Ranching in Palliser’s Triangle in Southern Alberta

Between 1867 and 1870 captain James Palliser led a British expedition into the interior of Canada. James Hector, a member of the expedition, gave a vivid description of the arid parts of the Canadian Prairies, located in a triangular region of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. It became known as Palliser’s Triangle and covered 73,000 square miles. Annual precipitation oscillated between ten and fourteen inches in this region, resulting in subhumid or semiarid conditions. The cities of Lethbridge and Medicine Hat in Alberta, and Swift Current in Saskatchewan, are located within this triangle.

Palliser argued that the southern part of the Prairie Provinces might be the northern extension of the arid, central desert of the United States.[1] For many years Palliser’s Triangle was the symbol of the barren nature of much of the prairies in southwestern Canada. Hardly anyone expected that Palliser’s Triangle would become farmland. The vegetation in the area was dominated by prairie shortgrass with a few trees intermingled. Large herds of buffalo obviously thrived well on the prairie shortgrass, and it also proved very nourishing for cattle. Warm Chinook winds helped against excessive snow accumulation, and coulees provided cattle with shelter from the cold. Before the early frosts arrived, the short, nutritious prairie grass cured on the stem. It was excellent food for cattle throughout the winter. In the late 1870s British and Canadian investors in Eastern Canada began to lobby the Canadian federal government to introduce land policies that would help establish large-scale cattle ranching in Palliser’s Triangle.

Supplies to southern Alberta came through Montana

No railways existed in western Canada at that time. The easiest way to transport supplies and people to the Canadian prairies was by steamboat on the Missouri river from St. Louis and as far west as it was possible to navigate, hopefully to Fort Benton in Montana Territory. When the ice broke in the spring, steamboats left St. Louis, Missouri, loaded with trade goods for Fort Benton, which for some years was the largest inland harbor in the United States.[2] On the northwestern frontier, Fort Benton held a position similar to that of Santa Fe in the southwest, and Denver in the foothills of the central Rocky Mountains.

The first steamboat to reach Fort Benton was the “Key West” in 1860. The boat covered a distance of 2385 miles. Two years later gold was discovered in southern Montana Territory. Supplies were transported west to Fort Benton and gold and hides were transported to the east. Fort Benton became a hub for trading both southwards to the mining districts in Montana and northwards along Indian trails to Edmonton in the Northwest Territories.

The Whoop-Up Trail

For a quarter of a century the Whoop-Up Trail remained “a main artery into the western plains, carrying thousands of tons of freight to government installations, Northwest Mounted Police posts, United States Army camps, cattle ranches, and Indian reservations,” wrote Paul F. Sharp. “Along its dusty tracks rode Indians searching for game or plunder, scarlet-jacketed Mounties seeking enemies of the Queen, blue-coated United States cavalrymen preserving order, greedy whisky traders violating laws of God and man in their lust for profits, and ambitious traders seeking likely sites for their short-lived trading posts. In its boom years between 1874 and 1885, this trail carried one third of all the freight handled through Fort Benton and enriched Montana merchants with profits drained from Canada.”[3]

Traders along the trail into Canada exchanged liquor for whatever of value the Indians had to trade – land, gold, animals, or furs. In the early 1870s the region north of Fort Benton was one of the most lawless areas on the frontier. Fort Whoop-Up was the most famous of the whiskey forts. It was located at the junction of the St. Mary and Oldman rivers, and became the center of the Indian trade between Fort Benton on the Missouri River and Fort Edmonton on the North Saskatchewan River.

The traders did not only bring with them whiskey but also diseases unknown by the Indian tribes. Within a few years whiskey and disease more or less caused the destruction of many Indian communities. The Mounted Police at Fort McLeod prevented the complete destruction of the northern Indian tribes. After they arrived in the Whoop-Up country, whiskey trading and lawlessness were brought to an end.   

Cattle ranches were established in southern Alberta

Large cattle ranches were established in southern Alberta in the late 1870s. “Most of the earliest cattle to enter Western Canada were driven north by a hardy and entrepreneurial breed of American cattle drovers”, wrote Ian MacLachlan.[4] Demand for beef on the hoof in Western Canada grew as the supply of buffalo declined. The Mounted Police needed beef. After Canadian Indian tribes signed treaties with the Canadian government, they accepted to be moved to designated reserves, but on the condition that the government would supply the Indian population with beef since the buffalo had been decimated. In the 1880s mining became an important part of the economy in the Bow River region. Mines were opened around Medicine Hat in 1883. Coal was produced at Lethbridge and sold as far east as Winnipeg. Miners were also fond of beef, and they had money to pay for it.

