From Belize to Bezanson: Synergistic research in northwestern Alberta

Editor’s note: All images below courtesy of the authors.

Written by: Shawn Morton, Northwestern Polytechnic and Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, Athabasca University

Our careers as archaeologists have been dominated by research on ancient Maya peoples and places, particularly of the Classic Period (ca. 250-900 CE). Since beginning the community-engaged Stann Creek Regional Archaeology Project in 2014, our activities have focused on characterizing and explaining the settling and eventual abandonment of a relatively short-lived ancient townsite in Belize.

When urban centres expand rapidly in response to resource development, “instant cities” arise. These remarkable settlements are also called “boomtowns” or “rapid-growth communities”. They typically emerge in what are perceived as severely disadvantaged or isolated frontier zones. They might boom then bust over a short period, boom indefinitely or in cycles, or experience an incomplete boom. Their success is often dependent on their location relative to resource extraction and distribution activities, though not exclusively.

With its location along well-documented inland and coastal trade routes, and with access to an abundance of natural resources on the margins of the ever-expanding heartland of the southern Maya lowlands, the ancient Maya townsite currently known as “Alabama” (ancient name unknown) would seem to fit the “boomtown” bill. We have consistently invoked the concept as a heuristic tool in explaining its development.

Drone shot of Old Bezanson Townsite along the banks of the Smoky River.

When we moved to Grande Prairie in August 2019, we began to kick around the idea of starting up a community-based archaeological research project in northwestern Alberta that would complement our research in Belize. We quickly focused on a relatively recent settler-historical site known as the Old Bezanson Townsite or OBT (GgQn-2) in the southern reaches of the Peace Country—just a short drive from our home and located within a municipal park. In the early 1900s, the OBT was on its way to becoming the quintessential example of a late-period Alberta frontier boomtown and therefore brought our research interests satisfactorily full circle.

The reaction we most frequently receive from members of the public when discussing our OBT plans is something akin to “Cool! Wait… Why?” Archaeologists, after all, have long cultivated the idea that they are the writers of an unwritten past. For a public fed on a steady diet of “the oldest” and “the biggest,” on faraway places and pasts—an image that our Belize project satisfies to some degree—the reaction makes logical sense. The OBT, established on the banks of the Smoky River in the early decades of the 20th century, hardly fits this expectation. The OBT is known.

The Town

British-Canadian Ancel Maynard Bezanson (1878-1958) of Halifax, NS, was by all accounts an optimistic, energetic and charismatic individual. These traits served him well in his efforts to establish and promote his eponymous townsite, beginning in 1911. A promotional pamphlet (Bezanson 1914) touted the agricultural potential of the region and townsite and noted easy access to timber and other forest products, as well as sport.

The first subdivision map included in his pamphlet visualizes Bezanson’s grand design and unshakable faith in the town’s potential. It even included wide streets suitable for future streetcars and a substantial business district. News articles in the Grande Prairie Herald from 1914-1916 describe the town as having one and two-storey residences, a flour mill, a restaurant and bakery, livery and stable, various shops, a blacksmith, multiple general and provision stores, a jewelry store, bunkhouse, Presbyterian church, post office and more. The settlement was also encouraged by establishing a ferry in 1915 directly below the townsite, situated along well-established Indigenous and, later, settler trail systems.

Cellar depression of a general store, with placard relating documentary and oral histories.

Unfortunately, the original Bezanson boom was short-lived. In 1916, a fire destroyed the McLeod Block. Worse, the much-hoped-for railway bypassed the community. For a time, the OBT continued to grow, and residents even built a new school in 1919. Eventually, the lack of a railway and economic and demographic pressures imposed by the Great War effectively quelled interest in the town. The final blow came in 1921 when the ferry washed downriver and was not re-established at the townsite. The OBT was abandoned by 1926, and buildings were subsequently removed or collapsed. A new hamlet of the same name was established closer to the present-day highway.

The Archaeology

At the OBT, we approach boomtown processes in relation to deep-established Indigenous histories, newcomer land speculation, railway prospection and anticipated economic development in agriculture and forestry. For our purposes, in addition to serving as a compelling focus of research in its own right, the OBT also provides an interesting complementary dataset for our Belize project.

The ultimate field vehicle: a little orange Fiat.

We are just getting started. Beginning in July 2021, we packed up our field vehicle—a little orange Fiat—and set out over 11 days to conduct a preliminary archaeological assessment of the townsite, which marked the beginning of the Old Bezanson Archaeology Project (Morton and Peuramaki-Brown 2022). As is often the case when beginning a project, the program was limited in scope, designed to identify areas of interest for an expanded future research program. With the help of local experts and a host of exceptional volunteers, we took our first steps toward this goal, documenting and evaluating the site’s archaeological potential through GPS survey, tape-and-compass mapping and small exploratory shovel test pits. We documented multiple, standard archaeological features for this period (e.g., foundation berms, cellars, middens), with the help of documentary and oral histories as well as aerial imagery.

Recognizing that we are new members of the greater Bezanson/Grande Prairie community and entering a research area that goes beyond our current expertise, our program is explicitly community-based and includes local collaborators that help to identify research areas, fill the gaps in our experience and knowledge and help plan for research funding and outreach. Recruiting other experts, volunteers and collaborators through community outreach has been a priority over the past year. Such outreach activities will remain an essential element of all project communication.

We plan to return to the OBT. When we do, it is with much broader goals, defined dimensions of study and some specific research questions in mind that consider pace and scale of development, unique and shifting social fabrics, the appearance of hallmark urban features and other place-making needs and broader issues of political, social and economic organization.

We ask the following questions:

  1. Where, when and why did settlers choose to settle specific localities at the OBT?
  2. How did they survive, and which cultural and economic resources did they prioritize?
  3. Who was present at the OBT, and how did they interact with existing peoples, other-than-human beings, spaces, and things both near and far, and from the deep past onwards?
  4. How do archaeological, documentary and oral histories intersect or diverge in our understanding of Peace Country boomtowns?

More colloquially, we are interested in the flavour of urban development at the OBT. What was life like for those at the townsite? What hopes did they have for the future and what choices did they make as it became clear those hopes would go unrealized? What parts of their lives did they bring to the OBT when they came? What did they leave behind when they moved on?

Just because the Old Bezanson Townsite is known, doesn’t mean that it is known. As archaeologists and regular readers of RETROactive are aware, archaeologies of the contemporary and recent pasts are fertile grounds for study. Archaeology—as not only a check on historical records, but as a source for novel and multi-vocal narratives—can add nuance and depth to even the best-known periods, peoples, places and events. The comparative richness of these archaeological datasets, not to mention their material familiarity and the wealth of supplementary datasets available, set archaeologies of the known apart from those of other regions and periods. We are grateful to the Archaeological Survey for supporting and encouraging this research and for promoting it herein.

Sources:

Bezanson, A. M. (1914). Looking Ahead in the Peace River Country to the Building of a City. Bezanson Townsites, Limited. Edmonton, Alberta. Available online: https://albertaonrecord.ca/looking-ahead-in-peace-country-to-building-of-city

Morton, S. G., and M. M. Peuramaki-Brown (2022). Old Bezanson Archaeology Project 2021 Field Season: Final Report (ASA Permit 21-110). Unpublished technical report submitted to and on-file with the Historical Resources Management Branch of Alberta Culture and Status of Women.

Peuramaki-Brown, M. M., and S. G. Morton (2019). Maya Monumental ‘Boom’: Rapid Development, Hybrid Architecture, and ‘Pretentiousness’ in the Fabrication of Place at Alabama, East-Central Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology 44(4):250-266.

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