Rediscovering the Oxley Ranch

In the fall of 2012, the exhibit “Uncovering Secrets: Archaeology in Southern Alberta” highlighted 15 sites and features, telling human stories found under the soils and across the landscape of the area, including the sprawling 200,000 acre Oxley Ranch, established in 1882.

Ranching began in southern Alberta in the 1880s after the loss of the buffalo herds, and when the Conservative government offered large inexpensive leases for land suitable for grazing. Most early ranches were owned by European and Eastern Canadian investors who brought large herds of cattle into the area. The primary local market was the federal government who supplied beef to Treaty No. 7 tribes and the North West Mounted Police. Once the railway reached Calgary in 1883, live animals were shipped to eastern and European markets.

When a dam and reservoir were planned in the late 1990s for the confluence of Willow and Pine Creeks west of Stavely, an archaeological survey was made on the remains of the New Oxley Ranch on Willow Creek. Archaeologist John Brandon conducted a surface search with a metal detector, photographed remaining buildings and excavated several areas of the ranch headquarters. Brandon also read historical accounts and interviewed the last owner of the ranch.

The late Jim Gordon II identified buildings and shared stories of the life he and his family had on the Oxley. John Brandon felt “the presence of an archaeological crew at the site prompted him to share these memories which perhaps would not have happened otherwise.” He tied these resources together with descriptions from Evelyn Springett (Elliott Galt’s sister), who authored a book about her life on the ranch in the 1890s.

The archaeological excavations focused on the house, the bunkhouse, several smaller outbuildings as well as two garbage middens and an outhouse pit. The bulk of the recovered artifacts came from the two middens. Detailed photographs of the interior and exteriors of the buildings were taken. The luxury of a 1922 aerial photo provided valuable comparative information for the archaeological study.

On March 18, University of Lethbridge archaeology student Tara Collett presents her excavation experience at another site: Fort Vermillion I. More information about this Wednesdays at the Galt talk and “Uncovering Secrets”, including images, is available at