The Story of Tofino

 Tofino BC 1792

The Story of Tofino, BC, Canada by Ken Gibson

Tofino is as old as any location in the “new world”; the natives who lived here were known as “Clayoquots” and their territory on the Pacific Northwest was rich in natural resources and First Nations traditions.

Clayoquot and Nootka

Both the area of Clayoquot and the more northerly area of Nootka and were prized trading regions for the Europeans. The first chart ever drawn of the Clayoquot area was by John Meares in 1787. Both adventurers Captain Grey and Captain Vancouver used this chart in their explorations.

The harbour at Clayoquot consisted of inner and outer anchorages and was easier to approach in a sailing vessel than the harbour at the more northerly location of Nootka. In the 1790s ships traded with the Clayoquots (Wickaninish was chief of theTla-o-qui-aht people of Clayoquot Sound at that time) whose tribe was larger than the people of Nootka whose chief at that time was Maquinna.

During the summer of 1792, Galiano and Valdes, in the Spanish exploring vessels Sutil and Mexicana, sailed to the Clayoquot area. They were responsible for an inlet after Rear Admiral Vicente Tofino who had taught the Spanish to navigate by the stars. Tofino Inlet was added it to their map.

Captain Tofino< Rear Admiral Vicente Tofino


Nootka Conventions

Both Britain and Spain were exploring the Pacific Northwest and trading with the First Nations people. To avoid war over this large region two Nootka Conventions were signed in the 1790s. The 1794 a Nootka Convention agreement was signed by Britain and Spain.  Britain and Spain were both free to use Nootka Sound as a port and erect temporary structures, but, “neither … shall form any permanent establishment in the said port or claim any right of sovereignty or territorial dominion there to the exclusion of the other…” The area became known as the Columbia Territory and later became known as British Columbia.


For the next century, very little changed in the region and the fur trade carried on between the Fist Nations people and the Europeans. In 1875 the first trading post opened at Clayoquot on Stubbs Island. Captain Pinney, the proprietor, installed strong iron bars on the counter and kept a loaded shotgun handy. Even though the post was isolated, Pinney had no plans to let anyone walk off with his goods. John Grice became the first settler on the mainland who pre-empted DL114 at the tip of the Esowista Penninsula. This area looked over to both Meares and Stubbs Islands, had a calm harbour and became known as “the Clayoquot settlement“. Around 1909 the name “Tofino“ caught on.

Early settlers made their way on to coastal pre-emptions by sail and the Steamer “Queen City“.  Promoted by Frank Garrard, mainly English, Scots and Irish found their way to the flat, semi-open pre-emptions on Vargas Island (three miles west of Tofino by water). Norwegians, many from Trondhiem, Norway, under the guidance of Philip Jacobson settled in “Mud Bay“ later known as Grice Bay about 10 miles east, up the inlet from Tofino.

Living off the land wasn’t easy: Settlers were trying in vain to farm the land but the soil produced nothing but weeds and cattle became stuck in tidal flats. (If you kayak in Jensen’s Bay you can still see the fences built to keep cattle from the mucky tidal flats.) The Norwegians looked to the water, salmon fishing and boat building. The war of 1914 drew many from the settlement into an even tougher world.  After WWI, the war-tired English families joined with Jacob Arnet and Frank Garrard who laid out Tofino lots and streets. Tofino council, assisted by Robert Guppy, incorporated Tofino Village in 1932 and the towns people enjoyed a rual style of living. The road to Port Alberni opened in 1959 but it was still a difficult journey to make by road and even after twenty-five years, others on Vancouver Island knew little about Tofino.

Tofino Today

That changed when environmental groups concerned about logging in this who pristine wilderness carried their message to the world looking for support. And support came in the form of many who joined the protest over unsustainable logging practices. When the world saw the natural beauty of Clayoquot it wanted to experience firsthand. Now Tofino and Clayoquot Sound is a mecca for visitors looking for true west coast wilderness.

And please remember – Tofino is a unique land and water area full of rich natural surroundings.
Take only photos and leave only footprints.

Ken Gibson
Tofino BC is grateful to Ken Gibson, a long-time resident of Tofino and an invaluable source of local information, for this article about the origins of Tofino and the story Europeans coming to Clayoquot Sound, the area where Tofino, BC, Canada is located.