In 1871, just one year after accepting responsibility for Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company, the federal government put in place the pieces for its National Policy: the security of a national police force; a railway traversing the country from sea to sea, and settlement of the prairies. Two decades passed before the third plank in this policy was to have any effect on Alberta.
In 1882, the prairies were divided into four districts: immediately west of the province of Manitoba were the Districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia dividing the southern two-thirds of present day Saskatchewan. The District of Alberta occupied the same part of the present day province. Covering the northern portion of both provinces was the District of Athabasca. The entire area made up the Northwest Territories with its administrative centre, or capital, in Regina.
The whole of the present day Alberta was occupied by nine Indian tribes:
- a few white traders around major fur trade posts such as Edmonton, Lac La Biche and Fort Chipweyan
- North West Mounted Police posts in Calgary and Fort Macleod
- descendants of Red River Settlement Métis in Catholic Missions such as Lac Ste Anne and St. Albert
- and some Methodists from London, near Red Deer
In 1881 it is estimated that only about one thousand white men considered Alberta home. However, the land was ready for settlement. The Dominion Land Survey, begun in 1871 in Manitoba and continued west through Saskatchewan, was well underway in Alberta. As early as 1873, the special land grants provided to the Hudson Bay Company as part of their deal with the government of Canada, were surveyed around posts in Edmonton, Lac La Nonne, Victoria, Rocky Mountain House, Assiniboine and over half a dozen others, amounting to some 3,000 acres.
Four years later, the 14th base line was surveyed near Edmonton and, in 1878, surveyors ran the points of the 4th meridian. By 1881 work was started, surveying the townships in and around the Edmonton and Fort Macleod areas.
When the initial township survey was adopted by the government, the settlements of St. Boniface (Red River Settlement), Qu’Appelle and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, and Fort Edmonton in Alberta; communities already settled in the French Canadian river lot style—narrow lots extending back one to two miles along one or both sides of a river, were designated to retain their River Lot surveys. Métis settlements at Batoche in Saskatchewan and St. Albert and Lamoureaux in Alberta were ignored. So, in 1885, when the dissatisfaction of the Saskatchewan Métis manifested itself in the Riel Rebellion, an army of soldiers was sent to deal with the rebels. Their victory solidified the prairies as the domain of the English-speaking white man.
North West Mounted Police
The North West Mounted Police was firmly entrenched, maintaining her majesty’s law and order among Indian and whites alike. The Canadian Pacific Railway pushed past Calgary by 1883. An unfinished segment around Lake Superior was finished in 1885, thereby establishing the final link between Eastern Canada and the rich, fertile land to the west, some 75,000 square miles, which lay, marked with iron stakes, awaiting the settler’s plough.
However, still Alberta bided while free lands in the Dakotas in the U.S. and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan claimed the settlers.
The exception was the most southern part of the District of Alberta where, in 1881, the government made crown lands available for grazing. Ranchers or cattle companies could lease up to 100,000 acres for one cent an acre and many Americans and British took advantage of the opportunity. These enterprises added another thousand people to Alberta’s population.
Search Database in the NWMP - Personnel Records, 1873-1904:
About half of Alberta’s population is of British origin. Other nationalities include Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Scandinavian, Ukrainian, and Indian (18,000 American Indians reside on 90 reservations). Most migrations were from eastern Canada, Europe, and the United States in the early 1900s.
You will need some understanding of the historical events that affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends may help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. Records of these events, such as land and military documents, may mention your family.
This information can help you determine significant cultural, ecclesiastical, and political events in the history of Alberta. Changes in geographical boundaries and ownership of land are especially important in determining where to search for the records of your ancestors.
The following important events affected political boundaries, record keeping, and family movements:
- 1670 Today’s Alberta was a part of the territory given to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
- 1691 Henry Kelsey of the Hudson's Bay Company sighted the eastern limits of Alberta.
- 1754-1755 Anthony Henday, also of the Hudson's Bay Company, became the first white man to enter the Alberta area and the first to sight the Rocky Mountains.
- 1777–1778 Peter Pond crossed Portage la Loche and established the first trading post on Lake Athabasca.
- 1778 Fort Chipewyan was founded.
