The Colourful History of South East Saskatchewan

Question: What do smugglers, General Custer of the U.S. Cavalry, a red paper clip, a Jewish pioneer settlement, Ralph Allen, the first farmer-owned and operated inland grain terminal in Canada, and Saskatchewan’s only known First Nations’ burial mounds have in common?

Answer: They are all part of the rich history, culture and economy of the two cities, 14 towns, 32 villages, 35 Rural Municipalities and 3 First Nations that form the “Saskatchewan South East Enterprise Region” (SSEER).  The geographic region is about 10,000 years old as marked by the retreat of the last glacier. Population for SSEER as per 2006 census is 47,808 but this figure does not reflect the large number of seasonal and contract workers who come to the area for work from other parts of Canada.  The colorful past and the future potential of south east Saskatchewan are equally exciting.

In the beginning…

As glaciers in what is now known as Southern Saskatchewan began to recede about 10,000 years ago, melt water formed enormous proglacial lakes.  When Glacial Lake Regina drained, the runoff dug a large channel which now holds the Souris River.

The Assiniboine Indians were hunter-gatherers who, at one time, numbered 30,000.  Accomplished travelers, they got their flint from North Dakota.  The area around Roche Percee was sacred to them.  They are the creators of Saskatchewan’s only known burial mounds located south of Glen Ewen, off Highway #18. Cree and Chipewyans from the north east also moved into the area.  Perhaps 300 to 800 years ago, near the Souris River and at Weyburn, an unknown artist created petroglyphs (figures made by drilling into soft sandstone).  There is a “medicine wheel” used in ancient religious ceremonies, in Moose Mountain Provincial Park, once a favorite hunting area for First Nations and Metis people.

King Charles, the Hudson’s Bay Company and European explorers…

In 1620, King Charles II of England deeded to the Hudson’s Bay Company “All that part of North West Canada drained by the streams, rivers and lakes, the waters of which drain into Hudson Bay.”  The fur traders and explorers came next, a little more than 100 years later.  Pierre La Verendrye’s two sons were first, in 1742, travelling the Souris River.  In 1805, Lewis and Clark’s party made a side trip to Roche Percee during an expedition to visit land which the United States had bought from France.  John Palliser’s tour of the Saskatchewan plains included a side trip to Roche Percee, and his 1857 expedition resulted in several reports which recommended the land bordering “Palliser’s Triangle” as very suitable for agriculture.

Travel made easy….

Most European explorers and settlers used the existing north-south and east-west network of First Nations trails. The British North American Boundary Commission surveyors, who mapped the boundary between Canada and the USA, used the trail that ran near Roche Percee and continued west to the Cypress Hills. When the Canadian government established the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) as a guarantee that the settlement of the Canadian west would be peaceful and lawful, the NWMP used that same trail in their 1874 march west to Fort Whoop Up in Alberta.Credit: Souris Valley Museum

Much later, those trails were replaced by Saskatchewan’s primary numbered highways, including Highway #13, east-west from Manitoba to the Alberta border via Carlyle and Weyburn, and Highway #39, north-south, from Moose Jaw to the American border via Weyburn and Estevan.

However, it took the railways to truly open up this area to settlement. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line from Brandon to Estevan was completed in 1892, followed by “the Soo Line” running through North Portal and Weyburn in 1893. The CPR line facilitated settlement from the east while the Soo Line brought Americans, including, in 1913, a group of African-Americans travelling through North Portal from Oklahoma on their way to homesteads in western Canada.
A multicultural settlement…

The Oklahoma families moved further west. The first European settler was a trapper from Glasgow, Scotland, who settled near Roche Percee around 1850. A bit of a hermit, he left in 1907 or 1908 as the area became more developed. However, many others stayed.

The first settlers in the Bienfait area arrived in the 1890s. Although the name is French, the homesteaders were Scottish. 1892 was a big year for settlement – Americans to Estevan, English, Irish and Scottish settlers to Oxbow, a Jewish settlement at Hirsh, an upper class British settlement at Cannington Manor. In 1905, French settlers from France joined the Metis at Radville.
A land rich in resources…

Many early Saskatchewan settlements depended on agriculture. Although John Palliser missed this natural resource, the area was rich in coal – the second largest coal deposits in Canada are in the Souris Valley and the blacksmiths with the North West Mounted Police used coal in their forges when they camped at Roche Percee.

