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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Alberta Ancestors by Arlene Borgstede. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Years and Locations of Settlement
The 1870s and 1880s
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, new settlers to Alberta were few and far between. In the early 1870s a few French-Canadians took land adjacent to the Catholic Mission at St. Albert as did a couple of former traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the early 1880s a party of Methodists from London Ontario settled in the Red Deer area.
1887-1901- The Mormons
It was not until 1887 that the first group of settlers moved into Alberta. This was a group of 40 Mormons, who took land between the Belly and St. Mary Rivers in southern Alberta. Coming up from the United States, they brought with them a working knowledge of irrigation and immediately set to work digging ditches and canals to make the dry prairie land useable.
By 1901 these original settlers had been joined by another 3,200 Mormons from the U.S. all settling in the southern part of the province around Raymond, Magrath, and, of course, the town of Cardston where the large, impressive Mormon temple stands as a tribute to these early pioneers.
Another group of immigrants arrived in 1889. Germans, fleeing financial persecution in Austria, moved into Alberta to join a much smaller group who had settled in the Pincher Creek area in 1883. This second group, part of an even larger contingent who had settled in Saskatchewan, had been given large areas of land around Medicine Hat, but within two years decided that the arid land was not to their liking. Most moved northward to more favourable conditions. In 1891 and 1892 these settlers created the new communities of Rosenthal near Stony Plain and Haffnungen near Leduc, and located in the Horse Hills and Fort Saskatchewan areas. Many of their compatriots joined the original German immigrants over the years through to 1914. Today, many communities bear German names: Josephburg, Bruderheim, Bruderfield. In addition, Germans settled in many existing communities: Rabbit Hill, Wetaskiwin, Beaver Lake, Lacombe, Gull Lake and Sylvan Lake.
In 1891, Ukrainians also sought new land in Alberta. Many were from the province of Galatia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, in fact, had been neighbours of the Austrian Germans who settled in the Fort Saskatchewan and Josephburg areas. By 1895, the number of Ukrainians immigrating to Alberta had increased considerably. They occupied some 2,000 square miles of land in the Beaverhill Lake, Whitford Lake and Willingdon areas. By 1905 their numbers had spread east as far as Vermillion and Vegreville.
1891 saw the arrival of a small group of Icelanders who settled in Markerville, West of Red Deer. This was to be the only Icelandic community in the province and was made up of people who had settled earlier in Wisconsin or Manitoba.
With the influx of these new settlers, the Catholic Church perceived the need to add to the population of French-Canadian Catholics if they were to retain any influence in the province. Bishop Vital Grandin and Father Albert Lacombe led the quest for French speaking settlers early in the 1880s with only limited success. Québec clergy encouraged their parishioners to stay, and those who felt compelled to leave because of economic reasons, chose to go south to work in the mills of New England. However, in 1891, Father Morin brought 65 French-Canadians by train to Calgary, then to Morinville, north of Edmonton, by wagon. In subsequent years, other French-Canadians moved into Alberta, mostly small family groups encouraged by previous settlers. There were also small groups of French and Belgians and some repatriated French from Michigan. Strong French communities are Beaumont, Villeneuve, St. Paul, Bonnyville, Rivière Qui Barre, Vimy, Pickardville and Legal.
There was sporadic homesteading by Ontarians from the early 1880s. In 1892 it was supplemented by 289 Anglo-Saxons from Parry Sound, Ontario. They moved into an area east of Edmonton, near Bremner, Fort Saskatchewan and the Beaver Hills areas near Lamont. They were soon joined by another 630 new settlers from Parry Sound.
In 1892 and 1893 two groups of Scandinavians settled in Alberta. The first were from Minnesota and the Dakotas in the U.S. who traveled to Alberta by wagon and settled in the Limestone Lake area. The second group came from Europe and settled on 300 square miles, eight townships, east of Wetaskiwin. Over the next two years three more groups came, settling in Bardo, west of Stony Plain, west of Camrose and along the Burnt Lake Trail near Red Deer.