In the 1870s most of the beef consumed in that part of Canada was supplied by Montana ranchers. From 1875 the Canadian government signed large contracts with American merchant companies like I. G. Baker and T. C. Power at Fort Benton. Around 1880 American cattle ranchers began moving cattle, capital, and expertise to the open ranges in the Bow River region around Fort Macleod.

The cattle supply in western Canada was totally dominated by Montana ranchers until 1883.[5] Some British and Canadian investors followed in the footsteps of American ranchers and established huge ranches in the foothills. They were stocked with cattle imported from the United States. Capitalists from Eastern Canada and well-to-do English gentlemen invested in large cattle outfits and dreamed of big profits from cattle.

The Canadian government regulated the cattle industry

The Canadian government played a crucial role in the process of establishing a national Canadian cattle industry.[6] Local western Canadian ranchers were able to wrest large parts of the local beef market from the Americans. “Avoidance of labour-intensive technology was the most significant aspect of the Texas cattle ranching system. Cattle were left to their own devices as scavengers on the open range and were expected to find their own way to feed and fend for themselves between round-ups”.[7] The ranching business depended on free ranges and un-deeded land.

After an amendment to the Dominion Land Act in 1881, the Macdonald government began awarding 21-year grazing leases for one cent pr. acre up to 100,000 acres. Eastern Canadian and British investors eagerly invested in the cattle industry. Early Canadian cattle ranches were funded by men with a Canadian or British background. Nevertheless, the Canadian cattle industry was without a doubt “a northern appendage to an established pastoral system and cattle droving trade rooted in the Washington, Montana and Dakota Territories”, according to MacLachlan. The capital invested came from Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Britain, not the United States. By 1886 the government had awarded 101 leases for ranching covering an area of 3,793,792 acres.

The cattle triangle

A large cattle triangle was established between Fort Calgary, Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek, Saskatchewan.[8] Around 1900 “tens of thousands of head of cattle were feeding in the dry mixed-prairie district south of Swift Current from the Big Muddy Valley to the Cypress Hills”.[9] The cattle investors knew little about the cold and harsh climate in the region and did not want to hear if someone warned them about the risks involved.

One of the first Canadian ranches in the region was the Bar U Ranch, owned by Lane, Gordon, and Ironside. It was established in 1882 on pastures between Willow Creek and the Little Bow River. For a time, this ranch ran 30,000 head of cattle. In 1882, the Oxley Ranch, operated by Hill and Craig, was awarded a Dominion Government lease which covered 200,000 acres. It became one of the four largest ranches in the foothills-region, and in 1883 the ranch bought 2,500 cattle and 160 horses from Higgins and McCain of Dupuyer Creek, Montana, for $115,000. Cattle was moved to the grasslands between Willow Creek and the Little Bow River. Conrad Bros. of Benton, Montana, moved parts of their herd to the mouth of the Little Bow River in 1886 and established the Circle Ranch.

Several smaller ranches were established along the Little Bow River in the 1880s. The Winder Ranch was built up by former Captain Winder of the Northwest Mounted Police from 1881. He leased about 50,000 acres but owned no land. When the Winder Ranch was sold in 1890/1891, 3,000 head of cattle and 700 horses were grazing on the ranch.[10] The Northwest Mounted Police was the main market for the horses. The Glengarry “44” Ranch was founded in 1885, and some years later this ranch had 4,800 head of cattle of mixed breeds and some shorthorns. The Flying “E” ranch was also started around 1885.

In 1884 three ranches operated between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat and the Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers. The Circle Ranch was owned by the Conrad’s of Fort Benton. Montana interests were also the owners of the Hod Main Ranch, located opposite on the south side of the Circle Ranch. The Whitney ranch was the third ranch. When David J. Whitney married in 1886, his wife was the first white woman in the whole area. The cattle on these ranches ranged from Fort Macleod to Medicine Hat without any fence to stop it.[11]

In the second half of the 1880s a new wave of American ranchers settled on the ranchland in southern Alberta.[12] In the early 1880s it was still thought that the best land for ranching lay near Fort Macleod, but by 1886 ranches operated around Calgary, Medicine Hat and Maple Creek. Most of the cattle on these ranches were bought in Montana and driven on the hoof into Alberta – 104,000 cattle and 25,000 sheep were counted in southern Alberta in 1886.

The severe winter of 1886/1887 wiped out most of the cattle industry in Montana and the Dakota Territories. Cattle waded up to their bellies in snow and thousands of animals died. In spring 1887, the prairie was littered with carcasses. The Canadian ranchers in southern Alberta did not lose as much cattle as in Montana and the Dakotas. The Canadian ranges had not been overstocked to the same degree and the grass proved to be thicker.

