Manitoba History: Memories of Fort Ellice
It is now fifty years since I first saw Fort Ellice. I had arrived in Winnipeg about the end of August 1881, on my way to found a Presbyterian Church in Edmonton. More than a week was spent in Winnipeg determining my route and plan of travel, and buying the necessary outfit—a horse and buckboard, a tent, a blanket and buffalo robe, some bacon, hardtack and other supplies. I was obliged, on account of the lateness of the season and the scarcity of other travellers at that time of the year, to travel alone, and on a Saturday evening, more than a week’s journey westward, I crossed the bridge over the Assiniboine just below Fort Ellice, followed the zigzag road up the steep hill and entered the fort gates. I was the bearer of a letter of introduction from Dr. James Robertson, Superintendent of Presbyterian Missions, addressed to Chief Factor Archie McDonald, from whom I received a most cordial welcome and was invited to be his guest over Sunday. “It is time out of mind,” he said, “since we have had a religious service and now that we have a resident clergyman, we will have two services tomorrow. Early in the morning I will send some Indian boys around on horseback to invite the few settlers we have in the neighbourhood, and, with our own folk and the Indians camped beside us, we will have a full house.”
The services were held according to plan, and morning and afternoon there was a congregation which taxed the capacity of the largest room at the fort. The presenter was John Calder, a clerk who had recently arrived from Scotland, and an excellent singer. Mr. Calder, who afterwards became chief accountant in the Company’s office in Winnipeg, is now living in honourable retirement in Vancouver, and kindly assisted me in the preparation of this paper.
Over that week there were two other guests in the fort, both extremely interesting men. One was W. F. King, whom I had known in undergraduate days in the University of Toronto, and who was at this time engaged by the Dominion Government in the business of laying out the meridian lines on which the detailed surveys of townships and sections were afterwards based. The other guest was Major Boulton, afterwards for years a resident of the town of Russell, and at this time a candidate for election to the local Legislature as representative of a new constituency which had just been organized in the western part of the province. The Major had been canvassing for votes during the week and knowing that the fort was a good place to spend Sunday, he timed his visit accordingly.
Any man’s first visit to Fort Ellice, or indeed any Hudson’s Bay Company post was likely to be memorable after having been fed in his boyhood on R. M. Ballantine’s stories, and of course I was all alert to see and hear and to verify and to amplify what I thought I knew already about “The Company of Gentleman Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay.” Mr. McDonald, although he was ready enough to answer my question and tell me what I wanted to know, was bent upon getting more than giving. “Here we are,” he said, “with all the sources of the world’s news at our disposal. Here is Mr. King, who has spent the summer in the west and has plenty to tell about what he saw and did. Here is our young friend, the minister, fresh from the east with the news of the old world, and here is Major Boulton who has been all around the neighbourhood during the past two weeks and has everything in the way of local gossip at his finger’s ends. What more could we have in the center of the world’s lines of communication? We are a little hub of the universe ourselves.” So we sat around the open fire that Saturday evening, the blaze from the dry poplar logs flaming up the wide chimney, and we talked and talked. When the evening was over, Mrs. McDonald, tallow candle in hand, escorted me to my room. She stopped impressively at the door and said: “The last man who slept in that bed was the Marquis of Lorne.” The Marquis, it may be remembered, was then the Governor-General of Canada, and signalized his term of office by visiting Manitoba, penetrating the western plains and shooting a buffalo.
On Monday morning I struck out on the trail for the west, and though I often met Mr. McDonald at Fort Qu’Appelle and Winnipeg, I never saw Fort Ellice again until last September when, after an interval of forty-nine years, I paid a motor visit to western Manitoba with two of my daughters. Our first day’s travel from Winnipeg took us as far as Shoal Lake, covering in one easy day what had required on my first visit, more than a week of steady plodding with horse and buckboard. We might easily enough have reached Fort Ellice before the evening of that first day, but we knew that accommodation farther on might be difficult to find, and likely less comfortable, so we deferred our further journey till the next day. Passing through Birtle we reached the site of old Fort Ellice in the forenoon and spent some four or five hours examining all that is left of it, tracing the line of the stockade, examining the foundations of the old buildings, and following the crooked cart trail down the strip declevity to the edge of the river where the bridge used to be. We had our lunch on the spot, frying our bacon and boiling our coffee on the stone foundations of the old bake oven.
