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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter VI
Further Exploration and Travel


Before we take up the history of the Province after the Canadian Government took over the North-West, there are some features and events of the Hudson's Bay days that could not be logically included in the last chapter dealing with the fur trade. From time to time we catch glimpses of the province from reports of travellers and explorers. We shall first deal with the Arctic Explorers, for although Alberta lies far south of the Arctic, the eyes of the people of this province are turned to the window of the north and feel that the history of that silent land is part of their own.

Hearne, as we have seen, reached the mouth of the Coppermine in 1771 and Mackenzie the mouth of his own river in 1789. The British Government was anxious to explore the country beyond these points and sent out Capt. John Franklin, R. N., in 1819, with instructions to explore the coast eastward from the mouth of the Coppermine River. He was accompanied by Dr. John Rae, surgeon in the Royal Navy, and Mr. George Back and Mr. Robert hood, two Admiralty shipmen.

The party proceeded by the Hudson's Bay boat "Prince of Wales" to York Factory and thence by the usual route to the Saskatchewan as far as Fort Carlton. From here they crossed to the Beaver River and followed the old route of the voyageurs to Fort Chipewyan, reaching there in March, 1820, where they made final preparations for the journey overland to the mouth of the Coppermine River.

Franklin left old Fort Providence in August accompanied by W. F. Wentzel of the North West Company and proceeded to Fort Enterprise where he wintered 1820-1821. In June, 1821, he crossed the Height of Land and descended to the Coppermine and explored the Arctic Coast from this point eastward through Bathurst Inlet and Melville Sound to Point Turnagain. From here he travelled to the mouth of Hood River ascending the same to Wilberforce Falls where he abandoned his canoes and started overland to Fort Enterprise. The party suffered terrible privations; one of the guides, insane by hunger, shot poor hood. They finally reached old Fort Providence on December 11th, reaching York Factory the following July, having travelled 5,550 miles. Franklin, Richardson and Back, with Lieut. E. N. Kendall, made a Second Polar Expedition in the years 1825-26-27. On this expedition they built a hut at the west end of Great Bear Lake which they used as a base for their Arctic Explorations. This is known as Fort Franklin. The object of the expedition was to explore the Coast eastward from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to the mouth of the Coppermine and westward as far as possible. The party proceeded by the usual canoe route of the fur traders via Cumberland House, Frog Portage to Fort Chipewyan and down by the waterway to Fort Franklin. In June, 1826, the party descended the Mackenzie River to Point Separation, so called on the maps because here the party divided,—Franklin and Back undertaking to survey the west Coast, while Richardson and Kendall undertook to survey the east Coast. Enlightened by his experience on the former expedition, Franklin provided himself with two stout boats, the "Lion" and "Reliance" while Richardson was similarly equipped with the "Dolphin" and "Union." Franklin explored the Coast to Beachey, a distance of 374 miles, while Richardson reached the mouth of the Coppermine River, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, and named the Strait which separates Wollaston Land from the mainland,—Dolphin and Union Strait, after the names of his trusty boats, in August he ascended the Coppermine River, where he abandoned his boats and struck overland to Great Bear Lake and reached Fort Franklin September 1st. By the end of September he was joined by Franklin again.

In 1833 Captain Back again returned to the North to seek for Sir John Ross, whose party was reported lost, lie established his headquarters at the extreme eastern end of Great Slave Lake, where he built a Fort called Fort Reliance. Here he spent the winter of 1833. During the winter he learned that Ross' party was safe in England. Nevertheless he resolved to continue his expedition. The expedition was under the auspices of the Arctic Society of the Hudson's Bay Company. The British Government contributed 2,000 pounds sterling, the friends of Sir John Ross 3,000 pounds sterling, and the Hudson's Bay Company undertook to furnish supplies and canoes and send two of their most experienced northern traders, James Stuart and Alexander R. Macleod to assist the expedition. Captain Back left Fort Reliance in June, 1834, and reached the mouth of Great Fish River July 29th. He explored the sea coast to Point Ogle, returning by the same route and reaching Fort Reliance September 27th, 1834. At Point Ogle he discovered driftwood which he judged must have come from the mouth of the Mackenzie River and hence concluded that a current swept the Arctic shore from the west towards the east.

