Bill Waiser

Agricultural potential of southern prairies was much debated

Desert or garden? These conflicting images were at the centre of the mid-19th-century debate over the agricultural potential of the semi-arid prairie district of present-day Saskatchewan.

Could farmers make a living from the prairie soil? Was the region better suited for stock raising? Or was it marginal land that could provide only a bare living?

In the late 1850s, the Palliser (1857-59) and Hind (1857-58) expeditions were sent to the western interior to assess the region’s future as a commercial farming frontier.

Neither expedition was impressed with the open prairies and both declared that the area south of present-day Saskatoon to the international border formed a triangle of infertile lands – also known as Palliser’s triangle.

This finding was not surprising. Both expeditions were asked to identify areas where agriculture could best be initiated, and they clearly favoured the prairie parkland or what they called the fertile belt.

Palliser and Hind were also outsiders, unfamiliar with the peculiar plains environment, and simply assumed that the treelessness was a sure sign of aridity, if not barrenness.

Jump forward two decades to the late 1870s and the southern grasslands were reassessed, but under different circumstances.

Ottawa had acquired the region in 1870 and expected most, if not all, of its new western empire to be fertile. How else would it entice hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of prospective farmers to the region?

The potential of the prairie district therefore had to be reconsidered — the very idea of bad land was no longer acceptable.

Enter botanist John Macoun, whose enthusiasm for the North-West and its future knew no bounds.

Traveling during exceptionally wet summers in 1879 and 1880, Macoun found growing conditions in the South Saskatchewan country ideal for the large-scale agricultural colonization envisaged by Ottawa. He even challenged the common assumption that settlement should be initially confined to the parkland and instead promoted the virtues of homesteading the open prairie.

Where Palliser and Hind had once found an irreclaimable desert, Macoun discovered a garden of unlimited potential.

This portrayal of the grasslands as a kind of agricultural eden — where the land would flower if broken by the plough — was reckless and potentially harmful. Just like Palliser and Hind before him, Macoun was guilty of misreading the landscape.

Instead of recognizing the prairies as a distinctive ecosystem, the botanist saw only what he wanted to see, or more accurately, what he expected to see.

There was, however, another, more nuanced assessment of the southern prairies during this period.

In 1873-74, Great Britain and the United States jointly marked the 49th parallel across western Canada. Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson served as one of the scientists on the British side.

For two consecutive field seasons, the diminutive Dawson wandered widely — as much as 50 miles from the boundary — carefully investigating the landscape and any interesting phenomena. He paid particular attention to geological formations, especially any lignite deposits and their possible use as fuel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also worked up the natural history.

Dawson’s report, published as a thick monograph, did much to foster his reputation as one of Canada’s foremost scientists.  He would later serve as the director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

His book was also important for recognizing the agricultural challenges of the short-grass prairie. Unlike other investigators who imposed their own values on the grasslands, Dawson argued that settlement of the region should be “a natural growth taking advantage of the capabilities of the country.”

Some districts might support grain cultivation, while other areas might be better suited to stock raising. In other words, variability was the region’s defining feature. It was too simplistic to make sweeping generalizations, like desert or garden.

But the Canadian government wanted settlement policy to be uniform across the prairie west and adopted a homestead plan where every settler got the same 160-acre grant, regardless of the land quality.

This system may have made for administrative efficiencies, but farming success on the open prairies varied from place to place and from year to year. In many places, more than a quarter-section was needed. It also took several years of practical experience to convert a pioneer farm to a commercial operation.

Until then, the story for many first homesteaders was one of disappointment, hardship, and abandonment.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: George Mercer Dawson’s sketch of the Great Valley in southern Saskatchewan. 

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.