We are almost sure from where the Indians started to populate Northwestern North America. It was some place on the broad, grassy plains of Asia, perhaps as far south as the Tibet-Chinese border. Here and there we pick up clues – arrowheads and artifacts – but whether lost when the men were going forward or doubling back, we do not know. A professor from the University of British Columbia has been sent out to find out more about these ancient migration pathways. The complete answer to the Asians getting into North America is not likely to be answered in one man’s lifetime.
Geologists can give us certain clues yet significant accidental finds are likely to open sudden breaks in the mist of myth, legend and imaginings. The examination of a prominent mound in the Arctic recently disclosed between layers of over-burden the evidence of nine successive and different waves of “cultures,” where members had camped there centuries apart, left evidences of their way of life, and passed on. Where to we do not know, but geological explorations in the recent past can provide some basis for theories.
The Peace River Country is an extension of the Canadian prairies. The Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba prairies in turn extend through mid-United States to the Gulf of Mexico. There is something peculiar about them. How many times have they exerted some unexplained passive resistance to being overcome by the seemingly irresistible ice sheets that ground forward from North, West, and East to bury them? We don’t know.
The recent excavations on prominent hills in the far North have shown that man was there long before twenty-five thousand years ago. So were animals that are now extinct. Indications are that weather conditions over long periods of time were at least as livable and often easier than they are today.
If we could stop thinking that the North stops at the North Pole, and project our imaginations over that invisible barrier, we would think of the Polar regions of North America and Russia-Mongolia as all one. Men could wander at will and did. In the periods when ice tried to push in from various sources, a corridor seems to have remained open down through our area, perhaps a tundra area as livable as the Canadian Arctic is today for the Eskimo. What kind of man moved back and forth we do not know yet. Some writers have presumed that some of these bands moved south as far as the southern tip of South America and that these people evolved into what are known as the Amerinds or American Indians. It is clear that their ancient “roads” or “trails” have all been swept away by a colossal event that began about 25,000 years ago.
Two powerful thrusts of ice began to slide towards a face-to-face encounter like two giants, stronger than all their predecessors. One gathered its strength along the mountainous western backbone of North America, known as the Cordillera. It moved south and east. The other moved east and south to meet its adversary from the regions around Hudson’s Bay. Between the two of them, they at least had covered the whole of North America far down into the United States. The two giants are now called the Wisconsin Glacier.
The Peace River area again exerted its unexplained power to thwart the advance of ice. It would be natural to surmise that the two ice fronts just bunted into each other like two musk oxen or billy goats so that each held the other back. Rocks in the soil of our country show that some came from Alaska and some from the Hudson’s Bay. There is a narrow band quite close to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John which has both, showing that there was either an overlapping or pile-up of the edges, or else during 15,000 years of this phase, there was a see-saw, like the ground held by two nearly equal teams of tug-of-war. One portion at least of the Peace River area refused to go under – a long bench of land visible from the highway, lying on the horizon south of Beaverlodge and ending in a sudden steep slope. That is Nose Mountain, which must have been either an island in a vast sheet of ice, or else a sort of “traffic island” around which different ice-advances at different times just happened to flow, leaving it unglaciated.
The people who had inhabited this area seem to have retreated south as far as New Mexico and Arizona. Arrowheads found in the Arctic and in the south support this theory. As the ice retreated, they seem to have drifted back north. These seem to have been the Algonkian speakers – the Cree, and the Assiniboine speakers like the Blackfoot and Stoneys of today. In historic times the latter are not known to have penetrated our area.
While the older race were away in their “summer homes” in the South, things were happening in the North. It is thought that the ice piled up so high while the age-long snow storms swept moisture from the sea to be locked in the glaciers, that the level of the oceans dropped hundreds of feet. Between Asia and North America are peninsulas and islands around which the ocean is now no more than 150 feet deep. If the ocean level had dropped only 200 feet, there was a land bridge 200 miles wide between the two continents. If it dropped 450 feet as some glaciologists think, the corridor would be 700 miles wide – as far as the distance between the Peace River Country and Vancouver. Some estimate 1200 miles wide.
