History: A fur trading post renews its youth

Reprinted from the July 1952 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

A fur trading post renews its youth
By Mrs. Anna Speight

Situated 100 miles south and 60 miles west of Edmonton is a village better known than any other place of its size in Canada. Long before Edmonton and Calgary were established many trails led to Rocky Mountain House.

In 1790, the first white man, Peter Pangman, carved his name and the date in the bark of a pine tree near the Clearwater River. When Charles II granted to his cousin Prince Rupert the charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, he did not realize just how much land was involved. This gave a monopoly of trade in furs, ownership of land, and the right to government in all of the territory drained by all rivers entering the Hudson Bay. In 1670 they did not know that this territory formed a large part of Canada, an area as large as Europe. The Hudson’s Bay Company built forts at the mouth of the Nelson and Churchill Rivers, and traded hatchets, knives and beads to the Indians for furs.

The French, failing to get a toehold in Hudson Bay, worked west to Lake Superior. With intrepid men like the Verendryes, the West was opening up. Other fur trading companies sprang up, and many crimes were committed for furs.

An amalgamation of the North West Company was the signal for a Continental Marathon. The Hudson’s Bay Company had old country employees. These were most reliable, gave more for the furs: but living on a straight salary lacked the initiative of the newer company. The North Westers had a long haul: everything had to be transported across the Great Lakes, so that they could not pay such high prices. The employees were rugged men, more greedy perhaps, with greater initiative. The Hudson’s Bay Company would go up a river and build a fort. The North West Co. would plant a fort immediately opposite, or a few miles farther up river. All was fair in fur trading and war, and the furs went to the cleverest.

The Hudson’s Bay Company sent out men like Henry Kelsey, Samuel Hearne and Anthony Hendy who opened up the North West. The X.Y. Co. and North West Co. had famous men like Alexander MacKenzie, McTavish, Simon Fraser and David Thompson. David Thompson, an orphan lad of Welsh parentage, was apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company at the age of 14, and sent out to the mouth of the Churchill River in 1784. He studied the stars, and taught himself to measure distances by them. He was determined to be a great inland explorer. After eight years, the Hudson’s Bay Company stopped its surveys, so Thompson tramped 70 miles across country to the North West Co. post, where he was received with open arms. They appointed him astronomer and surveyor and instructed him to locate their trading posts in the West. He was to survey and locate the 49th parallel, the border between the United States and Canada, to find out if any of the posts were in the U.S. He had few and poor instruments with him, yet his map of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta is so accurate that today modern scientists are amazed at it.

Thompson was instructed to find passages through the Rockies so the North West Company might trade with the Indians of British Columbia.

This took Thompson into the foothills. In 1800-1801 he and his half-breed wife arrived in Rocky Mountain House. He wished to push on into the Mountains, but was told to stay there and trade with the Indians. He stayed the winters of 1801-1802 and 1806-1807 before he was released to further exploration, and the discovery of the Columbia River.

Trading was carried on in the winter and in summer he made three trips into the mountains. He was joined at the fort by John MacDonald from Barth, Scotland, after which the surrounding district is now named.

The fort was at the junction of the North Saskatchewan and Clearwater Rivers. At that time the rivers were the only highways. Timber and logs for the fort were readily available.

The original stockade was 120 feet square, the walls were built of logs 16 feet high and sharpened on top, set on end and threaded together with willows. The eight-ft. gate faced the river. A three-foot wide walk, 12 feet above the ground ran around the walls, so a lookout could be posted. The store building 40 by 60 feet centred the stockade surrounded by houses for the factor and staff.

In 1810 the fort was burned down by the Indians but later rebuilt. In 1860 an epidemic of measles wiped out most of the red population. Chief Factor Moberly was untiring in his work of mercy during the scourge and next year when the Indians planned to attack the fort, an Indian whom he had nursed warned the factor of the peril. He had just enough time to give the alarm, bury the furs in an island on the Clearwater River, and escape on horseback with the best of the furs up the river trails to Edmonton. In the spring they returned to retrieve the furs, and resurrect the fort and the cannon they had buried in the fort.

Isolated as it was by rivers and tall timber, the Rocky Mountain House area was not surveyed until 1906, just a year after Alberta became a province. Many homesteaders trekked in with oxen from Red Deer, around treacherous muskeg and through dangerous fords. The building of the C.P.R. and C.N.R. Railways was a great boon to these people.

Today Rocky Mountain House has renewed its youth. It is a thriving town that fairly hums with industry. A new high school, recently constructed, is one of the best equipped in the province. Up-to-date stores, cafés, garages, and a locker plant give an air of prosperity.

Built on a sidehill, the town enjoys an excellent view of the mountains. Although the first range is 40 miles away, in the morning sun they seem exceedingly close and are breathtakingly beautiful.

The ruins of the fort are on the farm of Mrs. M. Breiley, who donated the ground. The crumbling chimneys have been rebuilt according to the original plan. A cairn has been erected and on it the plaque reads: Built in 1799 by the North West Company. David Thompson wintered here in 1801-2, 1806-7 and from here he set out in 1807 for the discovery of the Columbia River. It was for seventy years the most westerly and the most southerly post in the Blackfoot country and remained in duration until 1875.

‘Our History’ is curated by Gren Winslow.

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