Early Settlement and Land Claims (1788-1899)
Well before Alberta became a province in 1905, the land was inhabited by nomadic Aboriginal Peoples. Archaeological evidence indicates Aboriginal settlements dating back from 8,000 to 11,000 years. The Athapaskans, Blood, Peigan, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre and the Sarcees were among the first Aboriginal tribes to inhabit the land we now call Alberta. For insight into this important aspect of our history, see Alberta: How the West Was Young and the Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 Websites.
Early explorers would discover a variety of fur-bearing mammals and this would change the face of the landscape and the life of the original settlers. Europeans started exploring Alberta in the 1700s although they did not erect permanent settlements there until the last quarter of the decade, when they started building fur trading forts. In 1788, Peter Pond built Fort Chipewyan along the Clearwater River and, in 1795, the Hudson's Bay Company built Edmonton House along the North Saskatchewan River, the future capital of Alberta. Up until the mid-1800s, many more wooden forts were built, such as Fort Assiniboine in the Athabasca area and the notorious Fort Whoop-up near Lethbridge.
Trade became so extensive that, by 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company purchased the Northwest Company and their two respective forts in the Edmonton area were joined. Prosperity, brought on by the fur trade, facilitated the establishment of the village of Fort Edmonton in 1871. However, it was not the only settlement in the area. The Lacombe mission was located just northwest of Edmonton, constituting what is contemporarily known as St. Albert. Moreover, the North West Mounted Police base was located northeast of Edmonton, eventually becoming Fort Saskatchewan in 1874.
During the 1870s, Edmonton began its transition from a fur trade outpost to a burgeoning town. Built on coal reserves, Edmonton was a promising town for settlers searching for cheap and available land. However, Edmonton did suffer from some developmental setbacks. For example, the Canadian Pacific Railway chose not to build through Edmonton but rather through Calgary. Nevertheless Edmonton became officially recognized as a city in 1881. In 1882, the Hudson's Bay Company sold a substantial portion of its land located just north of Edmonton, causing a spree of rapid development. Within three or four days, 400 lots were sold and Edmonton began to expand not only geographically but also demographically.
Edmonton's population expanded in 1890 after the city built its first railroad. Strathcona, a settlement located south of Edmonton named for the Hudson Bay Company Governor Lord Strathcona, was also growing. Established as the town of Strathcona in 1899, it competed with "old Edmonton" for economic supremacy in the region. However, Edmonton outpaced Strathcona in population growth and development. By 1899, coal mines, sawmills, brickyards, flour mills and, breweries draped Edmonton's riverbank. By 1884, Edmonton had built its first public school and by 1894, its first Catholic school. The city matured culturally and commercially when the Imperial Bank, Thistle Rink, Robertson Theatre Hall, a hospital, and several churches were built. Edmonton began construction of the Low Level Bridge in 1897 to connect the two communities but did not complete the bridge until 1902.
While Edmonton's origins can be tracked back to the fur trade, Calgary's history lies with the North West Mounted Police. A North West Mounted Police base was established in an attempt to curb the whiskey trade and also to firmly establish Ottawa's interest in the West. In 1874 the North West Mounted Police, having just quelled the Métis Rebellion of 1870, headed west to settle in the lands that would become Alberta. They chose a southern route and built Fort Macleod near Fort Whoop-up and Fort Walsh, located in the Cypress Hills. When the Mounted Police reached the Bow River, they contracted the American company I.G. Baker to build a fort named Calgary.
In the first years of settlement, there were few settlers as only a limited number of shacks existed. Despite stagnating growth, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) chose Fort Calgary as the site that would link the Northwest Territories to Eastern Canada by rail. The railroad was completed in August of 1882. It brought massive growth to the area and ranchers poured in to lease cheap land from the Dominion government. Calgary thus became a base for the CPR and the ranching industry. As a result, Calgary quickly outpaced Edmonton's growth, complete with sawmills, log cabins and even frame houses. In 1884, when its population exceeded 1000, Calgary was officially recognized as a town. Despite a fire that nearly decimated the entire commercial sector in 1886, Calgary continued to grow and builders replaced wooden shacks with sandstone monoliths. By 1889, Calgary featured large sandstone buildings such as the Alberta Hotel, the Bank of Montreal, and the Alexander Block. The famous Royal Hotel and large Hudson's Bay department store were also built during this era. Calgary's wealthy entrepreneurs, such as James Lougheed, built elegant mansions, demonstrating the amount of capital and real estate potential in the area. Five years later, Calgary was recognized as a city.
Other towns also prospered during this time. By 1899, Medicine Hat, Fort Macleod, Lethbridge, Red Deer, St. Albert and Strathcona all evolved into towns. Some settlements grew along the CPR's route to Calgary. Medicine Hat originated from a CPR station in 1883. By 1899, the town had 1500 citizens, and was known for its luxurious hotels, particularly the Assiniboia which contained a bowling alley and a barber shop. The coal-mining town of Lethbridge was also established in the mid-1880s. Fort Macleod, a North West Mounted Police station, became a base for ranchers in the area. Red Deer was a stop along the Calgary-Edmonton wagon trail. In 1897, CPR expansion created more settlements, particularly in the Crow's Nest Area where coal mining communities like Blairmore, Frank, Hillcrest and Coleman began dotting the area.References
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