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, Williams
status as Whitecourts 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
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 Goodwins
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 squatters
stakes to claim what is now Millar Westerns 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 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
traders 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 wasnt 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.
Whitecourts 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 Whitecourts history.