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Human History in Waterton Park

Waterton Lakes National Park's human history dates back over 10,000 years, yet of the more than 250 discovered archaeological sites, very few are ancient. Consequently, little is known about this area's first people. These nomadic people arrived shortly after the last glacial retreat, following herds of migrating bison. They were the ancestors of two separate cultures who later frequented the Waterton Park area - the mountain/interior plateau culture (Upper Kutenai) and the plains culture (the Blackfoot).

The Upper Kutenai lived mainly on the Tobacco Plains, astride today's British Columbia/Montana border, west of the continental divide. Only one tribe, the Raven's Nest band, lived east of the divide (in today's Crowsnest Pass area). Although the Kutenai relied heavily on a broad food base of big game, fish, waterfowl and plants, bison was the preferred prey. After the ice ages bison didn't exist west of the continental divide, so three times a year the Kutenai traversed the high mountain passes to hunt in Waterton Lakes.

The Blackfoot, who relied heavily on the bison, often found themselves in the park's rich valleys. Although supplementing their diet with other game and plants, they valued bison above all else, calling the flesh "real meat". These people of the grass, with a highly nomadic life style, had little time for fishing and trapping. For thousands of years the Kutenai and Blackfoot lived in relative harmony.

The introduction of horses in 1725 changed these cultures' relationship to the land and each other. They actively hunted bison from horseback and expanded their territories. This led to conflicts with neighbouring tribes. Although the Kutenai were the first to get horses, the Blackfoot were the first to acquire rifles. Without firearms, the Kutenai were at the mercy of their enemies. By 1810, the Blackfoot had closed all the mountain passes, keeping them under close surveillance until the 1850's.

With the horse came the first wave of smallpox. The Raven's Nest band was virtually wiped out in the early 1700's. The Kootenai never again resided east of the Continental Divide. Many changes had occurred long before Europeans arrived in Southern Alberta.


The Kutenai

Linguistically and culturally, the Kutenai (also spelled Kootenay) are a people unto themselves and it is difficult to trace their origins. Skilled hunters, trappers and fisherman, it was the Upper Kutenai who historically traversed the mountains on annual bison hunts into Waterton Park. Only one Kootenai tribe, the Raven's Nest band, lived year-round east of the divide (in today's Crowsnest Pass area). In the early 1700's, this tribe was virtually wiped out by smallpox.

After the ice ages, bison were not found west of the continental divide. Although their land teemed with game, fish and edible plants the Upper Kutenai would cross the mountains three times a year to hunt bison. A favoured route was over south Kootenai Pass into the Blakiston Valley. Many men, women and children would set out for the summer and fall hunts. Bison were killed, processed and carried back over the mountains. Arduous midwinter hunts were conducted by smaller groups who crossed the mountains on snowshoes.

The reintroduction of the horse made these hunts easier but shortly after, the rifle trade also reached the mountains. Their travels onto the prairie brought them into conflict with the Blackfoot. Thereafter, hunts were limited until stopped entirely by the Blackfoot in 1810. Today, the Kutenai occupy southeastern British Columbia, northern Idaho and northwestern Montana.

The Blackfoot

A highly nomadic people, the Blackfoot followed bison herds on foot, using dogs to help carry their goods. Pedestrian hunters, they developed ingenious ways of luring and driving bison over cliffs (eg. the world famous "Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump"). Deep snow, pounds and marshes where also used to trap bison.

With the acquisition of the horse and the rifle, traditions changed and the Blackfoot expanded their territory. At their height, they held a vast area from the North Saskatchewan River to the Missouri River, covering much of today's Alberta and Montana. The Blackfoot comprise three distinct groups - the Blackfoot or Siksika (meaning "blackfeet" from a legend of walking across burned prairie), the Blood or Kainai ("many chiefs") and the Peigan or Pikuni ("scabby robes", from a legend where hides used for clothing were not properly prepared). The collective use of the word Blackfoot in Canada and Blackfeet in United States developed because it was the Blackfoot proper, the most northerly group, who met traders first.

