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Surveyors

John Palliser Have you ever looked at a map of Alberta and wondered why the province's land area appears subdivided into square sections, and what those squares mean? Whether or not you were aware of it, that portioning of land is the work of surveyors, who began mapping and naming Alberta's geographical regions and features as far back as the 1850s, with the Palliser Expedition. While Captain John Palliser might more accurately have been called an "explorer" on a fact-finding mission (see Explorers), the men who followed in his footsteps were usually employees of the Dominion Government, whose job it was to determine provincial and national borders as well as to allocate tracts of land into townships for the purpose of settlement. Often, because they charted regions where few had ventured before, surveyors were given the duty of naming geographical features. These names, in turn, can tell us plenty about Alberta's history.

Around the same time, two separate government-endorsed land surveys were initiated, which together accounted for the surveying of most of Alberta. These two endeavours were the Canadian Pacific Survey (C.P.S.) of 1871 and the Dominion Lands Survey (D.L.S.) of 1869. The former was headed by Sandford Fleming, the government's top engineer. Though Fleming's work spanned five years, and covered 74,000 km of Alberta and British Columbia, his influence on Alberta's toponymy is conspicuously minimal. The Dominion Lands Survey, however, was responsible for dividing the province into 36 square, 640-acre townships, and certain Alberta place names pay homage to this specific mode of surveying. For example, Fifteen Lake takes its name from the section of the province it is located it - Section Fifteen. Similarly, Point Thirteen is a point which extends into Buffalo Lake near Bashaw - the Point itself located in Section Thirteen. The meanings of these names would have remained obscure for the average traveller, were it not for the work of Alberta's toponymic scholars.

The Dominion Lands Survey did not extend into Northern Alberta until the 1890s, but the clues of its existence can be seen in the names of a variety of geographical features commemorating the surveyors in this region. Ponton River, Wallace River, and Wallace Mountain (the last part of what is now Swan Hills) owe their names to surveyors A.W. Ponton and James Nevin Wallace, both prominent members of the D.L.S.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Canadian government demanded that the previously-unsurveyed geographical area marking the Alberta/British Columbia border be given a more rigorous inspection. One of the reasons for this demand was the discovery of valuable lumber and coal in the mountainous borderland, which made it necessary to delineate which resources belonged to which province. As was the case with earlier land surveys, the newly-given geographical names would often commemorate other surveyors; for example, Mount Bridgland was named after an especially intrepid member of the D.L.S. Sometimes, however, a name would reflect a more complex facet of Alberta's surveying heritage. For instance, one Rocky Mountain pass got its name from E.O. Wheeler, a British surveyor known for his work in India's colonies. Wheeler named the pass Colonel Pass, after Colonel Aimé Laussedat, a French engineer who pioneered the use of photography as a surveying tool. Wheeler chose this name commemoratively because of how valuable the science of "phototopography" was to the Rocky Mountain survey teams. The rough, uneven terrain demanded an accuracy of method afforded only by photography, and the discipline was crucial during the final stages of the Dominion Lands Survey.

Although we may take them for granted, there is nothing natural about the way Alberta's regions and townships have been cordoned off and allotted. The provincial map that we are familiar with today, and the place names that we recognize so readily, owe their existence to the systematic work of surveyors and cartographers whose work stretches back more than 150 years.


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            For more on place names of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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