The next Expedition was fitted out by the Hudson's Bay Company. By the Minutes of 1836 of the Council of Rupert's Land, Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease and Mr. Thomas Simpson, with a party of twelve men, were instructed to carry out additional Arctic exploration. This was one of the most successful expeditions of the series. From Fort Chipewyan Simpson proceeded to the mouth of the Mackenzie, which he reached July 9th, 1837, and explored the west coast beyond the point reached by Franklin a few years before. Returning to Great Bear Lake he built Fort Confidence on the extreme eastern end and wintered here 1837-38. In June he crossed over to the Coppermine and descended to its mouth. Ice conditions prevented him from using boats, so he travelled along the coast on foot with seven men carrying canvas canoes, arms, tents and provisions and succeeded in reaching Cape Alexander, 100 miles east of Cape Turnagain. He returned to Fort Confidence and spent the winter. In the summer of 1839 the two explorers set out again and reached Cape Alexander July 26th. From this point they explored the Coast eastward around Adelaide Peninsula to Point Ogle, which they reached August 13th, the point reached by Captain Back in 1834. From Point Ogle they proceeded to Montreal Island, where they found a cache left by Back. They followed the coast to the mouth of the Castor and Pollux River, which they reached August 20th. Here they turned homeward following the south shore of King William Land and Victoria Land, reaching the mouth of the Coppermine River again on September 16th, 1839, and eight days later were back at Fort Confidence. They appropriately named the straits separating Victoria Land and King William Land from the mainland, Dease and Simpson straits, respectively. They thus established the existence of a water channel separating the Great Arctic Island from the rest of Canada.

The tragic fate of Sir John Franklin's Third Expedition led to another overland expedition led by Sir John Richardson and Dr. Rae to determine Franklin's fate. Dr. Rae was an officer in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, and had already spent a winter in Arctic exploration. The party proceeded by the usual fur traders' route to Fort Chipewyan, reaching this post July 11th, 1848, and the mouth of the Mackenzie August 3rd. They were unable to make any successful exploration that summer, ice conditions preventing them from crossing Dolphin and Union Strait to Wollaston Land. They spent the winter of 1848-49 at Fort Confidence. In June, 1849, Rae set out for the coast and after unusual difficulties reached the sea July 14th. After many vain endeavors to cross to Wollaston Land, he was forced to return to Fort Confidence.

Two years later Dr. Rae, under instructions from the Hudson's Bay Company, returned to the north and explored Wollaston Land and Victoria Land. Determined to confirm the ill-fated end of Franklin's Expedition, he returned again in 1853. In the spring of 1854 he explored the west coast of Boothia. The Esquimaux told him that in the spring of 1850 they had seen about forty white men with a boat along the south coast of King William Land. They learned from these men that they were on their way to the mainland to reach the reindeer. The Esquimaux further informed him that later in the same spring they found the bodies of about thirty of the white men on the mainland and five more on the island near the coast. The Esquimaux had pieces of silver bearing the Franklin crest and other articles which proved the tragic end of the Franklin Expedition.

The following year Chief Factor James Anderson of the Mackenzie River District descended Back's River and secured from the Esquimaux many relics of the Franklin Expedition. Satisfied by this confirmatory evidence, the Admiralty awarded to Dr. Rae and his companions, 10,000 pounds offered for information of the fate of the Expedition.

We now turn to exploration and travel within the Province. Mention has been made of Franchere and his trip down the Athabaska in 1814. Franchere was a young Canadian from Montreal, who joined the Astor Expedition which sailed in the "Tonquin" in 1810 from New York, and founded Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River in May, 1811, two months before David Thompson reached the mouth of this river. He spent over three years in the Columbia Department and has left us a useful account of the period in his "Narrative of a Voyager to the North West Coast of America in 1811-1812 and 1813" or "The First American Settlement on the Pacific."

After Astoria was purchased from the Pacific Fur Company by the North West Company in October, 1813, Franchere and several partners of the Astor Expedition decided to return to Canada by the best route over the Rocky Mountains instead of by Cape Horn.