A small group of Jewish settlers came to Alberta in 1893, however, they did not fare well. Gathered from the slums of Chicago and literally dropped off near Ghostpine Lake with a few tools, they were unable to meet the challenge of breaking and taming the raw land. Most returned to the States. For the most part, the few Jewish settlers in the province established themselves in the major communities: Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge, where they opened businesses of all kinds. By 1911, Vegreville also had a small Jewish community which grew to almost 60 people by 1921.
The exception were two farming communities. In 1906 a group of seventeen people began farming near Trochu. Another group joined them a year later and settled just east at Rumsey. Most of these settlers were from the Gomel area of Russia. The second settlement was in Sibbald, in east central Alberta. Settled in 1911 by Jews leaving North Dakota, the community was in the heart of the Palliser Triangle and by the end of the Dirty Thirties, only five Jewish families had survived the drought and depression.
The first Mennonites came to Alberta in 1889, but in 1894 a much larger contingent settled in the Lacombe area and east to Tail Creek and Buffalo Lake.
By 1895 the influx of new settlers increased the District’s population to about 30,000. Over the next five years, immigration continued at a steady rate of 16,000 new people arriving yearly. This number doubled the following year, bringing the population in 1901 to 73,022. Of these, 84 percent lived in rural areas.
Two major colonization programs took place in 1903. A group of French military families settled in the Trochu area and remained there until 1914. When the outbreak of World War I threatened their native France, most of them returned to fight for their country. The second venture was comprised of a very large party of 1,964 English settlers who made their home in the Lloydminster area. The Barr Colonists were led by Reverend Isaac Barr, who proved to be a poor and unorganized leader. Reverend George Lloyd took over the colony and saved it from certain failure. In spite of the many hardships they faced and, in most cases, their complete lack of experience in farming, the colonists established the town of Lloydminster and most proved sturdy settlers.
In fact, the 1901 census shows that of a total population of 73,022, almost 35,000 or 48 percent were of British ethnic origin. Indian and Innuit (Eskimo) accounted for 13,425, or about 18 percent. Other ethnic groups were as follows:
Other European 1,409
Other or not stated 328
By 1905, the year Alberta became a province, the major cities and towns in Alberta, besides Edmonton and Calgary, were Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Wetaskiwin, Cardston, Raymond, Fort Macleod, High River and Lacombe. The majority of settlement in the province was in a large east facing crescent, beginning in the north at Lloydminster, extending in the west to Westlock, south to Rocky Mountain House and in the east from Viking and Settler south to Gleichen and ending in Medicine Hat in the far south.
By 1906, the large ranches of Southern Alberta were being broken up and the land made available under the Homestead Act. The Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian Pacific Railroad were sold and homesteads were let. The giant Cochrane Ranch, west of Calgary, sold 106,500 acres to the Mormon Church.
A change in the Minister of the Interior in 1906 resulted in a subtle change in immigration policy on the prairies. Clifford Sifton, who initiated the settlement of the Canadian west, believed that farmers—any farmers—were the most successful settlers and was prepared to promote Canada in Eastern European countries to get them. Although immigration programmes ran in Britain, urban folk were not encouraged to come. Frank Oliver, who took over the post, firmly believed that the British way of life had to be retained and strengthened; consequently the promotion of British immigration was stepped up.
The effort was reasonably successful: by 1911 over half of Albertans were of English ancestry. A number of the British immigrants were the sons of the well-to-do, seeking adventure in the ‘colonies.’ However, the majority were coal miners, shopkeepers or general labourers. They settled in the southern portion of the province: Millardville and Priddis, Pincher Creek, and the coal mining areas of the Crowsnest. Some settled slightly north near Pine Lake and Alex, east of Red Deer.
Also widely promoted and encouraged were immigrants from the U.S. Not only were they of the more desirable British or western European ancestry, but they brought with them a practical experience in farming, and often their own machinery. Between 1898 and 1914 over 600,000 Americans, primarily from the Midwestern states, moved north into Alberta. Some were expatriates, about one-third were European immigrants. They came both individually and in groups.
