For thousands of years, Northern Sunrise County was the domain of the Indigenous, primarily the Dane-zaa or Beaver people, who migrated through the area to take advantage of the abundant resources and game that was present.
The name Dane-zaa means Those who live among the beaver and the Real People.
The Indigenous had come to the area about 10,000 years ago when the last glacial ice sheets disappeared from the northern Canadian Prairies. The two distinct language groups in the area were Athapaskan and Algonquian.
The nearby Peace River also provided an excellent way to travel for the Indigenous and it would be this river that the local Indigenous would get their first contact with Europeans.
The Grouard Trail was used by the Indigenous for centuries to travel through the area, and archeologists have found that the trail is one of the oldest transportation corridors in North America, dating back at least 10 millennia.
The Peace River would earn its name thanks to the Treaty of the Peace, which was created in 1781 that ended decades of hostilities between the Dane-zaa and Cree people. The Peace River would serve as the southern border for the Dane-zaa and the northern border for the Cree.
The Indigenous heritage of the area is celebrated at Sagitawa Lookout, located in the southwest corner of the county. This lookout uses the Cree word for Where the rivers meet, and it offers a stunning view of the confluence of the Peace, Smoky and Heart Rivers. The lookout also features picnic spaces as well as historical information about the area.
The first European to visit the area is believed to be Peter Pond, who travelled along the river in 1785.
A few years later, Alexander Mackenzie, the celebrated explorer and fur trader, would establish Fort Fork just south of Peace River. He would also trade with the local Indigenous as he journeyed into British Columbia in his quest to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. He would remain in the area from Nov. 1, 1792 to May 9, 1793, when he continued to journey further to the west.
He would describe the area as quote:
“The east side of the river consists of a range of high land covered with the white spruce and the soft birch, while the banks abound with the alder and the willow.”
Mackenzie would explore the Grouard Trail in 1793 as well, and he would call it the Cree War Trail.
Today, you can take that trail yourself which goes through the southern corner of Northern Sunrise County, extending to the Peace River. The six-kilometre portion in Sunrise County, just part of the 145 kilometre trail that stretches to Lesser Slave Lake, is an easy graded roadway that also offers some beautiful views of the natural beauty of the area.
While Alexander Mackenzie would leave, many other fur traders would begin to arrive in the area to take advantage of the abundance of furs. In 1818, Fort St. Mary’s would be opened by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the fork of the Peace and the Smoky River. Two years later, Fort St. Mary’s III was established.
While these forts were along the river, which is south of the county today, the fur traders would journey throughout the current Northern Sunrise County in order to find furs of many varieties, which would be sent to the east to be used in the fashions of the day.
Around this time, in 1820 specifically, a man named Henry Fuller Davis would be born in Vermont. He would travel to California to take advantage of the gold rush there in 1849 but not doing so well, he decided he come north and he would stop near current Barkerville, BC at Williams Creek. At the time, gold claims could only be 100 feet and he saw two miners doing quite well there. In the middle of the night, he measured their claims and found they were 212 feet. The next day, he went to the gold commissioner to ask for a legal resurveying of the claims. With the discrepancy, Davis filed a 12-foot claim in the middle of the two claims. As legend states, in that 12-foot claim, he netted $12,000 worth of gold, or possibly as much as $30,000, giving him about $500,000 in today’s funds. It was from that stroke of luck he gained the nickname of 12-foot Davis.
Once he was done with his claim, he went north to the Peace River area where he set up a string of trading posts, forming an alliance with locals including the Metis and Indigenous. Considered honest and fair, he was illiterate and he relied on his employees to handle the reading and writing for him.
By 1895, Davis was paralyzed from the waist down and blind but he still worked and his employees carried him from trading post to trading post, and he would continue to work until nearly the day he died.
In 1900, Davis would pass away. According to legend, he was asked by the Catholic Sister by his side if he was afraid to die. He would respond quote:
“Afraid to die? I never killed nobody. I never stole from nobody. I never harmed nobody. I always kept an open door. No Sister. I am not afraid to die.”
