Former Forts and Trading Posts within the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum
An especially important part of Kalyna Country’s heritage are the former fur trading posts that once used to operate along the North Saskatchewan River between Heinsburg and Fort Saskatchewan.
In all, the remnants of six outposts can be found in Kalyna Country dating from the times of the fur trade. The first of these, Fort George-Buckingham House, east of Elk Point, flourished from 1792 to 1802, while the last, Fort Victoria, was founded in 1864, and finally closed in 1897. Both of these have been developed as provincial historic sites for tourists to enjoy while visiting east central Alberta. Whereas a million-dollar interpretive centre at the location of the former documents the life of the early fur traders, the latter offers a more inter-active experience featuring costumed interpreters and the oldest building in Alberta still standing on its original foundation. Neither is to be missed by anyone wanting to learn more about the pivotal role played by the Kalyna Country region in the formative years of the province and the city of Edmonton.
The fur trade expanded into in Alberta in the wake of the trail that was originally blazed by the inland migration of the Woodland Cree and the first Europeans to explore what eventually became the westernmost province on the Canadian prairies. The North Saskatchewan River formed the historic “highway” that was followed by hardy adventurers looking for economic opportunities as well as an overland route to the Pacific Ocean when the vast interior of North American continent was still a great unknown. Initially, pelts harvested on the territory of Alberta were taken to posts further east, and then transported via Hudson’s Bay or the Great Lakes to markets in Western Europe and the burgeoning urban centres of the New World. However, the demand for furs was so great that trading companies were soon compelled to move their collection points further west so as to be closer to their source in the wilderness. In this way, a succession of forts came to be built along the course of the North Saskatchewan River by the various companies that were engaged in the fierce competition for trading partners and territorial supremacy, chiefly the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies.
Whereas the Cree and Assiniboine (Stoney) Indians supplied the forts of Kalyna Country with furs taken from the lands immediately alongside and to the north of the North Saskatchewan, the Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, Sarcee and the distant Peigans brought business to the posts from the south. And since Woodland Indians generally did not get along with their more aggressive counterparts from the Plains and Foothills, it was necessary for the fur traders to try to keep their customers apart so as to avoid the battles that frequently resulted when young braves from rival bands encountered each other in their relentless pursuit of game. At the same time, the trading posts were themselves vulnerable to assaults by occasionally hostile Natives, as happened in 1793 and 1794 when the Gros Ventres Indians attacked four posts in the Saskatchewan district, burning one of them to the ground.
To protect the traders, the posts were typically encircled by high palisades that were reinforced by corner bastions and other defensive structures. All of the forts in Kalyna Country were also erected on the north side of the Saskatchewan River, so as to make it more difficult for the Plains Indians to launch a direct attack by forcing them to first cross the water. Notwithstanding the sometimes uneasy relationship between the Europeans and their Aboriginal trading partners, none of the posts in east central Alberta ever had its defenses tested by an onslaught.
Fort George – Buckingham House, 1792-1802
Fort George was established in 1792 by the North West Company after the furs had been depleted around the first Fort d’Isle on the North Saskatchewan River in eastern Saskatchewan. It was constructed by James Hughes for Angus Shaw with the help of some sixty men – most of them Canadiens from Quebec, many with Indian wives — on the northern banks of the river, 13 kilometers (8 miles) southeast of the modern-day town of Elk Point. The site may have been chosen because it was at the terminus of a Native trail leading from a smaller post that had been previously founded by Shaw at Moose Lake, further north. Fort George eventually consisted of a complex of buildings that included a Main House, store, various living quarters for company employees, a blacksmith’s shop and warehouses, all of which were protected by a palisade.