Four cattle companies controlled 42 percent of the total leased acreage in southern Alberta in 1885. Ten years later some two hundred cattle ranchers were operating in the region. Between 1882 and 1905, the cattle business totally dominated the economic life in southern Alberta. The land under lease by ranchers expanded rapidly during the 1880s and 1890s. The size of the average lease, however, declined from 37,000 acres in 1884 to 725 acres in 1901. “By 1905 the ranching district around Lethbridge was completely fenced within a radius of 25 miles around the town as ranchers surrendered their leases and sold off their herds.”

American style ranching towns

Most cattle owners had a wealthy, upper-class eastern Canadian or British background, and they soon integrated the social and political values of the American ranching elite. Several former policemen entered the cattle business as owners or managers after their terms of enlistment expired. Through their political connections, entrepreneurial ventures and civic participation, cattlemen strongly influenced the early development of Calgary and southern Alberta.[13] Calgary became the dominant trading center in the Bow River region and the main city for the ranching industry. Around 1,700 people lived in Calgary in 1886 and because of its location close to the Rocky Mountains it was nicknamed the “Canadian Denver.” 

Visitors in Fort Macleod, located close to the United States border, found that the town was very similar to an American ranching town. In the first years after 1900 the cattle industry in western Canada still looked with optimism on the future of their industry. Canadian and British cattle companies, however, depended to a large degree on their continued use of the open range.[14]

The economy of southern Alberta changed after 1900. The growing network of railways reduced the open range to “a series of disconnected islands.” Large ranches were broken up and sold to homesteaders hoping to get rich by growing wheat. If they wanted to continue ranching, the ranches had to buy their own land. The combination of rising wheat prices, the building of new railway lines, wetter years than normal, new methods of dry farming, and new agricultural technologies led to a surge in new homesteads. Even in dry southern Alberta an amazing number of homesteads were established along the railway line north of Fort Macleod, almost reaching north to Calgary.

[1] Alexander H. Paul, ”Palliser’s Triangle” in Prairie Encyclopedia.
[2] Joel Overholser, Fort Benton. World’s Innermost Port, Falcon Press, Helena and Billings, Montana 1987.
[3] Paul F. Sharp, Whoop-Up Country. The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885, Minneapolis 1955, p. 4.
[4] Ian MacLachlan, ”The Historical Development of Cattle Production in Canada”, Dep. of Geography, University of Lethbridge, 2006, p. 9.
[5] Ian MacLachlan, ”The Historical Development of Cattle Production in Canada”, Dep. of Geography, University of Lethbridge, 2006, p. 10.
[6] Ian MacLachlan, ”The Historical Development of Cattle Production in Canada”, Dep. of Geography, University of Lethbridge, 2006, p. 15.
[7] Ian MacLachlan, ”The Historical Development of Cattle Production in Canada”, Dep. of Geography, University of Lethbridge, 2006, p. 14.
[8] Herbert O. Brayer, ”The Influence of British Capital on the Western Range-Cattle Industry”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 9, 1949, pp. 85-98; Henry C. Klassen, “Entrepreneurship in the Canadian West: The Enterprises of E. A. Cross, 1886-1920”, The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3, August 1991, pp. 313-333. Harold E. Briggs, The Development and Decline of Open Range Ranching in the Northwest”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, March 1934, pp. 521-536; Alex Johnston, ”A History of the Rangelands of Western Canada”, Journal of Range Management, Vol. 23, No. 1., Jan., 1970, pp. 3-8; Alex Johnston; M. Joan MacKinnon, “Alberta Range Cattle Industry 1881-1981: Albert’s Ranching Heritage”, Rangelands, Vol. 4, No. 3., Jun., 1982, pp. 99-102.
[9] Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan. A New History, Calgary 2005, p. 41.
[10] Echoes of Willow Creek, Lethbridge Herald, Lethbridge 1965, p. 11.
[11] Echoes of Willow Creek, Lethbridge Herald, Lethbridge 1965, p. 60.
[12] Ian MacLachlan, “The Historical Development of Cattle Production in Canada”, Dep. of Geography, University of Lethbridge, 2006, p. 17.
[13] David H. Breen, The Canadian Prairie West and the Ranching Frontier, 1874-1924, Toronto 1983.
[14] Simon N. Evans, «The End of the Open Range Era in Western Canada», Prairie Forum, vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 1983, pp. 71-88.

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