It’s hard to overstate the profound impact of firearms in Alberta’s history. The earliest guns delivered food, protection, and intimidation. Technological improvements from European contact to the 1900s led to significant changes in the ways that guns were used across the province. This blog briefly explores the evolution of firearms in Alberta and the archaeological record of it.
Firearms were introduced to Canada in the 1500s but didn’t spread to Alberta until much later. Their first appearance in the province was likely through raiding or trading in the southern U.S. by Plains First Nations. Early gun models, like flared-mouth blunderbusses, were designed for close encounters on battle fields but proved ineffective on the prairies. It wasn’t until the advent of portable flintlock muskets that guns spread like wildfire across the West.
Flintlock muskets rely on stone ‘gunflints’ to create a spark that then ignites priming powder on a small pan. This ‘flash in the pan’ explosion is relayed through a hole to the muzzle where a larger charge of powder sits behind a musket ball.
Gunflints had to be replaced after about 30 shots and, as a result, they are often the most common gun-related artifact found at Alberta’s historic sites. Forts required large numbers of gunflints: some were for purchase and others served as gifts to entice traders. For example, in 1803, Nottingham House on Lake Athabasca in northwest Alberta had 1000 flints on stock.
Guns vs. Bows and Arrows
Many First Nations preferred bows and arrows over early flintlocks for several reasons. A stationary soldier could fire three to four musket balls in a minute while a seasoned archer could launch three to four arrows in a row before the first one hit the ground. Muskets could kill game up to 60 m away but it wasn’t a huge advance over the 30-40 m range of traditional bows and arrows. Lastly, for people on the move, it was an endless battle to keep powder dry enough to ignite. Wet powder corroded barrels and led to muzzle explosions. In fact, wet powder nearly changed the history of North America in 1793 when Alexander Mackenzie (the first European to cross the continent) almost ended his trip short with a bang when a crew member with a lit pipe walked across 80 lbs. of black powder that had been laid out to dry after a canoe accident.
Given the challenges of muskets, why were firearms still the number one trade item? Maurice Doll, an archaeologist who has studied guns throughout his career, thinks that firearms were attractive not because of technological superiority but rather prestige and intimidation in warfare. Death by arrow was slow and silent compared to the truly petrifying sound and sight of a musket shot. In some regions of Alberta, muskets created military imbalances that saw select groups expand while gunless enemies were pushed to the margins of former territory.
Rock Walls and Musket Balls
Writing-on-Stone National Historic Site is a unique archive of some of the first accounts of gun-based warfare. Entire battle scenes are clustered across rock panels with guns representing both the type of weapon used and the number of gun-toting warriors. Rock art confirms historical accounts of the prestige and honour that many people attained through these battles.
One of the most significant gun-related artifacts was left by Alberta’s most famous geographer, David Thompson. In 1810-11, Thompson and his crew trekked across Athabasca Pass in Alberta’s Rockies while searching for an easier passage to the West Coast. En route, Thompson lost a leather bag of musket balls that he guessed had been taken by wolverines. Remarkably, a party surveying the interprovincial boundary in 1921 found pieces of leather that had been preserved in the ice on Athabasca Pass as well as 114 of Thompson’s musket balls, some of which can still be viewed at the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives.
Heritage Art Series
The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The drawing below is by Medicine Hat/Calgary artist Andy Van Dinh. The image symbolizes an early time when bows and arrows were being used alongside muskets. Guns left their mark on our history and our bones; the barrel extends off page because the story of the influence of guns in our province is still being written.
A related article appeared in the November/December issue of Canadian Firearms Journal and an article about the archaeological record of guns will appear in the next issue of the Alberta Archaeological Review.
The roster of this year’s Heritage Art Series pieces will be showcased along with their interpretive stories at the Archaeological Society of Alberta conference from April 29th to May 1st in High River.
Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey) and Julie Martindale (Circle CRM Group)