In 1912, his friend Jim Cornwall, honoured a promise he made to Davis. He would transport the body of Davis to an area that overlooks the Smokey and Peace Rivers. You can visit that gravesite to this day in Northern Sunrise County. Located just off of Highway 2 to the east of Peace River, his grave with a small white picket fence around it is clearly visible, overlooking the valley and the rivers.
A few years after Davis passed away, the area would begin to see a huge influx of settlers as the potential for the land was seen by many immigrants. Between 1908 and 1916, roughly 6,300 people arrived in the area to homestead.
In 1916, the railroad would come through part of the county and at the spot where a water tank and pump house were built, a place called Tank was established. The railroad went through the property of Robert Perry Christian, who would establish a post office in the area. He didn’t like the name Tank and he decided to change the name. He would speak with a local Indigenous leader who suggested the name of Nampa, which means The Place in the local Indigenous language.
If you would like to explore more about the history of Nampa, you can visit the Nampa and District Museum, which has two floors of displays that highlight history of the area. These exhibits include a look at the natural history of the area, the Indigenous history, the settlers and the oil and gas development of the area that began in 1912.
In 1927, a small church would be built along Judah Road and Township Road 824. The Judah Church would serve as an important gathering place for locals, and it would provide a place for worship for the settlers who were coming to the area in droves. While the church is no longer used for services, and has fallen into disrepair, you can still visit this building today and see what rural churches looked like almost a century ago.
Between 1949 and 1952, settlers from Quebec and France would come out to Northern Sunrise to find a better life for themselves. They would settle and create the community of Marie Reine, which was laid out by Pierre Paul Pothier on a 20 acres strip of land.
Soon after, in 1953, seven families from Quebec came out to the Peace River area and they would found a new community called St. Isidore. The community was the last one to be settled in a wave of migration from Quebec after the Second World War, and as such has been able to maintain its cultural vibrancy, making it very unique in the entire region. For those first settlers, leaving Quebec was not easy and many of those settlers refused to learn English out of fear that their children would never learn it, causing that part of the culture to disappear. The community was named for St. Isidore, who was a patron saint of farm workers. When it was founded, it was too small to have a municipal government so the residents pooled their money together to create a co-operative that managed the municipal affairs. This co-operative exists to this day and makes St. Isidore unique in Alberta. Residents put their money into buying a dairy farm, building stores, a health clinic, fire hall and much more.
If you would like to learn more about the history of St. Isidore, you can visit the fantastic St. Isidore Museum and Cultural Centre. Within the museum, you will find train car replica so you can visualize the journey families took to the area when they were moving from their homes in Quebec. There are also costumes, pictures and artifacts that tell the story of the hardships and the triumphs for the new settlers of St. Isidore. At the cultural centre in St. Isidore, you will also find the St. Isidore Weavers, a group of local artists who create stunning traditional crafts using the traditional methods of their ancestors.
In 1983, a new festival would begin in St. Isidore that would give Albertans a taste of the vibrant Francophone culture that exists in the northern part of the province.
The year previous, it was the hope of the Peace River Regional ACFA that they could establish the traditions of the Francophone communities in the area in a special event. There were celebrations of Francophone culture at the time in the Peace Country, but none happened in the winter.
The first Carnaval de St. Isidore would be held in 1983, taking a lot of the traditions of the famous Quebec Winter Carnival. These traditional events included maple snow taffy, log sawing competitions and more. In 1993, the Carnaval also had a special guest when new Premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein, came by the festivities.
Since those early years, the event has only continued to grow, including expanding with a musical program. In some years, thousands of people come out for the events, making it the biggest event of the year for the community and the surrounding area.
The Carnaval showcases Francophone artists and consists of sleigh rides, snow sculpting, friendly competitions and more. French-Canadian dishes are served and there are many winter activities at this event that attracts Francophones from across the province.
On April 1, 1994, the Municipal District of East Peace would be created and on July 10, 2002, it would officially change its name to Northern Sunrise County.