The Hudson’s Bay had been cautiously moving further west, within their own sphere granted by the 1670 Royal Charter. Their exclusive territory, Rupert’s Land, contained all of the river systems draining into Hudson’s Bay. By 1774 they had established Cumberland House far to the east of our area on the Saskatchewan River. But the Pedlars, later to become the North West Company, had been in that area for fifteen years. They were undoubtedly picking up some Peace River Country furs, and hearing of the rich “muskrat country” somewhere north and west.
From Cumberland House, a chain of rivers and lakes led over to the Churchill River system. Ile a-la-Crosse Lake had two rivers emptying into it. The northern one led to Lake la Loche, and the southern one, the Beaver, towards, but not into Lac La Biche which drains into our Athabasca River. A Hudson’s Bay Company man, William Pink, explored the Beaver River to its source sometime between 1766-1769. He came within a few miles of crossing the divide from which it was an easy few miles down to the Athabasca a little way down stream from the later Athabasca Landing. Pink actually met one of the “Pedlars” James Finlay, from Montreal. Ile a-la-Crosse had posts of both companies in 1778.
In that year, Peter Pond, later a Nor’Wester took the northern river over the height of land shown to him by the Indians, and afterwards famous as the Methye Portage. On the other side was the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Athabasca, which was outside Hudson’s Bay Company’s jurisdiction. Our Indians had been coming to the Ile a-la-Crosse Houses, and probably made their first contact with the white men there. Pond was, as far as is known, the first white man to come to the Indians. He built the first white man’s house in our area, appropriately called Pond’s House. It was about forty miles up the Athabasca River from the Lake. Friendly Indians led him to the place and he reported that a vast concourse of friendly and honest Indians welcomed him. Apparently some Crees and Chipewyans had tried the incredibly long, hard journey to the Bay to trade. Pond’s House operated with phenomenal success until 1789.
Pond had heard of a big river to the West, but there is no record that he ever saw it as, unfortunately, that part of his journal was burned.
When Alexander Mackenzie was sent to relieve Pond in 1787, food was being hunted out around Pond’s House. Mackenzie had a fort built on the south shore of Lake Athabasca, where fish could supplement the dwindling meat supply for the eighty or ninety voyageurs who wintered there. Here Pond and Mackenzie wintered amicably, while Mackenzie learned all he could from the old trader. A post founded by Pond on Lesser Slave Lake was not paying its way, so Mackenzie sent two employees, Boyer and McLeod, overland to find the Beaver Indians and build a new post.
This was the first post known to be built to serve the Beaver. It was known as Old Establishment. There is a singular lack of unanimity in the reference books about the exact location of this post, except that it was forty or fifty (or more) river miles nearer Lake Athabasca than present day Fort Vermilion. Douglas MacKay says that Mackenzie and Pond wintered at the Old Establishment “near Chipewyan”. Were there two “Old Establishments?” Certainly if Pond never saw the Peace he could not have wintered at the post near Vermilion on the Peace. It seems certain that Alexander’s cousin Roderick was in charge of the construction of the first Fort Chipewyan. The new central post, also to be called Chipewyan, was moved from the river to the southern shore of Lake Athabasca. Two Hudson’s Bay Company men visited it in the summer of 1791, and wintered nearby. They said it was about ten miles east of the mouth of the Athabasca River on a high, cleared, sandy point with deep bays on either side that “nearly makes it an island.” Roderick Mackenzie was in charge of construction. Food had become scarce around the New Establishment. At the Lake, fish would supplement the meat diet, winter and summer, and help sustain the ninety to a hundred voyageurs who wintered there.
Meantime Alexander Mackenzie had been to the Arctic and back, and was preparing to go to England to study in preparation for another trip in search of the Western Sea. The Englishmen were the famous surveyors, Philip Tournour and Peter Fidler and party, who spent a very agreeable winter with Roderick. Tournour located the post precisely about ten miles east of the mouth of the Athabasca River, “on a high clear sandy point with deep bays on either side that nearly makes it an island”.
Besides being the principal commercial establishment of the country, it was an island of culture, for Roderick (“Fat”) Mackenzie was a scholar and a reader. Every year he had scores of books carried over an ocean and across half a continent to become a famous library. It did not interfere with his business, for he was a man of extraordinary energy, who apparently got on well with whites and Indians. Old Fort Chipewyan was the cultural and business centre of the west.
In any case when Mackenzie got back from England there was a fort on the Peace which he called Fort du Tremble, which had been built by one James Finlay. It became known as “New Establishment” not far from present day Fort Vermilion.
