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The Early Settlement of North Eastern Alberta

Remainder of original mission buildings, Lac La Biche, Alberta.

Prior to the 18 th century, North Eastern Alberta was inhabited by aboriginals, mainly Chipewyan and Cree. The Lac La Biche was a popular spot for aboriginals, because the lake had a good food supply of whitefish. This is one of the reasons that the Lac La Biche area was home to one of the first white and Métis settlements in Alberta. The region had ample supplies of water, timber and food, as well as bison for the fur trade. In addition, the Portage La Biche, an elevated area on the shores of the lake, began serving as a transport link to the Hudson Bay for fur traders.

The Lac La Biche area became home to a considerable Métis settlement in the 18 th century. A small trading post was erected there by David Thompson in 1798, although he and other English speaking settlers referred to the lake as Red Deer’s Lake. The following year, in 1799, the first Hudson’s Bay Company post in the Athabasca area was set up by Peter Fidler on the shores of Lac La Biche.

Inn at Lac La Biche, Alberta. 1916.

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s competitor, the North West Company, had also come to North Eastern Alberta to explore its vast landscape. Fur Trader Angus Shaw set up a settlement in 1789 called Anshaw, just west of present day Bonnyville, followed by a fur trade post at Moose Lake.

In the 1800s, fur trade activities in North Eastern Alberta were primarily concentrated at Lac La Biche. The Hudson’s Bay Company set up another fur trading post in 1817 and that lasted until 1821. Until 1852, none of the fur trade posts became permanent settlements. However, in that year, a more permanent fur trading post was set up during the same time that French Canadian Catholic missionaries began cementing their presence. The missionaries were attracted by the large numbers of aboriginals and Métis at Lac La Biche. In 1852, oblate Albert Lacombe founded the Notre Dame de la Victoires mission; Father Remas and Father Maisonneuve became the first resident missionaries at Lac La Biche. At this time, more settlers were coming to the area. During the North-West Rebellion of 1885, much of the Métis and White settlement at Lac La Biche was destroyed by Cree rebels.

Mrs. Fred (Sophie) Hrynchuck, Ukrainian settler, Redwater, Alberta.

Meanwhile, North Eastern Alberta was increasingly populated by white settlers. The Hudson’s Bay Company opened up a fur trading post near the Chipewyan reserve at Cold Lake during the 1870s. Meanwhile, the Redwater area was being surveyed by the Dominion government for homestead filing. Many Ukrainian and Polish homesteaders began arriving to the area.

At the turn of the century, North Eastern Alberta was filled with oportunistic homesteaders. New hamlets and villages began to take shape. North Eastern Alberta was home to a few French Canadian settlements including St. Paul-des-Métis. After smallpox decimated the local Cree population, the mission was closed in 1874. A new mission took its place in 1896, known as St. Paul-des-Métis. Led by Father Adéodat Thérien, St. Paul-des-Métis featured a school and sawmill, and by 1904, the settlement had over 80 members. However, the Métis were gradually leaving the area so in 1909 St. Paul-des-Métis was officially opened to outside immigrants. Consequently, the area was flooded with new homesteads. By 1912, St. Paul-des-Métis was incorporated as a village. In 1920, St. Paul-des-Métis was connected to Edmonton by a Canadian National Railway line. That same year, the settlement received its first grain elevator and began to grow as an important agricultural settlement. In 1936, the village’s name was officially shortened to St. Paul.

Another French Canadian settlement in the area was Bonnyville. Several waves of immigrants came to the area between 1907 and 1918; among the first were French Canadian Catholic missionaries. Father Francis Bonny, one of the resident missionaries, became the namesake of the settlement. The first school and the first church were set up in 1908, and in 1910, the first post office opened. Before long, the hamlet with flourishing with new businesses – the Central Hotel, a smith’s shop, Imperial Lumber Co., Bonnyville Mercantile co., St. Louis Meat Market, and a brickworks. When the Canadian National Railway reached the settlement in 1928, Bonnyville was incorporated as a village the following year.