The Blackfoot's extensive power was short-lived. European diseases, the whiskey trade and the disappearance of the bison took their toll. A priest among them in 1874 noted that, "...where formerly they had been the most opulent Indians in the country...now they were clothed in rags, without horses and without guns" (Dempsey 1972:72). In 1877, the Blackfoot signed Treaty Number 7. Now, the Blackfoot proper reside on the Bow River near Calgary; the Blood near Cardston; and the largest group, the Peigan, are separated into two groups - the North Peigan near Pincher Creek and the South Peigan in northern Montana.

Palliser Expedition (1857-1859)

After the resolution of the border dispute between British North America and the New Americas (See Waterton Lakes National Park-Glacier National Park International Peace Park and its Border), Britain was anxious to discover new agricultural lands in the west and a route through the mountains to the Pacific coast. During hearings held by the British government on the future of the Hudson's Bay territories, it became apparent that there was no consensus on the nature of the land. It was at this time that John Palliser approached the Royal Geographical Society of England with a proposal for an expedition.

Expedition members consisted of Palliser; Dr. James Hector, a medical doctor and geologist; Monsieur Bourgeau, the expedition's botanist; Lieutenant Blakiston, a career army officer, businessman and ornithologist; and John W. Sullivian the expedition's official secretary.

Palliser found personality clashes an ongoing problem during the Expedition. Lieutenant Blakiston was the most critical - "This expedition is no more than a party of pleasure out on a hunting excursion." Blakiston, with a strong military background, opposed many decisions on how the expedition should proceed. He forced Palliser into choosing a second in command, feeling he was best suited for the position. Instead, Palliser choose Dr. Hector. Blakiston also suggested a further study of the Saskatchewan river system, but Palliser felt this would be an impractical and dangerous endeavour. On the 3rd of August 1858, Blakiston threw off Palliser's command and explored to the south on his own.

Despite problems, the Palliser Expedition was considered a success. Its final report, later including Blakiston's findings, provided information about the fauna, flora, geology, and climate of the southern mountains and prairie. Captain Palliser crossed and explored Kananaskis Pass into what is now British Columbia. Dr. Hector and Monsieur Bourgeau travelled through areas of what are now Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper National Parks. Heading south, Blakiston explored parts of today's B.C., Montana and Waterton. Many landscape features bear the names of these men.

Lieutenant Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891)

In 1858, the first unquestionable visit to Waterton Lakes by a European was made by Lt. Thomas Blakiston. Originally a member of the Palliser Expedition, Blakiston, after several disagreements, continued on his own. Travelling south, Blakiston was particularly interested in finding a railway pass through the mountains. Reaching the area of the Crowsnest Pass, he asked his native guide what lay down the valley. His guide replied, 'many days of poor travel' (possibly relating to the large amount of windfall the aboriginal people, travelling on foot, preferred to avoid). Consequently, Blakiston missed the lowest and best pass in the Canadian Rockies for a railway. Had he discovered it, this may have changed the history of the west and national parks!

Blakiston instead entered North Kootenay Pass, crossing the continental divide into what is now BC and Montana (Tobacco Plains). There, Blakiston meet a tribe of Kutenai who told him of the South Kootenay pass. Using this pass, Blakiston recrossed the divide, travelling along Blakiston (Pass) Creek and out to a chain of three large lakes. On Sept. 6, 1858, he wrote:

"After two hours traveling on level ground along Red-stone creek (Red-Rock) we emerged on the Saskatchewan plains, just six geographical miles north of the 49th parallel and camped at the lakes...."

"The scenery here is grand and picturesque...game is abundant, including, Grizzly bears...and we obtained both fresh meat and fish."

He named the Waterton Lakes to honour the British naturalist Charles Waterton (see next entry). Blakiston also named other southern Alberta features including, the Livingstone Range (after the central Africa explorer David Livingstone) and a mountain for John Gould (a great artist and naturalist).

From Waterton Lakes, Blakiston travelled north, reaching Edmonton on Oct. 7, 1858. Back in England, Blakiston was promoted to captain. Under his new commission, his regiment was sent to China to protect British interests during a civil war. While there, he organised an expedition on the Yangtze River, travelling 1500 km (900 miles) further than any previous explorer.

Blakiston was interested in ornithology throughout his life. After retiring in 1863, he travelled to Japan by way of Siberia and Russia. His strong interest in birds led him to compile a catalogue on Japanese birds that remained the standard work for many years.