It is pathetic to find that the site is almost all that remains to mark the place which was one of the chief centers of western trade fifty years ago, and had almost as many cart trails converging on it as now there are railway lines leading into Winnipeg. Until recently, the chief feature to mark the spot was the stone chimney of the blacksmith shop, but it has now been overturned. Mr. M. N. W. M. McKenzie, who has given me great help in reviving and checking my memories of the fort, tells me that a few years ago, while the chimney was still standing, he was travelling westward up the valley of the Assiniboine on a transcontinental train of the CNR. As they passed this landmark, a traveller on the observation car asked the negro porter, “What is that column up there on the top of the hill across the river?” The porter, equal to the occasion, answered with only a moment’s hesitation, “That suh, is a monument. That memorates where Gen. Custer was killed by the Indians.” And McKenzie, with a smile on his face, gazed up at his old friend, the blacksmith’s shop chimney, and never said a word.
The old fort has a noble and imposing situation on the high, level plateau overlooking the deep valley of the Assiniboine on the east and also partly on the north. The plateau was guarded on the south and southwest by the equally deep valley of Beaver Creek. About three miles farther north, the Qu’Appelle River enters the Assiniboine from the west, and it also flows through a deep and picturesque valley. The banks of the Assiniboine and Beaver at the fort are nearly four hundred feet high with a steep decent, in some places almost perpendicular. The banks are covered with trees and a dense and tangled undergrowth. At the time of our visit last autumn the foliage had put on its most brilliant colors and the scene was unsurpassingly beautiful. The high plateau gave one a wide range of view in almost every direction, and the winding river at our feet with the glowing foliage, and here and there a yellow stubble field made an impression not to be forgotten. The day was fine but there was no sunshine, and our attempts to take time exposures were not crowned with success, but we examined every foot of the area which was once the scene of so much animation, and best of all, we stood on the brow of the hill, admired the far-reaching view and tried to revive the picture of a train of Red River Carts coming down into the valley on the other side of the river, or the exciting vision of a band of Indians in breech cloth and war paint, mounted on their swiftest ponies, circling and whirling, firing off guns and yelling their greetings as they approached on their half-yearly visits to their friend the Chief Factor.
The fort enclosure, which faced the north, stood back only thirty-five yards from the brow of the bank. A stockade of logs set upright took in an area which measured three hundred feet from east to west, and two hundred and seventy-five feet from north to south. As one entered the gate, the trading store and district offices was on his right. Further in, a long building divided into compartments the first of which was the carpenter’s shop, and the other served as quarters for the men. Still further in were the blacksmith shop, the out-of-door bake oven and a cottage for a married member of the staff. At the back of the enclosure; facing the gate, was the Chief Factor’s house, one room of which was used as his office, and another large room served as a reception room for Indians. The big house, as it was called, was approached by a four foot plank walk from the gate.
On the left, as one entered the gate, was a warehouse, and further in a long building divided into compartments and used for storage, one compartment for harness and travel equipment, one for dried meat pemmican and spare provisions and one was used as a dairy and ice house. All these buildings were of logs, one story or a story and a half high, and on which in 1877, the thatch was replaced by shingles. The big house was thirty by fifty feet in area and had a kitchen extension in the rear. There were four fireplaces in the main building and one in the kitchen.
Outside the stockade on the south side was a garden, the size of which may still be traced under the grass. There was also another garden west of the stockade, and a stunted poplar tree on its border under which Mr. McKenzie remembers that a horse was once struck by lightening and killed. Down the hill, on the flat in the bend of the river, was a farm which is still being cultivated The lines of the stockade can still be traced although the logs having rotted, the stockade was taken down several years before the fort was abandoned and replaced by a picket fence. The foundations of several of the buildings are easily followed. And of course the well, with the bake oven, the chimney of the blacksmith shop and the foundations of the fireplaces can be recognized without difficulty.
Isaac Cowie says that in 1867 the fort had a staff of thirty men, but McKenzie, who joined the force in 1875, gives the number in his day at ten.
