Chapter 1: The Land
1: The Land in 1860
dominant features of southwestern
Manitoba were well known before the era of European settlement.
The first European fur traders and explorers created maps based on
their observations and information they received from the Aboriginal
people who lived here.
The Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies employed cartographers to map
In the 1850 and 60’s the governments of Canada and Great Britain sent
expeditions to the west, hoping to prove that this land was suitable
for agriculture. This map from about 1860 was produced by one of those
Details of the features of Turtle Mountain, the Souris River and
Whitewater Lake were shown.
Find Oak Lake – just under it is the notation “Large Swamps” &
“Sand Hills” – indicating the range of sand hills that stretch south to
the Souris River.
The only European “settlement” marked on this map is the “H.B.C. Winter
Trading Post” near where Hartney is located today.
The only “road” is the “Track” that runs from the top to Turtle
2: The Land Today
150 years some of the names have
changed – some remain.
Some of the creeks flowing into the Souris River have been re-named.
But the main features remain.
In between the time of the “old” map on the previous page, and this
modern map, many towns and villages have been created – some of those
have disappeared. Many railway lines have been built – most of those
have also been removed.
And of course thousands of kilometres of roads have been built – only
the main ones appear on most highway maps.
3: Turtle Mountain
a hundred million years ago
Southwestern Manitoba was part of the Western Interior Seaway. The
climate was a lot warmer than today, and huge reptiles called mosasaurs
were the toughest beasts around. Then, about 66 million years ago an
asteroid crashed into southern Mexico. The blast was so strong that the
dust and debris blocked the sun and slowly cooled the climate. In a
short period 75 percent of all species became extinct, including most
of the dinosaurs.
About two million years ago we entered a series of Ice Ages. Giant
glaciers covered the land, and then melted off. It was a long process
and it created the landscape we know today
There were long periods between the visits of the glaciers. We’re in
one of them now.
The view from a Lookout
Tower on Turtle’s Head.
the ice melted, material that was
carried by the glaciers was
deposited over Turtle Mountain. By about 12,800 years ago Turtle
Mountain was free of ice. As the last glacier retreated it carved many
shallow lakes and wetlands and shaped the hills. Many steep ravines
were shaped by streams of run-off waters flowing from the high ground
to the low plains.
Turtle Mountain, surrounded by the flat prairie of the Souris Plains,
was one of the first things travellers to this region noticed. What is
known as the Turtle's Head at the western end of Turtle Mountain is the
second highest point in all of Manitoba.
William lake photos...
This map from 1860 shows
the features of Turtle Mountain.
4: The Souris River
traveller to the Southwest Corner can
see Turtle Mountain from quite
a distance. Another important feature of the region, the Souris River
is often hidden in a deep valley and might not be noticed until you
were overlooking it.
Here in Manitoba we see only about a quarter of the Souris River
drainage basin. It begins north of Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It then
travels through southeastern Saskatchewan and northern North Dakota
where it makes a giant U-turn (known as the Souris Loop) before
entering Manitoba south of Melita. From the border to Souris the stream
is gentle as it twists and turns its way through rolling hills. It then
drops 480 meters in elevation by the time it empties into the
Assiniboine River, picking up speed as it passes through a deep valley.
On these wide-open dry plains, the river valley offered wood, water and
shelter. Plains hunters camped on the banks. They trapped and hunted
the animals that also took shelter there.
The full extent of the Souris River Basin is shown here.
The Turtle Mountain Souris Plains Region (Shaded) is a small part of
the drainage area.
recent years, several dams have been
built in an attempt to control
the flooding tendencies of the Souris River but it has proven tough to
control. In recent years floods have caused a great deal of damage and
expense. The Souris River is a commanding feature of southwestern
Manitoba. Whether flowing mildly between its banks, or rising to
threaten land and livelihood, it continues to be a central feature in
the lives of those who live alongside it.
