The History of Lac La Biche

    Present day Lac La Biche is a cutural mosaic of nationalities and native peoples. Cree, Chipewyan, Métis, French, Ukrainian, Lebanese, Romanian, Italian, Russian, Scottish, Scandinavian, and English settlers are all contributors to our great ethnic makeup and diversity.


    History of Lac La Biche

    Excerpts from "Lac La Biche Chronicles: The Early Years" The Stone (pg.14)
Lac La Biche is a very old place. Long before Europeans showed up near the end of the 18th century, Native people lived on the shores of the lake. Although no one knows with absolute certainty who arrived first, they were likely descendants of those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge about 14,000 years ago. The Bering Land Bridge was a wide strip of land which connected Siberia with Alaska. It appeared with the lowered sea level during the Ice Age, or Pleistocene Epoch. The theory is that people travelled across the land bridge and down an ice free corridor in search of food. As the ice melted they gradually spread across North America. People could have started living at Lac La Biche during the early prehistoric period, roughly 10,000 B.C to 5500 B.C., when the more than one km thick ice began disappearing from the region. Spearheads found in the Lac La Biche area and identified as "Agate Basin" type can be dated to around 8500 B.C. The first people to inhabit the area probably hunted large animals such as mammoths, lion-like cats, and giant bison. They might have supplemented their diet with fish. But, from five to eight thousand years ago, the large animals died out. The reason why this happened is the subject of considerable debate among scientists. What is known is that an Altithermal occurred: the temperature climbed and for a few thousand years, parts of Alberta experienced desert-like conditions.


    Life in Prehistoric Lac La Biche (pg.21)

What was life like in prehistoric Lac La Biche? Archaeologist Ed McCullough argues that specialization and cooperation were the keys to survival.


    "In the fall, the men would have trapped beaver and muskrat before the winter freeze-up and would also have pursued the moose, for during the rut moose can be "called" to the hunter and killed with relative ease. During the same period, the women would have been processing hides and meat in readiness for the coming winter as well as preparing for the fall fishery. With the onset of the fall spawn, they would have shifted their emphasis to the netting and processing of fish. In the winter, although fishing was probably less productive, the women likely fished to obtain fresh food supplement. During the winter the men pursued the numerous faunal species of the forest, including the moose, deer, caribou, wood bison, wolves, fox, rabbit, etc. During the spring months, fishing was probably the main activity of women although the men probably participated in this activity as well. However this would have been the time for muskrat and beaver trapping, a male task. During the late summer and fall, a combination of hunting by the men, fishing, fowling, and vegetable gathering (berry picking) by the women would have provided an ample resource supply. "


    The People (pg.23)

    Although Native or "First Nations" presence in the Lac La Biche region is today predominately Cree and Chipewyan, it was not always so. In fact, Chipewyan, and especially Cree peoples moved into the Lac La Biche area from the north and from the east in advance of the fur trade and displaced people who were already living in the area. The available evidence indicates that Beaver, Sarcee, Sekani and Blackfoot peoples inhabited the Lac La Biche area. Unfortunately, the historical record does not say just how long these peoples lived around Lac La Biche or whether they had in turn displaced earlier peoples.


    Caesars of the Wilderness (pg.52)

    They came Northwest, these Caesars of the wilderness, "like crusaders of the middle ages," to use the words of Peter C. Newman. Fearless explorers and fur traders, their canoes manned by brave voyageurs, spearheaded the drive. Onto the next portage! Then, with one, two, sometimes three ninety pound packs called "pieces" on their backs they sweated and toiled and paddled further inland in search of precious furs and beaver pelts to satisfy the hungry European market. By the end of the 1700's, the prize they sought was the vast riches of the Athabasca country. And a part of Canada that had been unknown was soon dotted with small trading posts and recognizable place names. Although Aboriginal peoples were the first to inhabit the Lac La Biche region, modern settlement and development began with the fur trade. In fact, Lac La Biche owes its existence and early development to two things: a quirk in geography and the fur trade. For it was the existence of a portage over a height of land to help in the search for furs that brought the Europeans, specifically David Thompson to a place known as Red Deers Lake in early October 1798.