Not be outdone by their bitter rivals, the Hudson’s Bay Company began work on a fort 1/4 mile west of Fort George on 13 October 1792. Named Buckingham House, the trading post was built by thirty-eight men under the supervision of William Tomison, who like all but four of his labourers came from the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Two days after Tomison reached the site where Fort George was already being erected, he was joined by the English-born surveyor, Peter Fidler (1769-1822). Within three weeks, the Hudson’s Bay men were able to put up a roof on the Main House, which measured 19.2 m by 7.9 m (63’ by 26’). The construction of Buckingham House was undertaken in three phases between the fall of 1792 and April 1794, the completed ensemble of structures being comprised of the factor’s “big house” as well as blacksmith, carpenter, tailor shops and enclosures for horses. A stockade made of 3.6 m (12’) high logs enclosed the trading post, which covered an area measuring 57.9 by 42.6 meters (190’ x 140’).
By the spring of 1795, Fort George had largely outlived its purpose because the countryside around it was considered to be “entirely ruined.” According to the company clerk at the time, Duncan McGillivray,“The natives have already killed all the Beavers, to such a distance that they lose much time in coming to the House, during the Hunting Season.” When the famed mapmaker, David Thompson (1770-1857) arrived at Fort George in the winter of 1799 with his young wife, Charlotte Small, he “found it totally without Doors, or windows, all the Planks, Doors, Flooring, &c &c carried away and 2 of the Beams cut out of the Great House.” The house was then repaired with materials provided by J.P. Pruden, who was in charge of neighbouring Buckingham House during its last years of operation. Henceforth, Fort George served primarily as a provisioning centre for trading posts further upriver, acquiring buffalo meat and hides that Natives harvested from the still plentiful herds in the south. The fort is thought to have been totally abandoned by 1801, and by 1808 Alexander Henry the Younger reported: “Passed the ruins of old Fort George, only the chimneys of which are now to be seen.” It is possible that a grass fire was responsible for eventually destroying the structures of the outpost, leaving only cellar depressions, collapsed stoneworks and faint traces of old pathways as evidence of its existence.
Buckingham House, which never was as large as Fort George, experienced a similar pattern of growth and decline. Peter Fidler used it as a base for his famous survey expedition to southern Alberta in the winter of 1792-1793, when he spent time with the Peigan Indians south of modern-day Calgary and became the first European to meet the Kootenay and other tribes. After returning in March 1793, he went up the North Saskatchewan to look for a site for the first Fort Edmonton. Fidler subsequently spent a year serving as the factor at Fort Buckingham, where in 1797 he had “2 fine large Batteaux” built by Nicholas Spense that were 30 feet long. Later known as York boats, these sturdy freighters were the first river boats to ply the Saskatchewan system. Temporarily abandoned in 1799, Buckingham House was finally closed in 1802, though it may have been used sporadically by passing traders and travellers for several years afterward.
In 1965 archaelogical excavations were begun at the site of Fort George-Buckingham House, where an interpretive centre with a breathtaking view of the North Saskatchwan River valley was officially opened by the Province of Alberta in 1992.
Fort Augustus I – Fort Edmonton I, 1795-1801 (Riverlot 2-55-22 W4)
In the spring of 1795, the North West Company bourgeois at Fort George, Angus Shaw, resolved to construct a trading post further upriver during the course of the summer since local supplies of furs were noticeably dwindling. Builder James Hughes was subsequently instructed to go 12-14 days march westward to a spot called the Forks, a little more than a mile above the mouth of the Sturgeon River, on the opposite shore and to the north of the modern-day City of Fort Saskatchewan. (In the late winter of 1754, Anthony Henday, the first white man to see Alberta, had spent seven weeks in the same vicinity waiting for the ice to break so that he could continue his explorations by canoe.) The area around the site was said to have such abundant game, that women and children were able to kill beavers and otters with sticks and hatchets. This move was stealthily undertaken, so as to give the Nor’Westers a head start on penetrating the frontier further inland.
