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Travelling by WagonDuring the 19th century, western Canada—the seemingly endless prairies, rolling hills, and Rocky Mountains—provided the ideal landscape for those seeking new opportunities in fur trading, ranching, and farming. Alberta’s first Black pioneers embodied this sense of adventure, some arriving here as early as the mid-1800s. In fact, a 1901 census counted 27 Black individuals living in the region that was soon to be known as Alberta. (Prior to Alberta's joining Canadian Confederation and officially becoming a province in 1905, it was considered part of the Northwest Territories). In actuality, this figure could be even higher: the census was not entirely reliable since not all of the proper data were collected.

A number of Black pioneers found a variety of jobs in the untamed West, yet very little is known about their background. As early as the 1840s, individuals such as Pierre Bungo and Henry Mills found jobs with fur trading companies. The notorious Dan Williams arrived in the 1860s in search of gold in the Peace River district. The Gold Rush was a disappointing and short-lived experience for Williams, who quickly turned to the prospect of fur trading. Constantly at odds with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Williams often found himself in trouble with the local authorities; this undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the perception of Blacks in the area. Other forms of trading, most notably in whiskey, were successful enterprises for the Black population. For example, William Bond crossed the flat prairie landscape of southern Alberta, trading and distributing whiskey.

History PhotoDuring the 1880s and 1890s, approximately one-quarter of the American trail drivers travelling from Texas to the northern ranges were Black. Some of these cowboys, both Black and White, would continue their journey beyond Montana and cross the border into Canada. One of these men was John Ware, whose captivating story sheds light on the opportunities limitations faced by American Blacks in Canada over the course of the next several decades.

Ambitious and industrious Blacks found numerous other jobs in a land of opportunity. Daniel and Charlotte Lewis tried ranching near Shepard, Alberta. Later, they moved to Calgary to seek employment in the residential construction industry. In 1900, William Darby attained the position of cook at the Imperial Hotel in Vulcan, Alberta. That same year, Henry Mills’ son David became an RCMP translator. Charlie Dyson was a blacksmith in Pincher Creek while Annie Saunders found employment as a nanny and housekeeper.

Aside from these brief examples, there were jockeys, shoemakers, ranchers, and stable boys—all of them eager to start a new life in the open prairies. By 1905, the Blacks who reached the Northwest Territories (Alberta would join Confederation in 1905) were few but highly visible. Prior to the influx of American Blacks, many of whom were from the newly formed state of Oklahoma in 1907, Alberta’s Black population was scattered in various communities throughout the province. These Blacks held a variety of jobs. As a result, there were no distinct Black communities; instead, there were only small families and individuals seeking adventure and new opportunities.

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            For more on Black settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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