Fort Ellice was established in 1831, exactly one hundred years ago. But almost fifty years before that date, in 1783, the desirability of this neighbourhood as a trading centre had been recognized, and the North West Company had established Fort Esperence on the south side of the Qu’Appelle River near the mouth of the Cutarm Creek, about fifteen miles before Fort Ellice came later into existence. This fort was built by Robert Grant, and ten years later Cuthbert Grant, Sr. was in charge and it was the North West Company’s headquarters for the Assiniboine River. Some years later, in 1806, the buildings were replaced by a more commodious structure. In some of the records this was called Thorburn’s Post. This was the period when the competition between the rival fur trading companies was at its keenest, and each post had a representative of one or more of the rival companies in its neighbourhood. Fort Esperence had an X.Y. post near at hand. There was still another post, probably manned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, near the mouth of the Qu’Appelle, and although the North West Company had a substantial and permanent establishment only fifteen miles away, a new post, temporary in character of course, was built at the forks. At Beaver Creek itself, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a post which in 1819, when Fiddler writes about it, must have had something in the nature of permanence, because he speaks of its garden and its crop of barley. This extravagant rivalry came to an end with the amalgamation of the fur trading companies in 1821, and the building of Fort Ellice at the mouth of Beaver Creek in 1831 took the place of all these and several others, and served as a trading centre for the Indians over a wide area. Not only did the Canadian Indians resort regularly to Fort Ellice, but the Sioux came from what is now North Dakota, and occasionally bands of Mandans came from Missouri.
The minutes of the Northern Department Council authorizing the establishment of Fort Ellice reads: “That in order to protect the trade of the Assiniboines and Crees of the Upper Red River District from the American opposition on the Missouri, a new fort be established at Beaver Creek to be called Fort Ellice.” This new post was added to the Swan River District, and Dr. W. M. Todd who had been established at Brandon House, was transferred to take charge of the Swan River District, and had his headquarters at Fort Pelly, which continued to be headquarters till 1871 when, under Chief Trader Archibald McDonald took charge of the District, and continued in charge till his retirement in 1911, although in 1882 his headquarters were transferred from Fort Ellice to Fort Qu’Appelle. In order to cover the ground more thoroughly, and leave less opening for the incoming of free traders, outposts were established within the district at such places as Touchwood Hills, Crooked Lakes, Wood Mountain and Last Mountain. Although some of these were only temporary posts, and not occupied all the year round, they tended to diminish the outstanding importance of Fort Ellice. Besides this, many free traders travelled about over the plains with their stocks of goods in carts and visited the monadic Indians in their camps. The Company was obliged to resort to the same policy, and the importance of the headquarter posts to which the Indians had been accustomed to resort, from hundreds of miles around, was still further reduced. The final blow came when the railways penetrated the country. Fort Ellice, on the top of the hill, and Fort Qu’Appelle in the bottom of a deep valley were alike unattractive to engineers as attractive town sites. The mainline of the CPR passed through Virden thirty miles to the south. The Manitoba & North West, now absorbed by the CPR, passed through Birtle and Foxwarren, ten miles to the north east and the day when Fort Ellice ruled the plains was over. The Company gave up its business in 1888 and tried to salvage what remained of its trade by opening business in Shoal Lake, thirty miles eastward. It sold the Fort Ellice buildings to one of its young employees named Wheeler, who kept the place going for two years and then disposed of the buildings to neighbouring settlers to be dismantled.
With a long and honourable history like that it need not be a matter of surprise that neighbouring municipal and social organizations have selected the site of Fort Ellice as a suitable place to be marked by a commemorative cairn, and last summer, on 15 July , the Golden Anniversary of Manitoba’s admission into Confederation, the foundation was laid for the Memorial Cairn. It is located, not within the area of the old fort enclosure, but a few yards away on the brow of a hill where it can easily be seen by travellers on the railway in the valley below. The laying of the foundation was marked by a picnic at which four thousand people were said to be present. Speeches were made in English and French. There were political addresses, and there were local reminiscences by pioneers. There was an account of the history and achievement of the Hudson’s Bay Company, there was reading of extracts from the logbooks of the Chief Factors of the fort, dating back to 1856. The trowel for laying the foundation stone was handled by Judge McKay, of Regina, who traces his ancestry to a line of Hudson’s Bay Company and the celebration wound up by a baseball match between two local clubs.
