Early in the 19th-century the Heiltsuk lived in a number of independent villages on the Central Coast of British Columbia. There were at least five bands of Heiltsuk, each associated with a particular territory and each possessing its own winter village, head chief, ceremonial prerogatives and dialect.
The contemporary Bella Bella Heiltsuk recognize only four major divisions (now called "tribes"): Uyalitxv ("Outside People"), Uw'it'litxv ("People of the Inlet," i.e., Roscoe Inlet), 'Qv6qvayaitxv ("Calm Water People"), and Isdaitxv ("People of Isdai"). These groups came together in the late 19th century in the trading and mission village of Bella Bella; the fifth tribe, the xixis ("northerly") now live in the Heiltsuk-Tsimshian village of Klemtu.
The original village of 'Qelc or Bella Bella, now often referred to as “Old Town” or “Old Bella Bella”, sprang up in response to the building of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort McLoughlin on what is now McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island. The fort was built in 1833 and within a couple years of its establishment the Heiltsuk started a permanent settlement nearby to take advantage of new trading opportunities. The lifespan of Fort McLoughlin was short-lived and it was abandoned only 10 years later in 1843. Following the closing of the fort, many Hieltsuk remained at the village and continued to trade with the increasing number of steam ships traveling the Inside Passage.
The Heiltsuk population declined by as much as 80 percent from 1835 through 1889, primarily because of smallpox and other pandemic diseases. The 1862-63 smallpox epidemic that ravaged the Central Coast drastically impacted the population. The number of people who survived the epidemics were insufficient to carry out traditional economic or social activities and survivors of the decimated communities tended to nucleate in central locations. Old Bella Bella, still clustered around the former Fort McLoughlin site, became a focal point for resettlement and was the recipient of remnant Heiltsuk populations from several, but not all out-lying tribes.
As the population of Bella Bella increased the land available for residential building became scarce. This was largely because the only suitable sites for residential construction were found on the southern half of McLoughlin Bay. Due to the land being occupied by the former fort site, which had been converted to a store and farm property, and also due to the location of the Methodist Church mission and school, the native population of Bella Bella was blocked from accessing the land needed to build new homes.
During the 1890s, many Bella Bella residents moved 3 kilometers north of McLoughlin Bay. The new locaton was known to the Heiltsuk as Wa'glisla ("river on the beach") or New Bella Bella. The move to the new site took place quickly, with many new homes completed by 1900.
In 1914 a cannery was build on Denny Island and the store and post office from McLoughlin Bay moved to the small town that grew around the cannery. Due to diminishing resources and decreasing dependence on industry, the cannery on Denny Island fell into ruin and the Denny Island community relocated to nearby Kliktsoatli Harbour, which later became the town of Shearwater.