Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site

Victoria Settlement: Our Story

The Victoria Settlement

Victoria Settlement brings to life three major themes in Alberta's history: missionary activity, the fur trade, and settlement. It tells the story of how the different people who made up the population were affected, and responded to the major changes that were occurring. The lives of many different people were woven together in the story of this place. Their stories of facing challenges and change were common for many across Alberta in our province's beginning. When George McDougall first came to the banks of the North Saskatchewan almost a century and a half ago, little more than temporary camps stood here. With the establishment of Victoria Mission in 1862 and the Hudson's Bay Company's post, Fort Victoria two years later, a small community was begun. Later known as Pakan, the community grew to over one hundred inhabitants by the 1900's. However, the coming of the railway to Smoky Lake, approximately 10 km north of Pakan, spelled the end of Pakan's prosperity. Today only scattered reminders of the past are left to tell the story of this settlement.

Victoria Mission

The Victoria Mission, founded by the Methodist missionary George McDougall, was the first mission in Alberta. Born in Kingston, Upper Canada in 1820, McDougall served as a missionary in various areas of Ontario before being placed in charge of the Northwestern Methodist Missions in 1860. Two years later, George McDougall headed west with his son John to observe his territory. They travelled through much of present-day Alberta, preaching to the native population. One of their stops was at the mission founded in 1860 by Thomas Woolsey at Smoky Lake. At this time the decision was made to move Woolsey's mission south to a location on the North Saskatchewan River, where more game was available, and where the native populations were known to camp.

While George McDougall returned to his mission at Norway House on Lake Winnipeg for the winter, his son John and Thomas Woolsey began to construct buildings for new mission. However, when McDougall returned with his family in July 1863, no buildings had been completed. A one room cabin was hastily constructed to house McDougall, his wife Elizabeth and the 5 of their seven children who had accompanied them. A garden was planted and a major buffalo hunt mounted to supply provisions for the winter.

In the summer of 1863, George McDougall set out to preach to native groups in south-central Alberta. With him travelled Peter Erasmus, a mixed blood guide and interpreter, and Rev. Henry Bird Steinhauer, an Ojibway pastor originally from northern Ontario. Steinhauer had been one of the first Methodist missionaries in Alberta, setting up a mission at Whitefish Lake in 1852.

While they were gone, a permanent residence was constructed at the mission. It was a sizeable log building, with a kitchen, living room, dining room and one bedroom downstairs. Upstairs were four bedrooms. The log cabin which had served as the first house at the Victoria Mission was converted into a school.

John McDougall, who had made the 4 1/2 month round trip to Fort Garry to obtain supplies for the mission, returned with a school teacher, Mr. Connor. During the next few years, life at the mission was divided between missionary work among the natives, gardening, and an annual fall bison hunt. George McDougall made repeated journeys through much of Alberta to preach to the natives. A second mission was established by the McDougalls in 1865 at Pigeon Lake, south west of Edmonton. John McDougall took charge of it shortly after his marriage to Abigail, the daughter of Reverend Steinhauer.

Life at the mission was often hard. During the winter of 1868-69, the lack of snow make game difficult to track forcing the family to briefly abandon the mission and hunt on the plains.

The following year, a devastating smallpox epidemic swept across the West. Acting on his father's instructions, John McDougall closed the mission at Victoria and advised the natives and settlers to scatter. Area people suffered horribly with smallpox and many of them died. The death rate at Victoria appeared to be lower than in other areas.

The McDougall family faced death as well. On October 18, 1870, their youngest daughter, Flora, died, and within two and a half weeks, Georgiana, their eldest daughter, and Anna, an adopted Indian daughter, passed away as well. Six months later, Abigail, John McDougall's young wife died suddenly, leaving behind two small children.

In March 1871, the decision was made that George McDougall would be transferred to Fort Edmonton. After serving there for two years, McDougall moved to Morley, 40 km west of Calgary, to establish another mission.

Victoria mission work was taken over in 1871 by Reverend Peter Campbell. During the 1870s, after Rupert's land had been transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada, major changes occurred in the west which dramatically altered the lifestyle of the native population. This in turn, changed the orientation of the Victoria Mission. The bison populations, which many of the natives depended on for food, were quickly shrinking. As the herds receded to the south, many natives left the area to follow them, or they moved to the reserves created with the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. Simultaneously more settlers began to arrive. The emphasis of the mission began to shift, from missionary work with the native population, to serving the white, Métis and mixed-blood settlers.

The decision was made in 1897 to change Victoria from an Indian Mission to a home mission, which was oriented to the settlers. Subsequently in 1906, a new frame church, the third on the site, was built to serve the Anglo-Saxon and mixed-blood population. Over the next fifteen years, a number of different ministers served the population.

Fort Victoria

The exact reasons for establishing the Hudson's Bay Company post near Victoria Mission in 1864 were never recorded. The location was advantageous because it was between two major transportation routes, the river and the overland trail, and was adjacent to a major mission where several hundred Cree regularly camped.

The site was selected by William Christie, Chief Factor at Fort Edmonton. Charge of the post was offered to John McDougall who declined it on the insistence of his father, who felt that employment by the Hudson's Bay Company would conflict with his religious duties. George Flett was then selected as Clerk in charge of the new post.