Railway building and natural resource development continued promoting Alberta as a potential home for immigrants. The Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway opened up new lands east of the settled crescent, west of Edmonton and north into the Peace River country. Homesteads were still available; in fact homesteads in north west Alberta were still available in the 1950s. Coal mines around Lethbridge and in the Crowsnest area and lumbering were alternatives for immigrants not inclined to farm. Entrepreneurs established new business in towns and cities; shopclerks, household help, white collar workers were needed and new immigrants helped fill the positions.
German immigration accelerated after 1896 with most choosing rural, church centered communities. However, few came directly from Germany: most were German speaking people from Eastern Europe and Russia. Some of these came via Manitoba and the United States.
Other German speaking immigrants were the Mennonites: German Swiss coming from the U.S. or Ontario. Some settled in the Didsbury area but they were not inclined to settle in blocs and so integrated within established communities. Between World War I and World War II, there was an increasing number of German speaking immigrants: refugees from Russia and other parts of the world.
Hutterites came during World War I. As pacifists, they felt compelled to leave their homes in the U.S. and in 1918, after negotiating with the Canadian government to have their pacifist beliefs honoured, ten colonies were established in Alberta.
Scandinavians continued to be considered excellent immigrants and in the decade between 1901-1911, they were by far the greatest number of new settlers. Some came from the U.S. and most chose to settle in central Alberta. Although they tended not to settle in blocs, many congregated in areas where there was a church and the support of others:
- Danes in the Standard and Dalum areas
- Swedes in Scandia
- Norwegians in Claresholm
Western Europeans, also considered highly desirous, continued to immigrate. Dutch, both Catholic and Dutch Reformed Church settled in Granan, Nobleford, Monarch, and Neerlandia. A few French speaking Belgians joined the French communities around St. Albert. Although there were very few French immigrants, French-Canadians still continued to move west. In 1912 Father Giroux brought a group from Québec and settled the town of Girouxville north of Grande Prairie.
Ukrainians, particularly from the provinces of Galicia and Bukovina, and Poles from Galacia continued coming to Canada prior to World War I. Between 1896 and 1914 over 170,000 Ukrainians joined their compatriots settling in a wide swath north and east of Edmonton.
Hungarians, Slovaks and Czecks, mostly coal miners and labourers, came to southern Alberta, as did Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. Jews and Doukabours left Russia to escape military conscription and religious persecution. In 1899, 7,000 Doukabours came to Canada to settle in Saskatchewan. Some of these then traveled west to British Columbia and others stopped in the Alberta foothills near Cowley and Lundbreck.
After 1900 a few Greeks, Italians and Arabs joined the flood of immigrants. As they generally were not farmers, they were not encouraged. Those who came joined the railroad crews, worked in the mines or on construction. The exception was two small groups of Italians who successfully farmed north of Edmonton in the Naples and Venice districts.
Immigration from Asia was largely discouraged. By 1921, only 3,500 Chinese and Japanese, a mere 200 of them women, were in Alberta. They were located primarily in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge and operated small businesses such as restaurants or laundries.
Immigration from Germany and Eastern European countries ceased almost completely during World War I, then rebounded somewhat between 1920 and 1929. Rural-bound immigrants opened up new land in unused parts of the province, especially in the Peace River country. Joining them were businessmen, tradesmen, artisans and labourers. Although they immigrated as individuals or as a family, they often chose settlements in areas populated by other members of their family or countrymen. By far the largest numbers came from Britain, with the British government actually subsidizing emigration.
The Depression of the 1930s, followed immediately by World War II, slowed immigration over those fifteen years. It resumed again in 1946 when refugees, war veterans, the desperate and the adventurous left their countries for the promise of a better life in Alberta.
The 1951 census returns shows Alberta with a population of 993,501. Over 74 percent were Canadian born, and of these, almost 54 percent were born in Alberta. Eight percent were British-born; 11 percent were born in Europe; 6 percent were born in the U.S. Only .5 percent were reported to have been born in Asia or ‘other.’
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Alberta Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.