A Kalyna Country Character: Peter Fidler (1769-1822)
On a hill overlooking the town of Elk Point, there is a monument depicting a fur-capped explorer in elaborate buckskin dress standing before the stockade of a trading post. Dedicated to Peter Fidler, the famed trailblazer is shown taking measurements with a sextant as he surveys the scenic view presented by the North Saskatchewan River valley.
Since no known images were ever made of Peter Fidler, the statue carved from wood is a work of imagination inspired by the remarkable biography of one of Western Canada’s most important mapmakers and surveyors. Nevertheless, the tribute accurately captures the spirit of Fidler’s uniquely Canadian character, which combined the sophistication of European science with the practical knowledge developed by aboriginal peoples successfully living in harmony with nature over millennia.
Peter Fidler was born on 16 August 1769, in the farming village of Bolsover, southeast of Sheffield, in Derbyshire, England. Although his family was poor and his father was illiterate, Peter’s ambitious and restless nature soon drew him to London in search of broader horizons. In 1788 he signed a five-year contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company and shipped out to York Factory to begin his employment as a labourer. However, the highly intelligent and enthusiastic nineteen year-old was quickly made the post’s journal writer, and by the following year had begun to move inland along the Saskatchewan River – initially to Cumberland House, northwest of Lake Winnipeg, and then to Manchester House, upstream from North Battleford. There, Peter’s New World apprenticeship continued, and in 1790 he accompanied the HBCo’s chief surveyor, Philip Turnor, on an expedition to chart a trading route into Great Slave Lake from the Athabasca region straddling the north Alberta-Saskatchewan border. In the process, Fidler honed his skills as surveyor and cartographer, and also began shedding some of his impractical old world ways. Wintering over in a Chipewayan village, he picked up their language and became comfortable adopting their diet and country dress. On a memorable canoe trip in June 1791, Peter observed “a kind of liquid tar oozing” from the riverbanks – eventually to become renowned as Alberta’s mighty tar sands!
In 1792 Peter Fidler was dispatched to today’s Elk Point area, to help William Tomison establish Buckingham House adjacent to the location where the rival North West Conpany had already started building Fort George. Peter arrived on 11 October with a canoe brigade consisting of seven vessels and carrying twenty-six men along with their families. Tomison, who had reached the site by an overland route two days earlier, wasn’t keen on the place chosen for the post, but with the assistance of Peter and his men put up a 63’ x 26’ log structure that was roofed in just three weeks’ time. Five days after the completion of this main house, on 8 November 1792, Peter departed on an exploratory mission to southern Alberta, during which he achieved many significant “firsts”. On this historic trip, Fidler mapped the Battle, Red Deer and Bow Rivers, and first recorded the presence of coal in the badlands near Drumheller. He not only became the first European to see the Rocky Mountains of southern Alberta and to show them on a map, but entered the Rockies via the Oldman River Gap and even climbed a peak now known as Thunder Mountain.
Returning to Buckingham House on 19 March 1793, Fidler rested briefly before heading up the North Saskatchewan past Dog Rump Creek to investigate potential sites for the future HBCo post called Edmonton House. Later that year, he trekked all the way back to York Factory, where he married a Cree woman named Mary, who became his devoted lifelong companion and bore him fourteen children. In 1796 Peter was made the chief surveyor and mapmaker of the HBCo, at the same time replacing Tomison for a year as the factor of Buckingham House. During his short tenure overseeing the post, Fidler initiated the construction of two 30’ long riverboats (subsequently known as York boats), the first such watercraft to be built in Alberta or to ply the North Saskatchewan.
Afterwards, Peter Fidler traveled and worked widely in different parts of the Northwest, surveying, establishing and operating a succession of trading posts scattered across what are today Canada’s three prairie provinces. In 1811-1812 he took his one and only leave from the HBCo to visit his hometown in England, where he built his recently widowed mother a house, now converted into a pub.
When he got back to the Canadian West, Peter Fidler helped to survey river lots for the ill-fated Red River colony established by Lord Selkirk. He then spent four years as Chief Trader first at Brandon and then at Dauphin Lake House, where he died on 17 December 1822 and was laid to rest. A passionate reader, Peter Fidler left a library of 500 books and a wealth of knowledge recorded in the detailed accounts that he faithfully kept of his experiences, including daily scientific weather reports for over thirty years.
While not as well known as some of his contemporary fellow-adventurers, Peter Fidler played a major role in the exploration history of western Canada. As you walk the paths around the Fort George-Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site, or hike through the woods along the Iron Horse Trail, remember that you are following in the footsteps of a moccasin-shod giant from Alberta’s past. The twig that you think you hear cracking in the forest beside you may have been broken by scurrying fox or deer – or it could have been snapped by the ghost of Peter Fidler, revisiting his old haunts in Kalyna Country….