Blakiston settled in New Mexico in 1885. On a trip to San Diego in 1891, he caught pneumonia and died at the age of 58.

Sir Charles Waterton (1782-1865)

Sir Charles Waterton never visited the Waterton Lakes. A well-known naturalist, he had many admirers, including Lt. Thomas Blakiston. Upon viewing the lakes for the first time in 1858, Blakiston honoured Waterton's scientific achievements by naming them after him.

Waterton was the first naturalist to establish a sanctuary for wild birds. At great cost, he enclosed his 259-acre British estate, Walton Hall, with a six-foot fence in the 1820's. A man before his time, he was the first to suggest the importance of natural predators and forbade them from being shot on his property.

During travels in South America, he became interested in the uses of the drug curare, observing its effect on animals. He concluded that it could be of use in treating lockjaw (tetanus) and rabies (hydrophobia) due to its muscle relaxing properties. Curare is now an important drug used for muscle relaxation during surgery.

Charles Waterton was also known as an intriguing eccentric. An agile athlete, he climbed trees almost to the day he died, mainly for observation purposes but partly for the enjoyment of it. Waterton once climbed to the top of St. Peter's in Rome and left his gloves on the lightning-rod as a token of his visit. He was an intrepid traveler, accomplished taxidermist, biologist and a devoted observer. He believed sensitive fieldwork was the only true way to learn about science and nature.

John George "Kootenai" Brown (1839- 1916)

Another notable person to visit the Waterton Lakes area was John George "Kootenai" Brown. Born in Ireland in 1839, Brown served with the British Army in India before coming to North America. A well spoken and educated man, Brown first saw Waterton in 1865 after traveling over the South Kootenay Pass. At that time he vowed he would someday return to this country of scenic splendour, "for this is what I have seen in my dreams, this is the country for me".

In 1869, after marrying Olivia Lyonnais (a Métis girl), Brown (former army ensign, deckhand, and gold prospector) embarked on a series of careers, including riding pony express, scouting for General Custer and hunting buffalo and wolf. After being acquitted of murder charges in Montana, Brown returned to Waterton with his family. His life included, trading, hunting, ranching, guiding and fishing.

Olivia Brown's health failed and she passed away in 1885. John was devastated and concerned for his children's' welfare, finally placing them in better hands. Later, he married Isabella Brown ("Blue Flash of Lightning"), a Cree woman. In 1895, "Kootenai" or "Insupi" (meaning long hair) was appointed Game Guardian and Fisheries Inspector for the newly formed park. Kootenai eventually became Waterton's first Park Superintendent in 1911. Of his many accomplishments, Brown wrote several letters of concern over the state of the park to his superiors. As a result, he was a key player in the evolution of the park's preservation policies.

In 1914, because of old age and failing health, Kootenai was retired from the rank of Superintendent to that of Park Warden. He died two years later and lies buried along the west shore of Knight's Lake with his two wives.

Albert "Death-on-the-Trail" Reynolds (1847 - 1913)

Albert Reynolds began his career as a forest ranger in 1901 at the age of 53 in what is now Glacier National Park. Originally stationed near Lake McDonald at Fish Creek he was later transferred to Camp Creek roughly 3 km (2 miles) south of today's Goat Haunt Ranger Station (1912-1913).

Best known for his hiking ability, Reynolds claimed that he could walk a horse to death. His disdain for horses, his stamina and his remarkable climbing ability earned him the nickname "Death-on-the-Trail". Stationed year round in Glacier, he averaged 12 miles a day on winter patrol. He also regularly travelled close to twenty miles to pick up his mail and visit with "Kootenai" Brown. Out of the friendship that developed between Brown and Reynolds came the idea of an International Peace Park. Both felt the Upper Valley and Lake "could not and should not be divided".

Reynolds found his post at Camp Creek hard and lonely during the winter. Late in 1912, he received a patrol increase from the park's superintendent. Reynolds complained it was - 'a Patrol no man can make'. The proposed area was far too great, the terrain too difficult and the errand impossible to accomplish during the winter. After several bouts of frost bite, Reynolds wrote in his diary, 'My foot hurts quite bad'. The following day he had to improvise a backless shoe to ease the pressure on his deteriorating heels. Despite his feet, Reynolds walked the seventeen and a half miles to Kootenai Brown's cabin. Ranger Reynolds was finally taken to Pincher Creek for medical treatment and there he died on February 8th at the age of 65. It was his dedication to duty that finally killed him.