When William Tomison learned of this development upon his return to Buckingham House in the fall of 1795, he immediately responded by founding a trading post “within a musket shot” of where the “Canadians” (i.e., fur traders from Quebec) had launched their new enterprise. Whereas the North West post was named Fort Augustus – possibly after the Highland town near Loch Ness, in Scotland – the Hudson’s Bay Company adopted the name Edmonton House, or Fort Edmonton. It is believed that the latter was chosen to honour Sir James Winterlake, Deputy Governor of the HBC, who resided in Edmonton, near London. This first location of what subsequently evolved into the City of Edmonton was approximately 32 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of the legislative grounds in today’s provincial capital. Until the construction of Rocky Mountain House and Acton House in 1799, Forts Augustus I and Edmonton House I were the westernmost outposts of the fur trade, and a full 1,500 miles further inland than any posts in the frontier of Midwestern America.
Although it was hoped that the Blackfoot and other tribes living in the southwestern prairies and foothills would frequent Edmonton House and Fort Augustus, and that the Cree and Assiniboine would primarily patronise Fort George or Buckingham House, both trading centres were eventually utilized by Indians from each side of the North Saskatchewan. And while relationships were sometimes uneasy between and among the fur traders and their Native suppliers, on the whole business was conducted with minimal conflict. One tense moment occurred in the fall of 1795 when 400 Gros Ventres appeared at the still-unprotected trading posts and encamped themselves on the opposite shore of the river. However, the situation was defused when a North West Company official shrewdly agreed to do business with them despite their recent history of violence in Saskatchewan – in the process outmaneouvering the Hudson’s Bay Company representative. Still, in the fall of 1798 William Tomison of the HBC suffered a serious stab wound through his left knee when he refused to provide goods to two foul-tempered members of the same tribe who had no furs to offer in exchange but demanded satisfaction.
Around 1799, the upstart XY Company (a break-away faction of the NWC that rejoined the company in 1804) also began operating a post near the Sturgeon River confluence under the leadership Pierre Rochesblave, the son of the Governor of Illinois. In 1800, David Thompson spent part of the summer at Fort Augustus, and recorded its location on his map. By then, the surrounding countryside was not only being rapidly exhausted of its furs, but firewood was also becoming hard to find within easy proximity to the forts. Consequently, the officials in charge of Fort Augustus and Edmonton House began investigating other sites that offered more favourable conditions for the continued conduct of trade.
James Bird (ca. 1773-1856) was in charge of Edmonton House in 1799 when he initated the HBC’s establishment of a new fort 200 miles upriver toward the Rocky Mountains. He also oversaw the 1801 relocation of the Sturgeon River post to a site near the centre of today’s provincial capital at the EPCOR Power Plant east of the 105 Street bridge – where James Hughes simultaneously moved Fort Augustus for the NWC. When Alexander Henry the Younger crossed the Sturgeon River in October 1809 while travelling overland from Fort Vermilion to the second Fort Augustus, he referred to seeing “old Fort Augustus”, which had already begun to recede into memory. David Thompson also reported seeing the structures of the abandoned fort in July of the same year, but when he again came across it on 22 June 1810, all that was left were ruins. Apparently, the abandoned posts had been picked over and then burned by Blackfoot Indians sometime in this interval.
Fort de l’Isle II or Fort Island, 1799-1801
With Fort George-Buckingham House having already gone into decline within a few years of their establishment, sites suitable for new trading posts were increasingly sought further up the North Saskatchewan River. In 1799 the X.Y. Company under the leadership of Alexander Mackenzie (a nephew of the knighted partner in the NWC with the same name) began operating a post on an island twenty miles west of Fort George – now situated immediately east of the bridge that was later built across the river on Secondary Highway 881 north of the Village of Myrnam. The island’s existence had first been noted by David Thompson during his early surveying trips on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and again in his 1800 journals when he referred to it as the “Island of Scotland.” This small body of land in the middle of the fast-flowing Saskatchewan was obviously regarded as a location that could be secured with relative ease from an attack by any hostile Natives.