A new settlement at Lac La Biche also began to take shape. In 1914, the Alberta Great Waterways Railways bypassed Plamondon, a growing French-Canadian settlement, in favour of Lac La Biche. The Canadian Northern Railway Company, which owned the track, founded a resort town around the station. They opened the Lac La Biche Inn in 1916, the most luxurious and modern hotel in the province at the time. Lac La Biche grew rapidly, but it was also beset with misfortune. A major fire burnt most of the town in 1916, and the great forest fire of 1919 swept through Lac La Biche destroying 32 major buildings and 20 private residences. The fire caused $200,000 in damage, but spared the Lac La Biche Inn, the railway station, the church, and the old Hudson’s Bay Post.

North Eastern Alberta was not entirely populated by French Canadian settlers. Near Redwater river grew the Ukrainian agricultural settlement of Redwater. After a wave of homesteaders entered the area, a post office was established in 1907. The Alberta and Great Waterways railway reached the small settlement in 1918, transforming Redwater into a hamlet the next year. Redwater remained a very small agricultural community with no more than 200 residents until oil was famously struck there after World War II.

Among the other small settlements that would rise to greater importance were Cold Lake and Grand Centre, which would much later be amalgamated as the Town of Cold Lake. Cold Lake received a Hudson’s Bay Fur Trade post in 1918, but at the time, there was no townsite. By 1915, the population of Cold Lake was about 50. Just south of Cold Lake, was Grand Centre, a settlement that eventually got a railway after 1929, when the Alberta and Great Waterways line reached it from Bonnyville, 28 miles away. At the time, the Cold Lake area was still primarily inhabited by Chipewyan at the Cold Lake Reserve.


Alberta Online Encyclopedia. “ St. Paul History.” St. Vincent and St. Paul: Memory in Francophone Alberta. Retrieved March 6, 2009 from http://www.abheritage.ca/stvincent-stpaul/st_paul/community_history_en.html

Byfield, Link. “Starvation and defeat – the humbling of the prairie tribes.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.1: The Great West Before 1900. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Byfield, Ted. “Until the shots rang out at Duck Lake, Riel had the angering West behind him.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.1: The Great West Before 1900. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

City of Cold Lake. “Municipal Development Plan 2007-2037. Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://www.coldlake.com/files/%7B5426F315-E6E9-46C6-9F94-3A102570C9E5%7D291_LU_07_MDP%20(web).pdf

Collins, Robert. “300 pinpoints of light appeared, each a town, village or hamlet.” Alberta in the 20 th Century, Vol. 3: The Boom and the Bust 1910-1914. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Hrynchuk, Audrey and Jean Klufas, Eds. Memories: Redwater and District. Calgary: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 1972.

Kermoal, Nathalie. Alberta’s Francophones. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Les éditions GID inc., 2005.

Lac La Biche Mission, 1853-1963: A Cultural Rendezvous. Calgary: Great Plains Research Consultants, 1987.

Lac La Biche: Yesterday and Today. Lac La Biche: Lac La Biche Heritage Society, 1975.

McCullough, Edward J. and Michael Maccagno. Lac La Biche and the Early Fur Traders. Edmonton: Canadian Circumpolar Institute, Alberta Vocational College – Lac La Biche, and the Archaeological Society of Alberta, 1991.

Memories Past to Present: A History of Beaver Crossing and Surrounding District. Cherry Grove: Cherry Grove History Committee, 1981.

The Historical Museum of Bonnyville. “History.” Société culturelle Mamowapik. Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://cnc.virtuelle.ca/bonnyville/english/histoire/index.html

Town of Bonnyville. “Bonnyville’s History Rich in Colourful Characters.” Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://town.bonnyville.ab.ca/livingin/about/history/

Town of Redwater. “History of Redwater.” Retrieved March 5, 2009 from


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