They left Astoria or Fort George (as this post was called after the purchase by the North West Company) with the Spring Brigade, April 1814, which included among others, McDonald of Garth, John G. McTavish, famous North West partners; John Clarke and Donald Mackenzie of the Pacific Fur Company, as well as several Hawaiians, Chinooks, Canadian voyagers and clerks, loaded in ten canoes—in all 90 persons.

Proceeding up the the Columbia they reached Boat Encampment at the mouth of Canoe River. They crossed the Rockies by the Athabaska Pass, passing McGillivray's Rock and the Governor's Punch Bowl, the latter a tiny lake on the divide, 400 yards around, formed in the cup of the rocks and so named because it was the custom of the North West Company to treat the voyageurs to a bowl of punch when a nabob of the fur trade passed this point. Buffaloes were observed far up the Athabaska beyond the Miette. A verdant plain along the river was then, as now, known as Buffalo Prairie (Prairie de La Vache).

The party divided at the Pembina River, McDonald and Mackenzie crossing over to Edmonton, while Franchere with others descended the Athabaska to the La Biche River, which he ascended to Lac La Biche, or as he called it "Red Deer Lake." Here he met two young girls gathering ducks' and gulls' eggs. They were the daughters of the famous free trader often mentioned in Henry's Journals, Antoine Desjarlais, a French Canadian from Vercheres, Quebec. He was very glad to meet Franchere, for he had two letters two years old from his sister in Quebec. As he could not read, this was the first opportunity he had to know their contents.

Crossing from Lac La Biche, they descended the Beaver River for a considerable distance, and crossed overland to Fort Vermilion on the Saskatchewan, which they reached at sundown, June 10th. Mr. Hallet, in charge of the post for the Hudson's Bay Company, brought out two quarters of buffalo meat to give them their supper, a splendid and typical example of the hospitality of the West. The population of Vermilion at this time was some 90 persons, men, women and children. Both the North West and Hudson's Bay posts were in operation as in Henry's time, five or six years before.

Alexander Ross crossed the Province with Governor Simpson in 1825 from the Columbia via the Athabaska Pass and Athabaska River. Ross has left an instructive narrative of this trip in his "Fur Hunters of the Far West." By 1825 a new post had been built on the Athabaska—Fort Assiniboine. Ross says this was the third establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company on this river. The first of course would be Henry's House, or Old Fort, opposite the mouth of the Miette River, already mentioned. Ross calls this post Rocky Mountain House, and describes it as "a neat little group of wood huts suited to the climate of the country, rendered comfortable and filled with cheerful, happy inmates." It was in charge of Joseph Felix LaRocque. The second post was Jasper's House, which Ross says "was still smaller and of less importance than the first," and in charge of Michael Klyne. The reader should note that Ross applies the term Rocky Mountain House to the first House, whereas Franchere and Ross Cox described Jasper House by this general name. We have now met with four Rocky Mountain Houses. One on the North Saskatchewan, two on the Athabaska, one on the Peace River at Hudson's Hope. A fifth was built by John Thompson in 1800 on the Mackenzie River, a few miles below Fort Simpson, in sight of the Rocky Mountains.

Governor Simpson and Ross left the Athabaska at Fort Astoria and crossed to Fort Edmonton, or Fort des Prairies, as it was often called in those days. Chief Factor John Rowand was in charge. They continued their journey down the Saskatchewan with the York Factory Brigade, passing Carlton House, under Chief Factor Stewart, Cumberland House under James Leith, where they met Sir John Franklin and Dr. Richardson bound for the Arctic regions. The reader will note here how rapidly the number of posts on the Saskatchewan decreased after the amalgamation of the rival companies.

The first scientific work of determining the flora and fauna of the Province was done in 1825, by Thomas Drummond, the assistant naturalist of Sir John Franklin's second expedition. Drummond ascended the Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains, spent the summer of 1826 in what is now Jasper Park, and returned in the fall of that year to Edmonton. The following spring he travelled down the Saskatchewan Valley gathering specimens of plants and animals, which were afterwards described and classified by Sir John Richardson and Sir William Hooker.

David Douglas, whose name is perpetuated by the noble tree that bears his name, the Douglas Fir, crossed by the Athabaska Pass from British Columbia to Alberta in the spring of 1827, gathering specimens of plants for the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain. He named two mountains, one on each side of the Pass, Brown and Hooker, after the famous scientists who bear these names. He reached Jasper House on May 4th, and travelled eastward with the York Factory Brigade, in charge of Edward Ermatinger.