Soonafter, Francois Decoigne began building a fort on the island for the North West Company, while Henry Hallett did the same for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The three posts shared the descriptive name which had originally been used for another Fort Island (James Finlay’s Fort de l’Isle I) that had been previously established downriver near Manchester House in Saskatchewan. Although the second Fort de l’Isle only lasted three years, it earned the dubious distinction of being associated with the first recorded murder committed in the future province of Alberta. This occurred early in 1801, when an X.Y. Company clerk named La Mothe (also spelled Lamotte) killed a NWC employee, James King, when both men were working at Fort Island. The tragedy unfolded at a site that was a two days’ trek by dog sled from the island, where King and La Mothe had travelled along with their interpreters to trade at an encampment of Indians. Enroute the two men even shared a tent to help ward off the chill of the bitterly cold nights, and had agreed that each would spend a night with the band with whom his company had already established credit, before collecting the pelts that were owing to them in the morning.
However, an argument erupted while the two men were loading their sleds, with King accusing La Mothe of stealing some of the packs that had been obtained in barter with the Natives. As King’s temper flared, he reached to take one of the packs from the sled being tied down by La Mothe, who impulsively responded by fatally shooting his competitor with a pistol. Shocked by what he had done, La Mothe put King’s body on his sled and brought it back to Fort de l’Isle, where the NWC bourgeois, John Mcdonald, had the victim buried “with military honours.” Although the X.Y. Company subsequently sought to pursue the matter in court in Montreal, the fact that the killing had taken place in wilderness where legal jurisdiction was not clearly defined resulted in La Mothe eventually being acquitted after a trial. Described as being from a respectable family, the killer of James King was allowed to live in Montreal without further consequence. Nevertheless, this unfortunate event had the positive effect of getting the Imperial Government to pass the Canada Jurisdiction Act which ensured that any future criminal offenses committed in Indian territories could be tried in Lower Canada. The murder also resulted in the first five Justices of the Peace being appointed in 1803 for the territories of the Canadian interior: William and Duncan McGillivray, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Roderick MacKenzie and John Ogilvy.
Meanwhile, by 1801 Fort de l’Isle had outlived its utility and was duly abandoned, though the posts probably saw occasional use by travellers for several years following. The second Fort Island was then succeeded by Fort Vermilion II, which was founded downriver circa 1802, east of Fort George and opposite the mouth of the Vermilion River, north of the modern-day community of Marwayne. In 1808, David Thompson mentioned passing by the “Old Island Fort”, which was still listed in the books of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The location was last utilized as a coralling place for horses (to safeguard them from theft by Natives) in 1810, as reported by Alexander Henry the Younger from Fort Vermilion II shortly before its demise. An historical cairn was put up at the site of the post on the northwest side of the island around 1960, marking the barely visible archaeological remains of the short-lived fort with a tragic past.
Lower Terre Blanche House-Fort White Earth-Edmonton House III, 1810-1813 (S. 35-58-16 W4)
In 1810 it was decided by James Hughes at Fort Augustus II (today’s Edmonton) and Alexander Henry at Fort Vermilion II to consolidate North West Company operations at a new post which they had built at a mid-point on the Saskatchewan River near the mouth of White Earth Creek, southeast of the modern-day town of Smoky Lake. They were immediately joined in this decision by their counterparts with the Hudson’s Bay Company, enabling both trading posts to be enclosed within a single stockade. The amalgamation was partly intended as a cost-saving measure, and partly to draw all of the Blackfoot to a single location that could be more effectively defended in case of trouble.
Alexander Henry’s Journal provides a detailed description of the construction of the NWC establishment, from the harvesting of the logs and their preparation as planks, to the mudding of the chimneys and walls of the bark-roofed structures. The completed post contained an Indian hall and a storehouse that measured 21.3 m by 6 m (70’ x 20’) and was two storeys high, residential quarters for the company Master and NWC employees, a blacksmith’s shop, and several outbuildings. The HBC undoubtedly erected a similar complex of buildings on their part of the palisaded property, which boasted defensive bastions in the southwest and northeast corners.