Oil City

Many park visitors are surprised to discover that Waterton was the site of Western Canada's first producing oil well - the second in all of Canada (the first being in Petrolia, Ont.). Long before, members of the Kutenai discovered the presence and medicinal value of oil seepages along Cameron Creek. This knowledge slowly filtered to incoming white settlers such as Kootenai Brown, who soaked up the oil with gunny sacks to use it as a lubricant and for medicinal purposes.

William Aldridge, from Cardston, was one of the first to develop the Cameron Creek seepages for commercial use. He dug seepage pits, and with sluice boxes, reduced the oil and sold it to ranchers for lubricating grease and livestock dip. Today, seepage ponds continue to be used as a "dip" by wildlife such as bears. The oil acts like a natural bug repellent!

The first company to successfully drill for oil was the Rocky Mountain Development Co., formed in 1901 by A.P. Patrick, J. Leeson and J. Lineham. With a drilling rig imported from Petrolia, they struck oil at 311 m (1020 ft), producing a flow estimated at 300 barrels/day. The site of this "Discovery Well" is located along the Akamina Parkway 8 km from the townsite. However, at the time the well was operational, the Akamina Parkway didn't exist. Instead, a primitive road, following a former trail, ran over the divide between Blakiston and Cameron Creeks, past Blue Lake (now Crandell Lake).

The strike generated a lot of excitement, development plans and further drilling but not much oil. Large storage tanks were set up, a railway branch line expected and the plans laid for a booming new town - Oil City. As with many "booms", this one was soon "busted". In 1904, some pieces of drilling equipment became stuck inside the casing, reduced flow to an erratic trickle. The well was closed for good by 1906.

This brief oil strike not only sparked an interest in oil that later led to the famous Turner Valley oil boom, but also inspired other companies to come to Waterton to drill for oil. The Western Coal and Oil Co., drilling near Cameron Falls, were responsible for the first settlement in the present townsite area. In 1904, they drilled several holes but no more than a barrel a day was ever produced. This too, was eventually shut down and although several attempts were made over the next few decades, the dreams of oil riches in the area were gone forever by the 1930's.

Geologists explain that the first oil strikes in Waterton were a fluke. The oil had seeped in from great depths to underground reserves and had become trapped along a fault plane not far below the surface. Our rock layers, formed part of the Lewis Overthrust, a vast sheet of Pre-Cambrian rock too old to produce oil. The Lewis Overthrust overrode younger Cretaceous rock. Geologists now know the oil was formed and originated in this much younger rock.

Fredrick William Godsal - Waterton's Unsung Hero and Park Promoter (1853-1935)

In 1883, Godsal acquired a 20,000 acre grazing lease between the middle and south fork (Castle River) of the Old-Man River, near where Cowley is today. During the many years that Godsal ranched in southern Alberta, he was considered progressive and inventive, developing many different livestock strategies still in use today.

Godsal had many additional interests. An avid outdoors man, he attributed his excellent health to walking and being a strict vegetarian. His love of travel took him around the world where he made some very influential friends including, James Hector (of the Palliser Expedition) and William Pearce (Superintendent of Mines for Canada). It was his friendship with William Pearce that strongly influenced the establishment of Waterton Lakes National Park.

In September 1883, he wrote to his friend Mr. Pearce:
"I believe that some years ago in an official report you recommended that the Crows Nest Pass, Kootenay or Waterton Lakes, etc., should be reserved as National Parks. I wish now in the strongest manner to urge upon the Government the adoption of this suggestion without delay.

The Crows Nest Pass and Waterton Lakes have been for years a common resort for the surrounding neighbourhood for camping and holiday making and there being but few such places in the country, I think they should be reserved forever for the use of the public, otherwise a comparatively small number of settlers can control and spoil these public resorts. Every day that it is delayed increases the probability of friction between the Government and settlers that may build in these spots. The C.P.R. is now also building their line through the Crows Nest Pass.