A settler named H. Hassard is credited for developing the coal industry. There were no rails or easy roads to transport the coal he had discovered near his house but by 1891, he had a brisk business with settlers looking for winter fuel – one dollar a wagonload. In 1895, Hassard’s holding became the “Souris Coal Mining Company”. As more mines opened, farmers worked the mines to get required cash to put in their crops. The first strip mine was established near Estevan in 1923 and by 1956, underground mining was almost gone. Only one tunnel mine, south of Estevan, is still operating.

A major oil field encompasses Weyburn, Midale and Estevan. The first oil find was near Midale in 1953. Within three years there were 80 producing wells. The Estevan-Weyburn oilfield uses CO2 technology to extract oil.

Nowadays, Estevan and Weyburn are two major trading centers in south east Saskatchewan:

In 1892, word got out that the Souris branch line of the railway from Brandon would soon the reach the area. A tent city sprang up in anticipation. It was a little premature – the Soo Line Railroad, from Minneapolis-St Paul through North Portal to Moose Jaw was completed in 1894, by which time Estevan was already established, receiving village status in 1899. Having been incorporated as a town in 1906, Estevan had the advantage of both north-south and east-west transportation routes, bringing in settlers from the east and from the USA. Although the first viable coal mine in the area was established at Roche Percee in 1891, Estevan grew as more coal shafts were developed. Many local farmers used coal mining income to help them establish their farming operations. Underground coal mining thrived until the advent of surface “strip” mining by electric shovels in the 1930′s. By 1956, a sixty year era of underground coal mining in the region had come to an end. Today strip mining is the means used to extract coal, with several huge draglines operating and producing approximately 12 million tonnes of coal per annum. Estevan attained city status in 1957.

This community was founded in the late 1800’s on the shores of the Souris River by railroad workers. (The Soo Line Historical Museum is located in Weyburn) First settlers were people from eastern Canada and Americans. In 1913, it became Saskatchewan’s sixth city. Weyburn grew steadily, benefiting from the oil boom of the 1950s. The local economy thrives on agriculture, manufacturing, processing and oilfield exploration. Canada’s largest inland grain gathering point is located just south of Weyburn.
First Nations…

The Ocean Man First Nations Reserve, near Stoughton, is named after the original chief, Ocean Man, who signed Treaty #4. Ocean Man’s traditional language is Assiniboine. The band surrendered its reserve and amalgamated with White Bear in 1901, following years of persuasion. In the 1970s, they launched a land claim and were able to re-establish the band and the reserve. The Band’s economy is built on agriculture, off-reserve employment and gas and oil revenue.

White Bear First Nations Reserve is north of Carlyle. The first chief, Wahpemakwa signed Treaty #4. The traditional languages are Cree and Assiniboine. The Bear Claw Casino, opened in 1996, was the first casino in Canada to be located on reserve land.

Pheasant’s Rump Nakota First Nations Reserve is near Kisbey. The reserve grant came in 1881 after an adhering to Treaty #4 was signed in 1876. In 1881, this agriculturally-centred band won prizes at Cannington and Carlyle fairs. Under pressure, in 1901 the band was amalgamated into the White Bear Reserve but, in 1990, descendants of the original band were recognized and purchased land under a Land Settlement Agreement.

Quick Historic Facts about South East Saskatchewan:

