Friday, August 22, 2014

Elbow, SK history, geography, and archaeology: a review of Joan Soggie's Looking for Aiktow

I grew up halfway between Regina and Saskatoon, near what is now the resort village of Elbow, Saskatchewan. My little village, which seemed big to me then, was named for its nearness to an elbow-like bend in the South Saskatchewan River.

The river was important to me as a child. In the summers I attended Bible camp in a beautifully treed few acres of paradise on its bank. In the spring our family joined others in watching the ice break up. Great chunks of it rode the current, grinding and crashing against the bridge that joined the two sides of the river.

The bridge of my childhood is gone. The Bible camp has moved elsewhere. The former sites of both lie under the blue waters of Lake Diefenbaker, created by dams built in the 1960s. Also drowned in the lake is nearby Aiktow Creek, which once linked the swift-flowing South Saskatchewan and the calmer Qu'Appelle River.

The lost Aiktow Creek and its valley inspired the title of local resident Joan Soggie's recent book Looking for Aiktow. In it, she chronicles the coming of the lake and the changes and challenges it brought. But most of the book is about the geography, archaeology, and history of the area, known from early times as the Elbow.

I knew little about the Elbow's role in the larger story of Canada until I read this book. Imagine, the mild-mannered landscape of my youth was once considered dangerous. Vast herds of bison, or buffalo, roamed through, which meant hunting was good. However, Aboriginal hunters hesitated to venture into the Elbow because it was situated on the boundary between Cree and Blackfoot territories. These two peoples, longtime enemies, generally fought when they encountered each other, so the area was often a war zone.

Probably the first non-Aboriginals to visit were Hudson's Bay Company trader Peter Fidler and his travelling companions. They passed through in September 1800. Fidler's report gave non-Aboriginals their first description of the locale. He mentions camping in a low valley with trees growing close to the water's edge. This may have been the Aiktow valley.

In the mid-1850s, government explorer John Palliser arrived to document the area's land, water, climate, animals, and plans. Guiding his expedition to the Elbow was Maskepetoon, a Cree leader known for his efforts to make peace between the Cree and their longtime foes, the Blackfoot.

John Palliser didn't form a good impression of the Elbow. In fact, he turned up his nose at a huge chunk of what are now southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. This region came to be called the Palliser Triangle. The unenthusiastic Palliser described it as not suitable for settlement. In his opinion it was too dry, too flat, sometimes too hot, and sometimes too cold.

When I was growing up, my parents and other immigrants occasionally scoffed at Palliser's verdict. Weren't they living proof that his Triangle including the Elbow was a good place to make a new life for those willing to work hard?

Henry Youle Hind would have agreed. This government geologist explored the region in 1857 and 1858. His reports helped draw people's attention to its possibilities for pioneering.

The first known pioneer settler at the Elbow was James Middaugh. He started ranching near the Aiktow Creek in 1898. By the early 1900s, a number of other pioneers had joined him at the Elbow. They arrived from eastern Canada, the United States, and Europe. In 1909 the railway came through, and the village of Elbow was born.

I've mentioned only a few of the events Ms Soggie documents. She describes many others, from Aboriginals praying near a gigantic bison-shaped rock…to fire falling from heaven (possibly a meteor)…to the British Earl of Southesk's hunting adventures at the Elbow.

On the other hand, her book says little about the Elbow's settlers and their descendants. It doesn't chronicle the development of farming, or of businesses, schools, churches, roads, streets, telephone service, or municipal government. That's fair enough. Much of that information is found in community-produced books such as Homestead Days, More Memories, From Mouldboard to Metric, and Our Heritage: A View from the Butte.

Soggie's book is written in a serious, scholarly tone lightened by flashes of humour, occasional dialogue, and dramatic anecdotes. Occasionally she includes too much detail for my taste. As poet Maya Angelou said, "The facts sometimes obscure the truth." However, Looking for Aiktow is still a good read, and the aptly chosen maps and photographs add to its appeal. End notes and a bibliography appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to see an index there too. Perhaps this could be included in a reprint.

Looking for Aiktow is a 123-page $20 paperback available in stores including the following:
-In Moose Jaw, Yvette Moore Gallery, Western Development Museum, and Moose Jaw Art Gallery gift shop.
-In Regina, Royal Saskatchewan Museum gift shop.
-In Saskatoon, McNally Robinson Booksellers and Saskatchewan Archaeological Society book store.
It can also be ordered directly from the author. Send a note and cheque for $25 ($20 for the book, $5 postage and handling) to J. Soggie, P.O. Box 251, Elbow, SK S0H 1J0, or email her at

No comments:

Post a Comment