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Trade & Early Contact

Alberta’s Aboriginal peoples have their own distinctive history and cultural characteristics, and the experience of early contact and trade with Europeans varied from group to group. For example, the people who lived in the Boreal Forest and Parklands regions were usually experienced trappers, and they trapping fur-bearing animals was part of their livelihood. Plains peoples relied more heavily on buffalo and other large game hunting and were more likely to become suppliers of provisions to the fur traders. Most trading posts were located in the northern half of the province – north of the North Saskatchewan River – until the mid-19th century. In southern Alberta much of the contact was with traders based on the Missouri River. As a result, Aboriginal peoples in the northern part of Alberta were drawn into the Hudson’s Bay (HBC) and North West Companies (NWC) trading systems, while the Blackfoot, Peigan, and Bloods were less likely to have regular contact with traders until much later. Nevertheless, the fur trade either directly or indirectly had a profound impact on all of Alberta’s Aboriginal peoples.

Exploration and Map Making

It has often been suggested that Alberta was discovered by Anthony Henday in 1754. Henday did bring parts of what would become Alberta into the trading system of the HBC, but the lands he visited were neither unknown nor unpopulated. Indeed the thousands of Aboriginal peoples living in the area would have been surprised to learn that they needed to be discovered at all. Aboriginals had explored every corner of the land, and many were able to draw detailed maps outlining travel routes and key landmarks for the Europeans who followed Henday west.

Henday was sent inland by the HBC to try and convince the Aboriginal peoples of the interior to come down to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, to trade. Henday’s account of his travels represent the earliest written descriptions of central Alberta. He was followed by a number of other HBC men over the next two decades, who also left journals of varying interest and completeness describing their travels in the interior. Some of their observations were included in European maps of this period, but in the 1760s and 1770s maps still appeared with most of the western interior of North America blank – marked only with the phrase "These Parts are Entirely Unknown."

Following the capture of New France by the British in 1759-60, the fur trade entered a new era. With the creation of the Montreal based North West Company (1779) and their aggressive competition, the HBC was forced to start building posts inland. As trade expanded, transportation routes became more important and trading companies began to take a greater interest in mapping the interior.

In 1784-85 Peter Pond (of the NWC) produced remarkable maps that detailed the geography of the Athabasca and Mackenzie basins. His maps and ideas encouraged Alexander Mackenzie (also of the NWC) to undertake two even more remarkable voyages of discovery. The first, in 1789, took him from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca to the mouth of the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean. His second journey began at Fort Fork on the Peace River and took him west, along the Peace River, into the Rocky Mountains and through the Rockies to the mouth of the Bella Coola River and the Pacific Ocean. A map based on his travels was completed by the noted London map-maker Aaron Arrowsmith in 1801. This map reveals that the major rivers and lakes and other major features of western Canada were fairly well known.

At around the same time, two other explorers were also contributing to documenting the Canadian west. Peter Fidler and David Thompson (both HBC employees) mapped large parts of the interior between 1790 and 1796. David Thompson (an NWC employee) completed a number of extremely accurate and comprehensive surveys of fur-trading territories east of the Rockies. By 1832 a new map, produced by John Arrowsmith (Aaron’s nephew) showed how detailed the knowledge of the main geographical features of Alberta had become. This knowledge was partly due to the efforts of people such as Fidler, Thompson, Mackenzie and Pond. Parts of the Arctic, Yukon, and Alaska remained uncharted, but little else in continental North America did.

Although basic mapping was no longer such a priority, exploration did not completely stop. In the later 19th century, a number of expeditions, most notably those of Captain John Palliser in between 1857 and 1860, sought to increase scientific knowledge of the Canadian west. Other surveys were aimed at charting possible railway routes, assessing the agricultural potential of lands and determining the location of mineral and other potentially valuable resources.


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