When one looks back to Spain’s colonial empire in the Americas, one usually thinks of its possessions that encompasses Mexico, Central America, and South America. Maybe old California and Texas, or its Caribbean possessions such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico spring to mind. Canada’s Prairie Provinces don’t exactly scream out ‘Spain’ to most people. Yet, for the latter portion of the 18th century, Spain held a (very nominal) domain over the extreme southern portions of what are now the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, all due to the random fluke of water drainage. Texas may be famous for its fabled ‘Six Flags’ representing the various countries that held sovereignty over its territory at some point since 1519, but how the phrase ‘Eight Flags’ came to be associated with the most arid portions of modern-day southern Canada is a rather unique tale in itself.
The majority of the portion of the Mississippi drainage basin located north of the Canada/United States border is part of the Milk River watershed. Click here for a detailed map of the watershed.
The Milk River, a 1 173 km (729 mi) long tributary of the Missouri River, is the only major river within Canada that drains into the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri and Mississippi rivers (two small rivers to the immediate east of the Milk watershed, Big Muddy Creek and the Poplar River, also drain southward into the Missouri). Just under half of the Milk’s semi-arid, sparsely-populated watershed lies on the Canadian side of the border with the United States that runs along the 49th parallel north, a border whose form was not determined until 1818. Prior to this, as far as European powers were concerned, this small portion of Canada was actually grouped with entities to the south as it lay within the Mississippi basin, keeping strongly in mind that permanent non-First Nations control over the region was not truly established until the Numbered Treaties of 1874 (with Cree and Saulteaux nations) and 1877 (with the nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy).
The drainage basin of the Mississippi River. Source: Shannon, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mississippirivermap.png. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Due to this unique collection of geopolitical circumstances, the town of Milk River, Alberta (2011 census population 811, making it the largest settlement in the Albertan portion of the watershed) has adopted the motto ‘Under Eight Flags’ – a reference to the no less than eight national flags that have flown (again, nominally) over the area since it was first claimed by Europeans in 1682. Since 1967, these eight flags have flown at the southern entrance to the town.
France (1682-1762): The first European claim to the Milk River region came in 1682 when the French explorer Sieur de la Salle sailed into the Mississippi system from modern-day Indiana and descended the river all the way to its mouth. Naming the entire drainage basin for Louis XIV, de la Salle claimed the entire basin for France as Louisiana. While the lower reaches of the colony (modern-day Louisiana, Mississippi, and coastal Alabama) would be permanently settled by the French beginning in the 1710s and settlements would gradually be built further north along the Mississippi, the Milk River region was never remotely approached).
Spain (1762-1800): France would cede its possessions east of the Mississippi to Great Britain in 1763 (with the exception of the portion of the modern-day state Louisiana that lies east of the river in the immediate environs of New Orleans), but not before secretly giving its massive Louisiana colony to Spain in the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau as part of the global fallout of the Seven Years War. The treaty was made public in 1764. At no point did the Spanish actually venture into the Milk River watershed, which was slowly beginning to be penetrated by Canadian fur traders.
With no designated Spanish flag during this period, the issue of what actually constituted the flag of Spain is murky. The first flag shown here is the royal standard of Charles III, who ruled over the Spanish Empire from 1760 to 1788. The Town of Milk River does not fly this flag; rather, it displays a variant of the flag of Castile and Leon (the second flag shown here). This flag would not have actually been a national flag of Spain at this point although it did feature as one of the components on the royal banner of Ferdinand VI, who in theory would have ruled over the territory between 1756 and his death in 1759, and carried over to the centre of Charles III’s standard. Castile and Leon as a standalone entity ceased with the 15th century merger of the Castilian and Aragonese crowns, the antecedent of modern Spain, and symbols of the two component crowns had long been merged within the various royal standards. Very likely, the town of Milk River would have began using the Castile and Leon flag because it, as the banner carried by Hernán Cortés during his 16th century conquest of Mexico, this banner was the one originally designated for use in the Texan Six Flags arrangement back in 1936.
The third flag flown, the current flag of Spain, was only designated as the Spanish national flag in 1840 (and only entrenched in the constitution in 1978), but dates to 1785 when Charles III commissioned a new war ensign for use at sea (this flag is used in most current depictions of the Texan Six Flags). While the official flag of Spain at sea, this flag would not be used on land until 1820, well after the transfer of the Milk River region back to France.
France (1800-1803): Another secret treaty, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, was signed in 1800 giving possession of Louisiana back to France, now under the control of Napoleon and flying the tricolore. Under pressure from Napoleon in the north, Spanish officials signed the treaty under some duress. The treaty would not be given royal assent until 1802, and France would only have physical possession of the colony for a year.
