A Brief History of the North Saskatchewan River

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History is constantly changing. We uncover new accounts of past occurrences every day, revealing interesting stories of how our lands used to be. Like its history, the North Saskatchewan River is constantly changing. The ebb and flow changes from year to year, meandering along different paths at different times. The Saskatchewan River’s name comes from the Cree, kisiskâciwanisîpiy, meaning “swift-flowing river”. Much of the kisiskâciwanisîpiy is on Treaty 6 territory, which is a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Ktunaxa, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Anishinaabe, Inuit, Tsuut’ina, Assiniboine, and many others. There is evidence of Indigenous peoples in the North Saskatchewan River valley from over 10,000 year ago. People’s livelihoods were interconnected with the river and the river valley. Many Indigenous peoples fished in the kisiskâciwanisîpiy, hunted bison, woodland caribou, moose, and smaller mammals in the plains, and foraged for roots and berries in the river valley.

While today the river is often viewed as an obstacle when travelling, the North Saskatchewan River used to be the main vessel for travel and transportation. The highways of the past were the river and its tributaries. Nowadays, we may canoe or kayak on the river as a way to connect to our past, since paddling used to be the easiest and fastest way to get around. Kisiskâciwanisîpiy twists and turns from its headwaters of the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Columbia Icefields across Alberta and Saskatchewan into Lake Winnipeg, then through the Nelson River into the Hudson Bay. This journey was taken many times throughout the river’s history.


As the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was developing, people working in the fur trade began exploring the Hudson Bay’s tributaries. In the 1690s, the first European fur trader of the HBC, Henry Kelsey, explored the Saskatchewan River in pursuit of Cree trade partners as well as medicinal plants and minerals. Other HBC traders made their way across the North Saskatchewan River, such as Anthony Henday along with Cree guides in 1754. This group made their way to the river’s headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. As the HBC and fur trade developed across the river, it impacted many Indigenous communities. Many First Nations people began hunting furs for European trade instead of hunting for subsistence. As well as bringing the fur trade to the river, Europeans unfortunately brought diseases, including smallpox, that killed many Indigenous people.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, cities including Rocky Mountain House, Drayton Valley, Devon, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Battleford, and Prince Albert developed along the North Saskatchewan River. With the introduction of new populations living in settlements along the river, as well as increased industrial practices, significant amounts of pollution were being introduced into the North Saskatchewan River. The rise of environmental awareness and integrated water resource management in the 1970s led to laws protecting the quality of the North Saskatchewan River. While the water is still impacted today, there are efforts being made to minimize the effects of urban, agricultural, and industrial development on the beautiful, ever-changing North Saskatchewan River.

Photo credit Shannon1


Newton, Brandi. “North Saskatchewan River.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2 May 2017, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/north-saskatchewan-river

“Marketing & Communications Toolkit.” University of Alberta, www.ualberta.ca/toolkit/communications/acknowledgment-of-traditional-territory.

“The Rivers.” Canadian Heritage Rivers System, www.chrs.ca/the-rivers/north-saskatchewan  

Partners For the Saskatchewan River Basin. “From the Mountains to the Sea: the State of the Saskatchewan River Basin.” 2009.

Royal Alberta Museum.


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