Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The term fertile belt first appeared in Henry Youle Hind's Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858 (1860), the account of his scientific expedition commissioned by the government of the Canadas to explore the possibilities of large-scale agricultural settlement in the Northwest. Hind used the term to refer to a region that he estimated to be 40 million acres in size, of excellent soil and rich pasture that would be ideal for agriculture, stock raising, and settlement, and that stretched in an arc from the American border at the Red River, northwest to the forks of the Saskatchewan River, and then along the North Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains, where, in the foothills, it took a southward turn until it reached the border at 114º west. Hind highlighted and accentuated the fertile belt in his report in two ways: as a yellow band marked "Fertile Belt" on a map drawn by the British cartographer John Arrowsmith to accompany the British version of the report and by stating in block letters its importance for agricultural settlement: "IT IS A PHYSICAL REALITY OF THE HIGHEST IMPORTANCE TO THE INTERESTS OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA THAT THIS CONTINUOUS BELT CAN BE SETTLED AND CULTIVATED FROM A FEW MILES WEST OF THE LAKE OF THE WOODS TO THE PASSES OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, AND ANY LINE OF COMMUNICATION, WHETHER BY WAGON ROAD OR RAILROAD, PASSING THROUGH IT WILL EVENTUALLY ENJOY THE GREAT ADVANTAGE OF BEING FED BY AN AGRICULTURAL POPULATION FROM ONE EXTREMITY TO THE OTHER."

John Palliser, heading a British expedition into the same region that Hind traversed, also in 1857, also recognized the existence of an arc of fertile land and used the term fertile belt in his Report in 1863. It is possible that Palliser gave Hind the idea of calling the region the fertile belt but was himself cautious in using the term and played down the concept in his Report. As a result, his name has become associated with the more sterile land to the south–Palliser's Triangle–believed at the time to be the northern tip of the Great American Desert. Nevertheless, both Hind's and Palliser's reports established the very important generalization of two distinct regions in the Northwest: one containing good agricultural land–the fertile belt–and the other poor agricultural land–Palliser's Triangle. Later promoters of western settlement used such images as the "Rainbow of Rupert's Land," "ordained garden," and "Paradise of Fertility" in reference to Hind's and Palliser's fertile belt.

During the negotiations of the sale of Rupert's Land by the Hudson's Bay Company to the Canadian government in 1869–70, the term fertile belt came to be associated with the whole area from the Red River to the Rocky Mountains and from the North Saskatchewan clear down to the American border, including Palliser's Triangle. This was the area referred to in the deed of surrender by which the Hudson's Bay Company retained "one twentieth of the land of the fertile belt" as part of the agreement to sell Rupert's Land to Canada.

Throughout the 1870s, both visions of the fertile belt–as a delineated area north of Palliser's Triangle and as all the land south of the Saskatchewan River–held sway. When exploration and surveying began for a proposed railway through western Canada, reference was frequently made to the fertile belt. Sandford Fleming and George Grant used the term in From Ocean to Ocean (1872) to refer only to the Hind-Palliser area, recommending this area as the best route for the proposed railway to follow. The International Boundary Survey of 1872–75 that mapped out the area for homesteading also emphasized the Hind-Palliser concept of a fertile belt. In the words of the survey's chief geologist, C. M. Dawson, the "fertile belt must form the basis of settlement and utilization of the western plains," although Dawson emphasized as well the availability of good agricultural land to the south.

By 1881, however, when the Canadian Pacific Railway Company began construction of its line, Hind's and Palliser's concept of a clearly demarcated fertile belt had given way to one that assumed all the area south of the Arctic to be "fertile," therefore rendering as meaningless the term fertile belt. The botanist John Macoun of the Geological Survey of Canada party implied in his Manitoba and the Great North-West (1880) that the land previously designated as the arid land of Palliser's Triangle was no less fertile than the fertile belt. He estimated such fertile land as consisting of some 150 million acres–a striking contrast to Hind's original estimate of 40 million acres for his "fertile belt." By 1900 the term had died out, because it implied that the area through which the Canadian Pacific Railway ran was not fertile and therefore unsuitable for agricultural settlement.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Palliser's Triangle.

R. Douglas Francis University of Calgary

Hind, Henry Youle. Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858. 1860. Reprint, Edmonton: Hurtig Publishing, 1971.

Owram, Doug. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856–1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Warkentin, John. "Steppe, Desert and Empire." In Prairie Perspectives 2, edited by Anthony Rasporich and Henry C. Klassen. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston of Canada, 1973: 102–36.

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