United States (1803-1818): The fourth of the Eight Flags is the 15-star, 15-stripe version of the United States flag which flew over the US from 1795 to 1818. Worried about the implication of Louisiana’s transfer back to France (not only was the US government alarmed with Napoleon’s territorial ambition in North America both with regard to his purchase of Louisiana and his nearly-simultaneous re-invasion of Haiti to take back the breakaway colony), lamenting the loss of favourable trading relations US merchants previously enjoyed at the port of New Orleans with Spain, and aware that the rapidly westward-expanding nature of US settlement in North America would soon force France’s hand, Thomas Jefferson’s US government formulated a plan to purchase the massive colony from France. The purchase was completed in April 1803 for US$3 750 000 ($233 million in modern money). The boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase were still vague at this time, with Spain claiming everything to the immediate vicinity of the west bank of the Mississippi and the US claiming the entire western portion of the Mississippi Basin. The dispute was settled in 1819 mostly in favour of the US, but for Milk River, this would be a moot point.
Rupert’s Land (1818-1869): To the north of the United States’ new purchase was Rupert’s Land, a British territory that was placed under the exclusive domain of, and nominally owned by, the massive Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur trading organisation (founded in 1670, the company still persists today as a general retail merchant with stores across Canada and the United States; one of the oldest corporations in the world). At this point, the boundary between HBC’s Rupert’s Land and US territory was still undefined beyond an imaginary line from the Lake of the Woodswestward to the Mississippi. The problem? The Mississippi did not actually extend that far north, and in the Red River Colony to the west of the Lake, British settlers and Canadian fur traders had pushed down to the height of land between the Red and the Mississippi, well south of the lake. To resolve the dispute, the Convention of 1818 drew the international boundary west of the lake along the 49th parallel north (the parallel that extended west of the lake) all the way to the Rocky Mountains. While this caused the British loss of the Red River Colony below 49°N, it also inadvertently placed the northern portions of the Milk and Poplar drainage areas on the north side of the border, giving them to Rupert’s Land.
United Kingdom (1869-1945): From 1821, the laws of the British colony Upper Canada (modern Ontario) had been deemed to apply within Rupert’s Land, but the vast territory remained legally separate from the colony. Following the confederation of Upper Canada with Lower Canada (Quebec), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia as the new Dominion of Canada in 1867, there was great pressure from the United Kingdom to continue the devolution of powers from itself to its North American possessions. As well, the continued expansion of the United States (symbolised by the purchase of Alaska that same year) created some alarm as to whether or not the US would make a move toward purchasing Rupert’s Land from the HBC, and eventually annex British Columbia and Canada themselves. The United Kingdom pressured the HBC to sell Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1869 in exchange for £300,000 (CAN$27 million in 2010 money) and the granting of 20% of all arable land in the territory to the HBC. The Northwest Territories would be formed from Rupert’s Land in 1870, and the Milk River region would be split between the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. During this time, the official flag of Canada was the Union Flag of the United Kingdom and would remain so until 1945. Milk River thus regards the Union Flag as the sixth of the Eight Flags.
Canada (Red Ensign, 1945-1965): In 1870, the Canadian Red Ensign was developed, an unofficial flag to represent Canada abroad. By 1921, a standard version of the ensign had emerged with the Union Flag in the canton and the shield from the coat of arms of Canada in the field. From the 1920s onward, debated regularly emerged within the Canadian House of Commons regarding the design of a distinctly Canadian national flag, generally pitting English-speaking members looking to keep the Union Flag within the design against French-speaking members looking to remove it from any design. Following World War II, the sitting prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King assembled a committee to design a formal official Canadian flag; their compromise of a smaller Union Flag on the banner was rejected. Not looking to further divide the members, King abandoned the committee and quietly elevated the Red Ensign to official status. Even within this small interval of time, there were two separate versions of the Red Ensign employed; a 1957 revision removed the topless female bust from the Irish harp and changed the colour of the maple leaves from green to red.
Canada (Maple Leaf, 1965-present): When Nobel laureate Lester Pearson took power in 1963, one of his major priorities was the adoption of a distinctly Canadian national flag, one motivated by his involvement in the Suez Crisis in which Canadian peacekeepers were regarded by many on the Egyptian side as being unable to be completely objective as long as their flag contained a British emblem within it. His favourite design, a flag with 3 maple leaves on a white background with a blue bar on each side popularly known as the ‘Pearson Pennant’, was roundly rejected. Fought vociferously on the issue by former prime minister John Diefenbaker, who preferred retaining the Red Ensign or, at the very least, a flag that showed symbols of the country’s British and French heritage, Pearson nevertheless assembled a 1964 committee that would review 3 541 different designs submitted from across the country. The Maple Leaf flag that is now universally associated with Canada was submitted at the last minute and quickly grew in favour, supplanting the Pearson Pennant as the flag of choice. With all of Pearson’s Liberals plus all of the francophone Conservatives voting for the Maple Leaf flag, the design would be officially signed into law the following year. At Diefenbaker’s funeral in 1979, the Red Ensign adorned the casket.
The ‘Pearson Pennant’.
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Centre for Canadian Studies (2001). The Flag Debate. About Canada Multimedia Study Guide Resources. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20080424150641/http://www.mta.ca/about_canada/study_guide/debates/flag_debate.html. Accessed 13 May 2012.
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Texas State Library and Archives Commission (2012). Six Flags of Texas. 29 March 2012. Available at https://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ref/abouttx/sixflags.html. Accessed 13 May 2012.
Town of Milk River (2012). Under Eight Flags. Available at http://milkriver.ca/tourism/history/under-eight-flags. Accessed 13 May 2012.