The Last Great West: The Agricultural Settlement of the Peace River Country to 1914
November 4, 2013
Review By Jon Swainger
David Leonard’s latest work on the Peace River country of northern British Columbia and Alberta is distinguished from its predecessors by an emphasis on the region’s agricultural history. Drawn in part from documents profiling who homesteaded, their origins, and their achievements or failures, The Last Great West contrasts developers’, promoters’, and settlers’ idealism with the record of what occurred in the struggle to transform dreams into working farms and communities. Centred on the era before rail connections were forged between the Peace and the great interior plain, Leonard argues that, on balance, the Peace homesteads had a statistically greater chance of success than did homesteads elsewhere on the Prairies.
Divided into sixteen chapters centred on chronologic and geographic themes, The Last Great West is an encyclopaedic narrative of the Peace River Country prior to 1914. While the first half of the book concentrates on the region’s development in relation to surveys, railways, boosters, and settlement schemes, the book’s second half details the profile of development in specific areas within the Peace from 1910 to 1914. One drawback of Leonard’s approach is that readers are reintroduced to the same developments within a given chronological period with each new theme or region and, thus, may feel that they are continually retracing steps already taken.
Still, Leonard’s emphasis on the play of national railroad and settlement policies in the opening of the Peace reveals that rising expectations almost invariably outstripped results. Indeed, it is all but certain that, while the development of the Peace was a perennial subtheme in Canadian domestic politics for much of the two decades before the First World War, the region never truly occupied centre stage. Further, while the federal government and promoters were often enthusiastic, the heavy lifting of developing the region was shouldered by those who homesteaded and started communities in the absence of consistent governmental expectations or policies.
From a BC perspective, Leonard’s work offers a number of intriguing points. Not least, The Last Great West is a reminder of British Columbia’s geographic and demographic connection to the Canadian Prairies. Further, with the exception of homesteading records housed in the provincial archives in Victoria, almost all of Leonard’s work is based on Albertan sources and perspectives. And, while Leonard has overlooked BC sources on the Peace, it is rather striking that the region can be understood, in a compelling way, entirely from Albertan documents. Indeed, Edmonton newspapers and those in the Alberta Peace offered a constant stream of reporting and commentary on the BC Peace for almost two decades before a newspaper appeared in northeastern British Columbia. Although the case is apt to be overstated, Leonard’s work supports the notion that the Prairies were more interested in the BC Peace than was British Columbia.
At its best, Leonard’s book is an extraordinary documentation of the primary sources existing on Peace River Country history. Indeed, it can be argued that Leonard probably knows more about the primary records of the Peace than does any other living scholar. Yet it is this obvious depth of knowledge that raises one of the most frustrating aspects of The Last Great West. In describing the history of agricultural settlement in the Peace, Leonard has not offered readers a broadly conceived argument about what all of this means. For if it is true that Peace Country homesteaders had a greater chance of success than those who took up the challenge elsewhere on the Prairies, what might this suggest about the region’s subsequent history and development? And, for BC historians, that the Fort St. John region saw the greatest number of abandoned homesteads in the entire Peace River Country certainly raises questions about how such a “fact” could have informed that region’s sense of itself. Essentially, Leonard too often relies on the expectation that this impressive cross-section of evidence speaks for itself. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.
Accessibly written and well stocked with photographs, maps, and settlement-era images, The Last Great West is a treasure trove for those drawn to Peace River Country history and the region’s place in the settlement history of the Canadian Prairies. The table has been set for future scholars who are willing to explore these riches in pursuit of a broader understanding of what the particulars of this region’s history says about the opening of western Canada prior to the First World War.