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River resource
Oct 03, 2008

The discovery of ancient human skeletal remains, protruding from a bank of the Red River near Lockport, serves as a reminder of the importance of the river systems of Manitoba throughout the ages.

One skeleton does not tell the complete story, but it is a piece of the puzzle that connects the past to the present. Throughout the history of Manitoba, rivers have been the highways of travel and commerce. They have also been a source of drinking water and have provided a plentiful food supply.

The people who inhabited this province before the arrival of Europeans, located their seasonal camps and more permanent settlements along rivers and lakes to take advantage of their abundance. Lockport is of particular importance in unravelling the history of the first nations people who lived in Manitoba before Europeans penetrated the interior of the continent. The archaeological record uncovered over the years shows that Lockport and the Red River region was a favoured settlement area. 

The first evidence of pre-contact agricultural practices in Manitoba are traced to Lockport. The native people who chose to live along the shores of the Red River near Lockport grew corn (maize), the very crop that allowed the building of the great civilizations of the Americas, including the Mayans and the Aztecs. Corn was apparently a staple in the area from about AD 1200 to 1500. The diet of the people living at Lockport was further supplemented by the fish found in the Red River and by the animals that visited its banks as well as locally occurring wild plants. The growing of corn only ceased when the climate took a turn for the worse, and what is typically a crop grown in more southern latitudes failed to thrive.

The Red was also the super highway to the south and north as well as the west via the Assiniboine River which flows into the Red at The Forks. It was a major artery of the trade route that brought flint from North Dakota, native copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, obsidian from Wyoming and pipestone from southern Minnesota, all of which were worked into tools, ornaments and weapons.

The 4,000-year-old skull and bones found recently by canoeists were protruding out of the river’s bank after the natural forces of erosion worked them out of the mud which had entombed them for centuries. It was reported by the RCMP that the bones were in remarkable condition for the length of time they had spent buried.

Another remarkable part of the find was that the person who lived so long ago suffered a broken leg. The femur was unset after it was broken and eventually knitted together — a signal that the individual had lived long enough for the healing process to take place. The overlap of the femur meant that the individual walked with a significant limp for his remaining days. What can be inferred is that, if the condition inhibited everyday life, the individual would have to be cared for by others in order to survive. Such a handicap would have made it difficult to participate in hunting — though not quite impossible — so it is likely that the individual had some other skills or was thought fondly of by the family group to which he belonged and thus they didn’t abandon him.

When Europeans arrived in Manitoba they also used the province’s rivers and lakes as their highways, starting with the fur trade and progressing to the era of permanent settlement which commenced along the Red with the Selkirk Settlers in 1812. The importance of the Red was further emphasized when the first steamboat arrived in 1859. The Anson Northup signalled the start of freight and passenger travel by steamboat on the Red.

The steamboat era ended in 1909, but the rivers of southern Manitoba didn’t lose their significance, though their role would change. Today, The Forks is a major tourism attraction in Winnipeg. Without the Assiniboine and Red meeting at The Forks, thousands of people would not be stirred to visit the area every year, and millions of dollars would be lost to the local economy. Each year, tourists enjoy cruises down the Red, and water taxis — when the weather and water level co-operates — shuttle them up and down the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Thousands more travel to Lockport where the area around the dam is a prime angling spot. The channel catfish caught in the Red River are famous throughout North America for their size and fighting prowess. But they are just one of many species which make the Red an angler’s paradise. In the fall, the river is noted for its “greenbacks” — pickerel (walleye), obviously named for their colour — which are found in the river in plentiful numbers. Both channel cats and pickerel are a reason American anglers come in great numbers to fish the Red, pumping cash into the pockets of local guides and the economy as a whole. In recognition of the fishery to its community, Selkirk has erected the sculpture, nicknamed “Charlie the Catfish.”

To further emphasize the importance of the Red today, the new multi-million dollar Waterfront Drive development in Winnipeg is only attractive to investors because of its location alongside the River.

What the recent discovery reinforces is that the rivers of Manitoba have always played an important part in the province’s settlement history from the earliest times to the present and will continue as such well into the future, as long as they are nurtured as a sustainable resource and recognized as substantial contributors to the local economy.