A new day has dawned. Such old trading posts as Fort Ellice have no counterpart in the life of today and the stone Cairn will be, by and by, the only reminder of the glories of a time not so very far in the past, and the children on their annual picnic will hear the tales of buffalos, of Red River carts, of Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factors, of shaganappi, and will watch baseball matches where the Indian lads used to hold their horse races and their mimic scalping parties.
It only remains to pay my tribute of respect to the memory of the Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, whom I learned to know and admire at Fort Ellice. Archibald McDonald was a typical officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Descended from warriors and chiefs of Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland, reared in the mountains and glens of Inverness where in his boyhood he had opportunities of hunting, fishing and shooting to his hearts content, he was unconsciously preparing himself for the life of an adventurer, which by and by was offered to him as an apprentice clerk in the service of the company in Rupert’s Land. McDonald’s father was the chief forester on the estate of the Right Honourable Edward Ellice, a Director of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and it was probably through the influence of this influential friend that he secured his appointment. He used to tell that in the year in which he was sent out, there were only four openings, and there were one hundred candidates. It was always a matter of pride to young McDonald to remember that when a Parliamentary investigation was being held in London into the affairs of the Company, and Edward Ellice was called upon to testify as to the character of the employees that were sent out, he spoke of the care exercised by the Directors in selecting suitable clerks to be trained as officers. He called attention to the fact that many of them were sons of ministers, bankers, or other men who had been able to give a good education to their boys, and he described in particular the qualifications of young, McDonald whom he had known from his childhood.
It was in 1854 that McDonald came by way of Hudson Bay to York Factory on the annual trip from London, and was assigned to the Swan River District, within whose bounds he spent his life, doing his work at Manitoba coast, Shoal River, Lake Winnipegosis, Fort Pelly, Touchwood Hills, Fort Ellice, and Fort Qu’Appelle. In his earlier experience he made contacts with the Indians of the woods who, in the main, were peaceful and tractable, and not difficult to manage, and he had the good fortune to be trained in the service by unusually capable men, Messrs. A. H. Murray, W. J. Christie when they were in succession in command of the district. This apprenticeship in the north qualified him for the more arduous tasks which he encountered when he was assigned to Fort Ellice and Fort Qu’Appelle where he had to deal with the warring tribes of the Buffalo Plains. He was naturally a high spirited and courageous man, and his fearlessness made him friends with the brave Crees of the plains with whom he maintained a friendship, and established an influence which prevailed through thick and thin through two rebellions, till his death.
Mr. McDonald was above the ordinary stature, strong and sinewy, and no extra flesh on his bones, and always in the enjoyment of excellent health until the autumn of 1890, when, along with his fellow chief factor, Richard Hardisty, he was on a visit to Prince Albert. They were riding behind a spanking team on the back seat of a democrat wagon. The rapid pace and jolting dislodged the catches which held down this back seat, and the two friends were thrown violently backward on the trail. From the effects of this fall Mr. Hardisty died soon afterwards, and Mr. McDonald suffered injuries to the spine, of which he felt the effect to the end of his life.
McDonald was a man of the woods and plains, a champion horse breaker and log driver, who revelled in the wild free life of the untamed west. But he always kept up his interest in literature. You found on his table the Inverness Courier, the Scottish American, half a dozen of the English monthly and quarterly reviews, and now and then a book of solid reading. He was a devout Christian, always on the side of righteousness and in spite of occasional absences, due to duties elsewhere, served for years as superintendent of the little Presbyterian Sunday School of Fort Qu’Appelle where he had the pleasure of cooperating with his fellow Scots, the Rev. Alex Robson.
McDonald was appointed to be chief trader in 1869, and in 1879 attained the height of his ambition in becoming chief factor. In the rebellion of 1885 his influence with the Qu’Appelle Indians was paramount and so great was the confidence he had inspired, a considerable number of Indians who might have been enemies, served as allies in freighting supplies for the troops from Qu’Appelle to the Saskatchewan.
He was the last survivor in the active service among the old chief factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company. A picturesque frontiersman and pioneer, proud of the traditions of the Company and himself, doing much to advance its interest and its reputation.
Page revised: 5 November 2012