... the actual limits (of the reserve) I leave to the wise discretion of the Department. I now only wish most earnestly to ask that this may be done and I am sure I have the feeling of the country with me."

Pearce enthusiastically sent the letter on, to the Department of the Interior in Ottawa, with a supporting cover letter of his own. The establishment of a reserve met with considerable opposition but it was finally passed with the endorsement of the Hon. T. Mayne Daly:

"Upon the strength of Mr. Pearce's approval of Mr. Godsal's suggestion, you have my authority in making the proposed reservation for park purposes. Posterity will bless us."

So, on May 30, 1895, the Governor General, by order in council, created a Forest Park around today's Waterton Lakes. Godsal's involvement in the park did not end here. For several years afterward he wrote letters encouraging the Government to give the area further protection against exploitation for the benefit of future Canadians.

In 1918, Godsal retired to Victoria but continued to visit and support southern Alberta. After he died in 1935, two members of the Canadian Alpine club wrote this epitaph:

"He had a most kind heart. It was told that in his younger bachelor days he used to give delightful children's parties, and in his later days was most unselfish in visiting and cheering up his sick friends...He was a staunch churchman...His ideals were high and he strove to carry them out. He will be greatly missed in the Annual Camps of the Club, of which he had so many happy memories."

Dam It

A threat to the park's integrity developed in the early 1920's. Ranchlands in southwestern Alberta had experienced several consecutive years of severe drought. Considerable pressure from ranchers and surrounding communities mounted to build an irrigation dam. The preferred location was the Bosporus Narrows in Waterton Lakes National Park. It was calculated that a dam 40-60 feet high would raise Upper Waterton Lake enough to irrigate 75,000 acres. Unfortunately, it would also flood the townsite and alter the pristine nature of the mountain scenery bordering the lake.

The existence of the park was threatened, for J.B. Harkin (Commissioner of parks) said he would remove Waterton's National Park status. Pincher Creek was one of the few local communities that did not support the project. Fortunately, the United States refused to approve the plans, since it would involve manipulation of international waters and considerable flooding at the south end of the Waterton Valley. The drought years soon ended and all plans for a dam were dropped. Ironically, Glacier National Park (U.S.) now has at two irrigation reservoirs within its boundaries.


Brady, K.S, R.A. Watt and K.E. Seel. 1984. Waterton Lakes National Park - Resource Description and Analysis - Volume 1. Western Region, Parks Canada, Alberta.
Buchholtz, C.W., 1976. Man in Glacier. Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., Glacier National Park, Montana, USA.
Buchholtz, C.W., 1985. The Diary of Albert "Death-on-the-Trail" Reynolds, Glacier National Park, 1912-1913 in `Montana-The Magazine of Western History' Winter 1985 pg. 49. Montana, USA.
Dempsey, Hugh A. 1972. Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfoot. Hurtig, Edmonton, Alberta.
Djuff, Ray. 1991. The Prince of Wales Hotel. Waterton Natural History Association, Waterton Park, Alberta, Canada.
Friesen - Pincher Creek Historical Society. 1981. Prairie Grass to Mountain Pass. D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Holmgren, Patricia M. and Eric J. 1979. Place Names of Alberta - third Edition. Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
MacDonald, Graham A. 1992. Where the Mountains Meet the Prairie. Historical Services, Western Regional Office, Alberta, Canada.
McMillan, Alan D. 1988. Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, Canada.
Nelson, Julia.1982.Joe Cosley in "Roots and Branches", History of Mountain View, Alberta pg. 146. Golden Press, Cardston, Alberta, Canada.
Owram, Douglas. 1987. Wasteland or Wonderland in `Horizon Canada'- Volume 4, pg.1009. Laval University, Quebec, Canada.
Pitt-Brooke, David. 1989. A Brief Biography of Fredrick William Godsal - Manuscript. Waterton Lakes National Park, Library, vertical File 91(a), Alberta, Canada.
Pringle, Heather. 1986. Waterton Lakes National Park. Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Spry, Irene. 1963. The Palliser Expedition. The MacMillan Company of Canada Ltd., Toronto, Ontario.
Thomson, Don W. 1966 & 1972. Men and Meridians - Vol.s 1 & 2. Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C., Ottawa, Canada.


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