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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":

  1. 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)

  2. 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 Hael-chucks.

    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?")

  3. 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 Colonist).

  4. 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 collective reference.

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 following entry:


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 away...

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 Island.

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", e.g.

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 "Shearwater")


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.


Anderson, Alexander

1834 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

1924 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 Theology.

?Beavis, Rev. R.B.

? Ms in Vancouver: B.C. Conference Archives, Vancouver School of Theology.

Dunn, John

1844 History of the Oregon Territory. London.

Hodge, F.W., ed.

1912 Handbook of American Indians north of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30. Washington.

Large, R. Geddes

1968 Drums and scalpel: from Native healers to physicians of the North Pacific Coast. Vancouver: Mitchell Press Limited.

Nicholson, George

1959 When they fired grape into the attackers.. Victoria: Daily Colonist, May 17,1959.

Olson, Ronald

1955 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.

Rath, John

ca1978 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 Centre.

Rohner, Ronald, ed.

1969 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.

Ross, Charles

1842 letter to Sir George Simpson, Governor in Chief of H.B. Company, Northern Development. Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia.

Tate, Rev. C.M.

1888 Story of Bella Bella. The Missionary Outlook, vol. 7, no.2.

Tolmie, William Fraser

1963 Physician and fur trader: the journals of William Fraser Tolmie. Vancouver: Mitchell Press limited.

Walbran, Captain John T.

1971 British Columbia coast names 1592-19O9, their origin and history. Vancouver: J.J. Douglas ltd.

Wrigley's British Columbia Directory

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Bella Bella, British Columbia V0T 1Z0
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