Exploration and the Fur Trade
In 1670, the British government granted the Hudson’s Bay Company the right to govern Rupert’s Land, a vast area of western Canada that included all of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories. The land was rich in fur-bearing mammals, which both the British and the French sought to exploit for profit. The Hudson’s Bay Company first built forts around Hudson Bay and encouraged Indians to bring furs to the posts. Soon, however, French fur traders based in Montreal began traveling west to secure furs, forcing their British rivals to do the same.
In June 1754, Anthony Henday embarked on a journey up the North Saskatchewan River from York Factory on Hudson Bay, becoming the first white man to enter what is now Alberta on September 11, 1754. He returned to the east the following spring, bringing canoes loaded with furs and providing reports of snowcapped peaks.
In 1787, traders from Montreal formed the North West Company, whose men were known as Norwesters. One year later, Norwester Peter Pond built Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, which was the first fur-trading post in what is now Alberta. The Hudson’s Bay Company built its first post in present-day Alberta—Buckingham House—right beside the North West Company’s Fort George on the North Saskatchewan River. This practice of moving in right next to the competition—engaged in by both companies—produced a rivalry between the two that continued unabated until they merged in 1821.
Trading posts were scattered over the entire west. Most were made of solid log construction and were located beside rivers, the main routes for transportation. Furs were the only reason white men came west for more than a century. Traders lived by their own rules and were opposed to settlement, which would have changed their lifestyle. But change was in the wind. In 1857, the British government sent Captain John Palliser west to Rupert’s Land to determine whether the land was fit for agriculture. The Palliser Report, which he prepared upon his return to England, was unfavorable regarding an area in what is now southern Alberta (known as “Palliser Triangle”), but it encouraged settlement to the north.
The Dominion of Canada
By 1867, some of the eastern provinces were tiring of British rule, and a movement was abuzz to push for Canadian independence. The British government, wary of losing Canada as it had lost the United States, passed legislation establishing the Dominion of Canada. It created a central government with certain powers and delegated other powers to the provinces.
At that time, the North-West Territories, as Rupert’s Land had become known, was a foreign land to those in eastern Canada: Life was primitive, with no laws, and no post had more than a couple dozen residents. But in an effort to solidify the Dominion, the government bought the North-West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869, even as beaver stock was being depleted and the whiskey trade was having disastrous effects on the native population.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition