Power and Powder: Early Guns in Alberta

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.

First Guns

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.

An 1805 Barnett flintlock trade musket that came to be one the most popular Northwest Trade guns. Over 20 000 guns were sold out of Canada’s major fur trade depot at York Factory from 1600 to the late 1700s. Figure by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

An 1805 Barnett flintlock trade musket that came to be one the most popular Northwest Trade guns. Over 20 000 guns were sold out of Canada’s major fur trade depot at York Factory from 1600 to the late 1700s. Figure by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

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.

The mechanics of gunflint operation in a flintlock musket. Figure by Todd Kristensen.

The mechanics of gunflint operation in a flintlock musket. Figure by Todd Kristensen.

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.

Gunflints are found across Alberta at fur trade sites. This collection is from Fort Dunvegan in northwest Alberta. Figure and photographs by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

Gunflints are found across Alberta at fur trade sites. This collection is from Fort Dunvegan in northwest Alberta. Figure and photographs by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

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.

Figure 4.

The face of Keyaki-kakapew was disfigured by a musket ball wound during a battle between Cree and Blackfoot people in Southern Alberta in 1870. Glenbow Archives NA-1361-1.

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.

A collection of musket balls found in 1921 (like the one featured in the inset) have been traced back to David Thompson who is featured here crossing Athabasca Pass in the Rocky Mountains by snowshoe in 1810-11. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-9.

A collection of musket balls found in 1921 (like the one featured in the inset) have been traced back to David Thompson who is featured here crossing Athabasca Pass in the Rocky Mountains by snowshoe in 1810-11. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-9.

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 symbolic portrayal of colliding technologies that influenced early life in Alberta (courtesy of Andy Van Dinh).

A symbolic portrayal of colliding technologies that influenced early life in Alberta (courtesy of Andy Van Dinh).

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)

5 comments

  1. Bravo! Great start Todd and Julie!

    There is so much to consider here within a time span from at least the mid-1700s to the turn of the 20th century. I would love this discussion to continue and encourage wide participation with presentation and interpretation of historical and archaeological data .

  2. Thank you for all the work you do to enlighten us about firearms and Alberta history! Also thanks for the resource list. I am hooked on your work.

  3. A very fabulous article I was wondering as firearms technology became more sophisticated especially with the ever famous Winchester lever action weapons did any of these dynamics change?

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