Still a centre of the contemporary beef cattle industry, the heartland of the old ranching frontier was the foothill country of southwestern Alberta, where the sheltered, well-watered valleys and the chinook winds which bare the hills of winter snow combine to make it one of the continent's preferred stock-raising areas. After 1874 the North-West Mounted Police provided the 2 essentials of an incipient range-cattle industry: a small local market and security for open grazing. The police were soon joined by Joseph MacFarland, an Irish-American frontiersman, and George Emerson, an ex-Hudson's Bay man, who drove in small herds from Montana. At the same time in the Bow R valley W of Ft Calgary, George and John MCDOUGALL established a herd near their mission at Morleyville [Morley, Alta].
Numerous policemen joined the ranching fraternity when their terms of enlistment expired, thus forming a distinctive core about which the industry developed and helping to define its emerging social character. The British-Canadian orientation of the ranching frontier was reinforced by the arrival of Englishmen attracted by the great publicity accorded in Britain to N American cattle ranching. They typically described themselves as "gentlemen" and came generally from the landed classes, with sufficient capital to establish their own ranches.
Access to distant markets was assured when the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY reached the prairies in the early 1880s, and interest in ranching grew dramatically. Led by Montréal capitalist and stock breeder Sen Matthew COCHRANE, Canadian businessmen vied to obtain the grazing leases provided through the DOMINION LANDS POLICY. The lure of being able to ship cheaply grown western beef to the rapidly expanding British market and cashing in on the "beef bonanza" led Cochrane and others to organize the great cattle companies that soon dominated the Canadian range: the Cochrane, Bar U, Oxley and Walrond ranches in Alberta, the '76, Hitchcock and Matador ranches in Saskatchewan, and the Douglas Lake, Gang and Empire Valley ranches in BC.
The railway, however, also brought the threat of general settlement, especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and an accompanying grid of barbed wire fences. Ranchers were determined to keep the "sodbusters" out and settlers were equally bent on penetrating the grazing leases. Finally the government yielded to the overwhelming demand for open settlement: in 1892 the ranchers received 4 years' notice that all old leases restricting HOMESTEAD entry would be cancelled.
But the powerful cattle compact argued that the ranching regions were too dry for cereal agriculture. Recognizing that the upper hand was with those who controlled the water supply, cattlemen persuaded Ottawa to protect the cattle industry by setting aside major springs, rivers and creek fronts as public stock-watering reserves. Most choice sites thus became inaccessible to settlement, and the ranchers' hegemony continued.
After the election of Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals (1896), the cattlemen faced a government committed to unrestricted settlement. Convinced that dryland agricultural techniques were surmounting the obstacle of moisture deficiency, the Liberals began to auction off the elaborate system of stock-watering reservations. The spirited defence of the ranchers' cause by stock growers' associations, and strong beef markets, only slowed the decline of the industry. Soon in full retreat before the rush of homesteaders who settled on even the most marginal lands in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the faltering cattle kingdom was dealt the ultimate blow by nature. Whereas homesteaders had enjoyed years of above-average rainfall, the winter of 1906-07 was without the accustomed chinook, bringing stock losses in the thousands for many large-scale ranchers.
The passing of the great cattle companies in Alberta and Saskatchewan brought a new generation of local ranchers, including A.E. CROSS of the A7 and George LANE of the Bar U, to prominence. At the same time the predominantly American origin of most dryland settlers, and heavy WWI enlistments and casualties sustained by the British-Canadian population, combined to change profoundly the social character of the ranch country.
Nonetheless, during the war ranchers' fortunes began to improve: their political party had returned to power in Ottawa, beef prices were buoyant and the return of a dry cycle caused settlement in the region to ebb. A decade later the ebb became a flood and the out-migration of thousands of drought-driven refugees in the 1930s brought grudging recognition that the cattlemen had pioneered, and would carry on, an enterprise especially suited to semiarid environments.
See also ANIMAL AGRICULTURE.
Author DAVID H. BREEN
Links to Other Sites
Bar U Ranch
Set in the rolling foothills, the Bar U Ranch commemorates the history and importance of ranching in Canada.
The Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation
This website provides instructions for accessing historical documents and artifacts related to the history of Alberta’s livestock industry. Produced by The Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation.
Canadian Cattlemen's Association
This site serves up the latest news about beef production in Canada. Features an extensive list of industry links about animal care, cattle identification systems, and more.
Industrial Development of Lethbridge: A Geographer's Interpretation
An account of the industrial development in the City of Lethbridge from a geographical and historical perspective. A paper by Ian MacLachlan, The University of Lethbridge. Click on the link at the bottom of the page for the PDF version of this document.
Historic Photos of Canada
The "Historic Photos of Canada" website offers hundreds of high resolution images of Canada’s first 50 years of nationhood, as seen through the lenses of the world’s earliest cameras.
The Bar U And Canadian Ranching History
View excerpts from "The Bar U And Canadian Ranching History," a book about the history of ranching in Alberta and ranch historiography in the American and Canadian West. From Google.ca.
Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall Of Fame
Check out the biographies of Canada's most acclaimed rodeo performers.