The first white settler to build near where the McLeod and Athabasca rivers met was Charlie “Bill” Williams, who opened a trading post in 1897. This operated as a Hudson's Bay substation, according to the book Sagitwah Saga. As John R.F. Baxter relates, this was the same year gold was discovered in the Klondike, and Mounties blazed a trail through the Whitecourt area heading for Fort St. John for the gold seekers to follow. Klondikers who passed through the area sometimes returned and became settlers.

The location for the trading post has been given as the corner of the present day Trading Post Trail and Millar Road, although another account puts the location just west of the golf course, on the river, which seems more likely.

Because of the seasonal nature of fur trading, William’s status as Whitecourt’s first settler is sometimes questioned. However, a later settler, Tim Selleck, who arrived in 1905, wrote that “one of the early settlers in the Whitecourt area, Charlie Williams, commonly called Bill...cleared four acres of land...and had a great crop.” In addition to trader, Bill Williams was also described as a freighter and prospector, who hailed from the backwoods of Montana.

There is some dispute about the date the first settler family put down stakes in present day Whitecourt, but the evidence points to 1904.
Early settler Frank Chaisson wrote that he arrived in 1906, with Alex McDougall and Ernest Hinckleman, because of the planned railway. He stated that John Goodwin, who headed the first settler family arrived a year earlier, in 1905. However, Tim Selleck put Goodwin’s arrival at 1904.

John Goodwin was a timber cruiser for the federal government, and it is a matter of record that he surveyed and filed on cutting rights around the Whitecourt area in 1904-1905. (Although Alberta became a province in early 1905, it did not get control over its natural resources until 1929.)

The 1904 date also jives with later anecdote given by both Frank Chaisson and Tim Selleck regarding the winter of 1906-07. Bert Goodwin arrived in Whitecourt shortly after to join his brother.
There are similar conflicting accounts of how Charlie Williams place was taken over by either returning Klondiker Dan Lamey, or civil engineer Jack McCoy, while Williams was away on a trip. The records of early homesteads would put the quarter that Lamey later filed on nearer the location of the trading post. The peaceable Bill Williams simply moved on.

In any case, 1904, is the given year that the Grand Trunk Pacific railway cut a wagon route though to Whitecourt, as part of a plan to build a railway from Edmonton to the Peace River country. One of the original survey party, Frank Selleck, drove squatter’s stakes to claim what is now Millar Western’s yard. He returned the following year with his wife and brother.

When more of the Selleck family came to the area, they homesteaded at Cottonwood corners, which became known as Selleck Flats at the time.

The winter of 1906-07 was a harsh one, and Frank Chaisson writes that one of his fellow adventurers, Alex McDougall, “went out and never returned”. An unfortunate horse trader named Perry, stopped in Whitecourt with 40 surviving horses out of an original herd of two hundred. Despite having hay, these horses succumbed to the cold or were eaten by a grizzly bear.

The horse trader returned the next year to pick up some gear left behind, and spent a fruitless week trying to float the equipment out by river, before hiring Tim Selleck to pack it out. The horse trader’s overland party was attacked by a large grizzly that dragged one 1,500 lb horse 100 yards into the bush. It was a monster bear, that yielded 400 pounds of rendered bear grease when it was finally shot.
It wasn’t until 1908 that the Whitecourt area was finally surveyed into quarter sections and settlers were able to file on the land they had squatted on. Homesteaders had to pay $10.00 to file, and spend six months of each year, for three years, living and farming on their quarter to gain title.

As elsewhere in North America, the railway route spurred settlement, with the Whitecourt area rightly considered to be a good location for a town on the railway line. The settlers continued coming as the railway was delayed, first by an economic downturn, and then by World War I.
Whitecourt’s early years coincided with an aggressive advertising campaign in Europe and the U.S. to lure settlers to the Canadian west. Some of those who responded to the ads settled in the Whitecourt area, and helped create a vibrant cultural synergy in the area. Next month, part 3 of this series will deal with this colourful period of Whitecourt’s history.