Sir George Simpson was a great traveller, and crossed the Province several times. Of two of his journeys we have extended accounts, from which we glean considerable information of the country and people. Chief Factor Archibald Macdonald's Journal of the canoe voyage made by Sir George in 1828 across Alberta, via the Athabaska and Peace rivers, presents a new picture of the Peace River compared with the conditions in Thompson's time. Most of the posts were in a ruinous state, and small houses and posts not mentioned before were observed, namely: McTavish's House below the Vermilion Falls. (Mountain or Grand Falls as they were known to the voyageurs) ; above the Falls, English House, built by Halere; Colville's House, built, below where Boyer's River enters the Peace. Farther up, above Vermilion, remnants of Cohn Campbell's House, Robertson and Clarke's, St. Mary's, the latter near the mouth of the Smoky River.

Vermilion and Dunvegan were the only Posts occupied at this time. Dunvegan had been lately reestablished, having been abandoned in 1824 on account of the hostility of the Beaver Indians following the massacre of those in charge of St. John's Fort in the fall of 1823. Pine Fort stood a short distance below the junction of the Pine River with the Peace. Close by, on the same side of the River, was Mr. Yale's house. The old Mountain House was still in existence on the south side of the river at Hudson's Hope.

After 1840 the lure of the West attracted several noted travellers, who spent some time in Alberta and the desire of the authorities in Canada and Great Britain led to the despatch of important exploring expeditions which, in the course of their work, operated within the province. Sir George Simpson crossed the province again in 1841. Leaving Fort Garry July 3rd, 1841, with Chief Factor Rowand of the Saskatchewan District, the Governor travelled overland to Edmonton via Fort Canton and Fort Pitt, reaching Edmonton House July 24th. His Journal on this trip indicates the great fear travellers had in those days in passing through the country of the Blackfeet, especially where it bordered on the territory of the Crees around Fort Pitt and the lower valley of the Battle River. At Edmonton he was received with the firing of guns by native chiefs of the Blackfeet, Piegan, Sarcee and Blood Indians, dressed in their fine clothes and decorated with scalp locks. "They implored me," says Sir George, "to grant their horses might always be swift, that the buffalo might instantly abound and that their wives might live long and look young."

Accompanied by a guide named Peechee, Chief of the Mountain Crees, he set out from Edmonton, passed Gull Lake, crossed the Blind Man and Red Deer rivers and thence through the foothills to the Bow River, which he ascended to opposite Hole in the Wall Mountain. Here he turned up the Pass that bears his name and crossed the summit into British Columbia.

In 1843 Sir J. H. Lefroy, of the British Magnetic Survey, descended the Clearwater and Athabaska Rivers. He spent from October 16th of that year to February 29th, 1844, at Chipewyan taking magnetical and meteorological observations every hour of the twenty-four hours of each day. In the spring he went down the Slave River and the Mackenzie River as far as Fort Simpson, where he remained during the months of April and May. Retracing this route as far as the mouth of the Peace River, he ascended the Peace to Dunvegan. Leaving the river here, he travelled eastward to Lesser Slave Lake and thence to Edmonton.

Paul Kane, the first Canadian artist to win enduring fame, visited Alberta in 1846 and 1847 in his trip across the Continent to secure sketches and drawings of the Indians and the scenery of the West. His canvases, which are preserved in the Royal Ontario Museum, constitute the best existing record of the dress, manners and customs of the Red Men of the West before it was invaded by the white settler. He makes many observations interesting to Albertans today. On his way from Edmonton to Fort Assiniboine he sketched a group of buffalo resting beside the Sturgeon River in the vicinity of St. Albert. On the way westward from Edmonton he was accompanied by Colin Fraser, in charge of a post in the mountains, and the famous Highland piper brought to the North-West by George Simpson and who accompanied the Governor in his famous overland journey of 1828. On his return journey from British Columbia he remained at Edmonton and describes the Christmas festivities of Alberta's capital three-quarters of a century ago. The population at the Fort was 130; 800 cords of wood were burned that winter. Coal from the river bank was used only in the blacksmith's forge, on account of the want of proper iron grates for the stoves. Over 700 horses were kept at the Fort for hunting and packing and one horsekeeper sufficed to look after this immense band. Thousands of buffalo roamed the district close to the Fort. One of his most famous sketches which he used for the frontispiece of his book, "The Wanderings of an Artist," was an Edmonton Cree girl described by the poetic name of Cun-ne-wa-bum, "The one who looks at the stars."

