by Dorthea Calverley
In 1778, less than two hundred years ago, the Peace River Country resembled an ancient castle. To the south and southwest, its walls were the Rocky Mountains. To the southeast was a band of some of the roughest country in Canada, full of muskegs, canyon-like river valleys, rocks and forests almost impenetrable as a jungle. Even today a plane downed there may be sought for years before it is found by accident. On the north and east two rivers, the Peace and the Athabasca formed a moat. Lake Athabasca formed a drawbridge, because, while the Peace does not flow into the Athabasca, it comes very close to it a few miles north where it empties into the Slave River that drains the lake. The castle’s gate, to continue the analogy, is the old settlement known as Fort Chipewyan where the White men were first welcomed in.
Inside the castle lived the Athapaskan-speaking peoples — Beavers, Slaveys, Chipewyans, Sikanni, and others. Although they were probably the last to come from Asia, they are an ancient race whose language is akin to that of the high plateau of the China-Tibet border.
Outside, to the east and south in a great horseshoe completely surrounding Hudson’s Bay, lived the Algonkian-speaking Indians — Crees, Blackfoot and others.
There was a back door to the castle, called the Old Cree War Trail, which led from the vicinity of Edmonton, via Lesser Slave Lake, to Sagitawa, now Peace River Town. The last war party to come over it perished near present-day Notikewin a few years before the white men arrived. The Peace agreement known in one Indian tongue as ‘unjigah’, in another ‘Unchagah’, had been made sometime about 1781. The fur-traders did not follow this trail until many years later. It became approximately the route of the present-day Northern Alberta Railways except for its southern end. Railways also, like cows, follow the easiest path, as did the Indians. The great explorer David Thompson first entered the country along this trail in 1798. After Unchagah, the Crees stayed east of the Peace for a time. Thus ended their former large-scale raids upon the Beavers for slaves, wives, and pemmican or just for fun. Deadly fun!
Let us carry the picture of the imaginary castle one step further. There was, in effect, an invisible but very real political fence around the territory. The British government set it up when they gave the Hudson’s Bay Company a charter to trade into all the land that drained into the Hudson’s Bay. Present day Edmonton was within this Rupert’s Land because it is on the North Saskatchewan River that flows towards the Bay. Whitecourt and Jasper were not because they are on the Arctic-bound Athabasca. For nearly one hundred years most of the Hudson’s Bay men sat in the ring of ports around Hudson’s Bay.
A few Bay men could have become the first really great explorers, if they had been allowed to do so. In 1689, the boy, Henry Kelsey, approached our country, – a fact not established until his journal was found in 1926 in Ireland. Samuel Hearne, Anthony Henday and a few others were called back likewise. The cautious “adventurers” into Hudson’s Bay did not approve of northern expansion although they sent the surveyors Philip Tournour and Peter Fidler as far as the Athabasca in 1791. Tournour wanted to set up a fort there, but his superiors at York Factory forbade it. Alexander Mackenzie saw the urgent need for the Northwesters to get in first.
The Cree Indians outside the fence met the Athapaskan-speaking tribes inside. As their own hunting grounds began to be trapped out they finally began raiding our Beavers for furs to carry down to the Bay in summer to trade for goods. For a hundred years, until the Unchagah Peace agreement followed the defeat of the Crees by the wily Beavers, the Crees exploited the Athapaskan tribes whose legends of the time tell of ruthless war and near starvation. If the Bay cheated the Cree middlemen, the Cree were more merciless to the Peace River Indians. Nobody cared. Not for the well supplied employees of the Bay Company the pain and trouble of exploring those tributary rivers! In fact, their masters in England discouraged them from doing so. “Just attend to business and follow orders” in the forts and factories around the Bay. “If you get any bright ideas, write a letter to the head office. If the governors in their long-distance wisdom approve, they will let you know by the next sailing-vessel after their decision is made. In two or three years you will get your answer.” In the meantime we can imagine what happened in and around the castle!