It is uncertain when the original Indian tribes began to settle in bands in this area. With the infiltration of the white population in the east, the Indian tribes retreated farther west and north, creating scattered areas of settlement over the virgin country that would become Saskatchewan.
The earliest Cree Indians in the Big River area are said to be descendants of the Dog Rib and Wood Indians from Athabasca. These people enjoyed an abundant supply of water, prosperous hunting grounds and reserves of natural timber. One band of Cree established a camp site on the banks of a long narrow river that flowed through the area. They called it 'Oklemow Cee-Pee', which when translated means 'Big River', It is from this translation that our town got its name.
From legends handed down through generations of Cree Indians, we learn that a band of Stoney Indians established a campsite on the west side of Delaronde Lake (this location is the peninsula where T.D. Michel presently resides). After the battle of the Little Big Horn, some of the surviving followers of Sitting Bull made their way to the Delaronde beach. The local Crees called this area "The Lake of the Stoneys' and so for years it was known as Stoney Lake. Sometime later, it was officially renamed in honour of Alex Delaronde, an early settler who ran a stopping place at the south end of the lake.
It appears Chief Kenemotayoo was promised that a reserve would be set up on Stoney Lake (Delaronde) for his people, but this was not done because of the 1885 fires and the fact that no survey was completed at that time. The Indians of that area traditionally lived at or near the Village, but to date no records indicate an official reserve was ever established. In 1898, Chief Kenemotayoo and his tribe amalgamated with the Whitefish Lake band. Under the treaty that was signed in 1876, a reserve was established at Whitefish Lake in 1888 and the tribes of Stoney Lake, Whitefish Lake, Big River and Pelican Lakes agreed to amalgamate under Chief Kenemotayoo.
A number of the local families moved to this reserve at that time, but some of the band remained at the Village until 1919. Since that time, the area has been used for trapping and fishing and the Indians communicated between here and Whitefish. There are two Indian burial grounds on the Delaronde shores, close to the Village. In the old days, burials were made by wrapping the body in a blanket and laying it on poles over an open grave, then covering it well with earth. In time, the poles would rot and break and the remains and the earth would enter the waiting grave.
About one hundred and fifty years ago this peninsula on Delaronde was covered with jackpine and spruce. The lake provided a constant supply of fresh fish and attracted many fur bearing animals. From legends handed down it is believed it was to this place the Stoney Indians came and set up a temporary camp. In spite of the pleasant location, disease and fire plagued these people. Excessive mosquitoes and bull flies that year, followed by much illness brought hardship to the entire tribe. Added to this, a flash forest fire caused by a violent electrical storm, drove the few remaining people from the area. The fire at that time, is said to have spread south, fanned by high winds. The land from Delaronde to Bodmin was burned off, leaving Bodmin Hill so bare, it was known as Rabbit Plains for many years after.
In 1885, the Federal Department of the Interior sent a group of surveyors and requested an appraisal of the timber potential of this area. The men were unable to chart anything east of Delaronde Lake as fires prevented them from entering the area. These mysterious fires were believed to have been set by Riel's Indian allies who had fled north from Batoche to escape Middleton's troops.
The Carlton to Green Lake trail was surveyed by John Bourgeois in 1888. This was under the supervision of the North West Territories.
Around this time, a Mission School was built and maintained by the Missionary Society of the Church of England on the shores of the east side of Delaronde Lake. In 1890, Louis Ahenakew and George Isbister from Winnipeg, taught the Indian children at this school. A small settlement grew up around the Mission and a burial ground was set aside. From that time to the present, this place has been known as the Indian Village and it has been a traditional camping place for families for generations.
Records show the first Chief was See See Way-um, followed by Chief Kenemotayoo. One of the earliest trails in the districts is one that comes out of the south, following high land and going east around Delaronde Lake, past the Indian Village and east toward what is now the Prince Albert National Park. This old trail was known as the Kenemotayoo Trail, named in honour of the Chief.
According to Mr. Miles Isbister, a pioneer of this district, Mr. Moar of the Forestry Department used part of this trail in the early mill years, cleaning it out and widening it so that it would be useful for hauling freight. The Kenemotayoo and the Hudson Bay Trail were the first trails into the district.
Ernest Joseph's father, told the story of how he was camped just off the Kenemotayoo Trail one night. He had his tea boiling over the campfire when suddenly something large, with two bright eyes and a loud noise came rushing past his camp! Fearing to chase this creature in the dark, Mr. Joseph waited until morning to check out the tracks left by the bright eyed thing. Sure enough, there in the sand and mud were funny little marks all along the trail. Later he found out it was the Model T Ford car owned by William Cowan and Oscar Sharpe. This car was likely the first in Big River district and was seen many times after that bouncing along over the old trail on its way to Big River.
It is said a tribe of Indians from the south ventured into the area behind Bodmin Hill. They were a nomadic band and before they moved on, the onset of an early winter left them trapped in the area. The territory became known as 'Winter Lake' after the tribe that had been forced to winter there.
The Indians had a special name for the winding river that flowed north from Big River. They referred to it as 'wa-wa-gig-gon-ow' which translated means 'water that flows crooked'. Many years later, the northern end of this river was dammed by the Big River Lumber Company. As a result, the water level rose and a lake was formed. It took the name the Indians had awarded it and was called "Crooked Lake". Later in honour of one of the earliest sawmill officials, William Cowan, the lake was renamed Cowan Lake.
The hill at Bodmin was well known to the Cree Indians who often used it as a lookout place as well as for religious meditations. The Indians called the hill 'okee-se-won', which means 'to climb hill'. Somehow, this was eventually turned to Ladder Hill and the nearby lake bears the same name. The hill gradually became known as Bodmin Hill after the small settlement of that name sprang up to the west.
One of the first white men to venture into this northern area was Peter Pond, an independent fur trader from Montreal. He established a small post at the mouth of the Shell River and spent the winter of 1792 there. His destination was Green Lake and in the spring the expedition pressed further north. It is believed these explorers must have journeyed up the Big River.
Pierre De La Ronde became the manager of the original Peter Pond trading post at Shell River. Coming from Quebec in the 1800s, he came to the Shell River and raised his family there. One of his sons, Alex, saw the necessity in later years, for a stopping place along the Hudson Bay Trail. He chose the banks of the Big River for a post to accommodate the freighters en route from Prince Albert to Ile-A-La-Crosse. He later moved to Stoney Lake, where he operated a trading post and a stopping place somewhere along the south end of the lake.
Around 1908 three men with oxen, supplies and fishing equipment assembled in Prince Albert. These men were E.C. Brownfield, D.E Overly and Walter Knight. They planned to travel to Crooked Lake and set up a fish camp. The trail was fairly good as far as Devil's Lake, but from there they followed an old Indian trail, cutting out the road as they went. They reached their destination three days later, a total distance of ninety miles north of Prince Albert. They set up their fish camp at Stoney Lake about eight miles from Alex Delaronde's trading post and spent the winter fishing and freighting. So in 1908, fish from Big River lakes went on the commercial market for the first time.
The Mill Story