Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1985


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 1985, pp. 236-48.


Copyright 1985 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The original impetus that brought explorers and settlers to the East Coast of North America had, at least as early as the eighteenth century, evolved into, among other things, an interest in the potential of the Canadian West for European types of agriculture. As settlement spread across the continent, the perceived value of the West changed from fur hinterland to possible agricultural empire. With this shift in interest there was a change in the purpose of exploration, and as features such as rivers, lakes, and mountains became known, assessing and mapping the agricultural potential of the land began. Cartographers would henceforward record soil types, rainfall and drainage patterns, and the types of vegetation existing upon the land. This paper looks at the process of evaluating and mapping the agricultural potential of the Canadian prairies, the area that now comprises the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (fig. 1).


The first explorers were fur traders who, understandably, showed only passing interest in a region's agricultural potential. Their maps, reflecting an interest in routes and Indian tribes, located physical features and sometimes described vegetative cover or locations of gardens and crops, but they carried no clear implications about the value of the land for agricultural production in general. Even after the establishment in 1812 of the Selkirk Settlement at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, there was no effort to map the agricultural potential of the rest of the Canadian West, perhaps because the banks of the rivers provided far more land than the small number of farmers could possibly use. Not until the 1850s, when the American frontier had spread into Minnesota and the Hudson's Bay Company's mandate for the Canadian Northwest was being reexamined, were the first attempts made specifically to chart the potential of the Canadian prairies for settlement and agriculture. Then both the British and Canadian governments sent out expeditions, the former under Captain John Palliser and the latter eventually under Henry Youle Hind.

The Palliser expedition, though multifaceted, always considered the examination of agricultural possibilities as a major responsibility. In January 1857, the president of the Royal Geographical Society wrote to the British secretary of state for the colonies, Henry Labouchere, proposing an exploring expedition to the Canadian West to find all-Canadian access routes and to examine "the general capability of the country." He pointed out that the Americans had just finished exploring their Great Plains, whereas the Canadian West was barely explored but was "said to be well fitted for agriculture." Labouchere recommended the plan to the Treasury as deserving of public support, "considering that the region referred to is supposed to contain a considerable extent of fertile soil, and that in the rapid progress of British N. America and the United States public attention is beginning to be directed towards it." In his instructions to Palliser, sent in March of that year, Labouchere stressed the importance of the agricultural mission: "I have to impress upon you the importance . . . of regularly recording the physical features ... the nature of the soil, its capability for agriculture, the quantity and quality of its timber. "1

In keeping with these instructions, Palliser produced a map of the Canadian West dividing the territory into three categories: (1) "The true forests where spruce and pine predominate," (2) "the fertile belt," and (3) "the great plains with poor soil, scanty herbage, and no wood except on moist northern exposures." Palliser said little about the true forest belt, but seemed to imply at least that it was not very suitable for agriculture. In the fertile belt he found the soil "abounds in vegetable matter" and that "a sufficiency of good soil is everywhere to be found." The land had previously ;been forested but was partially wooded with willow and poplar and elsewhere had been denuded by fire; thus coming settlers would not have "to encounter the formidable labour of clearing the land." Palliser's account noted equally good land and agricultural potentiala "superior class of soil" -along the eastern foothills of the Rockies, although this does not appear on his 1863 map. There can be little doubt that Palliser's negative reaction to the plains was due to his awareness of the "Great American Desert" to the south-an awareness that, according to John Warkentin, he got from Hind. However, Palliser explained that even "the most arid plains" in Canada did not include "the great expanses of true desert country that exist further to the south." He found the Canadian plains generally "sterile" and "sandy," and his geologist, James Hector, blamed the soil more than the climate for the lack of vegetation.2