    Koo Koo Sint (pg.58)

    Koo Koo Sint is what the Cree called him, the man who looks at the stars. But David Thompson did not gaze at the stars to ponder the mysteries of the universe. He was constantly taking "readings" - measurements of longitude and latitude. Although he was first and foremost a fur trader, his real love was exploring and mapping the vast expanse of land that is today Canada. It was something he did with great ability. And it was primarily that ability that brought him to Lac La Biche on October 4, 1798.


    David Thompson's Contribution to Lac La Biche (pg.74)

David Thompson was the first European explorer to record a trip to Lac La Biche and confirm its existence. Thompson built Red Deers Lake House and spent the winter of 1798-99 at Lac La Biche. The construction of Red Deers Lake House marked the beginning of European settlement at Lac La Biche. Although Thompson left in the spring of 1799 and would not return for a dozen years, he paved the way for other explorers, fur traders, and free traders who eventually settled in the area. One of the more notable explorers and fur traders who followed Thompson was Peter Fidler of the Hudson's Bay Company.


    During his career, Thompson travelled more than 100,000 kilometres. He mapped the Columbia River system to the Pacific, helped pinpoint the sources of the Mississippi River, and explored much of the territory east and west of the Rocky Mountains. He later surveyed expensive portions of the border between Canada and the United States. He also left an astonishing thirty-nine volumes of journals that ranks as a major contribution to Canadian history. In 1812 he produced one of the most remarkable maps of Western Canada in existence.


    Peter Fidler's Strange Will (pg.82)

    In 1794 he married, country style, a Swampy Cree woman named Mary. They had 14 children. Fidler's fondness for brandy and rum took their toll and he died in December 1822 at the age of 53. Whether he had a sense of his impending death will never be known, but on August 14, 1821, he and Mary were formally married. Two days later, on his birthday, and only sixteen months before he died, he executed a will:

"All my money in the funds and other personal property after the youngest child has attained twenty-one years, to be placed in the public funds, and the interest annually due to be added to the capital and continue so until August 16th, 1969 (I being born on that day two hundred years before), when the whole amount of the principal and interest so accumulated I will and desire to be then placed at the disposal of the next male child heir in direct descent from my son Peter Fidler".


    The Missionaries (pg.104)

"The fur trade era", Howard Palmer wrote in his Alberta: A New History, "was a period of equality between whites and Indians, when the Indians went about their own lives. The two groups met briefly at the posts, and exchanged goods. Each received from the other what it could not produce". The fur traders had no desire to change Native culture or Native Habits. Any cultural impact the fur trade had on Native societies was indirect. Not so with the missionaries. Their aim was direct and intentional. They wanted to replace the fur trade era with agriculture and a settled lifestyle based on Christian values. The goal was to Europeanize the Native people, who the missionaries viewed as "uncivilized and heathen."


    Emile Petitot (pg. 47)

Emile Petitot was a very interesting but rather tragic figure. The son of a watch-maker, he was born near Marseilles, France in 1838. He opted for a career with the Church and became a missionary in the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. In 1862 he was sent to the Canadian Northwest and for the next twenty years he served at a number of missions in what are now the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, including the Oblate mission at Lac La Biche. Unlike most of his colleagues, who were interested in "saving souls" or "converting the heathen"- as the saying went at the time - Petitot became interested in geography, anthropology, and the languages of the Canadian North West. From the 1870's to the 1890's he published more than a dozen books and several articles on aspects of the North West, many of which contain Native stories and legends.


    The Oblates of Mary Immaculate(pg.108&109)

    The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were founded in France in 1816 by the Rev. Charles Joseph Eugene du Mazenod (later Bishop of Marseilles). The new religious order's aim was the evangelization of the poor and the most neglected. In 1841 Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal invited the Oblates to set up their first foreign mission in Canada. They began in the Ottawa Valley and in 1845 moved into the North West. The first two Oblates to travel to Western Canada were Rev. Father P. Aubert and Brother Alexandre Tache.


    First established in 1853, and moved to the west shore of Lac La Biche in 1855, Notre Dame des Victoires became one of the most important Oblate missions in Western Canada. For more than a quarter of a century the mission served as the main supply depot for all Catholic missions in the North West.