  • Bienfait, 1922, was the location of the only murder associated with Saskatchewan’s illegal liquor trade with the USA.
  • The Weyburn Inland Terminal is the first in Canada to be completely owned and operated by farmers.  The facility was opened on November 2, 1976.
  • In the late 1800s, a NWMP camp was built near Roche Percee to counteract cross-border smuggling, most of it liquor, but including other commodities, such as grain.
  • Estevan is the “Sunshine Capital of Canada” receiving 2,536 hours of sun per year, an average of seven hours a day.
  • For the movie ‘Who Has Seen the Wind’, Arcola was the site used to portray W.O. Mitchell’s fictional town of Crocus.  Mitchell’s home town of Weyburn was the actual inspiration for the novel.
  • The Saskatchewan Hospital, casually known as the “Weyburn Mental Hospital”, served the mentally ill from 1921 to 1971.  One of the largest buildings in the province when it opened with the capacity to house 900 patients, the hospital was expanded to accommodate 1800.  The hospital has been described as innovative but also as problematic – using lobotomies, electric shock and LSD as treatment.  It has recently been demolished.
  • There is a Boundary Commission trail marker on Highway #39 southeast of Estevan.
  • Wawota’s name comes from the Dakota language expression, wa ota, meaning deep snow.
  • Ralph Allen, highly respected journalist and author, comes from Oxbow where the town museum is named in his honor.
  • Moose Mountain Provincial Park, established in 1931, is one of Saskatchewan’s first five provincial parks.
  • Eli Mandel, poet, essayist and anthologist is from Estevan.
  • Hirsch, one of six Jewish farming communities developed in Saskatchewan between 1886 and 1906, was the only Canadian Jewish farm colony directly organized and funded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch who established the Jewish Colonization Association to help Jews emigrate from Russia.  The Hirsch Colony cemetery is a historic site off Highway #18 west of Hirsch.
  • Kipling is named after the great English author, Rudyard Kipling, but is better known for a red paper clip.  The red paper clips was swapped by British Columbia resident, Kyle MacDonald, who traded up to a house in Kipling in return for a part in a Corbin Bernsen movie, all of which led to the residents bankrolling “Rust”, a movie which was filmed in the town in 2009 with residents as ‘extras’.
  • Ross King, who won the 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, is from North Portal.
  • The tiny village of Forget, named after the first Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, believes rural Saskatchewan needs live music.  Residents formed a non-profit organization, “Ananda Arthouse”, housed in a former Catholic rectory and dedicated to providing a place for artists to perform.  All shows are held at the Happy Nun Cafe.  Shows are presented once a month.
  • Tommy Douglas, Baptist minister, Premier of Saskatchewan, father of Medicare and who was chosen by Canadians as “The Greatest Canadian” in November 2004, preached his first sermon in the Calvary Baptist Church, now the T.C. Douglas Centre for performing arts in Weyburn.
  • Midale and Yellow Grass own the honors for the highest temperature recorded in Canada, 45C or 113F on July 5, 1937.
  • In 1957, the Boundary Dam was built on Long Creek, a tributary of the Souris, to provide cooling water for the Boundary Dam Generating Station.
  • The Rafferty-Alameda dam project was developed between 1988 and 1995, creating reservoirs on the Souris River and the Moose Mountain Creek to provide flood protection for downstream residents, including Minot, North Dakota and to provide water for the Shand power station near Estevan.
  • Ken and Brad Johner, named “Entertainers of the Decade” by the Saskatchewan Country Music Association, are from the Midale area.
  • Besides being the sunniest, Estevan is also known as the Energy Capital of Saskatchewan – with two coal mines, two power stations and a very productive oil field.
  • General Custer and his 7th Calvary left their names on Roche Percee, as have thousands of other people.
  • The “Black Tuesday Riot” in Estevan on Sept. 29, 1931, has been described as symbolic of the bitter labor-management relations of the Great Depression.  Suffering from intolerable working conditions and completely inadequate salaries, miners attempted to demonstrate peacefully but were confronted by police.  The peaceful demonstration became a mob, police fired.  Twenty-one men were shot; three were killed and are buried in the Bienfait cemetery.  The riot did have an effect on the mining industry and led to reforms in both legislation and working conditions for miners.
  • The Weyburn Security Bank was chartered in 1911, and grew to 30 branches in Saskatchewan.  A victim of the Great Depression, it merged with the Imperial Bank in 1931.
  • The living quarters for the Canadian Pacific Railway section gangs in Macoun offered straw mattresses on slab boards and long board tables and benches in the kitchen.  The building has been remodeled and updated.
  • Woodend, about seven miles south of Estevan, was formed as a remount post for the border patrol; a North West Mounted Police Post was established there in 1883.  The name, it is said, was a simple statement of fact – there was no firewood to the west.  Woodend’s thriving business as a way station for south-bound travelers ended when the Soo Line was completed.  However, Woodend found a second life in the decade between 1918 and 1928.  In spite of the community’s illustrious past as the site of law and order, Woodend enthusiastically embraced the cause of rum running.  With the USA as dry as Prohibition could manage, this little town near the border became a preferred meeting place for rum runners.