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Manitoba History: Review: David H. Breen, The Canadian Prairie West and the Ranching Frontier 1874-1924

by A. G. Levine

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

The Canadian Prairie West and the Ranching Frontier 1874-1924. David H. Breen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983. viii, 302 pp. ill., maps, ISBN 0-8020-5548-6.

Ask Canadian school-age youngsters about Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, “Buffalo Bill” Cody or General George Custer, and most will be able to tell you the tales of the American wild-west: the shootouts, the train robberies, and the cattle rustling. But ask about Matthew Cochrane, Joseph McFarland, John Craig or Frederick Stimson and you will surely draw a blank.

This latter group represent but a few of the men who laid the foundations of the Canadian cattle industry and who are featured in David Breen’s recent study. For too long scholars have either neglected this aspect of Western Canadian history—satisfied to treat the region as the haven of the monolithic wheat economy—or have simply seen it as an extension of the American frontier. In either case, the message is clear: “the ranching period is of limited and short-lived consequence in Western history, and if we are to understand Western development or discover Western ethos, we must quickly turn to the prairie homesteader.” Nevertheless, in Breen’s view the Alberta cattle trade has its own place in Canadian history, distinct in the history of prairie agriculture and quite different from the wild-west legacy south of the border.

A unique aspect of the Canadian ranching frontier was the cattlemen themselves. Many were former officers of the North West Mounted Police—English Canadians from the East who decided to remain in the West. Their presence on the range was particularly useful in protecting the ranchers from rustlers; it also explains the absence of the “six-shooter” and gunfights in Alberta towns. By the early 1880s, the most distinct group of cattlemen were British. Well-educated and wealthy, these men were the region’s own English aristocracy. As the Calgary Herald observed in 1884, “the genuine Alberta cowboy is a gentleman.” Notably, these “gentlemen” were not only instrumental in making ranching a profitable venture, but were also the industry’s first leaders. The original Canadian cattlemen were not transplanted Americans. They were the “representatives of the metropolitan culture of the east and of the stratified society of rural Britain.”

One of Breen’s more interesting discoveries is that next to the CPR, cattlemen were probably the most influential pressure group in Western Canada before the turn of the century. They sought and secured favourable land legislation and had the full support of the Macdonald government in creating a viable cattle export market. Indeed, throughout the 1880s the federal government showed a keen interest in the cattle trade and played a major role in promoting and directing it. Breen argues that this “was foreign to the American experience and helped define the distinctive character of the ranching frontier in Canada.”

The situation dramatically changed after 1900. The growth of the agrarian community and the election of a Liberal government in 1896 had far-reaching consequences for the Western rancher. As the cattlemen became a minority in the region they found that officials in Ottawa were less receptive to their demands. This was most evident in the decline of the ranchers’ chief organization, the Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA). For nearly a decade the WSGA effectively lobbied for legislation intended to improve the business of its members, but by 1905 the association had ceased to be a powerful political force.

The cattle industry underwent further changes by the time of the First World War. The success of farming and the attendant increase in the value of Western land, coupled with the government’s belief that grain growing was synonymous with the country’s prosperity, worked against the expansion of ranching in Alberta. Consequently the Montreal financial base, which had been a significant source of capital for the cattle trade from its earliest days, was gradually replaced by the smaller and local establishment centred in Calgary. As well, the substantial increase in Alberta’s American-born population significantly threatened the “British” values which the province’s cattlemen held so dear. Indeed, they were so distressed about the future implications of this change in the social structure that they set up the Bradfield College Ranche to train young men to carry on the British tradition. This project, however, had limited success. With the call to arms in 1914, many British cattlemen and their sons returned to the old country. While this certainly altered the character of ranching in Alberta, cattlemen remained a viable force in the province—a fact which was reinforced by their interest in the budding oil industry during the 1920s.

This is a good book. It is well researched and readable. But perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates further that Western Canadian history does not solely belong to the grain farmer.

Riders on W. W. Stuart ranch, Jumping Pound, Alberta, late 1880s.
Source: Glenbow Archives, Calgary

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