Symington’s book, The Canadian Indian, (Toronto: Maclean-Hunter, 1969) throws at us the startling thought – “At any time during the 20,000 years or so of glaciation which ended 10,000 years ago, men might have walked from the Old World (Asia) to the New, in a day or two.”
Apparently a new wave of men seem to have done that. When the southern homecomers got back they met a race of people whose language was absolutely different, the Athapaskan speakers. The Beavers, Sekanni, Chipewyans, Dogribs, Yellowknifes, Slaveys, and other related tribes seemed to push the Algonkians back from this area. In any case the Crees were able to by-pass the new-comers and take possession of the whole Hudson’s Bay area whose rivers drain into that body of water. Also they settled far south and east in Canada and the United States.
Having, apparently entered by the Mackenzie River corridor, the Athapaskan speakers seem to have used its watershed as a highway. The peculiarity of this watershed is the two great rivers that meet near Lake Athabasca. The Athabasca River Valley runs from far, far south in the eastern fringe of the Peace country, its sources being in the Mount Robson area. Two hundred miles further west the Peace River Valley leads south parallel to the Athabasca as far as Peace River Town, where the Smoky River becomes a continuation of the almost North-South waterway. The Peace Valley itself, taking an almost right-angle turn, leads back directly to the Rocky Mountain Canyon. The junction of the Peace and Smoky rivers at the Peace River Town had been named Sagitaun by the Indians long before the white men saw it. The Canyon was also known as a well-trodden bypass around it was there when Mackenzie arrived (although he missed it). Just a few miles further west another junction (known in historic times as Finlay Forks) creates another strange phenomenon. The Parsnip River’s source is far south towards Prince George. The Finlay River comes from hundreds of miles North up the Rocky Mountain Trench towards the northern British Columbia border. On the east side of the Rockies the Liard River rises not many miles from the Finlay’s source, as the crow flies, and runs to the Mackenzie River. In about the same latitude, the Great Slave Lake pokes an enormous finger, hundreds of miles long, eastward past Yellowknife towards the Hudson’s Bay watershed.
Whether the newcomers had canoes or kayaks to follow these waterways in summer we do not know. Certainly in the long, cold seasons the comparatively easily-traveled ice surfaces of rivers led the Athapaskan speakers on foot or snowshoes all over the Peace River country in the great crook of the Rocky Mountains which, like a bent arm, encloses it on the West and South.
Whether any Indians inhabited the Rocky Mountain Trench before the great push began from Eastern Canada is not clear. Coast tribes, later the totem carvers, were firmly established along the Pacific Rim and Islands. Considering the great rivers that led back into the hinterland, (the Stikine, Skeena, Nass, Klenakini, etc.) and also all the channels and inlets extending far inland, there must have been excursions to the interior, as there were later when the Athapaskan-speakers were pushed into the mid-province area between the mountain ranges. It is unlikely that such coast people would voluntarily stay in the colder, less food-rich area over winter to make permanent camps of any extent.
A curious story, however, makes one wonder how close the totem-makers came to our area. The late Mr. Allen Robinson of Bear Flat traveled with surveyors far up several of our Peace River tributaries. Far up the Halfway River he made his way to a conspicuous clump of tall spruce in an area that had otherwise been burnt over, and covered with lower second-growth forest. In the center, one ancient tree had been cut off sixty or seventy feet from the ground – far higher than any snowfall could have given a man footing to stand on. The top of the tree bole had been carved into an enormous totem-like face. It was weathered as if it had stood for many, many decades. Mr. Robinson could discover no tradition whatsoever – it had “always been there.” Somehow it had escaped the fire.
On the same trip he found the pulverized, decayed remains of a large rectangular building. There was no indication of fire – just decay – that must have gone on over a long, long period of time. It could have been the wintering place of some long-forgotten, unrecorded expedition of voyageurs from French Canada. Or it might have been one of the huge tribal community houses such as the Coast Indians built.
As Mr. Robinson became crippled due to his World War I service, he could never go back to these interesting finds, but he continued to think about them for many years – wondering, “Who got up to that incredible height to carve that totem-like countenance, – and how and why? What unknown people inhabited our outer fringes? Where did they go?”