David Thompson, who on a visit to the area on 1 April 1800 had noted that “White Mud brook” was 6 yards (5.4 m) wide and without water, stopped by at the site again on 23 June 1810, when “White Mud Brook House” was still in the process of being constructed. Alexander Henry the Younger provides a particularly revealing glimpse of circumstances at the outpost that he had helped to build in the following passage from his journal entry for 17 May 1811: “On approaching Lower Terre Blanche I found that spring was not nearly so far advanced as at Fort Augustus; the hills were still destitute of verdure, and in many places snow lay on the banks, although exposed to the sun on the N. Side. But this place is at the northernmost bend of the Saskatchewan, and on this river a few miles N. or S. make a very material alteration in the face of the country, especially in depth of snow. The piles of ice are immense here on both sides, forming a wall nearly as high as at the Rocky Mountain house when I left that place. At 8.30 we sighted the S.W. bastion of our fort, and at the same time saw the chimney of my two-story house. The current very soon drove us opposite, but the ice prevented our landing until we drifted down to where one of the H.B. Co. boats was lying. I fetched up, but the velocity of the current drove my boat heavily against that of the H.B. Co., thus starting one of the planks of the latter, and she came near sinking with some horses that were on board to be conveyed across the river across the river. Having grappled fast to her, we landed among huge cakes of ice.
Our people were briskly renewing their canoes for the outgoing, and had nearly finished 14; others were making packs. But the incessant rain has set them back, and no gardening has been done this spring. They have suffered much with hunger, having been reduced to eat meat without an ounce of grease. I found a number of Strong Wood Crees who had been starving for some time, and were thinking of decamping; nothing but hunger could drive them away from our establishments.”
Obviously, the conduct of the fur trade was accompanied by many hardships and characterized by great fluctuations in the fortunes of outposts. Fort White Earth and Edmonton House III were vacated by both the NWC and the HBC in April 1813 because they were no longer regarded as being conveniently located. At this time, the two companies again re-established themselves at the site of the second Fort Augustus and Edmonton House, namely, at the location that subsequently developed into the City of Edmonton. There, conditions proved much more advantageous for the long-term conduct of trade throughout central and northern Alberta.
Dog Rump Creek House, 1817-1822
Only sketchy information exists about Dog Rump Creek House below the mouth of Atimoswe Creek, 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) south of the modern-day town of Elk Point, where both the North West and Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts in the fall of 1817. The latter abandoned their house the following spring, then reopened it again for a time in the fall under William Taylor because the NWC was continuing to operate from the site. Nevertheless, the HBC soonafter shut down their post a second time, only to return to the location in 1821, the year that the Company was merged with their longtime rivals, the Nor’Westers. The HBC used the buildings as a supply depot for their outpost on Moose Lake to the north, with William Taylor once more briefly taking charge of the operation before being succeeded later that fall by Patrick Small. At the time, Dog Rump Creek House had a staff of twenty-five men, though by October of 1822 it was considered redundant and closed for a final time. Shortly afterward some Assiniboines burned down some of the buildings forming the complex, but others were left standing at what remained an occasional campsite. Thus, Edward Ermatringer, in his journal entry for 4 September 1827 was still able to report, “Started about 4 o’clock and took breakfast at 10 at the Old Fort below the Dog Rump Creek.” Indeed, as late as 1830 enough structures were still intact for John Rowand, while travelling to Edmonton, to instruct a brigade of his men to dismantle the remaining buildings and stockheads at Dog Rump and to raft them downriver for use in the construction of Fort Pitt.
Fort Victoria, 1864-1873, 1887-1897
The last of the outposts built in Kalyna Country reflects how much the fur trade changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Faced with dwindling stocks, the Hudson’s Bay Company used the effective monopoly that it had gained through amalgamation with the North West Company in 1821 to close redundant posts, reduce the size of its work force, eliminate costly supply routes, curb alcohol abuse and initiate measures that attempted to conserve the fur-bearing resources that were the staple of the trade. Still, with the appearance of a growing number of free traders in the Saskatchewan River country in the second half of the century, the Hudson’s Bay Company was prompted to respond by constructing posts at Turtle Lake and the Victoria Mission (at the same time dropping their conservation policies) in an effort to meet the competition.
