The history of Bonnyville is a long and rich one; like most of the Canadian West, it has its roots in fur traders and missionaries.
The first European to make his way into the land of the Cree and Chipewyan was a Scotsman named Angus Shaw, a fur trader for the North West Company, and by all accounts, a feisty and hot-tempered man. During his long and interesting life, Shaw also worked as a politician, military officer and Justice of the Peace before ending up on the wrong side of the law.
Called an “excellent trader who managed his men and his Indians well”, Shaw first came to Northern Alberta in 1789 to trade fur for the North West Company. That year he established the first European settlement, called Anshaw, after himself, just west of Bonnyville and a fur trade post at Moose Lake (then called Lac de L’Orignal); whose operations involved a score of men and four canoes. Although small in size, Fort Lac de L’Orignal helped set the stage for the development of additional fur trade forts which played a key role in the evolution of Western Canada. After three years, Shaw set out again, travelling west on the North Saskatchewan River and establishing what is now Fort Saskatchewan (just northeast of Edmonton). For several years after Shaw’s departure from Fort Lac de L’Orignal, the site was used for emergency supplies required by travelling fur traders. Native elders remembered the fort as the “Place of Many Cellars”, and used the site as a spring gathering place for many years.
During these years, Shaw was caught up in the fierce rivalry between the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company for domination of the fur trade. In 1802, Shaw was transferred to Quebec, where he was put in charge of the King’s Posts located on the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. The following year, the Northwest Company clearly wanted to intensify competition with the Hudson Bay Company, and force it to concede right of passage through Hudson Bay. To this end, Shaw led an expedition of five canoes up through James Bay and by an inland route to meet the Eddystone, a ship dispatched from Great Britain. Together, they built three North West Company posts on the south shore of the bay at Charlton Island, and at the mouths of the Moose and Eastmain rivers.
When not conducting corporate warfare, Shaw led quite the respectable life. He was admitted to the Beaver Club in 1796, and was a member of the BeefSteak Club or Barons’ Club at Quebec and of the Canada Club in London. He also spent two years as a federal politician, serving as the member for Effingham in the House of Assembly of Lower Canada from April 1802 to June 1804. He also acted as a Justice of the Peace for the Indian Territory from 1810 to 1816. During the war of 1812 between the United States and Canada, Shaw seems to have participated in the capture of Michilimackinac (Mackinaw Island, Michigan) from the Americans, and on October 3, he was appointed a major in the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs.
But the fur trade was in his blood, and Shaw, or “Le Chat” as he was nicknamed, took an active part in the final phase of the struggle between the two companies. In 1815 he was at Red River in Manitoba, where he seems to have helped break up the colony, and for this reason in March of 1816, Lord Douglas Selkirk had him arrested. Two years later, Shaw was arrested again at Grand Rapids in Manitoba by Hudson Bay Company governor William Williams. Because he threatened to come back and spread bloodshed and terror throughout the country once released, Williams decided to keep Shaw prisoner. He had Shaw transferred to York Factory and from there to London where he was set free. After the amalgamation of the two rival companies in 1821, Shaw retired to the United States, where he was out of reach of the lawsuits arising from some bad business dealings. He died there of a pulmonary complaint in 1832. But Shaw didn’t die a broken man – anything but. At his death, he held shares in the Bank of Montreal and the Hudson Bay Company and owned properties on both sides of the border.
Shaw’s statue currently stands outside the Bonnyville & District Museum. Made out of local cedar, the statue stands tribute to this remarkable individual.
While Shaw was getting in trouble in eastern Canada, a more peaceful process was taking place back west at Bonnyville.
The turn of the century saw three waves of Europeans settle in the area between the years 1907 and 1918. Among the first were French Catholic missionaries, including the Reverend Father Francis Bonny, after whom Bonnyville takes its name, and Father Adeodat Therien, who was instigated by the famous Father Albert Lacombe to help the Metis (people of mixed Native/European heritage) settle in the area.
In 1908, the first school was established by Ernestine Ouimet to teach seven students; while Father Bonny and the Reverend John Duclos (of the Presbyterian Church) built the first churches. In 1910, the first post office opened with the name of Bonnyville, and in 1915, as the result of a petition circulated by Pierre Robitaille, the municipal district was formed.
During this time, a young pilot named Grant McConachie flew fresh fish from the surrounding lakes to a train where they were shipped to Chicago and New York. His business continued to expand until it became Canadian Airways, later known as Canadian Pacific Airlines, of which McConachie served as president.
The Canadian National Railway built a line that reached the area in 1928, and on September 2 of the following year, Bonnyville was established as a village. A short 20 years later, it became a town.
In 1949, Bonnyville entered a new stage of growth as an energy centre. That year, a natural gas field was discovered within the town limits – a field which has not only created hundreds of jobs, but which also has supplied the community with a convenient and stable source of natural gas ever since. Two short years later, oil was also discovered in the area.
In 1984, Bonnyville’s French community was honoured when the town twinned with Bonneville, France. Currently boasting a population of approximately 10,000, the Bonnyville and district area is world-famous for its fishing, wild game hunting, birdwatching and other natural attractions.