5: The Lauder Sandhills
10,000 years ago, when the glaciers
from the last ice age were
melting, huge lakes were formed. Glacial Lake Hind covered the area
around present-day Hartney. Huge deposits of sand formed a delta where
a river ran into the still body of Lake Hind. Today they are the Lauder
the climate kept changing, the land was
at times marshes, lakes and sloughs, and at times, sand dunes.
The nearby Souris River and surrounding grasslands made the hills a
good place for the buffalo and for hunters.
time trees and vegetation made this
an attractive place to live.
The Lauder Sandhills Wildlife Management Area was established in 1971,
originally to protect the winter habitat of the white-tailed deer.
6: Whitewater Lake
the glaciers that once covered all of
Canada began to disappear
about 12,000 years ago they left huge lakes and rivers. Most of those
lakes have disappeared but Whitewater Lake is the last evidence of Lake
Souris, which once covered the region between Turtle Mountain and the
It is large, about 20 kilometres long, but shallow. It is fed by creeks
from Turtle Mountain during heavy rains and the spring run-off.
Because it is shallow, a dry spell, or a few dry years, can really
affect its size. It has gone dry on several occasions. In
lake dried up, and government engineers surveyed the land, reporting
that it should be sold as farmland. But by the next spring it was a
During the “Dirty Thirties” and the 1980’s the lake also disappeared
and trails led across it as people made short-cuts.
The plains around Whitewater Lake were well-known to the Nakota, and
later, the Métis as a good place to find buffalo. The last buffalo
anyone saw in the Turtle Mountain area was spotted just to the east of
Whitewater Lake in 1883.
Fur-bearing animals, such as mink and muskrat, attracted trappers and
traders to the region. The muskrat furs that came from Whitewater Lake
were of especially good quality and fetched a good price.
With the arrival of homesteaders the frozen lake served as a road.
Teams of horses transported loads of grain from farms on the north side
of the lake to Whitewater village on the southern shore. Firewood from
Turtle Mountain was hauled in caravans of sleighs to homes north of the
lake, and the road across the ice often became a very busy highway.
Whitewater Lake was the traditional nesting grounds for the whooping
cranes until their near extinction around 1880. Though the number of
birds on the lake in modern times does not come close to the numbers
found during settler days, it remains an important stopping place
during migrations. A sanctuary on the southern shore is a popular spot
is the name of a municipality
formed in 2015 when the Town of
Hartney joined the Municipalities of Cameron and Whitewater. The
refers to the large prairie, between the Souris River and Turtle
Mountain, that is another important geographic feature of Southwestern
These plains were a vital resource to Aboriginal Peoples, to Metis
hunters and traders, to pioneer homesteaders, and now to modern and
grassland is a region where the average
annual precipitation is
enough to support grasses, but has few trees. Grasses can survive fires
because they grow from the bottom instead of the top. Their stems can
grow again after being burned off.
Fires help certain plants by clearing ground cover, which helps the
germination of seeds, and by nourishing the soil with freshly burnt
Manitoba’s Mixed-Grass Prairie
This landscape developed from years of low precipitation and regular
prairie fires. These fires kept trees from growing except along rivers
and streams and allowed for the wide areas of prairie grasses that fed
the huge buffalo herds. These herds provided the plains people with
nearly everything they needed for a good life.
With the arrival of the European traders, the buffalo served an
additional purpose as a trade good – the fuel of the fur-trade.
Breadbasket to the World
The land that was perfect for the buffalo was also good for growing
grain and feeding livestock. The soil is deep and dark. The upper
layers are the most fertile because of the buildup of many layers of
dead branching stems and roots.
Farmers were able to adapt the land for agriculture.
Harvesting in the good old
Home for the Birds
The grasslands of Southwestern Manitoba are known for their variety of
birds. Trails and Wildlife Management Areas have been developed and
visitors come from all over the world.
A Manitoba Grassland Birding Trail near Lyleton.