- 1789 Alexander Mackenzie descended the Mackenzie River from Chipewyan to the Arctic Ocean.
- 1792 Mackenzie crossed Alberta by the Peace River and became the first white man to reach the Pacific Ocean overland.
- 1792-1794 Peter Fidler explored and maps the Athabasca River and the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan River for the Hudson's Bay Company.
- 1794 Fort Augustus was founded near the present site of Edmonton.
- 1821 Union of the Hudson's Bay and North West companies.
- 1857-1860 Palliser and Hector surveyed the southern prairie region for the Imperial Government.
- 1869 Rupert’s Land was bought from the Hudson’s Bay Company and organized into the Northwest Territories.
- 1870 Sovereignty in Alberta was acquired by the Dominion from the Hudson's Bay Company.
- 1874–1875 North West Mounted Police was established Fort Macleod and Fort Calgary.
- 1876–1877 Territorial rights were acquired from the Indians by treaty.
- 1881 First general cattle roundup on the ranges of southwestern Alberta.
- 1882 The southern region of the Northwest Territories was divided into four districts; one was named Alberta.
- 1883 Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line was completed across Alberta.
- 1885 Northwest Rebellion outbreak and suppression.
- 1887 Election of the first member from the District of Alberta to the federal House of Commons.
- 1904 The long search for a rust-free spring wheat ended when Hard Red Calcutta was crossed with Red Fife, producing Marquis.
- 1905 The Province of Alberta was formed.
- 1908 The University of Alberta was founded.
- 1923 The Alberta Wheat Pool organized.
- 1924 Turner Valley began producing oil.
- 1930 The province acquired right and title to its natural resources from the Dominion government.
- 1939 Adoption of the Prairie Farm Assitance Act.
- 1947 Oil discovered at Leduc.
- 1949 Completion of the Mackenzie Highway to Hay River in the Northwest Territories.
- 1950 The Interprovincial Pipe Line Company built an oil pipeline from Edmonton to Superior, later extending it to Sarnia.
- 1951 The St. Mary Dam, designed to irrigate large areas in southeastern Alberta, was completed.
- 1953 The Trans-Mountain Pipe Line Company built an oil pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver.
- 1956 The Trans-Canada Pipe Line Company began work on a pipeline to bring natural gas from Alberta to eastern Canada.
For a list of published national, provincial, and local histories, go to FamilySearch.org. Click on FamilySearch Catalog. Do a "Place Search" for Alberta. Select from the list of titles to see descriptions of the records with the film or book call numbers. Use that information to obtain the records at a family history center or at the Family History Library.
These are two of many historical sources:
Morton, Desmond. A Short History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983. (FHL book 971 H2md.)
MacNutt, W. S. The Atlantic Provinces: The Emergence of Colonial Society, 1712–1857. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965. (FHL book 971.5 H2mws.)
Encyclopedias also include excellent articles on the history of Canada. Many books and articles on Canadian history are listed in these annotated bibliographies:
Muise, D. A., ed. A Reader’s Guide to Canadian History. I. Beginnings to Confederation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. (FHL book 971 H23r v. 1.)
Granatstein, J. L., and Paul Stevens, eds. A Reader’s Guide to Canadian History. II. Confederation to the Present. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. (FHL book 971 H23r v. 2.)
Local histories are some of the most valuable sources for family history research. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. You can also find lists of early settlers, soldiers, and civil officials. Even if your ancestor is not listed, information on other relatives may provide important clues for locating your ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search.
Published histories of towns, counties, districts or other municipalities, and provinces often contain accounts of families. Many district, county, and town histories include sections or volumes of biographical information. These may give information on as many as half of the families in the area. A county history is also the best source of information about a county’s origin.
The Family History Library has about 300 district histories from the Prairie Provinces and fewer township and county histories from the rest of Canada. Similar histories are often at major Canadian public and university libraries and archives.
For descriptions of bibliographies for Alberta available through Family History Centers or the Family History Library, click on FamilySearch Catalog. Look under BIBLIOGRAPHY or HISTORY - BIBLIOGRAPHY.
- Borgstede, Arlene. "Alberta - Finding Your Ancestors (National Institute)," National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Alberta_-_Finding_Your_Ancestors_%28National_Institute%29.