By Gerry Clare, 1998
Some ten thousand years ago, the last glacial ice sheets retreated from the northern parts of the Canadian prairies. They left behind fertile soils, thick deposits of gravel, boulders of every size and shape, innumerable shallow lakes and large areas of swamp and muskeg. Slowly, grasses and trees began to cover the land again. A natural parkland of mixed spruce and poplar developed with small areas of open prairie grassland here and there.
Groups of nomadic hunters probably passed through the area whenever the Rocky Mountain and Keewatin ice sheets separated briefly. There is evidence of them pausing briefly near Fort St. John around 10,000 years ago. The Ice Free Corridor allowed people from Asia to penetrate deep into the Americas. With the end of the Ice Age, many of these groups moved back north. They followed the great herds of grazing animals which were, in turn, following the grasses northward in the warming climate.
For thousands of years the nomadic hunters struggled to adapt to the rigours of a harsh northern climate and an uncertain food supply. Distinctive groups developed their own cultures and tool kits to make survival possible. The two major language groups in the Peace River area are the Athapaskan and the Algonquian. Some of the Beaver have preserved their Athapaskan tongue while the Algonquian language is still used by a few Cree people of the area. Efforts are being made to preserve the native culture in some places and to pass it down to the younger generations but it is a continual struggle.
The arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Eastern Canada in 1670 eventually had a major impact in the Peace River area. Guns made their way westward as trade goods and the Cree began to push the Beaver further west. The Beaver in turn pushed the Sekani deep into the Rocky Mountain Trench in the mid-1700s. A truce was eventually agreed to by the Cree and the Beaver and the great river they called Unchagah [Peace] became the boundary between their hunting territories.
Two great rival fur-trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, pushed westward in the late 1700’s. Their competition was sometimes marked by violence toward each other and even toward the Indians they depended on for both furs and food.
Fort Chipewayan, on Lake Athabasca, became the headquarters for the Northwest Company’s attempts to reach the Pacific Ocean. Alexander Mackenzie, a fur-trader by profession but an explorer by nature, set out for the Western Sea in 1792. He wintered over at the junction of the Smokey and Peace Rivers near the present day town of Peace River, Alberta. In the spring of 1793, he left Fort Fork in a 26-foot canoe with a crew of 10 men and a dog. On July 22 he reached the Pacific near Bella Coola. He was the first European to cross North America north of Mexico.
An era of fur trading began in the Peace with the first forts being built within a few years of Mackenzie’s great trip. Simon Fraser stopped over at Hudson’s Hope in 1806 before he pushed south to follow the river named after him to its mouth near Vancouver. Posts such as Dunvegan, Fort Vermilion, Fort St John and McLeod Lake became centres of the northern fur trade. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches established missions in the Peace along with the fur traders.
There was a brief flurry of gold panning in the 1870’s on the Omineca and on the Peace, but it was never of much importance. Some hopeful Klondikers passed through the Peace in 1898 on their way to the Yukon, but this was one of the worst routes to follow to the goldfields.
The British Columbia portion of the Peace did not attract significant permanent European settlement until after 1912 when the land was first opened up for homesteading. This last great wave of agricultural settlement in Western Canada brought people from all over the world into the Peace River country. The Peace River area is separated from the southern Canadian prairies by a two hundred-mile wide band of muskeg and forest. It remained virtually empty and largely unknown until the early 1900ís. A few fur traders had recognized the agricultural potential of the deep river valley, but the plateau lands above it remained empty and unexplored until late in the 19th century.
The Canadian government’s plans to build a railway from Ontario to the Pacific brought surveyors and geologists into the Peace. Eminent scientists like the botanist John Macoun (1873); the surveyor A.R.C. Selwyn (1875) and the geologist George Mercer Dawson (1879) brought information about the area to public notice.
After 1900, enthusiastic amateurs like A.M. Bezanson did much to spread the idea of an untouched wealth of land waiting for settlers. Settlement followed quickly. The Grande Prairie area of northwest Alberta was pretty well taken up by 1911 and people coming later turned their attention to British Columbia.
Opened a bit at a time after 1912, the Peace River Block’s 3,500,000 acres of federally controlled land attracted hundreds of settlers. They came in wagons, on horseback and on foot in summer and on sleds with cabooses in winter. They came from all over North America and from most of the countries in Europe.
The pioneers fought mud, mosquitoes and abysmal trails. They endured the isolation, monotony and hardships of severe winters which often lasted from the beginning of November to the end of April. They stuck it out — at least most of them did — and proved up their claim to 160 acres of Peace River land. For ten dollars and a lifetime of work, they could have land of their own and a future for their families.
When Canada joined Britain in the First World War in 1914, many of the young men starting out in the Peace left their homesteads and enlisted for service overseas. Those who returned safely after 1918 took up the endless task of turning 160 acres of bush into cropland. As veterans, they were entitled to a Soldier Settlement quarter section and many took up that option, sometimes selling it immediately to finance the home quarter. Land to the west of Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe was opened at this time and little settlements like Arras, Bessborough, Sunset Prairie and Sunrise Valley sprang up.
The decade of the Great Depression plunged the Peace into a time of general economic hardship eased only by the fact that this area was never subject to the droughts of the southern Prairies. Many people left Saskatchewan and southern Alberta in desperation and moved north where there was land and water. Even though the population grew during this time, prices for farm products — grain and livestock — were extremely low. Sometimes a farmer would ship fat livestock to market in Edmonton and receive a bill for the freight instead of payment for the animals!
World War II focussed attention on the Peace region and on Dawson Creek in particular. The Northern Alberta Railway had reached the village of 800 people in 1931 but it was not until 1942 that its location at the end of steel became important. When the United States and Canada agreed to build a land route to Alaska, Dawson Creek became “Mile Zero” for the Alaska Highway, a designation the city proudly bears even now. The construction of the highway was an epic undertaking — over 1500 miles through uncharted forest and muskeg in less than nine months! Thousands of military and civilian workers quickly overwhelmed the quiet little village and turned it into a boom town.
After the war ended in 1945, the area was left with better connections by land and by air. Before long, exploration for oil and natural gas brought new interest and prosperity to the region and new transportation links as well. The Northern Alberta Railway was joined by the Pacific Great Eastern from Vancouver and a new highway — the John Hart — linked Dawson Creek to Prince George. A new highway soon provided a much-shortened connection to Edmonton, capital of Alberta and the home office for many Peace River companies. The construction of the huge WAC Bennett Dam at Hudson Hope and the creation of Williston Lake on the Upper Peace in the mid-60s signaled the beginning of energy extraction in the region. Coal, oil, natural gas and hydro-electricity now flow out of the region to markets in southern Canada, the United States and Pacific Rim countries. The forest industry has expanded, too, turning the spruce and aspen forests into pulp, lumber and particle-board in mills in Chetwynd, Dawson Creek, Taylor and Fort Nelson. These industrial products join the more traditional agricultural products of the area — oil seeds, grains, cattle, bison and other livestock — which have been the economic mainstay of the region for decades.
A survey of the economics of the Peace River area in 2004 — particularly in the South Peace — would show that oil and gas exploration are at an all-time high and that the population is increasing. Tourism has become a more important aspect of the economy up and down the Alaska Highway and communities sharing the highway are working to capitalize on the steady flow of visitors, mostly American, up the road each summer.
© GR Clare