Elk Island National Park: What’s in a Name?

Beautiful Elk Island National Park! But where did its name come from? Is there an Elk Island on the lake? Or is it all a beautiful metaphor?

sunset-over-astotin-lake-4-september-2016
Is THIS Elk Island? (Photo by the author of Astotin Lake at Elk Island National Park, 4 September 2016.)

When I first arrived at Elk Island in 2014, I went searching for the origins of the park’s name. The “elk” part of the park’s name made intuitive sense, as it is pretty well-established that Elk Island had been founded as a federally controlled elk preserve in 1906.

But where did the “Island” in its name come from?

Islands of Astotin Lake
Yes, there was an island on Astotin Lake called “Elk Island”, but it is now a peninsula. That name came later, though, and it is so called because elk apparently used to swim out there to give birth. So no, that island wasn’t important enough to name the entire park after it. Image courtesy of Parks Canada.

 

Visitor guides from the 1980s seemed to go the metaphor route. Judith Cornish wrote in Finding Birds in Elk Island National Park (1988): “Elk Island – an island of wilderness in a sea of rural development.” Jean Burgess in Walk on the Wild Side: An All Season Trail Guide to Elk Island National Park (1986) also described the park in its introduction as an “‘island’ of wilderness.” I’ve heard ecologists talk about how the Beaver Hills, where the park is found, are like an island of unique geology, rising up above the surrounding landscape. That may well be true, but is it where the park’s name came from?

I had read early newspapers that called the place “Elk Park” before it became a dominion park with the Dominion Parks Act of 1913, at which point it became “Elk Island Dominion Park.” Why the addition of the word “Island” at that time?

So I did what any historian would have done… I looked it up.

I went over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, an archive of Western Canadiana, and did a quick search of their newspaper archive. I put “Elk Island” in quotation marks to get an exact phrase, and then sorted the newspapers in ascending order of dates to get the oldest entries. And wouldn’t you know it – I found my answer in an article from 1908, a bare two years after the park was founded but five  years before it gained its full name officially with the parks act of 1913:

“Quite apart from the attractions which the park will have for those who love wild animal life, the scenic beauty of the park and its surroundings will make a powerful appeal. It is four miles square and the lake, from which it obtains its name, is situated wholly within its borders, being two miles long by an average width of a mile and a half. It contains twenty-one of the most beautiful islands imaginable…”

  • Elk Island Lake Park: One of the Beauty Spots of Alberta,” Saturday News (January 25, 1908): 1.

I have since read elsewhere that Astotin Lake was also once called “Island Lake,” like in this caption from a photo album circa 1910:

PC003646.2
Island Lake in Elk Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

From 1906 to 1922 (when the park expanded its borders to what is now the Yellowhead highway) the park was a little fenced postage stamp of land around Astotin (Island) Lake with a bunch of elk. People came to admire the park’s two distinctive features:  the elk and the islands. Hence:  Elk Island National Park.

Also, the name “Buffalo National Park” was already taken.

The Great Roundups: Getting Michel Pablo’s Bison Herd To Canada, 1907-1912

By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter,  less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.

Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1931].peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005137.html
“Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park.” Wainwright: Photo Carsell, 1931. PC005137. Image Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.

The roundup was to be no easy task.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don't want to go. Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don’t want to go.
Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.

These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.

Further Resources

Postcards That Intrigue Me #5: Bison With an Amazing Head of Hair

Living and Elk Island National Park, I see a lot of bison on a daily basis. I am very familiar with how they look, move, sound, and smell. That makes looking at historical photographs of bison all the more fascinating. While Elk Island’s herd is fairly genetically diverse, thanks to the seed stock from which they originated, historical photos and descriptions indicate that there was much greater variety in appearance than I am used to seeing. Some historians say that photographs of gigantic piles of buffalo skulls from the 1880s and 1890s show more diversity in horn shape and size than anything we see in museum collections – and presumably living herds – today.

Case in point: this image of bison at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) near Wainwright, Alberta. Yes, wood bison in particular have shaggier heads (often reminding observers of teenage “emo” hairstyles) but plains bison caps don’t normally have hair that looks so straight or… wig-like.

Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
References:

  • For more information on Buffalo National Park, see: Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
  • For more information on the diversity of bison anatomy in archaeology, see: Michael Clayton Wilson, “Bison in Alberta: Paleontology, Evolution, and Relations with Humans,” in Buffalo: Alberta Nature and Culture Series, edited by John Foster, Dick Harrison, and I.S. MacLaren (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1994): 1-17.