The Métis settlement of the Battle River valley extended from the west end of Driedmeat Lake to an area just west of what is now Highway 21, a distance of about 9 miles. It was concentrated most heavily at Laboucane which later became old Duhamel at the now-closed Duhamel campground located on Highway 21 in the river valley.
In 1885 geological surveyor Joseph Tyrell (Tyrrell museum) described the settlement thus: “At Salvais' Crossing, four miles above Driedmeat Lake, there is a flourishing settlement of French half-breeds, consisting of about forty families. They are living in substantial log houses, and there is sufficient land under cultivation to raise all the field produce that can be used in the settlement. In July, 1885, wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, turnips and Indian corn were well advanced, and I was informed that for the last seven years there had been no failure of crops .... A considerable number of horses, cattle and sheep were also seen around the houses, and all were in excellent condition.”
In 1878 six brothers of the Laboucane family left Manitoba in a caravan of Red River carts and headed west over 1000 km of prairie for the Salvais Crossing, known as the “Notikiwin Seppe” to the Cree of the Battle River. Abraham Salvais had arrived four years earlier to lay down roots in the rich valley near Duhamel. Here the waterway of the river connected directly to the current site of Camrose (about 12 km away) through the Stoney Creek valley. While the river and rich soils were important to this settlement, the intersecting of important overland prairie trails at this crossing may have been of greater importance to business exploits of the Métis.
Since their arrival coincided with the disappearance of the buffalo, the Métis set up a commerce and transportation network known as freighting to serve the active fur trading business and other transfer of goods from local producers to centres like Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Wetaskiwin. For example, the early Blackfoot Trail, providing access to the southern plains, swung southeast from Edmonton, skirting the more heavily wooded Amiskwaciy, (Beaver Hills of which Miquelon Lakes is part) by way of the Hay Lakes and Bittern Lake, and crossed the Battle River at the Laboucane settlement. For nearly two decades the Métis with their red river carts dominated the prairie freighting business. Some of the local freighters had as many as 150 red river carts and only the poorest had fewer than 25. Some would travel by red river cart to Winnipeg in the summer to deliver furs and return with goods in the fall. These cheap, sturdy, noisy two wheeled carts soon came to be commonly associated with the Métis people of the plains until they in turn were reduced to a secondary and ultimately minor role as the railway crept west across the prairies. First, new trails were made to Regina… then to Moose Jaw… Medicine Hat… and finally there was no more need for new trails as "the steel" reached Camrose and Edmonton and…. Laboucane - near the end of the century.
But not all were freighters. Others were hunters and trappers, small farmers, merchants, postmen, priests, preparers of food and leaders of the community.
When the Métis left their Manitoba homes to settle in Alberta, they chose rich soil to grow their crops and a strategic location for their livelihood. They also were aware of the importance of water. In 1883 the lots on which the Métis lived were surveyed into the traditional river lot pattern giving each inhabitant direct access to the river for transportation and food. Three shallow river crossings existed within a few miles on the river west of Driedmeat Lake. The Breland crossing gave close access to the Stoney Creek valley and Camrose from the communities and people south of the Battle River.
For a few decades in the late nineteenth century the Métis made a distinctive but short-lived impact on the northern Great Plains. The focus here in the Battle River and Stoney Creek region was on Laboucane, a flourishing Métis settlement of this transitional period between nomadic and stationary life – between fur trade and homestead settlement in central Alberta.
As people of mixed ancestry, the Métis likely understood the nomadic ways of the Indigenous and the sedentary way of life of the non-Indigenous better than any other. They were therefore a bridge that brought old and new prairie economies together. They built a church soon after they arrived and brought in a priest, who, at times, settled disputes involving the local Indigenous and outside authorities. They excelled as trappers, hunters, freighters, boatmen, and guides. But more than that, they were successful in building the Duhamel settlement and in making a very significant contribution to our community and country.
And when the needs of the day that they satisfied had passed and when homesteaders started to move in around them, many chose to move on to another nomadic economy. Métis surnames like Laboucane, Salois, and Dumont have no local presence except in the cemetery of their church. Others, although few, chose to stay and become a part of the community. A few descendants are living in Camrose.