The First Nations long ago discovered the oil sands outcrops along the banks of the Athabasca River and used the bitumen they found as caulking for their canoes.
At the end of the 18th century, Robert Fitzsimmons managed to separate the bitumen from the sand industrially and sold his production for road surfacing and roofing.
In the 1880s, the Canadian government became convinced of the economic potential of the Athabasca deposits, predicted to become "one of the wonders of northern Canada," and commissioned the first geological survey of the oil sands.
At the time, it was thought that the bitumen came from subsurface oil accumulations. Some two dozen wells were drilled between 1906 and 1917, but no oil was found. These efforts nonetheless turned out to be fruitful — the exploratory drilling revealed the presence of salt formations and a thriving salt extraction industry developed, which was Fort McMurray’s main industry for the following 50 years.
Interest in the Athabasca oil sands revived in the 1950s, and in 1962, the Alberta government established an active development policy.