Nov 16

A dash of history & culture in the Rocky Mountains

by in Blog trip, Culture, North America

Tete Jaune - logo for Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives Museum

Tete Jaune

History in the Rocky Mountains


A hiker strides out into the wilderness of one of North America’s most renowned regions. He is Tête Jaune, the legendary pathfinder of the Yellowhead Pass through the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Part Iroquois and part European, (Métis) Pierre Bostonnais was a fur trader and worked with the Hudson Bay Trading company in the Rockies. He is now the logo for the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, an excellent little museum in Jasper, Alberta, showcasing the fascinating history and culture of the area.

Jasper Museum exhibition in the Rocky Mountains

Jasper Museum exhibition

Explorers and traders forged a way through the Rocky Mountains, in the pioneering days of the early 1800s. Trading with the local First Nation people, they were intrepid adventurers whose everyday life is recreated in tableaux throughout the museum. When Jasper Haws took command of a small provisions depot in 1815 it became known as Jasper’s House and became the centre for a small community responsible for meeting transportation and supply needs, caring for horses grazing in the valley, and trading goods for meat and furs with Aboriginal groups, including Iroquois and Métis peoples. Grainy black and white photos show earnest men wielding guns and tools, digging, fishing, building and relaxing, in what must have been extremely inhospitable conditions. Even today, Jasper has a ‘wild-west’ feel to it, enclosed by the mighty Rockies and prey to every kind of weather, often in one day.

Jasper Trading Post

Jasper Trading Post

The railway brought huge changes to Jasper and surrounding area, connecting it to the outside world so much easier. As the population of the town grew, the good times rolled and prosperity boomed. The opening of W.S. Jeffery department store meant locals did not have to wait months for basics and luxuries. More women came, bringing style and elegance and music and dancing became popular. The first tourists began to arrive, eager to see experience the ‘wilderness’ for themselves.

Stylish Jasper history in Museum - Rocky Mountains

Stylish Jasper

There’s a fairly lengthy but highly informative film ‘Jasper – Just Passing Through’ which tells the story of Jasper from the very early days of civilization, to the arrival of surveyor David Thompson and the Hudson Bay Company, up to the present day. Equally important is the life of the First Nation peoples, who first traversed the Athabasca Valley through the Rocky Mountains, using the land that is now Jasper National Park, as seasonal hunting and gathering grounds. There are some lovely objects on display, including moccasins and beautifully embroidered bags.

First Nation objects in Jasper Museum Alberta - image zoedawes

First Nation objects

Visitors who arrive by rail or vehicle will invariably find themselves at the Jasper Park Information Centre. The oldest building in the town, it’s officially designated as a Canadian National Historic Site. Built in 1913-1914 as Jasper National Park administration building, it became the visitor contact centre in 1972. It was one of the first rustic style buildings to be built in a Canadian national park. The staff there are extremely helpful and if you are stuck for accommodation (book ahead if you can) or want to know what to do and where to go, this is the place.

Jasper National Park Centre Rocky Mountains

Jasper National Park Centre

Opposite is one of the most famous landmarks in the town; the Two Brothers Totem Pole. Erected in 2011 to replace the original one, it was made by the Haida people, it is 13.7 metres tall and painted in traditional Haida colours of red, black and blue. Splendid carvings include a grizzly bear, a frog and a raven, topped by a Brother gazing out over the Rockies, ‘ … represents the timeless values that will help present and future generations of Canadians to connect with national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.’

Jasper Totem Pole - Rocky Mountains - photo zoedawes

Jasper Totem Pole


At the opposite end of one of the world’s top roads, the Icefield Parkway, is Banff, a more genteel mountain town than Jasper, and the home of Canada’s first National Park. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built, railway workers discovered hot springs in 1883, though known by local First Nation peoples for thousands of years. Realising they would become a visitor attraction, the president of CPR built the Scottish baronial style Banff Springs Hotel and the rest is tourism history. To protect the springs from over-commercialisation, the area was declared a National Park and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is hugely popular with tourists today.

The Rocky Mountains from the Cave and Basin National Historic Site Banff Canada- photo zoedawes

Cave and Basin National Historic Site

To get an insight into the First Nation culture and pioneer history of the Rockies, there’s not better place than Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It’s an accessible size with interesting objects well-displayed. The original collection was started by locals Peter and Catharine Whyte and includes, ‘artifacts that help tell the stories of Aboriginal people, artists, immigrants, guides and outfitters, climbers, surveyors, hikers, explorers, adventurers, skiers and residents of the town and area. Artifacts pertaining to the development of Banff National Park are also included.’

