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History and Archaeology

In the last 12,000 years or so, the climate of the region has ranged from warm to cold and from moist to dry. More than 13,000 years ago, the climate of the Triangle began to warm up, and by 10,000 years ago, the temperatures were similar to what we experience today. A warm and moist climate led to an increase in plant cover and soil formation.

As warming continued, the effective precipitation decreased, and plant cover decreased as well. This long period of drought lasted from about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. At this time, rivers were shallower and warmer than they are today. The climate began to cool about 5,000 years ago, and the modern plant communities started to form. About 3,000 years ago, warming began again and continued until modern times.

Read more… about the history and archaeology of the South Saskatchewan River – SEAWA Watershed Report: Archaeology by Dr. Thomas Hulit.

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Geography and Geology

Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan contain a variety of interesting geological features. Known as an erosional plateau, the Cypress Hills were not glaciated as the surrounding areas were. Some rock layers exist in the Cypress Hills where in other places they have been eroded away. From about 44 to 35 million years ago, some coarse gravels were deposited by rivers, forming a protective layer over the existing sediments.89 The Cypress Hills are a drainage divide – a landform around which rivers flow.

Read more… about the geology, topography and climate of the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB): SEAWA Watershed Report: Geography by Lu Mueller

Read more… about the geology and extra-terrestrial rocks in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB).

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Human Heritage in the Basin

buffalo_huntHumankind has flourished in the Saskatchewan River Basin watersheds for almost as long as the rivers have been here, weathering several major changes in climate and ecology. Archeologists have found more than 650 sites throughout the Basin showing the presence of humans 10,500 years ago, and 1,000 years before that in southern Saskatchewan – literally on the heels of the last glacial age. These early residents probably relied on hunting large Pleistocene animals such as mammoth, camel and caribou.

Around 11,000 years ago, mammoths and other species began to disappear and hunters pursued large game such as bison, which were becoming more abundant as the grasslands expanded and competing species disappeared. Bison continued to adapt and thrive, and remained the mainstay of the Plains Indian until the 19th century.

About 7,700 years ago, the plains environment became much warmer and drier. The population of large bison began to dwindle under the severe drought conditions.

About 5,000 years ago, the environment became cooler and wetter – more like our present climate. The smaller plains bison (buffalo) had become more abundant, and humans living near the river had begun to trade extensively with other cultures. That trade, improved hunting techniques, and the more productive climatic conditions all combined to help the humans flourish along the river.

Approximately 2,000 years ago, as the Roman Empire flourished and Christianity was born, two technological innovations left their mark on the Plains Indian cultures: pottery and the bow and arrow. Pottery provided a better means for processing, storing, transporting and preparing foods and other provisions. The bow and arrow, which replaced spears and darts, made for more efficient bison hunting.

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Arrival of the Europeans

The group headed by Captain John Palliser, in 1859, was the first officially documented expedition to spend time in Cypress Hills region. He described the Hills as “a perfect oasis in the desert.”

nwmpRich in natural resources including natural gas, coal, clay, and farmland, the region was known in the early days as “the Pittsburgh of the West”. However, contact with European traders, explorers and settlers changed the lifestyle of the First Nations rapidly – and irrevocably. The arrival of horses and guns let them move farther and faster, and hunt more efficiently. Sadly, contact also meant the successive introduction of epidemic diseases such as smallpox and measles, against which the Indians had no resistance. The virtual demise of the bison by the late 1870s spelled the end of the traditional Plains Indian lifestyle. In just 150 years, the 11,000 years of harmonious living and balance with nature was largely lost. The impact of human activity became stamped on the landscape.

While the influx of settlers, the virtual eradication of the buffalo and the presence of whisky traders took their toll on the First Nations, the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in the 1880s did prevent a great deal of bloodshed as cultures clashed. The Mounties – forerunners of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – plugged the flow of whisky from Montana, and imposed the laws and justice of the British Empire with some sense of respect and courtesy for natives. Chief Crowfoot spoke of the Mounties protecting the tribes as the feathers of a bird protect it from winter. When Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux Nations, fled to Canada after eradicating and attacking the U.S. Calvary army at Little Big Horn, he was told to follow the law of the land – and, for the most part, he did. In fact, when first approached by the U.S. government to return to the States, he refused – praising the Mounties for speaking the truth with him.

But despite the lack of bloodshed, the impact of change was no less inevitable. As the buffalo disappeared, the 1870s also saw the signing of treaties between the First Nations and the Crown. Soon after, reserves were set aside for the First Nations.

Read more… about the Treaty Seven First Nations.

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rail-medicinehatIn 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Medicine Hat and crossed the South Saskatchewan River, a town site was established using the name from the Indian legends. As the west developed, Medicine Hat became instrumental with the development of the first hospital past Winnipeg in 1889 and as a CPR divisional point.

A number of large industries began to locate in the region, under the inducement of cheap and plentiful energy resources. Coal mines, brick works, pottery and glass bottle manufacturing plants, flour mills, etc. became established. The agricultural potential of the surrounding area, both in crop and livestock, also made the region a viable service center with a well established transportation route.

For the first half of the 20th century, the South Saskatchewan River (Cree: kisiskāciwani-sīpiy, “swift flowing river”) would completely freeze over during winter, creating spectacular ice breaks and dangerous conditions in Medicine Hat, Saskatoon, and elsewhere. An economic boom was experienced between 1909-1914 bringing the population to over 10,000. Little growth occurred between the World Wars, although the population swelled in the mid-1940s due to the region hosting one of the largest Second World War P.O.W. camps in Canada. It was not until the 1950s that the region again experienced significant commercial development.

Today, the greater Medicine Hat region prides itself as one of the most economical places to live in Canada, with its unique city owned gas utility and power generation plant being predominant factors. Major industries have included chemical plants, a tire and rubber plant, a foundry, brickworks, etc. and Medicine Hat continues to grow and prosper.

Read more… about history of land use and planning in the South Saskatchewan River Sub-Basin (SSRSB).