The starvation winter of 1884-1885

Central Alberta has been experiencing one of the most challenging winters in a great many years. The main difficulty has been the record snowfalls.

There has also been some spells of very cold weather. Fortunately, there have been some very welcome warm chinooks as well.

The problems of this winter have not been limited to bad roads and endless shoveling of snow. Some buildings have collapsed due to a heavy weight of snow on the roofs. There have also been some tragic traffic accidents.

Nevertheless, despite the many hardships and aggravations that this winter has caused, they pale in comparison to the brutal starvation winter of 1884-1885.

The weather was poor throughout much of the fall of 1884.

Hence the crops were very late in ripening. Frost damage was a major problem for farmers and gardeners. Moreover, heavy snows set in during November that made the completion of the harvest impossible.

The Red Deer correspondent to the newspapers in Calgary and Regina was Robert McClellan. He owned a stopping house, or rudimentary hotel, at the original Red Deer Crossing settlement. He was a highly educated man, but also possessed a wry sense of humour.

In November he wrote “The present winter has been an exceptional one here, as has been the case with every winter since the country was settled.”

He noted the heavy snowfalls and wrote “The beautiful is, between here and Calgary, in unlimited quantities and of a quality that defies the efforts of the hardy cayuse to paw his living”. He added “The only suitable place to winter cattle here is in the immediate vicinity of a haystack.”

Most of the settlers in the district were newcomers and unprepared for the hard winter.

Not enough hay had been cut for the winter. Some ranchers thought that the grassy rangelands would remain relatively free of snow as was usually the case in Southwestern Alberta.

Hence, there was not enough food for their animals. The consequent losses of livestock were very high.

While the settlers suffered from the snow and cold, their conditions were nowhere near as extreme as those suffered by the First Nations and Metis.

Great herds of bison, or buffalo, had, until recently, provided a bountiful supply of food, shelter and clothing. Now, those seemingly endless herds had vanished. The last sighting of wild bison at Red Deer took place in the summer of 1884. There were a mere six animals in the herd.

The result was widespread destitution, and, at times, outright starvation.

This was particularly true amongst the First Nations, even though some government food relief was offered at the new reserves that had been created north in the Battle River region and to the south of Calgary.

To put things in context, Father Constantine Scollen noted that it took 1,000 muskrats to provide as much meat as one buffalo.

Hence, much of the local wild game was hunted out as the First Nations and Metis desperately sought replacement food sources. The lack of bison and other game also meant a shortage of materials to make things such as snowshoes, essential for hunting and travel when faced with deep snow.

In late March 1885, Father Scollen wrote a very moving article in the Edmonton Bulletin about the terrible conditions he found at Buffalo Lake, once a prosperous hub of the bison hunting trade.

He warned what the consequences of such hardships and starvation might mean.

He was quickly proven right. Within a few days, the Metis, and some First Nations, rose in armed revolt against the government because of the horrible conditions that they faced.

Those who had spent their entire lives on the western Canadian prairies quite rightly could not understand how a land of plenty had suddenly become a place of hardship and starvation, and why the government did so little to deal with the crisis.

Just Posted

Red Deer’s newest outdoor ice facility opens to the public this week

The speed skating oval at Setters Place at Great Chief Park will be open Dec. 17th

Yellow Vests protestors take to Red Deer streets

Trudeau government’s immigration and oil industry policies denounced at rally

Rebels lose to Medicine Hat Tigers, 4-1

Tigers break Rebels’ three-game winning streak

Exhibition explores the rich history and culture of Métis people

The exhibition is on display from Dec. 15th to March 10th at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery

2019 Hockey Alberta Provincial Championship host sites announced

A total of 39 Provincial Championships will be hosted across the province

Trudeau to make it harder for future PM to reverse Senate reforms

Of the 105 current senators, 54 are now independents who have banded together in Independent Senators’ Group

Trudeau lashes out at Conservatives over migration “misinformation”

Warning against the “dangers of populism,” Trudeau says using immigration as a wedge political issue puts Canada’s future at risk.

B.C. hockey coach creates ‘gear library’ to remove cost barrier of sport

Todd Hickling gathered donations and used gear to remove the cost barrier for kids to play hockey.

Canada’s ambassador meets with second detainee in China

Global Affairs says John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, met with Spavor Sunday

‘They’re coming:’ Flying cars may appear in urban skies by 2023

Air taxis will number 15,000 and become a global market worth $32 billion by 2035

World Sikh Organization demands Canada prove Sikh extremism is a threat

Sikh community says this is first time such extremism has been mentioned in federal terror-threat assessment

Light at the end of the tunnel for UN climate talks

Meeting in Katowice was meant to finalize how countries report their emissions of greenhouses gases

Supreme Court affirms privacy rights for Canadians who share a computer

Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Canadians against unreasonable search and seizure

Janet Jackson, Def Leppard, Nicks join Rock Hall of Fame

Radiohead, the Cure, Roxy Music and the Zombies will also be ushered in at the 34th induction ceremony

Most Read