement known unversally as "Bella
Bella", was becoming over-crowded and was relocated to the
present location of Waglisla in the early 1900'5. The people
referred to it as "New Bella Bella", and the former village
became known as "Old Bella Bella" or "Old Town."
At least until 1919, there was a post office located at Old
Town. Under the heading "Bella Bella" the various B.C.
Directories for the years 1897-1910 list John Clayton Postmaster.
Wrigley's British Columbia Directory for 1919, has the
A post office and Indian Reserve on Campbell Island, in Lama
Passage, 320 miles from Vancouver, 190 miles from Prince Rupert,
in Skeena Provincial Electoral district, reached by all steamers
going north and south, except those going to Nome. Nearest
telegraph station is at Ocean Falls, Cousin Inlet, distance 29
miles. Methodist Church at New Bella Coola (sic), one mile
And under the list of names of persons and occupations:
Pauline John A storekeeper & postmaster
In 1905, according to missionary accounts, a small ablaone and
clam cannery was established on Denny Island, across the channel.
In 1914, the Bella Bella Canning Company built a plant. In 1915
this went to Gosse-Millerd Packing Co. Ltd., and in 1926, to
Gosse Packing Co. Ltd. In 1928, it went to British Columbia
Packers. It operated as a cannery until 1930, and after that as a
store and post office (MacMillan, H.R., notes on the names and
history of the plants of British Columbia Packers, wall bulletin
printed on linen, in Provincial Archives, ca.1939).
Maps as late as chart 3787 of the Canadian Hydrographic
Service, Queens Sound to Seaforth Channel, 1963, show "Bella
Bella" (islands), "New Bella Bella" (on Campbell Island), and
only "Bella Bella P.O." on Denny Island, where the B.C.Packers
tannery used to be located.
Missionary journals and accounts in the early 1900's, after
the village had been moved to New Bella Bella, generally refer to
the settlement of people across the channel on Denny Island as
"East Bella Bella" (Bella Bella Mission-B.C.Manuscript
Journal from 1880, June 20,1913, for example).
It is known from correspondence of the anthropologist Franz
Boas who spent conducted field work in Bella Bella (New Bella
Bella) in 1923, that the only post office was "two miles from
here" and "on another island." (Rohner: 1969). One could assume
that sometime between 1919 and 1923, the "Bella Bella Post
Office" was moved from Old Town (Old Bella Bella) to B.C.Packers
side ("East Bella Bella").
In 1935, the residents of New Bella Bella were petitioning for
a post office to be established at Martin's store on Campbell
Further research would be required to document any official
registration of the name "Bella Bella" with reference to the
sequence of communities popularly referred to by this name. Any
settlements or activities established subsequent to the
settlement and relocation of the first Bella Bella, are generally
referred to in various literature as being "at Bella Bella",
Awarding of eight aviation contracts...Largest was ...for wood
construction at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Bella
Bella, B.C (Vancouver Province, Sept. 30,1940, p.23) (on all
maps, however, the location of the air force base is indicated at
There is an unquestionable basis for claim to the name Bella
Bella as applying to two settlements on Campbell Island according
to historical evidence and accounts.
Legal basis for the claim would have to be examined in light
of current legislation and principles of law.
||Report on Milbank Sound of the North West Coast of America.
15th March. Winnepeg: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial
Archives of Manitoba, B.120/e/1 1834 1190/552
Barner, Rev. Arthur
||Bella Bella Mission - B.C.: manuscript journal, from 1880. Ms
sent to Department of Archives, Methodist Church, Canada.
Vancouver: B.C. Conference Archives, Vancouver School of
?Beavis, Rev. R.B.
||Ms in Vancouver: B.C. Conference Archives, Vancouver School
||History of the Oregon Territory. London.
Hodge, F.W., ed.
||Handbook of American Indians north of Mexico. Bureau of
American Ethnology, Bulletin 30. Washington.
Large, R. Geddes
||Drums and scalpel: from Native healers to physicians of the
North Pacific Coast. Vancouver: Mitchell Press Limited.
||When they fired grape into the attackers.. Victoria: Daily
Colonist, May 17,1959.
||Notes on the Bella Bella Kwakiutl. Anthropological Records
14:5, University of California Press.
Provincial Archives of British Columbia ca1939 MacMillan,
H.R., notes on the names and history of the plants of British
Columbia Packers, wall bulletin printed on linen.
||Names of person, places and personified objects in both the
Heiltsuk and the Oowekyala branches of the Upper North Wakashan
language. Ms. Bella Bella: Heiltsuk Cultural Education
Rohner, Ronald, ed.
||The ethnography of Franz Boas, letters and diaries of Franz
Boas written on the Northwest Coast from 1886 to 1931. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press.
||letter to Sir George Simpson, Governor in Chief of H.B.
Company, Northern Development. Victoria: Provincial Archives of
Tate, Rev. C.M.
||Story of Bella Bella. The Missionary Outlook, vol. 7,
Tolmie, William Fraser
||Physician and fur trader: the journals of William Fraser
Tolmie. Vancouver: Mitchell Press limited.
Walbran, Captain John T.
[ Back to Main
||British Columbia coast names 1592-19O9, their origin and
history. Vancouver: J.J. Douglas ltd.
Wrigley's British Columbia Directory