The two underlined phrases “on foot” and “over game trails” are significant.
Until fairly recent times all Indians traveled on foot. In “foreign territory”, traveling in canoes on the rivers made a raiding party conspicuous, even from a distance, not to speak of the difficulty of portaging canoes. War parties might follow the beds of streams to obliterate their tracks, but generally a party walked in single file. Even in unknown country, the Indian could nearly always find a beaten path. In wooded areas they always chose the easiest path, avoiding rough or stony ground because it quickly wore away their moccasins. If possible they chose high ground where the soil dried quickly, the underbrush was sparse, and the streams fewer and shallower to cross. On the other hand, in mountains they followed the lowest points or gaps. The mountain passes were known to Indians for centuries before the white man “discovered” them.
“Game trails” were there long before the Indians trod them. Waterholes, good feeding places and salt licks would draw animals from both directions. Not only did they provide clues to the best spots to secure game, but the animals made hard-beaten paths, with probably eighteen inches clearance – the width of the animal’s body. The best path from each stopping place was easy for scouts to select. Where one trail ended, another began. The men – and especially the women under their heavy loads – simply wore them deeper, but not any wider until packhorses needed more clearance. Then the white men widened the trails. “The constant use of these paths or trails year after year and generation after generation so packed the soil that in places such as hillsides, they are still traceable by depressions in the ground or by the absence of, or the difference in, vegetation. Old maps and records reveal that many of these paths extended with few breaks practically the length and breadth of the continent. …In some places the trails became well-marked highways often being depressed two feet below the surface. Many of these old trails are still faintly visible on hills or in coulees leading down to watercourses, especially to good crossing places. The ferry crossings of the white man’s day were located on old Indian trails – at Smith, Peace River, Watino, Dunvegan, Taylor, East Pine, etc. Later, the railways generally followed the old trails although with more attention to elevation changes.
Primitive man had no compasses – his natural sense of direction led him from landmark to landmark to which he gave poetic names. Here towns and cities often sprang up; too often, the lovely and significant old names were dropped.
Our most famous trails were the “Old Cree War Trail” from the Edmonton area, north to present-day Fort Vermilion, past Peace River Town (the old Sagitawa or ‘meeting of the waters of the Smoky, Heart, and Peace Rivers’).
The present highway to Edmonton from Grande Prairie crosses the Old Cree Trail near the village of Sangudo while Highway 16 follows another old trail into the Rockies at Jasper.
From Sagitawa, another ancient trail led west through Spirit River then north of Fort St. John to the foot of the Rocky Mountain Canyon; over the Portage and on to the Forks of the Peace River. There, the Finlay River led north to the Liard, while the Parsnip led south to the Cariboo. When Peter Pond crossed the Methye Portage to enter the Peace River Country he was following an Indian trail, and as far North as Lake Athabasca, the Indians were aware that there was a great Stinking Lake (the Pacific Ocean) far to the west.
Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe must have been the hub of several trails, because the area was known as the Beaver Plains. It is said that it was also an ancient wintering ground for the buffalo because warm Chinook winds come through the Pine Pass frequently enough in most winters to melt the snow down to the grass. Snowfall is relatively light, and, as Dr. George Dawson reported, the natural forage grew “as high as the horse’s bellies.” On the Rolla prairie, occasional purposely-lit fires could keep down bush that volunteered. Some of the converging trails must have come from Spirit River Prairie, Fort St. John, Rose Prairie, Montney, the headwaters of the Kiskatinaw, and the Pine Pass, Sukunka, and Murray Rivers.
Grande Prairie had the same fortunate position with the Smoky and Wapiti Rivers, and the Monkman and Wapiti Passes, giving access to the Jasper area, and McLeod Lake and other Cariboo areas. Today many of these old trails are the routes of our railways, highways, pipelines and forestry roads
Beaver Indian Trails:
It is well known that Indian trails came north from McLeod Lake, ran down the Moberly River and turned north-east at the west end of Moberly Lake, crossed the Peace River downstream from Hudson Hope and then continued on north to the Half-way River. These were Beaver Indians and must have been the most nomadic portion of their tribes. It is possible that this migration was seasonal and perhaps something ceremonial was involved in this long journey. The route was very mountainous and they had the mighty Peace to cross. This could be very likely why so many Beaver Indians at one time were left on the west end of Moberly Lake. Apparently, about seven or eight hundred were pretty well settled there before World War I, thus the story told by Maurice Paquette of returning after the war to find their number had dwindled, very likely from a contagious disease, till only ten or so remain on the reserve today.
Information is scarce on white people before 1900. There must have been many individuals, hunters and trappers before this period, a few names have been mentioned, but other than this nothing is known for sure.
A story is told of the remains of a very old cabin found a few years back. It had been built on the east side of the Murray River, near where the Wolverine River runs into the Murray. It is believed that this cabin belonged to men going to the Klondike gold rush about 1898 or a little later, forced to winter there when the weather trapped them.
The area they were in was very rough and if they had stayed on a straight line for the Yukon, they would have encountered mountainous country all the way north. It is doubtful if they completed their journey. It is likely that they went back or perished.