Academic journal article Alberta History

Settling Alberta's Northern Agricultural Frontier: Perspectives on the Lower Peace River Country

Academic journal article Alberta History

Settling Alberta's Northern Agricultural Frontier: Perspectives on the Lower Peace River Country

Article excerpt


Northwestern Alberta is today known mostly for its economic reliance on the timber industry, as well as increasing attention to oil and gas developments, particularly in the area west of High Level, and the Mackenzie Highway, which provides road access to the Northwest Territories. It also contains several agricultural districts, including a large Mennonite terming community south of Fort Vermilion, where agriculture is still expanding. Farming in the North, however, is not a new phenomenon, and as this article demonstrates, the foundations for its establishment were laid in the late nineteenth century by fur traders and missionaries who worked in isolated regions far from reliable transportation links, and consequently came to rely on local provision of food supplies.

Located approximately 800 kilometres north of Edmonton, Fort Vermilion enjoyed some early agricultural successes that, while impressive, were not particularly exceptional given the number of other new farming areas that had been established in the southern part of the Peace River District. Reports produced by the Geological Survey of Canada near the turn of the twentieth century serve as a measure of the extent of these enterprises. In 1891, William Ogilvie toured the Peace River district and commented at length on its agricultural capabilities. At Fort St. John, near the headwaters of the Peace River in British Columbia, he reported that the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had a small garden, where the vegetables were "as good as one would wish to see," and also grew barley and oats, which always matured. (1) At Dunvegan, 130 kilometres west of the town of Peace River, the HBC had enjoyed, for many years, "astonishing success" with its grains and vegetables. Here, too, were mission farms that also had raised fine grain and vegetable crops. (2) Still another agricultural venture was in existence near present-day Peace River town. In 1889, Rev. J.G. Brick, an Anglican minister recently serving at Dunvegan, established a mission and a school, and began a small farm. At the time of Ogilvie's visit, Brick had twenty acres planted to grain, and kept nearly a hundred animals. (3) Given the success of these agricultural ventures, it is not surprising that Ogilvie was impressed with the potential of the region.

A second Geological Survey report, published a dozen years later, cast considerable doubt on the area's future. Writing in 1904, James Macoun concluded that "notwithstanding the luxuriant growth that is to be seen almost everywhere, the upper Peace River country ... will never be a country in which wheat can be grown successfully." (4) Macoun did believe that, despite its distance from markets, the country around Fort Vermilion was "much better suited for general agriculture than the plateau above [the town of] Peace River." (5) His high opinion of the Fort Vermilion area's potential was based on the presence of a few successful farms, some of which had been in existence for nearly a quarter-century. This area's low elevation (less than 300 metres), its warm temperatures, and its abundance of daylight (approximately 18 hours a day in June and July) meant that crops planted here usually matured in less than 90 days. (6)

Fort Vermilion itself had an even longer history. The original fort, a North West Company (NWC) post, established along the Peace River around 1800, was located more than 100 kilometres upstream from modern Fort Vermilion. In the early 1820s, after the amalgamation of the HBC and the NWC, the post was moved to the north bank of the Peace River near its present site. By 1831, Fort Vermilion was relocated to the south shore. (7) For several decades, life in this tiny community revolved around seasonal patterns of trapping, trading, and the shipment of furs, until the arrival of missionaries introduced a new phase.

By the late 1870s, missions had been established by both the Catholic and Anglican churches. …

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