    Lac La Biche and the Riel Rebellion (pg.138)

While not central to the events of the Riel Rebellion, Lac La Biche did not escape completely unscathed. The Hudson's Bay Company post was ransacked and emissaries who claimed to be sent by Big Bear threatened to pillage Notre Dame des Victoires. For several weeks, especially in mid-April, there was tremendous fear that Lac La Biche would be the scene of massive bloodshed.


    The Magic of Steel (pg.204)

    On Thursday February 4, 1915, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, amid whistle blasts and a cheering crowd, the first locomotive arrived at Lac La Biche. The iron beast belonging to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway was greeted by a large banner advertising "A Grand Dance" to "welcome the steel". By 1916 the Edmonton Bulletin was writing of the "smart little town" fast becoming an important divisional point from Edmonton on the Waterways railway. More than this, Lac La Biche was "Edmonton's newest summer resort, and its only one equipped with a hotel....The arrival of the railway catapulted Lac La Biche into the 20th Century and in many respects transformed the community formally becoming the Village of Lac La Biche in 1919, complete with a mayor and Village Council.




    The Lac La Biche Inn (pg.219)

    J.D. McArthur opened the Lac La Biche Inn for business on July 1, 1916. The owner of the Alberta & Great Waterways Railway was impressed by "Alberta's most beautiful lake" and sought to duplicate Cornelius Van Horne's success in building castle-like CPR hotels along the Canadian Pacific line. The Lac La Biche Inn operated for only two years. A tragic accident and the general downturn in tourism during World War I forced the closure of the luxury hotel. It lay empty for nearly twenty years before it was purchased by Les Filles de Jesus and converted into a hospital. A fire destroyed the Inn in 1988.




    The Great Fire of 1919 (pg. 245)

    To this day no one is absolutely certain how or where the fire began. At the time many townspeople believed that it started around Hylo and moved toward Lac La Biche. Others believed the fire was caused by those who had cut trees for firewood and improperly piled the brush. When the brush dried it somehow caught fire. Recent evidence suggests that the blaze was likely part of an extensive fire system that covered some 7.5 million acres and extended from Boyle to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Whatever the source of the fire, when it arrived at Lac La Biche on Monday afternoon, May 19, 1919, the Village, save for a few buildings, burned to the ground. It was not only dark. Gale winds of 60 miles an hour swept the fire through the entire Lac La Biche area. People could not get within 10km of the village because of the intense heat. Communications were broken when telegraph wires melted. People saved themselves by sitting in the lake or covering themselves with wet blankets. Yet for all the destruction, the Catholic Church was spared and no lives were lost.



    Alexander Hamilton (Ali Ahmed Abouchadi) pg.251

    One fine day in 1905 young Ali was tending a herd of cattle when he saw his uncle Hussein Abouchadi and a friend, Sam Jamha, walking on the road to Beirut. Uncle Hussein and Sam had heard tales of the great Klondike gold rush and decided to travel to Canada and get their pot of gold. Ali walked the thirty miles to Beirut with them to say goodbye and to see for the first time, the sea. By the time they arrived at Beirut Ali too was hooked on Canada. Uncle Hussein paid the $24 fare for Ali's passage to Canada. Ali was only twelve years old when he boarded the ship. He did not even have a change of clothes. After a month and a half in Winnipeg, he and his companions moved to Edmonton, where Ali began peddling dry goods from a suitcase which he strapped to his back. By the end of 1906 he and his uncle were travelling between Edmonton and Lac La Biche, peddling and trading with Native people along the way. After three years of homesteading in Saskatchewan he sold his farm and returned to Lac La Biche to resume trading. There was an economic downturn at the end of 1913 and it got worse with outbreak of the Great War in 1914. The silver fox market collapsed, money was scarce and unemployment across the country was up. But Alexander Hamilton had enough to continue and even to expand his business operations. By 1915, in addition to his store, he was contracting and subcontracting for J.D. McArthur's Alberta and Great Waterways Railway and the same year he received the agency for Ford Motor Co. Then the great fire struck. Like so many business people in Lac La Biche, Alexander Hamilton lost his store that dark day in May 1919. Never one to quit he built a bigger and better one. In 1919 the Hudson's Bay Company pulled out of Lac La Biche and Hamilton reaped the benefits. By the late 1920's he was the largest businessman in town with a department store, the Ford agency, gas station, grain elevator, and mink and cattle ranching.


    "The Lac La Biche Chronicles" is available at the Portage College General Store.




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