Trade & Early Contact
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.