Rocky Mountains Park - Whyte Museum Banff

Rocky Mountains Park Exhibitions

There are a couple of art galleries with changing exhibitions; they showcase local and national artists with a very eclectic and often thought-provoking slant. This very attractive and seemingly innocuous sculpture of the Rocky Mountains, a road and some mountain sheep appears very innocuous until you see the blurb. It’s actually a protest by Denise Smith against the controversial Glacier ‘Skywalk’ the Icefields Parkway.

'Skywalk' by Denise Smith Whyte Museum Banff

‘Skywalk’ by Denise Smith

There are plenty of other places to get a feel for the history and culture of the Rocky Mountains in Banff, including the taxidermy heaven of Banff Park Museum. Dating to 1903, the timber-framed building was designed to house a unique collection of all the animals found the National Park. Along Banff Avenue are a number of historic buildings from the early days of rail travel, which add to the town’s heritage charm. For a glimpse into its luxurious past and present, take the Historical Tour at the imposing and stylish Fairmont Banff Springs.

Sir William van Horne and Banff Springs Hotel

Sir William van Horne and Banff Springs Hotel

A knowledgeable guide explains how the hotel came into being, takes you through various majestic halls, ballrooms, corridors, restaurants and bars, telling amusing anecdotes about the hotel’s founder, staff, visitors and ghosts! Thanks to my charming guide Tom.) Have a cocktail on the terrace overlooking the sinuous Bow River and mighty Rocky Mountains and feel a part of the unique fabric of this towering region of Canada. Unforgettable …

Cocktail on Banff Springs Hotel terrace Rocky Mountains Canada - zoedawes

Cheers from Banff Springs

I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.

More on our Travelator Media #explorecanada RV trip from Vancouver to Montreal:

The Quirky Traveller: 24 hours in Calgary

Travel with Kat: The Wildlife of Canada’s Clayoquot Sound

On the Luce: Exploring Ontario’s Provincial Parks

Heather on Her Travels: A Perfect Day in Montreal

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Rocky Mountains Canada - History and Culture

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12 Responses to “A dash of history & culture in the Rocky Mountains”

  1. From Zoe Dawes:

    It was really interesting to find out more about the men – and very intrepid women – who forged a way through this area, and even more so to learn about the First Nation peoples who lived there for thousands of year. If (nay, WHEN!) you visit the Rockies, do go to one of the museums or other centre and discover the history of this area.

    Posted on November 17, 2016 at 6:53 pm #
  2. From Kathryn Burrington:

    It all sounds so interesting and as for those views over coffee… fabulous!

    Posted on November 17, 2016 at 8:55 pm #
  3. From Zoe Dawes:

    Cheers Kat – the coffee was a cocktail – much more my style 😉

    Posted on November 17, 2016 at 9:26 pm #
  4. From John MacBeath:

    Must have been a tough life in the pioneering days. No wonder they liked the hot springs!

    Posted on November 17, 2016 at 11:51 pm #
  5. From Zoe Dawes:

    Yes, John, there would have been very few home comforts in the early days of exploration so a natural hot bath would’ve been a real luxury. It was very good when we tried Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park, with snow on the mountain tops but in steamy hot water 🙂

    Posted on November 17, 2016 at 11:55 pm #
  6. From Nim Singh:

    Nice to read about the history and those early characters. THey often get overlooked in amongst all the scenery!

    Posted on November 18, 2016 at 10:30 am #
  7. From Gary Bembridge:

    The Rocky Mountains are amazing. It was good to see and read about the history and great finds in this article! Had not seen that side of the area before.

    Posted on November 18, 2016 at 11:37 am #
  8. From Zoe Dawes:

    Yes, it was a side I didn’t even think to research before I went Nim, but it was fascinating to find out the story behind the tourism boom.

    Posted on November 21, 2016 at 4:28 pm #
  9. From Zoe Dawes:

    Adds another dimension to visiting the Rockies doesn’t it Gary. I love finding out the story behind the tourism of an area.

    Posted on November 21, 2016 at 4:29 pm #
  10. From Lucy:

    Interesting to find out more about the other sides to the Rockies, the views get all the publicity but the human stories are fascinating too!

    Posted on November 28, 2016 at 11:51 am #
  11. From Zoe Dawes:

    As you say Lucy, the human side of the story is very interesting and well-told in these museums and exhibits.

    Posted on November 28, 2016 at 3:02 pm #


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