“Flats” are characteristic of the winding Peace River which has cut its way through a deep valley, eroded through deep glacial substrata, in which horizontal layers of gravel and clay alternated with sheets of hard sandstone. Sometimes the river lay flat and shallow over a resistant bottom, but when it broke through, on the outside curve where it eroded faster, the water level dropped leaving a gravel “flat” which became covered with rich silt from eroding hillsides and flood-time deposits. When the next breakthrough occurred, the “flat”, lifted higher above the riverbed and became a “bench”. Such flats and low benches became favorite sites for fur-trade “posts” or forts, convenient to trees for fuel, and useful for the small gardens usually grown to supplement diets in the long winters.
In 1792 the early traders, working out of Athabasca Lake, had built a post near the mouth of the Smoky River, and called it Fort Fork. Here Mackenzie wintered in 1792-3. This was not a permanent location, for they kept moving from place to place at the whim of succeeding factors.
In the journals of those early days gardens were frequently recorded. Almost at once, any fur-trade post attracted the natives who left their recent wholly nomadic way of life, having become dependent on the white man’s commodities and services. They camped more or less permanently in the vicinity and were joined by some of the voyageurs and tradesmen who for some reason had to give up the arduous journeys back to Montreal. Most of them were French Metis, the Canadian products of a hundred and fifty years of contact with the white men. Their Indian background was mostly Iroquois, a tribe, which practiced some forms of agriculture long before the white men came. Used to the farming practices of Old Quebec, they recognized the fertile flats on the North side of the Peace, upstream from Peace River Crossing, as superb farm land. Many “squatted” on pieces of land like the long narrow “river lots” of the old seigniories of Quebec. However, little else was done until the arrival of the missionary, Rev. John Gough Brick, in 1886. He named the area “Shaftesbury”. The old Peace River to Dunvegan Trail became the Shaftesbury Trail. It was superbly situated on a bench about a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet above the water, and backed by steep hills, an ancient riverbank rising several hundred feet above the fertile valley, which supported only tiny patches of hardy vegetables.
Mr. Brick and two or three “farmers” planted, in the summer of 1885, about two and a half acres of “general crops — wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat, peas, and beans.” He encouraged the Indians who, he reported, had also “gone right into gardening that spring. On both sides of the river almost every available spot is a garden.” Here were the forerunners of the famous market gardens that extended eventually from Fort Vermilion to the Beattie’s “Twenty Mile” above Hudson’s Hope.
Seen from the old River Road between Peace River Town and Dunvegan the “Shaftesbury Flats” are even today a lovely and prosperous-looking sight. [Actually, it is now the site of a prison] With the passing of the steamboats and the re-routing of the main roads, even the Shaftesbury Trail became little but a memory.