In order to get a few hundred miles head start for his Pacific trip, Mackenzie sent A. N. McLeod to prepare a wintering place for him near the junction of the Peace and Smoky Rivers. Why he passed up two of McLeod’s Forts, thirty-five miles downstream, is not clear. Fort Fork had been the farthest upriver post built by the same A. N. McLeod about 1790. Fort Fork later housed the great David Thompson (Mr. Mapmaker) during the winter of 1804.
No known important forts were constructed in the Western Peace for several years. By 1797 John Finlay had been sent to build a jumping off place for further exploration beyond the mountains. Rocky Mountain Fort at the mouth of Tea Creek six miles directly west of present-day Fort St. John was the earliest trading post ever built in what is now the Province of British Columbia. It operated until 1806.
In this interval a new Fort Chipewyan had been built on the north shore of Lake Athabasca on a peninsula not far from the source of Slave River.
After his first trip across the mountains, Simon Fraser came back as far as the foot of the Peace River Canyon and wintered at a post called Rocky Mountain Portage House, across the river from present-day Hudson’s Hope. In 1810 the post was relocated to the North side of the River.
In 1805, A. N. McLeod had started Fort Dunvegan on the spot that Alexander Mackenzie had noted on his famous dash to the sea. MacGregor’s book, The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis, gives an almost day by day account of its building, and of the starvation summer of 1806. The clerk, A. R. McLeod paints a grim picture of what life could be in a fur-trade fort. For survival, the inhabitants had to depend on the Indians, who did not take advantage of the white men’s weakness. One account reads “Monday, 14 July, ten women from the Flux band arrived loaded with meat. They brought 1182 lbs. dried meat, 721 pounded and 170 lbs. grease!” More than two hundred pounds apiece!
Dunvegan became a post under the gentle and observant writer, David Harmon. His stay was short, but he left behind his twin half-Indian infant sons in the little graveyard. He may have taken away the first recorded dinosaur bone. He left to posterity one of the first, and perhaps the best accounts of the Indians east of the Rockies.
In 1806 Rocky Mountain Fort at Tea Creek was phased out, and a new one appeared “five hundred yards below the l’Epinette River”. A new name, Fort St. John, was given to it for no recorded reason. Name changes have been numerous in this area – l’Epinette means “Pine.” For years the name “North Pine” was used for the river on which the first Fort St. John was situated. It was more recently renamed Beatton River, while the old name passed to the present “Pine”, earlier known as “The Sinew”. In 1810 the first Fort St. John was moved across the River.
It was this Fort which became infamous as the site of a so-called “massacre” in 1823. Governor Simpson in 1828 accepted the explanation that a “Mr. Black.” who was in charge at the time, had been guilty of the “wife lifting” of an Indian’s spouse. Nothing would anger a Beaver Indian more. Black had go on to explore the Finlay River but Guy Hughes and his four men suffered the revenge which would not have seemed strange if the “murderers” had been white men. The Indians were never punished – in fact charges against them were dropped. It seems that Hughes and his men were in the process of phasing out Fort St. John, and moving the stores to Rocky Mountain Portage House near present-day Hudson’s Hope.
In the interval between 1800 and 1815 there had been internal trouble in the North West Company. One faction became the XY Company in which Alexander Mackenzie was active. Records have not been found, but it is known that they built several forts, two around Fort Fork, and possibly another on the present Pine river.
Quickly the Hudson’s Bay Company was invading the Peace River country which was legally outside their charter-grant because it did not drain to the Bay, as the surveyor Tournour had established. Peter Fidler, a Bay man, built Nottingham House almost on the doorstep of the second Fort Chipewyan. The following year he sent men up the Peace to establish Mansfield House near present-day Fort Vermilion, the first Hudson’s Bay post on the Peace. Neither lasted very long, since they lacked lines of supply. Besides, the Indians were already intermarrying with the Nor’westers, giving rise to family loyalties.
As early as 1801 the Nor’westers had a post at the west end of Lesser Slave Lake near present-day Grouard.
In 1815 the Bay made a bold and determined attempt to get a foothold in the Peace. They sent a trader named Decoigne to build a post at the Lesser Slave Lake, and another trader, John Clarke, to Lake Athabasca to build Fort Wedderburn almost under the palisades of Fort Chipewyan. The Bay men talked too much, and the Nor’westers were ready for them. The war was on! They built their forts, but lost sixteen men in the process of building and holding them.