The fact that the Hudson's Bay license was to expire in 1859 actuated the Canadian and British Governments to acquire definite information regarding the natural resources of the vast area of Rupert's Land and the feasibility of communication from Canada to the Red River and from the Great Plains through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Strange as it may seem today, older Canada and the rest of the Empire tardily realised that the prairies between the Red River and the Rocky Mountains were different in soil, rainfall and other essential characteristics of a desirable agricultural region, from the great American desert south of the International Boundary. Canada did not actually discover the fertile belt of the North-West until 1860. We are indebted to two Expeditions for this gratifying vindication of the resources of the NorthWest,—one under Capt. John Palliser, under the auspices of the British Government, and the other under Messrs. S. J. Dawson and Henry Youle Hind, under the auspices of the Canadian Government. The Canadian Expedition confined its activities to the country between Lake Superior and the Red River, and westward to include the area now included in the Provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Expedition has little direct interest to the people of Alberta except that it was the beginning of the idea to construct an All-Canadian route across British North America,—an idea that has materialized in the Confederation of all portions of British North America and the three great trans-continental railway systems that exist today.

Palliser's expedition is of the greatest interest to the people of Alberta as a great deal of the exploratory work was done in the region now included in the province and in the mountains towards British Columbia. Assisting Captain Palliser were Dr. James Hector, Capt. R. Blackistone, R. A., M. Bourgeau, botanist, and J. W. Sullivan, secretary. The territory examined and mapped out ranged from Lake Superior to Okanagan Lake in British Columbia and within Alberta from the International Boundary to the watershed of the Arctic Ocean. The first season was devoted to the region between Lake Superior and the Elbow of the South Saskatchewan from the 49th parallel to Fort Canton, where the Expedition wintered 1857-58. The second season was devoted to an examination of the country between the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan River, to the mountains and to the discovery of passes therein. The second winter was spent at Edmonton. From here Dr. Hector made four trips. The first was a ten-clay trip to Snake Hills on the north Saskatchewan, about 100 miles below Edmonton. In November and December, 1858, he examined the country in the vicinity of the Red Deer River through the foothills to old Bow Fort. In January and February, 1859, he went to Jasper's house via Fort Assiniboine. Accompanied by Mr. Moberley, the gentleman in charge of the post, he journeyed five days up the Athabaska River into Athabaska Pass. Want of food compelled him to return to Jasper's House. From here he returned to Edmonton by Macleod River and Lac Ste. Anne. At the end of March he went down to Fort Pitt on the crust of the snow, returning when the snow went away to study the soil. Captain Palliser during the same winter made the trip to the Beaver Hills and another up the Saskatchewan to Rocky Mountain House.

The third season commenced in May with a long journey from Edmonton via Buffalo Lake and Red Deer Forks into the Cypress hills. On the way Palliser met several camps of the Blackfeet, who complained that the Hudson's Bay Company charged them more for their supplies than was charged the Crees. Consequently they were beginning to trade with the Americans at Fort Benton. Leaving the Cypress hills in August, 1859, the party explored westward. Soon the party divided, Palliser proceeding nearly along the 49th parallel to Chief Mountain and crossed the Rockies by the Kootenay Pass. Hector turned northwestward and crossed the Belly River where it joins the Bow. He continued up the Bow until he came to the site of old Bow Fort, meeting many Piegans and Mountain Assiniboines, living on elk and grizzly bears, turnips and potatoes grown at the Bow Fort mission. Following the valley of the Bow he reached Castle Mountain opposite Vermilion Pass. Here he turned northwest, keeping on the east side of the watershed, passing by the Pipestone Pass to the north Saskatchewan River. Turning southwest he followed up the Saskatchewan, crossing the mountains by Howse Pass in the path of Thompson and descended the Blaeberry River to the Columbia.

