The first human habitation of the region occurred approximately 12,000 years ago, with continual use of the area by successive cultural groups. Prior to European colonization in North America, the area of the Victoria District was utilized by Chipewyan, Slavey, Beaver, Cree and Blackfoot peoples.
The North Saskatchewan River provided transportation, settlement and food sources for pre-colonization first peoples. As early as 600 years ago, the Victoria District provided important camp sites due to the proximity to an important ford across the river, sheltered sites within the river valley and easy access to rich grazing grounds for bison. Evidence of settlement and use of the area may be found in archaeological features along the river.
Métis and Early European Settlement
Early European exploration and settlement of Alberta was driven by the fur trade. With the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company trading posts along the North Saskatchewan River beginning in 1795, the fur trade drove settlement patterns within the region. A 1400 kilometre overland trail linking Fort Garry in present-day Manitoba with
Fort Edmonton followed the North Saskatchewan River through the Victoria District. The first permanent settlement within the Victoria District was established in 1862 when the Reverend George McDougall established a Methodist mission near the mouth of Smoky Creek. McDougall named the settlement Victoria in honour of the Queen. A Hudson’s Bay Company trading post was established two years later just east of the mission site.
McDougall encouraged Métis families from the Red River area in Manitoba to settle the area. Between 1865 and 1870, the Métis population grew to 130, with the newly arrived families establishing river lot farms. The settlements extended 23 kilometres along the north bank of the river. Log farmsteads were established close to the river and Métis settlers began farming the fertile bench lands.
Following the North Saskatchewan River, an overland trail linking Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton was established. Within the Victoria District, the Trail follows the north bank of the river, before turning north at Pakan and branching to the east. The route provided an overland option for the movement of people and goods between the various settlements along the river and further north.
With the transfer of land rights of the region from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the young Dominion of Canada in 1870, the Canadian government began an aggressive settlement campaign. Between 1870 and 1900, the Canadian government signed treaties with most First Nations, established territorial government over the North West Territories (including present-day Alberta), supported the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and began the surveying of land according to square-mile grid pattern.
The Dominion Lands Act was passed in 1872 to encourage immigration and agricultural settlement across the Prairies. In exchange for a commitment to build a farmstead and work the land, the government gave individuals a quarter section of land. The township grid system was imposed over those lands not already established as river lots by the earlier Métis settlers, and new waves of immigration began.
In 1899, the first new immigrants began settling quarter sections just north of the Victoria Settlement. These new settlers were drawn primarily from the Bukovyna region of Ukraine.
Within seven years, two hundred and fifty families had settled in the area. Many of the Métis families sold their river lots and resettled in the Lac La Biche region further north.
The Ukrainian settlers brought their traditional building techniques to their new farmsteads, resulting in unique development patterns and architectural styles.
Over the past one hundred years, little has changed in the settlement of the Victoria District. Many features of the Métis and Ukrainian settlement patterns remain, including hedgerows and shelterbelts consistent with the river lot system established between 1865 and 1870. The Victoria Settlement, renamed Pakan in 1887, dwindled with the arrival of the Canadian Northern Railway, as businesses and residents were drawn to the railway settlement at Smoky Lake.