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Modern Calgary is one of the West's largest and youngest cities, its close to 850,000-strong population having grown from almost nothing in barely 125 years. Long before the coming of outsiders, however, the area was the domain of the Blackfoot , who ranged over the site of present-day Calgary for several thousand years. About 300 years ago, they were joined by Sarcee , forced south by war from their northern heartlands, and the Stoney , who migrated north with Sitting Bull into southern Saskatchewan and then Alberta. Traces of old campsites, buffalo kills and pictographs from all three peoples lie across the region, though these days aboriginal lands locally are confined to a few reserves.

Whites first began to gather around the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers at the end of the eighteenth century. Explorer David Thompson wintered here during his peregrinations, while the Palliser expedition spent time nearby en route for the Rockies. Settlers started arriving in force around 1860, when hunters moved into the region from the United States, where their prey, the buffalo, had been hunted to the edge of extinction. Herds still roamed the Alberta grasslands, attracting not only hunters but also whiskey traders , who plied their dubious wares among whites and aboriginal peoples alike. Trouble inevitably followed, leading to the creation of the West's first North West Mounted Police stockade at Fort Macleod . Soon after, in 1875, a second fort was built further north to curb the lawlessness of the whiskey traders. A year later it was christened Fort Calgary , taking its name from the Scottish birthplace of its assistant commissioner. The word calgary is Gaelic for "clear running water", and it was felt that the ice-clear waters of the Bow and Elbow rivers were reminiscent of the "old country".

By 1883 a station had been built close to the fort, part of the new trans-Canadian railway . The township laid out nearby quickly attracted ranchers and British gentlemen farmers to its low, hilly bluffs - which are indeed strongly reminiscent of Scottish moors and lowlands - and cemented an enduring Anglo-Saxon cultural bias. Ranchers from the US - where pasture was heavily overgrazed - were further encouraged by an "open grazing" policy across the Alberta grasslands. Despite Calgary's modern-day cowboy life - most notably its famous annual Stampede - the Alberta cattle country has been described as more "mild West" than Wild West. Research suggests that there were just three recorded gunfights in the nineteenth century, and poorly executed ones at that.

By 1886 fires had wiped out most of the town's temporary wooded and tented buildings, leading to an edict declaring that all new buildings should be constructed in sandstone (for a while Calgary was known as "Sandstone City"). The fires proved no more than a minor historical hiccup and within just nine years of the railway's arrival Calgary achieved official city status, something it had taken rival Edmonton over 100 years to achieve. Edmonton was to have its revenge in 1910, when it was made Alberta's provincial capital.

Cattle and the coming of the railway generated exceptional growth, though the city's rise was to be nothing compared to the prosperity that followed the discovery of oil . The first strike, the famous Dingman's No. 1 Well, took place in 1914 in the nearby Turner Valley. An oil refinery opened in 1923, and since then. Calgary has rarely looked back. In the 25 years after 1950, its population doubled. When oil prices soared during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the city exploded, becoming a world energy and financial centre - headquarters for some four hundred oil and related businesses - with more American inhabitants than any other Canadian city.

Falling commodity prices subsequently punctured the city's ballooning economy, but not before the city centre had been virtually rebuilt and acquired improved and oil-financed cultural, civic and other facilities. Today only Toronto is home to the headquarters of more major Canadian corporations, though the city's optimism is tempered, as elsewhere in Canada, by the notion of federal disintegration . Much of the West, which still harbours a sense of a new frontier, is increasingly impatient with the "old East", and happy - if election results are anything to go by - to become increasingly self-sufficient.

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