A few HBCo. forts were built further up the Peace — Mansfield House at modern Fort Vermilion replacing Ft. Liard of the North West Company, two more St. Mary’s Houses near Peace River and Yale’s House a little below Fort St. John. Whichever company built a post, the other would come along to build another close beside it. For example, at the now forgotten and lost site of Yale’s House, John McIntosh of the Norwest Company built close beside him. Somewhere along the line there was also a second Fort l’Epinette, apparently close to present day Taylor.
We should note that all of the posts except Lesser Slave Lake had been on the two main Rivers, Athabasca or Peace. As a result, the Indians north of Fort St. John, for example, and those in the Pine Pass were relatively untouched. The Sikanni around Fort Nelson are some of the least affected by white contact to this present day.
The Indians who lived and hunted near the forts were affected, of course. The traders put great pressure on them to provide not only furs but also fresh meat and pemmican. To that end the traders had provided them with guns and many of the Indians lost their ancient skills for feeding and clothing themselves. The old and infirm crowded around the posts, where the traders unquestioningly provided them with necessities.
The recital of closures and moving of posts reflects area after area being trapped out, frequently leaving the destitute Indians to swell the dependent crowd around the post. To do the traders justice, there seems to have been little complaining about it.
In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay absorbed the Northwest Company. In most cases they abandoned their own forts and took over the better Norwest ones. Dunvegan became the capital of the whole area. Governor Simpson made one of his errors in judgment when he closed all the forts from Dunvegan west as a “punishment” to the Indians for not bringing in the furs and meat that their former co-operation with the traders had depleted. Nominally, it was also to “punish” the Indians for the killing atrocity at fort St. John in 1823. In truth he “cut off his nose to spite his face,” for naturally few of the Indians would go to Peace River.
Many of the Indians, taught to be dependent on the white man, died in the three years until Simpson, now Governor, saw the error of his ways, and had Dunvegan reopened under a Mr. Campbell. This was shortly before Simpson’s arrival on his famous inspection dash through the Peace area to the Pacific. He was critical because Campbell and the Indians at Dunvegan had no food supplies ready for his journey.
The Indians had not touched the Fort in the interval while it stood empty. Seven or eight Indians showed up according to Simpson’s journal, (kept by his clerk Archibald McDonald). Gone was the huge encampment that had been there before 1825. Governor Simpson should have felt a little foolish lecturing these Indians whom he knew to be innocent, about the terrible incident a few years before, and delivering a sermon on the evils of alcohol. He certainly did not strain his wrists or his wallet by handing out “a little tobacco, and a very weak drop of rum and water with sugar” as a reward for not destroying Dunvegan! Always keen to perform to impress the Indians, he gave the seven or eight a show of the sound of his bugle. A Highland Piper, with pipes, paraded in full dress. He displayed the musical snuff box he carried, and perhaps showed them the little dog under whose neck fur he used to fasten a little music box.
He said that the Indians appeared “much pleased with what was said to them”, — it is unlikely that they could understand a word of his sermon and lecture — and that his entertainment “excited in them emotions of admiration and wonder.”
We, too, are full of wonder of another kind. We wonder whether the Indians weren’t laughing at this insensitive little man whose vanity convinced him that his efforts were a great success.
Dunvegan remained in business for another 90 years until 1918. Tom Kerr built a new Hudson’s Bay post on Cutbank Creek in 1902, intended to become the nucleus of a new little town. This town was two miles north of Saskatoon Lake, the present Park and Campsite, and lasted until the railway came to the present site of Grande Prairie. The little townsite has entirely disappeared.
Fort St. John No. 5 operated at Fish Creek until 1923, and then moved up onto the present site on the Plateau. The Bay still had a store there until recently.
Tom Kerr, and the last Factor at Fort St. John, Frank Beatton, are the only company traders to make a name for themselves as great pioneers. Frank Beatton became a hero to the Indians for his fairness, his humanity where they were in distress, and his great understanding. He died in 1944.
Oddly enough, the little post at Hudson’s Hope was the last of the old posts to close in 1954. The writer shopped there last in 1953. The neat white building was redolent of smoked moose hide moccasins and jackets, but the merchandise on the shelves was the same as any country store, eloquent of the complete change-over in the lives of the Indians.
The last relics of the old days in this area are the residence at Dunvegan near the church, the museum building at Hudson’s Hope, and a little shed there constructed in the old log fashion – and some tumble-down ruins of some of the various old Fort St. Johns.