February is Black History month, a celebration of the achievements and contributions of Black Canadians to the diversity of our country. Here in Alberta, Black Canadians have played major roles in the shaping of the province we now enjoy, such as the introduction of longhorn cattle to Alberta by John Ware. And as is often the story throughout Black history, the road to Alberta was neither short, nor easy.
The Legend of John Ware
John Ware is probably the most famous Black Albertan in history, among the very first to settle in Alberta. Born into slavery on a Texas plantation in 1845, Ware gained his freedom following the American Civil War and began working on a ranch in North Central Texas.
Ware was a natural rancher, and his skills and good nature made him a legend. Stories told of how he could break any of the wildest broncos, and easily carry an 18-month old steer on his back. More importantly, he was a well-respected cowboy.
In 1882, Ware was part of a crew that brought 3,000 head of cattle from the U.S. to the Bar U Ranch in Calgary, and, noticing the need for experienced hands in the area, he decided to stay. In 1890, he started his own ranch in the Calgary foothills, but moved to a site east of Brooks in 1900 to escape the increasing settlement of the area. Unfortunately, Ware did not enjoy his new home for very long; in the fall of 1905, Ware was killed when his horse stepped in a hole, and fell on him.
Ware died as one of the most respected ranchers of Southern Alberta’s ranching community, and has been honoured a number of times by having his name put on many buildings and locations, such as Mount Ware, John Ware Ridge, John Ware Junior High in Calgary, and the John Ware Building at SAIT. And for an added touch of history, folks interested in getting a first-hand look at the modest cabin John Ware built for himself in 1900 can visit it at Dinosaur Provincial Park, where it has been faithfully moved and restored by Parks Canada.
A few years after the death of John Ware, a young man by the name of Jefferson Davis Edwards led a group of several hundred Black settlers to a site east of Athabasca they called Amber Valley. The Black immigrants were part of the larger group of “Exodusters,” a nickname given to African Americans fleeing the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South who migrated to the Great Plains area, particularly Kansas.
Edwards and company had been encouraged to emigrate to Alberta by a number of White-owned organizations in Oklahoma, including articles in local papers with titles such as “Alberta, The Home for the Colored Race.” In 1911, it was reported that at least one thousand Black settlers would leave Oklahoma bound for Alberta.
But Alberta was not the welcoming Promised Land that was advertised. As documented in Blacks in Deep Snow by Colin A. Thomson, “Edmonton immigration agents attempted to convince Blacks that the climate was too tough for ‘people whose native land is in tropical regions’.” The Canadian Government was no better, as Thomson points out:
In 1911 immigration superintendent William Duncan Scott drew up a proposal for an order in council which would prohibit “any immigrant belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable for the climate and requirements of Canada” from coming to Canada for one year. The Order in Council was never declared, but it does show the intent of some officials.
Both the Winnipeg and Edmonton Boards of Trade went on record as opposing negro immigration and suggested to Blacks that the climate and public opinion should be enough to keep them in the South. When many Blacks claimed to prefer the climate of Alberta to that of the southern United States it became necessary to find other “reasons” to keep them out.
Despite opposition from government, locals and the climate, hundreds of thousands of Exodusters overcame the challenges and built homes for themselves in Canada. In Alberta, the community of Amber Valley became the province’s largest Black community until the 1930s. The community of Keystone, now called Breton southwest of Edmonton, was also among the first Black settlements, though many of the families who had established the town moved away to the larger cities. As time went on, and the need to be so isolated diminished, the descendants of the original Black settlers became more integrated into the rest of Alberta society, adding their knowledge and experiences to the greater Alberta story.
Alberta is home to the third highest number of Black Canadians in the country, many of whom have roots in the province that stretch back to just after Alberta became a province. Alberta’s Black community has played a significant role in shaping the culture we enjoy today, and while we recognize and celebrate that contribution every February, we should not forget the hard road they took to get here, nor the lessons the past can teach about our vision of the province’s future.