Victoria, which was situated on the North Saskatchewan River southeast of the present-day town of Smoky Lake, was a logical place to start a trading post for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it was already the site of a small Methodist Mission, which had been founded in 1862 by George McDougall. The location of the mission was probably chosen not only because of the natural transportation route provided by the North Saskatchewan River, but because it was at the intersection of a trail that led to the previously-established Smoking Lake mission to the north, and a trail to the south running parallel to Egg Creek. More importantly, the site was associated with large, twice-yearly gatherings of Woods and Plains Indians, providing a familiar and easily accessible place to do business.
Construction of a trading post began in 1864, the Clerk’s House being completed by October of the following year. (This house has survived to the present day, and enjoys the distinction of being the oldest building in Alberta still on its original foundation.) A storehouse was added in 1866, and by 1874 at least seven structures formed part of the complex, which by then was also surrounded by a palisade. The post was almost shut down in 1873, then closed between 1883 and 1887, before being reopened as an outpost of Lac La Biche. Upgraded to a post in 1889, with outposts of its own at Saddle and Whitefish Lakes, Victoria was almost closed again just two years later, indicating its tenuous existence. Never a particularly vital or lucrative centre for trade, Victoria Post was finally abandoned for good in the winter of 1897-1898.
Partially restored for interpretive use after archaeological work was initiated in the 1970s, Fort Victoria opened to the public in 1981 as a provincial historic site. It is situated 10 kilometers south of Smoky Lake off Secondary Highway 855, and 6 kilometers east along the Victoria Trail. It is also now possible to reach the post and other landmarks within the historic Victoria Settlement via the scenic Victoria Trail, which can be accessed off Highway 38, southeast of Redwater, 3.2 kilometers from where the Vinca Bridge crosses the North Saskatchewan River.
Porter, Philip. Information provided in a letter to Buster and Eva Axley of Myrnam on Fort De L’Isle by Philip Porter of Dewberry, Alberta, dated 22 July 1991.
Smythe, Terry. “Thematic Study of the Fur Trade in the Canadian West: 1670-1870.” A Preliminary Report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1968.
Voorhis, Ernest A.M. (comp.). “Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies,” prepared for the Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 1930.
Coues, Elliot (ed.). The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson, 1799-181. Volumes I and II. Mineapolis, MN: Ross & Haines Inc., 1965. Originally printed in 1897.
Forsman, Michael R.A. The Archaeology of Victoria Post, 1864-1897. Edmonton: Alberta Culture, Archaeological Survey of Alberta Manuscript Series No. 6, 1985.
Fryer, Harold. Stops of Interest in Central and Northern Alberta.Surrey (BC): Heritage House, c. 1982. Pp. 62.
“How Smoky Lake Got its Name” and Early Beginning,” in the local Smoky Lake history, pp. xxii and 1-2.
Losey, Timothy et. al. Archaeological Investigations: Fort Victoria, 1974. Edmonton: Alberta Culture, Historic Sites Servic, Occasional Paper No. 2, 1977.
MacDonald, George Heath. Edmonton: Fort-House-Factory. Edmonton: Douglas Printing Co. & McDermid Studios Ltd., 1959.
MacGregor, J.G. “Dog Rump House”, submitted by Dr. MacGregor to a local history (needs to be identified).
MacGregor, J.G. Edmonton: A History. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, Second Edition, 1975.
Melnycky, Peter. A Veritable Canaan: Alberta’s Victoria Settlement. Edmonton: Friends of Fort Victoria Historical Society, 1997.
Paziuk, Russ. “Fort De L’Isle”, in Dreams Become Realities: A History of Lafond and Surrounding Area. Co-op Press Ltd. For ____, 1981, pp. 89-90.
Victoria Settlement. [Edmonton]: Alberta Culture, n.d. Interpretive pamphlet.
Researched and written by Jars Balan for the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum