Early Cabins in the West

Cabins performed a variety of functions in Alberta’s past from homesteading to hunting and post offices to ranger cabins. Many events and daily challenges that defined our province unfolded on the wooden floors of early cabins. Just like the characters they housed, each cabin’s architecture and associated artifacts are unique.

Cabin and tobacco tin

To encourage an appreciation of cabins and the surviving record of them, as well as other historic resources in the province, a collaborative team from the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum initiated the Heritage Art Series. The goal is to create artworks that depict scenes from Alberta’s past that captivate public audiences. We hope that these artworks, like the cabin painting above, stimulate an interest in learning about our province’s heritage, which will in turn instill a greater respect for the past.

Cabins were typically made of raw timbers with a variety of corner joints, roofs, sawn floorboards, and chimneys. Associated features include outhouses, garbage pits, ice houses (for storing food), cellars, and drying racks. What can the archaeological record tell us about cabins and their occupants? Maps of cabins and associated structures reveal how people utilized landscapes and interacted with each other within cabins. Our modern homes are often relatively large with multiple rooms and levels, which is drastically different from the single-room cabins that many Albertans spent their lives in. An historical perspective informs us that changes in domestic architecture have had a real impact on the way Alberta’s families interact with each other and with their neighbours.

Cabin map

Cabins are often associated with historic trails that influenced how regions were settled and how goods were transported across the country. Cabin modifications over time tell stories of trial-and-error adaptations to new landscapes while artifacts can indicate the types of activities conducted around cabins, cultural affinities, number of occupants, and the season of occupation. Outhouses and garbage pits can reveal past diets, wealth, access to luxury goods, hygiene, medical conditions, and entertainment.

Cabin and bottle

Aside from cabins’ phsycial make-up and artifact assemblages, they are significant heritage resources because they were often the first permanent structures to appear on many of Alberta’s landscapes. They represent a new adaptation and a new way of life for the people who first built them. There are over 550 recorded archaeological sites in Alberta with cabin components. Over 115 of these sites also have a pre-contact First Nations component, which suggests that many of the good spots for cabins have always been good places to make a living on the land.

Homestead photograph

The painting at the top of this article by Gregg Johnson is of a trapper’s cabin in the autumn foothills. It captures the solitude of the trapper’s life. Autumn was a busy time as trapper’s geared up for winter. Supplies were brought in, trap lines were re-established, and wood was cut for the long winter ahead. Like many of Alberta’s industries, modern trapping has an interesting past and an informative historic record. Archaeology offers a unique opportunity to learn about the past lives of people who may not be represented in historical accounts. In this sense, the study of historic resources gives a voice to people who have not been given the chance to speak for hundreds of years.

Miners cabin

An example of a current research project about cabins that will illuminate the past record of a poorly understood group of people is that by Dr. Kisha Supernant at Buffalo Lake. Dr. Supernant and her research team from the University of Alberta are studying the adaptations of Metis and First Nations people who occupied Buffalo Lake in the 1800s in order to acquire meat that supplied neighbouring trade posts like Fort Edmonton. Her excavations and mapping program will uncover an important way of life that helped shape our province.

Mapping crew
Dr. Supernant and a graduate student use GPS equipment to map archaeological features.

The next blog of the Heritage Art Series will be about the changing landscape and rock art of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Kisha Supernant, University of Alberta

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