A brief look back on pre-European contact landscape in Calgary

Calgary is a boomtown again, and the city limits keep stretching deep into all four directions. From above, it is a city of buildings and poplar trees sandwiching the Elbow and Bow rivers.

 But as far as cities go, our Cowtown is still in an infant state. Only a touch over a century ago, this area we call home was a far cry from an urban space.

The Bow-Elbow confluence, or what is now known as downtown Calgary, was Blackfoot territory for thousands of years.

“We arrived roughly 800 years ago,” says Kevin Littlelight, Nation administrator for the Tsuu T’ina Nation, of the Dene group of First Nations people — many of whom now live on Tsuu T’ina Nation land, bordering the most southwestern point of the city.Tsuu T’ina Nation administrator, Kevin Littlelight, says that the Calgary ‘was always an economic hotspot.’ Photo by: Melissa Molloy

“But the Blackfoot were always here,” he smiles.

Back then the area’s landscape was primarily grassland. “Go to the Calgary Tower and it looks like one big forest,” Littlelight says. “But that wasn’t the case 150 years ago, it was pure bald plains, right up to the Foothills.”

In his 1974 book, “Calgary: a Not so Solemn Look at Calgary’s First 100 years,” historian Bob Shiels catalogued excerpts from journals written by the first groups of RCMP officers to come through Southern Alberta. All seem to have been struck by the beauty of where the Elbow met the Bow.

“The view amazed us,” wrote officer Cecil Denny in 1875. “Before us lay a lovely valley, flanked on the south by rolling hills. Thick woods bordered the banks of both streams. To the west towered mountains with their snowy peaks.”

Shiels wrote that other officers “told of ‘silvery waters, rolling uplands, and to the east the bare loneliness of the plains where countless bison wandered in undisturbed procession.’”

“Where the two rivers meet has always been a significant spot on the trade route.” – Kevin Littlelight

Buffalo are mentioned everywhere when looking into the history of what is now Calgary. And along with the Blackfoot and Dene people, buffalo called the area home.

A 1906 article written in an early Calgary newspaper, The Daily Herald, wrote “at certain times the buffalo gathered in countless thousands, darkening the earth as far as the eye could reach when at rest.” The article goes on to describe the sight and sound of a moving herd as “filling the earth with dust and with the thunder notes of their galloping hoofs.”

In spite of what some might imagine with the vast buffalo herds, several accounts describe the air over the valley as being perfumed by the fragrant grass that, as pioneer Mrs. Charles Lynch-Staunton wrote, “grew so high and thick that it swept the horses’ sides as the horseman for the first time rode across the open country.”

Speaking of the long, sweet grass, Littlelight says it was frequently utilized by the Blackfoot people who “were notorious with fire.” He says that the Blackfoot would light the grass on fire when needed to strategically trap or chase away enemies.

“So doing this all the time caused the Blackfoot to walk through the soot and that’s why Cree call them black feet.”

Today, if one looks from the very top of North Hill, they will be able to see nearly all of the city laid out before them, and if one feels so inclined, they might wish to imagine what University of Alberta historian Lawrence H. Bussard wrote in his 1935 thesis about the earliest days of Calgary that included a description of “what the Mounties saw from their vantage point of North Hill.”

“Before them was a spacious valley through which two good sized rivers wound their way… the site of the present city was covered with long grass and the numerous small lakes were literally swarming with wild fowl… a colony of beavers had built a large dam across the Elbow and it had flooded much of the land south of the present C.P.R,” or what would now be downtown Calgary.

The buffalo, birds, long grass and Blackfoot campsites kept this area as their home for centuries, managing to leave it all but untouched by the time the R.C.M.P. came to chase away the whisky traders in the late 1800s. A century and a bit later, it is a radically different landscape.

Still, some of the original traits of the space remain.

“This place was always an economic hotspot,” says Littlelight. “Way before European arrival this spot was sought out by other tribes. Where the two rivers meet has been a symbolic place on the trade route.”

“I think people are attracted by energy. And the area has always had good vibes.”

mmolloy@cjournal.ca