The Columbia River Basin is a land of immigrants. The first humans arrived in the Northwest about 18,000 years ago, a migration that probably by land when the ocean level was lower and land bridge existed between Siberia and Alaska. Scientists have discovered an identical genetic marker among people who live on both sides of the land bridge, which disappeared about 11,000 years ago when the great glaciers of the last Ice Age melted.
For European and Euro-American immigrants, who began arriving in the region in the early 1800s, the Columbia River Basin was a land of economic opportunity. As the fishing and lumbering industries grew, and as support and service businesses grew with them, workers brought their skills here from around the world. Scandinavians, primarily Finns and Norwegians, established fishing communities on the lower Columbia River and came to control the commercial fishery. Each ethnic group used the type of fishing equipment associated with its background. Gilnetters, for instance , usually were fished by Scandinavians, dipnets by Indians, boat seines by Austrians and horse seines by Scandinavians. Trollers usually were of western European descent.
George Hume, who operated salmon canneries on the lower river, began employing Chinese workers in 1872. By unwritten and, frankly, racist rules, they were not allowed to fish, only work in the canneries. If they tried to fish, they were harassed or, as happened in 1880, killed and their equipment destroyed. As the older Chinese workers passed away, they steadily were replaced by the daughters and wives of the Finnish and Norwegian fishers, and also by immigrants from the Philippines, Mexico and Japan. Finns and Norwegians so completely controlled the lower Columbia River fishery that even fellow Europeans could be excluded as happened in 1914 when Austrian immigrants tried fishing with purse seines in the lower Columbia. It didn’t help that Austria was America’s enemy in World War I, but even so the Austrian fishermen were derided publicly as “aliens” and harassed off the river.
Indians, who had lived along the Columbia River the longest, steadily were excluded from the fishery, where gillnet drift sites were guarded like property. Ironically, the first salmon canners on the Columbia bought their fish from local Indians. It was later, as non-Indian immigrants steadily moved into the area, that Indians steadily were excluded from the fishery they had enjoyed for thousands of years. Some Columbia River tribes, however, signed treaties with the United States in 1855 that guaranteed access to usual and accustomed fishing sites. Indian fishing has a long and litigious history in the Columbia River as the native people fought to retain access to their traditional fishing sites guaranteed to them in the treaties.
The Columbia River Basin was a land of opportunity for other ethnic groups and their particular skills, as well. French Canadians left the Hudson’s Bay Company when the Oregon Territory border issue was settled in 1846 and settled on farms in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and in river valleys in southwestern Washington. Westward migration on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s brought an influx of people from east of the Mississippi River as the drumbeat of manifest destiny reverberated in newspapers, books, pamphlets and public orations. Westward expansion was not just a decision of men and women who had the courage to pack up their belongings and trek into the unknown, it was an article of divine providence. Caleb Cushing wrote in Niles National Register in June 1839 that the westward expansion of the United States was “. . .the onward march of the Anglo-American race, advancing, it has been calculated, at an average rate of about a half degree of longitude each succeeding year. . .with predestined certainty, and the unerring precision of the great works of eternal Providence, rather than as an act of feeble man.”
Many who came west were farmers, many others were town-builders who had lived through the rapid growth of communities in the Midwest and East and recognized the profits to be made in land speculation and development in an undeveloped country. An 1850 census showed that 46 percent of the adult residents of Oregon were born in the South, 53 percent in the North, and that 80 percent of the children of Oregon were born in the Midwest. The nation, it appeared was steadily expanding west. The discovery of gold in north-central Idaho and northwestern Washington in the 1860s brought new waves immigrants with mining skills from other parts of the nation. The population of eastern Washington, swelled by miners, rose to at least 30,000 by 1863. Railroad construction in the late 1800s brought more immigrants to the region.
Unlike the lower Columbia River, where a majority of immigrants came from European nations, particularly Finland and Norway, the immigrant population of the interior Columbia River Basin largely came from the Midwest, and most had been born in the United States. Railroads promoted western settlement in Europe, but most of the Europeans who came settled elsewhere, not in large numbers in the Columbia River Basin, and those of European descent largely had settled elsewhere before coming to the Northwest. After 1890, small numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe moved into the region, often working in specific trades or with specific skills. Stone masons from Italy were brought to the Columbia River Gorge around the time of World War I by Samuel Lancaster, who designed the Columbia River Highway, to build its graceful bridges. Many Germans who had immigrated to the lower Volga River to farm its rich soils in the 1800s later moved to the United States, settling in the Midwest and, beginning around 1883, the Palouse region of southeastern Washington. In 1929, a Washington State College student enumerated 787 “Volga Germans,” as they were called, living in the Palouse region, 46 percent of whom spoke primarily German.
The cultural history of the Canadian Columbia River Basin also is one of immigrants arriving to work in developing industries, particularly mining and railroads. Trail, a mining city, has large Italian and Irish populations. A group of Russians seeking religious freedom, the Doukhobors, began settling around Castlegar in 1908 and eventually totaled about 6,000. Swiss mountain guides brought to Canada by the Canadian Pacific Railroad around the turn of the 20th century to work at the railroad’s mountain resorts eventually settled in Golden and Revelstoke. Golden, like many other cities in British Columbia, has a sizeable population of Sikhs whose ancestors immigrated from India.