When George Flett opened the post in 1864 the buildings on site were not yet completed. It wasn't until October 1865 that the Clerk's quarters were ready. The structure was built in the traditional HBC style of post-on-sill, with vertical posts mortised into a bottom sill, and the ends of horizontal posts slid into place between the grooved uprights. A warehouse, designed to store both trade goods and furs, was constructed by late 1866. Ten years after the fort was established it included a blacksmith shop, a dairy, a stable, general and provision store, a men's house for the employees, and a trading shop/press room where goods were traded and furs pressed into bales for shipment. A palisade surrounded the fort.

At first the post was reasonably successful. The main items traded by the natives were buffalo robes, buffalo tongues, and dried meat, which were all shipped to Fort Edmonton. Some muskrat, fox, bear, and beaver pelts were also obtained. The fort stocked a limited range of trade goods, mainly axes, traps, blankets, fabric, guns and ammunition, kettles, and various types of small tools.

With the disappearance of the bison during the 1870s came the decline of the fur trade at Fort Victoria. In 1883 the fort was closed. A small amount of trade continued at the fort, with brigades coming out occasionally from Fort Edmonton for two to three days to trade. Free traders began to work in the area dealing with the natives who had formerly gone to the post.

In 1887 the post was reopened, primarily because of the free traders' activities in the area. The fort buildings were in poor condition, requiring extensive repair. Fur returns were considerably lower than before the fort's closure in 1883, and the post began to experience losses each year.

The last clerk at Fort Victoria was George Kennedy, who was 43 years old when he came to the post in 1893. However, despite his efforts at Victoria, the fur returns continued to decline, and the post was permanently closed in 1897-8.

Victoria Settlement

Attracted by the mission and a new trading post, settlers began arriving at Victoria during the mid 1860s. In 1865 one hundred and thirty Scottish and English mixed-blood people from Red River settled in the area east of the mission. They divided the land into river lots--long, narrow strips of land bordering on the river. This system, used in Quebec for centuries, had also been adopted in the Red River area by white and Métis settlers alike. Elsewhere, land was divided into regular square townships, then into sections, ignoring the existence of physical features such as rivers, lakes etc. The federal government opposed the river lot system because it was much more expensive and difficult to survey.

In 1887 the small community began being served by a post office. The post office was named "Pakan", after a Cree Chief James Pakannuk, who remained loyal to the Crown during the Rebellion of 1885. The name was changed to prevent confusion with Victoria, British Columbia.

The post office remained open until 1960, long after the decline of the community.

At the turn of the century, a new group of immigrants, the Ukrainians, began to arrive at Pakan. Unable to own land in Ukraine, and burdened by high taxes, Ukrainians were eager to take up free land in Canada. They soon formed the bulk of the population in the Victoria area.

A number of businesses were established in Pakan to meet the needs of these settlers, including a sawmill and general store. The community soon boasted three farm machinery shops, two stores, two blacksmith shops, a telephone office, hotel, and harness shop. Ambitious plans for the community were drawn up, with named streets and a substantial residential area. However, these plans never materialized, because the economic base of the community was lost once the railway reached Smoky Lake in 1918.

Later Missionary work at Victoria/Pakan

While the original mission continued to serve the mixed-blood and Anglo Saxon settlers, a separate mission was established in 1901 for the purpose of converting the Ukrainian immigrants to Methodism. By the early 1900s, the Ukrainian community numbered some 250 families, followers primarily of the Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic faiths. Reverend Dr. Charles H. Lawford was appointed Missionary to the Ukrainians when the new mission was established.

For approximately 20 years two Methodist missions operated side by side at Victoria/Pakan.
Reverend Lawford believed that it was his duty to show the recent immigrants the true religion. His services were well attended, but the loyalty of the Ukrainian settlers lay with their traditional churches.

Reverend Lawford was a doctor, and he set up a hospital in the old McDougall residence, where he supplemented the medical care with religious teaching. In 1907, under his direction, a new hospital was built. Lawford also gave advice to the settlers on everything from how to form a school district, to writing for grants, to founding a "Greek Church".

Decline

The community of Pakan continued to prosper during the 1910s. A new school was constructed in 1918 and a teacherage a few years later. Businesses prospered, and the hamlet continued to serve as a communications link with the telegraph office and the ferry service across the North Saskatchewan.

It was the coming of the railway that sealed the fate of Pakan. When the Canadian Northern Railway was completed to Smoky Lake, 15 kilometres to the north in 1918, the settlement found itself isolated from the mainstream of activity. The population began to decline and the mission closed in 1921. In 1922 the hospital was moved to Smoky Lake. The school was shut down in the late 1940s. The area's last major function ended when the ferry was replaced with a bridge in 1972.

Victoria Settlement today

Today little remains of the active community that flourished at the turn of the 20th century. The areas where the mission and fort were located have largely reverted to bush or farmland. All that remains of the early missionary activity of the site are the graves of George McDougall's daughters, victims of the smallpox epidemic in 1870. The third church, constructed in 1906, serves as an interpretive centre. Of Fort Victoria, only the Clerk's Quarters still exists, the oldest building on its original location in Alberta. Restored and furnished to the 1890's period, it stands as a reminder of the people and events that have made this site significant to the history of Alberta.

Last reviewed/revised: March 18, 2016