The age of the practice of carving poles along the northwest coast has not been positively established as wood is prone to rot very quickly in the wet coastal climate. This being the case, oral histories and documentary evidence indicate that the monumental carvings found along the coast predate contact with Europeans. The earliest recorded sighting of a carved pole was by fur trader John Bartlett of Boston in 1791. He sketched a tall, carved column built into the front centre of a plank house.
Most evidence indicates that carved poles originated with the northern peoples of the coast then spread south along the coast and up the major river valleys of British Columbia and nearly to Puget Sound in Western Washington State. The only coastal people who did not have these poles were the coast Salish; they had large carved planks attached to the inside and/or outside of their ceremonial dance houses.
After contact with Europeans, the influx of trade ships arriving on the coast brought about a proliferation of metal bladed tools along with an increase of wealth for chiefs and other high ranking individuals. The tragic loss of life due to disease, which was also brought about by contact with these new trading partners, similarly impacted art for display on parts of the coast. As people who held title and high ranking social positions perished from infectious diseases like influenza, measles and smallpox, competition for these now vacant titles was conducted through potlatching and the artistic production that is sol closely tied to the potlatch system. This combination of new wealth, better tools and vacant social positions proliferated the commissioning of new and larger poles and dramatically increased the number of poles produced along the coast.
There is considerable variation in the carving traditions of the Northwest Coast. Each language group and community has its own stylistic and oral traditions and, working within those traditions, each artist has their own style. Poles continue to be carved and erected in the traditional manner throughout the coast and the act of raising a pole is still a prestigious and expensive undertaking that must be done in the context of the appropriate ceremony and witnessed through a potlatch.