Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 92-108.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, what is now central Alberta was a region in transition. For centuries the area had been inhabited by native Indian peoples, but with the advance of homestead settlement, it became a marginal part of what Joseph Howard has called the "strange empire," a portion of the northern Great Plains that was marked by unrest at the end of one era and the beginning of another. The changes that affected the Red River Valley and later the Saskatchewan Valley had significant local repercussions in this far corner of the "empire," the valley of the upper Battle River immediately south and east of Edmonton.

The fur trade provided the initial and dominant economic base for the European presence in the Canadian Northwest. It also contributed to the appearance of the mixed-blood people variously known as the metts, half-breeds, or country-born who played such an important role in it. Though they were soon submerged by the flood of incoming settlers, for a few decades in the late nineteenth century the metis made a distinctive but short-lived impact on the northern Great Plains. The focus here is on this transitional period between fur trade and homestead settlement in central Alberta, an area that is also transitional in its geographic character.


Central Alberta is part of the high, western sector of the North American Great Plains (Fig. 1). In the west it grades almost imperceptibly into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Much of the area constitutes a level-to-undulating surface at an elevation of about 2,500 feet, traversed from west to east by deeply entrenched, major river valleys. Widely separated erosion remnants rise above the general surface about 600 feet to form the Hand Hills, Wintering Hills, and Neutral Hills to the southeast. In the west and southwest, resistant sandstone bedrock results in a 200-foot scarp marking the edge of rolling-to-hilly highlands.