The object of the expedition was to examine into the possibilities of settlement and to "ascertain whether any practicable pass or passes available for horses, existed across the Rocky Mountains within British territory and south of that known to exist between Mount Brown and Mount Hooker, known as the Boat Encampment Pass." The report to the British Government was elaborate and eloquent of the natural wealth of the country. Palliser explored the Kootenay and Kananaskis passes, Hector the Vermilion and Kicking Horse passes. They found the various passes available for horses. Notwithstanding these discoveries, Palliser reported against the settlement of the country and the construction of a railway. After stating that his Expedition had made connection between the prairies and British Columbia without passing through the United States Territory, he added, "Still the knowledge of the country on the whole would never lead me to advise a line of communication from Canada across the Continent to the Pacific, exclusively through British Territory. The time has forever gone for effecting such an object."

Palliser was followed two years later by Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle, who were sent out by the Royal Geographical Society to find the most direct route through British Territory to the gold region of Caribou and to explore the unknown country at the source of the North Thompson River. All the important passes from the South Kootenay to the Athabaska had now been discovered by Palliser's and previous expeditions. Where the Athabaska turns south, a little west of the present Jasper Station, it is joined by the Miette from the west. This river leads to the Yellowhead Pass, one of the lowest in the mountains. Through this pass Lord Milton's party travelled in 1863 and reported that the most practicable route from the fertile belt of the Saskatchewan to the gold regions of British Columbia was by the Leather or Yellowhead Pass and along the North Thompson River, the present route of the Canadian National Railway.

The party wintered 1862-63 about 80 miles northwest of Fort Carlton at White Fish Lake, where they built a hut and lived comfortably until spring. Their horses had been turned loose in the fall and rounded up when the snow went away. "Although very thin when the snow began to fall, they were now perfect balls of fat and as wild and full of spirit as if fed on corn," says Lord Milton in his fascinating story of the Expedition, "The North West Passage by Land." There was no settlement between Fort Canton and Edmonton except a post at Fort Pitt and Victoria. St. Albert and Lac Ste. Anne were flourishing settlements though grizzly bears were near enough to kill the horses at St. Albert. Cohn Fraser, Simpson's piper, was now in charge of Lac Ste. Anne. On the 5th day after leaving Jasper House, the party was surprised to come upon a stream flowing westward. Unconsciously they had passed the summit, the ascent had been so imperceptible. In their passage through the mountains, Milton and Cheadle overtook a party of emigrants on their way to the Cariboo Mines and other parts of British Columbia. The party was composed of citizens of Ontario and Quebec who had assembled at Fort Garry-136 in all. They had travelled to Edmonton by the Carlton Trail, taking the trail on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River from Fort Pitt to Edmonton. This party was known as "The Argonauts of 1862." Their guide from Edmonton to the Yehlowhead Pass and Tete Jaune Cache was André Cardinal, the famous half breed guide of the time. The Argonauts were the third party of actual settlers known to have crossed the plains up to this time to settle west of the Rocky Mountains. The first was a party of twenty-three families in 1841, mentioned by Sir George Simpson, and the second, the Sinclair Party in 1854, comprising sixty-five persons, after whom the Sinclair Pass on the Banff-Windermere Road is named.

Ten years later, notwithstanding Palliser's report, Government engineers were making the preliminary survey of the C. P. R. through the Yellowhead Pass. In 1871 British Columbia entered Confederation. One of the terms of the union was the construction of a railway joining the Pacific province with Eastern Canada. Sandford Fleming, the Chief Engineer of the Canadian Government, crossed the plains in 1.872 from Winnipeg by the trail of Simpson, Kane, Milton and Cheadle, namely, Portage La Prairie, Fort Ellice, Touchwood Hills, Fort Canton, Fort Pitt, Victoria, Edmonton, Lac Ste. Anne, Jasper House. At Edmonton he despatched Charles Horetzky and John Macoun to examine the country through the Peace River Valley and the Pine Pass. By the end of 1872 every pass in the Rocky Mountains had been traversed and explored by white men. The pioneer work of Mackenzie and Thompson was finished, and a new era was breaking over the Great Lone Land.


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