Wheat and Saskatchewan are synonymous.
Wheat sheaves grace the Saskatchewan great seal, the coat of arms, the shield of arms, and the provincial flag.
A stylized wheat sheaf has been used in provincial branding since the late 1970s.
The words WHEAT PROVINCE once appeared on Saskatchewan licence plates (1951-59). Today, three shafts of wheat adorn the centre of the plates.
The University of Saskatchewan even accepted wheat as partial tuition payment when there was a grain glut in 1969-1970.
And when the conviction of David Milgaard was overturned in 1992, the Tragically Hip wrote the song, “Wheat Kings,” about the Saskatchewan case.
Wheat, then, is a defining feature of the provincial identity.
But when was wheat first cultivated in the region that would become Saskatchewan?
The most widely-repeated claim is that the Chevalier de La Corne, a French colonial officer and commander of the western posts, grew wheat at Fort Saint-Louis (later Fort-à-la-Corne), just below the forks of the Saskatchewan River, in 1754.
It’s a story that’s been called a myth, if not a hoax.
And the perpetrator was Saskatchewan booster Arthur S. Bennett, who wrote a small booklet (The Chevalier de la Corne and the Carrot River Valley of Saskatchewan) in 1914 to promote the agricultural potential of the Melfort district.
Bennett recounted how La Corne had treated visiting Hudson’s Bay Company employee Anthony Henday to “crushed cereal … at the meal … grown from a patch he had put in seed the spring previous.”
La Corne also told Henday that “a share of the grain grown was given to (the Indians) in exchange for furs.”
Nor did the story end there.
La Corne apparently created quite a stir when he returned to Canada with samples of grain.
“There was a great amount of almost incredible interest (among) Frenchmen,” Bennett reported, “who had never before dreamed of anything but valuable furs coming out of the vast unknown.”
Bennett’s claim — that La Corne was “the first agriculturalist of the Canadian West” — found traction in a number of publications.
A 1976 article in the Western Producer newspaper declared, for example, that Fort Saint-Louis was the site of the “First Western Wheatfield.”
The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, on the other hand, has wheat being grown in the Carrot River Valley sometime between 1753 and 1756.
Each re-telling of the story suggested that it was true.
Bennett, though, provided not a single documentary reference.
The only original source that might have supported the idea that wheat was grown at the French post in 1754 was Anthony Henday’s journal.
But the HBC trader makes no mention of any farming activity at Fort Saint-Louis — let alone provide an account of his discussions with La Corne.
Talk of wheat and agriculture — as quoted by Bennett in his booklet — had been imagined.
The mystery is further compounded by the fact that not much is known about the French posts in the Saskatchewan River valley.
French traders in the North-West, unlike the English along Hudson and James bay, were not obsessed with record-keeping.
One scholar has characterized the French push into the western interior in the 1750s as “a fur-trade presence only.”
Fort Saint-Louis was built in 1753, only to be abandoned in 1756.
During its brief existence, it was probably an outpost of Fort Paskoya (The Pas) with a small complement of men.
These men would have been absorbed with their fur trade duties.
Indeed, the busy time of year — spring and fall — conflicted with planting and harvesting.
That’s not to suggest that agriculture was not practised at fur trade posts.
As Canadian and English traders moved inland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rich prairie soils encouraged the planting of extensive vegetable gardens at the Saskatchewan forts.
The list of cold-climate root crops was quite impressive: radishes, carrots, beets, onion, parsnip, turnips, and potatoes.
Traders and their Indigenous partners and children grew vegetables to add some variety to their otherwise steady, monotonous diet of meat and fish.
And some of the harvests could be quite bountiful, both in volume and size, especially once newcomers became familiar with the local growing conditions.
But climatic variability, such as an early frost or prolonged drought, and insect pests played havoc with crop production.
More often than not, posts had to turn to country provisions when gardens failed.
And what about the growing of wheat?
The first documented cultivation was 1815, when the Carlton House diary entry for May 3 simply noted: “This day sowed … 3 ½ pints of wheat.”
Two centuries later, Saskatchewan produces almost half the wheat grown in Canada.
Photo: A 1953 Saskatchewan licence plate bearing the WHEAT PROVINCE slogan, which ran on the province’s plates between 1951 and 1959. (GOOGLE IMAGES)
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say it Ain’t So” series.
Historian Bill Waiser is author of the forthcoming book, In Search of Almighty Voice. Questions or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.