Settlement of Western Canada
Before the Railway: Trails, Canoes and York Boats
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Before the Railway: Trails, Canoes and York Boats

t present, the oldest archaeological sites found in Alberta date back about 10,500 years. Since the first trade and transportation routes coincide with the first occupancy of the land, Alberta’s first trails date from at least this time. Some are controversial, like the Old North Trail that some believe followed an ice-free corridor along the eastern slopes of the Rockies and was used to populate areas south of the glaciers. Less contentious are the many trade routes established by Aboriginal peoples. Archaeological sites in Alberta show that different types of stone, like Knife River silica and Wyoming and Edziza obsidian, were transported hundreds of kilometres because of their suitability for making tools. There is little doubt other products were also traded along these routes, but wood, bone and other materials are less likely to survive in the archaeological record and are less traceable when they do.1

At first, most of this trade was carried by foot along trails. Later in the boreal forest and parkland regions of Western Canada, canoes and other water craft were used on the rivers and lakes that linked these regions together. Further south, on the Plains, trails continued to be the main transportation routes. Aboriginal traders used dogs, and later horses, on these trails as their main source of transport.

In the mid-eighteenth century fur traders from Britain and New France had established posts on Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes. Much of the trade at these posts was local, but Euro-Canadian fur traders also tapped an indirect trade. Numbers of Cree, Chipewyan, Assiniboin and Ojibwa began an active middleman trade exchanging goods acquired at posts for furs and other products with more distant peoples. This middleman trade built on already existing trade ties and transportation routes. For example, Cree and Assiniboine traders regularly exchanged buffalo meat and European goods with the Mandan-Hidatsa for corn, beans, tobacco and horses. In turn the Mandan traded for horses and hides with their neighbours to the south and west.2

As fur traders began to establish posts in the interior in the eighteenth century, they followed long established trade routes. From Lake Superior traders travelled along the Pigeon River, and later the Kaministikwia River, to the Rainy-Winnipeg River system. This took them to Lake Winnipeg which, in turn, gave access to the Red and Assiniboine River system and the Saskatchewan River. These rivers could be used to travel as far as the Rocky Mountains. Similarly traders from Hudson Bay could travel inland on the Albany, Hayes and Churchill rivers to Lake Winnipeg and beyond. At first the canoe was the main mode of transport, but in the late eighteenth century the Hudson’s Bay Company began to introduce York boats in its transportation system. York boats were slow and cumbersome, but they carried large cargoes giving the HBC a real advantage over its Montreal-based rivals.3

Fur Trade Routes by Canoe and York Boats
Fur Trade Routes by Canoe and York Boats

The map shows the main canoe and York boat routes into the interior from Hudson Bay and Lake Superior. As it indicates, most major fur trade posts were located strategically on waterways and were concentrated in the parkland and boreal forest regions of the Canadian west: the areas most suited to canoe and boat transport. Prior to the mid nineteenth century few posts were established, or maintained long, south of the North Saskatchewan River or west of the Qu'appelle and Assiniboine Rivers.

Western Canada’s Established Trails
Western Canada’s Established Trails

In the mid 1850s an alternative to supplying fur trade posts by canoe or York boat was found. American railroads had reached St. Paul in the Minnesota Territory, and in 1858 the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a trial shipment of goods to Red River via St. Paul. In 1859 a steamboat was launched on the Red River and by 1860 virtually all of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s goods were shipped through the United States to Fort Garry (Winnipeg). From Fort Garry the goods were transported north and westwards by Red River cart. Before long Red River carts, and later wagons and coaches, were crisscrossing the prairies on a number of well-established, and often ancient, trails. Rivers were the major obstacle on the plains and in the parklands, and routes between fording places, once discovered, were used again and again. For example, the Grouard-Peace River Trail followed an older Aboriginal trail mapped by David Thompson as early as 1803. It connected the post at Lesser Slave Lake with Peace River Crossing. The Carlton Trail ran from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton. First used in the 1820s, by the 1870s it was a major route linking a series of posts including Forts Ellice, Carlton, and Pitt with Edmonton and Winnipeg. In southern Alberta the Whoop-Up Trail linked a series of whiskey trade posts with Fort Benton on the Missouri River. This trail also paralleled an ancient Aboriginal trail, and was eventually extended north from what became Lethbridge to Fort MacLeod and Calgary. Other significant trails, including the Athabasca, Edson, Edmonton-Calgary, and Lord Lorne Trails, are illustrated on this map.

The construction of the CPR through southern Alberta in 1883 began a process of slow decline for cart and wagon trails in Alberta. As railways expanded, trails were abandoned. However, it is interesting to note that many trails evolved into highways, and the Carlton Trail roughly parallels the route later taken by the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railways across the Canadian west. When it comes to trails and trade routes continuity rather than change is often the lesson of history.

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. Some of these early trade routes are depicted in R. Cole Harris, ed., Historical Atlas of Canada, Vol. 1, From the Beginning to 1800 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), plate 14.
2. The best introductory account of this middleman trade remains Arthur Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their role as trappers, hunters, and middlemen in the lands southwest of Hudson Bay 1660–1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974). John Ewers, ed., The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1955) and Indian Life on the Upper Missouri (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968) examine the trade in horses on the Plains in some detail.
3. There are many histories of the fur trade, but readers with an interest in canoe routes may find Eric Morse, Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971) useful.