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Alberta's Irish Legends: Exploration, Survey, and Resource Development

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Exploration, Survey, and Resource Development

Picture source: Michele Holmgren, Oil well at Heritage Park, Calgary

Alberta is a modern El Dorado, known for the gold of its wheatfields and the black gold of oil and gas. Alberta’s economic advantages are drawn from its wide territories, fertile lands, rich mineral resources, and—increasingly—renewable energy. Throughout its history, the province has attracted individuals with the education, technical expertise, and business acumen to employ these resources to their full potential. At least one major oil company has recently boasted a chair with Irish-Canadian heritage, continuing a tradition begun by earlier Irish Albertans. For example, John “Kootenai” Brown (b. 1839, Ennistymon), an early trader and environmental conservationist, discovered rich natural gas deposits (but also worked to mitigate industry’s and settlement’s impact on the environment). The technological skills of John Keane (b. Bushmills, 1820), acquired in the mills of Northern Ireland, helped develop the lumber mills that supplied mines and railways in Southwestern Alberta.

Albertans are familiar with the modern collection of technological, geological, and geographical data needed for surveys by Alberta resource industries today. However, Alberta’s economic possibilities would never have been realized without earlier scientific and geographical surveys, often conducted by Irish explorers. Some of the earliest and most important information was gathered during the British North American Exploring Expedition, known better as Palliser Expedition of 1857-60. Named for and led by the Dublin-born John Palliser (1817-1887), it included scientists and scholars who “amassed astronomical, meteorological, geological and magnetic data, and described the country, its fauna and flora, its inhabitants and its ‘capabilities’ for settlement and transportation,” according to historian Irene Spry. She asserts that this information helped pave the way for settlement and “added considerably to geographical knowledge of the region.”

Visitors enjoying a cocktail in the elegant lobby of the Palliser Hotel are a world away from the rigours endured by Palliser and his team of scientists and geographers, who literally put Alberta places on the map. Many Alberta regions and landmarks were given their names during Palliser’s expedition: Kananaskis (a name drawn from Indigenous oral culture), Kicking Horse Pass (commemorating an uncongenial encounter between an expedition member and a strategically aimed hoof) and Mount Molar (the inspiration for this name is obvious).

While early Irish-Canadian explorers submitted dry, factual reports to government officials, they often turned their experiences into bestselling narratives. The poetic depictions of the Canadian North West in the Antrim poet Moira O’Neill’s work had counterparts in popular explorer accounts created by other Irish writers. These narratives made the Canadian West appear a place of beauty, adventure, and opportunity in the eyes of many readers. These popular—often romanticized—accounts likely influenced some settlers’ choice of a future home.

One of the earliest published descriptions of Western Canada was by Ross Cox (b. 1793, Dublin), drawn to an earlier “El Dorado” promised by the fur trade. “A small and somewhat corpulent man,” he did not fit the expected image of the hardy adventurer, but he survived being lost in the wilderness for fourteen days, and made many expeditions into uncharted areas along the Columbia river and the Okanagan as part of the North West Company. His Adventures on the Columbia (1831), provided a historically significant account of his time “west of the Rocky Mountains.” It enthralled readers with vivid descriptions of western landscapes and Indigenous communities, along with an honest account of “the life of the traders, its hardships, boredom, and dangers,” according to his biographer, Eric J. Holmgren.

William Francis Butler (b. Co. Tipperary 1838) came west as a military officer during the Red River Expedition, organized in response to the first Northwest Resistance led by Louis Riel. Butler’s report, published as The Great Lone Land, created evocative portraits of the western landscape and showed deep appreciation and sympathy for the Métis and Indigenous communities he encountered. He saw similarities between Irish and Plains Indigenous spirituality, writing that the ancient Irish Bard Ossian “never spoke with the voice of the mist-shrouded mountain or the wave-beat shores of the isles more thoroughly than does this chief of the Blackfeet or the Sioux speak the voices of the things of earth and air...” As Eamonn McKee notes, Butler’s great respect for the Plains Indigenous, the Cree, and the Métis peoples was made particularly poignant by his knowing “that he was participating in work that would bring an end to an Indigenous way of life in areas whose very lack of European settlement was what he found most alluring about it.”

Reading Butler’s The Great Lone Land helped inspire John Macoun (b. 1831, Co. Down) to join later scientific and geographic expeditions. A naturalist, Macoun possessed “an insatiable curiosity” and “a great passion for the outdoors and the natural world,” along with “boundless enthusiasm,” according to his biographer W.A. Waiser. Not surprisingly, he jumped at the opportunity to take part in Sandford Fleming’s surveys to establish potential routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway and assess the economic potential of western regions. Completing five surveys in all, his reports to the Canadian government portrayed the western plains as an “agricultural Eden.” In this instance, his enthusiasm was catastrophically misguided: he visited the prairies during an anomalous rainy period, and neither he, the government, nor the hapless early settlers foresaw the dustbowls of the early 20th century. Nevertheless, his surveys and his expertise as a field naturalist laid the groundwork for the study of natural history in Canada.

Often relying on local Indigenous hospitality, knowledge, and guidance (and sometimes being rescued and cared for by Indigenous people when lost), Irish explorers contributed materially to the development of Alberta, by surveying the land, discovering resources, building infrastructure, and supplying scientific knowledge and technical expertise. Less tangible but equally significant were their careful observations and the stories they created. When Albertans learn their history through place names, appreciate and advocate for Alberta’s beautiful natural environment, and try to establish common ground between settler and Indigenous communities, their views have been shaped by an Alberta viewed through Irish eyes.

Further Reading

Butler, W.F., The Great Lone Land: A Narrative of Travel and Adventure in the North-West of America. London: Sampson and Lowe, 1872.

Holmgren, Eric J, “Cox, Ross,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 8, 2023,


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