The island has been inhabited by humans for some eight thousand years. By the late 1700s, the primary Indian nations there were the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) on the west coast, Salish on the south and east coasts, and the Kwakiutl in the centre of the island and the north.
Europe began to encroach on the island in 1774, when rumours of Russian fur traders caused the Spanish to send a ship, the Santiago north under the command of Juan Josef Pérez Hernández. In 1775 a second Spanish expedition, under Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, was sent. Neither actually landed.
After these first peeks, Vancouver Island came to the attention of the wider world after the third voyage of Captain James Cook, who landed at Nootka Sound of the Island's western shore on March 31, 1778 and claimed it for the United Kingdom. The island's rich fur trading potential led the British East India Company to set up a single-building trading post in the native village of Yuquot on Nootka Island, a small island in the Sound.
The island was further explored by Spain in 1789 by Esteban José Martínez, who built Fort San Miguel on one of Vancouver Island's small offshore islets in the Sound near Yuquot. This was to be the only Spanish settlement in what would later be Canada. The Spanish began seizing British ships and the two nations came close to war, but the issues were resolved peacefully in favour of the British with the Nootka Convention in 1792. Coordinating the handover was Captain George Vancouver from King's Lynn in England, who had sailed as a midshipman with Cook, and from whom the island gained its name.
The first British settlement on the island was a Hudson's Bay Company post, Fort Camosun, founded in 1843. This became the centre of an important base during the Fraser Gold Rush, and the burgeoning town was incorporated as Victoria in 1862. Victoria became the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island, then retained that status when the island was amalgamated with the mainland nearby. Victoria remains the capital of British Columbia, although long since surpassed in population by the city of Vancouver. Note that Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island (a matter of some confusion), and Victoria is on Vancouver Island, not Victoria Island (a much larger island in the Canadian Arctic). Vancouver Island is the exception to the Oregon Treaty where the island south of the 49th parallel is under Canadian control.
A British naval base was established at Esquimalt, British Columbia in 1865, and eventually taken over by the Canadian military. It is the second largest Canadian naval base after that at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
As of 2002, Vancouver Island had an estimated population of 750,000. Slightly less than half of these – 326,000 as of 2002 – live in Victoria. Other major cities on Vancouver Island include Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Parksville, Courtenay, and Campbell River.
Vancouver Island's economy outside Victoria is largely dominated by the forestry industry, with tourism and fishing also playing a large role. Many of the logging operations are for paper pulp, in "2nd growth" tree farms that are harvested approximately every 30 years. In recent years the government of British Columbia has engaged in an advertising program to draw more tourists to beach resorts such as Tofino.
Between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland there are several AC and DC high voltage power cables (HVDC Vancouver-Island).