Eden Valley on the Highwood River

 Highwood River watershed at Eden Valley in the 1930s (Lane Studio, Glenbow Museum NA-0067-0008), 2003 (CW-2003-05B-24), and 2007 (CW-2007-10-13-210).  In the winter of 1787-88 David Thompson, then working with the Hudson’s Bay Company, wintered with the Piegan in this area on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. He was followed by Peter Fidler in 1792-93. Both traders left excellent accounts of the people and the landscape they observed. The pine tree in the left foreground of the historic picture (possibly a limber pine) has a “catface” with several scars from historic low intensity fires.

1787-88 David Thompson on the Rocky Mountains Eastern Slopes (followed by Peter Fidler in 1792-93)

In the fall of 1787, the seventeen year old David Thompson and several companions travelled westwards across the plains near the Bow River. The young Thompson was then working with the Hudson Bay Company in its efforts to expand trade westwards. He described that “At length the Rocky Mountains came in sight like shining white clouds in the horizon, but we doubted what our guide said; but as we proceeded, they rose in height their immense masses of snow appeared above the clouds and formed an impassable barrier, even to the Eagle.” They joined a band of Piegan wintering in the foothills on the eastern slopes of the mountains, and Thompson lodged with Saukamappee, an elder Cree of approximately 90 years in age that had joined the Piegan as a young man. It is from Saukamappee’s stories, told in his native tongue of Cree to Thompson, that we know much of the plain’s history of the 1700s. He described how the Shoshones and their allies the Crow had, in the 1730s, used horses in battles to push the Piegan out of the South Saskatchewan watershed northwards, and how after the Piegan obtained guns and horses, they had recovered their former territories. 1

During fall of 1787 bison were scarce in the foothills near the  Bow and Oldman rivers, but according to the Piegan, this was a good sign because it meant ungrazed forage would attract bison over the winter. This reasoning was correct, and Thompson reported that: “By the beginning of December, the herds of Bulls, which always precedes the herds of Cows began to pass us for the northward; and shortly after the Stags and small herds of Doe Red Deer; followed by Wolves and Foxes.” The band hunted bison from horseback until mid-January, and then driven into pounds until mid-March, and Thompson notes that “During this time the Women are busily employed in splitting the flesh into thin pieces and hanging it over the smoke to dry, and when dried is a favourite food for all people.” 2

Five years later, in 1792, Peter Fidler, also working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, made a similar trading trip to winter with the Piegan in the Rocky Mountain foothills in what is now southwestern Alberta. Fidler’s detailed journal is an amazing accounting of the First Nation’s pattern of life. On December 14, their group joined a large Piegan encampment of nearly 150 tents on the Highwood River near today’s Okotoks.  On December 18, he watched two Piegan men use horses to run over 30 bison over a small cliff south of the river. Later in the day he recorded that:

Grass all burnt the way we have passed this day towards the Mountain, but not to the south of us, but at a good distance in that direction the Grass is now burning very great fury, supposed to be set on fire by the Cotton na hew Indians. Every fall & spring, & and even in the winter when there is no snow, these large plains, either in one place or another is constantly on fire, & when Grass happens to be long & the wind high, the sight is grand & awful & and it drives along with amazing swiftness, indeed several Indians I have heard being burnt in this manner to death, the fire coming on them in the night when asleep. The flames roar along like the waves in the ocean in a storm. The only way they avoid these fires, when aware of it, is by immediately setting fire to the Grass they are at, & and when a little space is burnt themselves, Horses, & etc. go upon the burnt part….The lightning in the spring & fall frequently light the grass, & in the winter is done by the Indians.”

Fidler described several more fires burning in January, 1793, including a large burn that resulted from an escaped campfire. He notes the ecological benefits of this burning: “These fires burning off the old grass, in the ensuing Spring & Summer makes excellent fine sweet feed for the Horses & Buffalo, &c.” 3

The views above show the Highwood River Valley at the entry to the mountains west of Longview. Declining bison abundance, and the Treaty 7 in 1877 began to force Piegan, Stoney and other native groups on to reserve lands, and by the late 1800s this area of the valley was held by the vast Bar-U Ranch. The 1930s photograph shows the gathering of Bar-U horses. Low intensity fires have left fire scars on the limber pine. In the 1940s, the government transferred land ownership here back to the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. Today, the area near the river is relatively densely settled with numerous houses and roads. Grass and forest fire frequency has declined dramatically. The condition of the house in the foreground is evidence of the difficult social conditions  on the reserve. 4

Map and Footnotes

Center map


  1. Tyrrell, J. B. ed. David Thompson’s Narrative of His Explorations in Western North America, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916; Binnema, T. Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001
  2. Moreau, W. E. ed. The Writings of David Thompson. Volume 1- Travels: 1850 Version. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press. 2009, 62-64
  3. Fidler, P. A Journal over Land from Buckingham House to the Rocky Mountains in 1792&3. B. Haig ed. Lethbridge: Historical Research Centre. 1990.
  4. Evans, S. M. The Bar U and Canadian Ranching History. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004