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The Old Forts of Winnipeg, 1738-1927

by Charles N. Bell

MHS Transactions Series 2, No. 3
Read 1927

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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As your President, I am very frequently called upon to afford information as to some one book which gives a concise description of all the fur traders’ forts, established on the site of the present City of Winnipeg, with some particulars of the cause of their establishment. I frankly confess that I have had to reply that there is no book that I know of which gives the local history of Winnipeg in the direction referred to. Consequently, in response to many requests, I am endeavouring to give, in a condensed form, what information regarding these forts I have obtained by perusal of printed and written records available to me, combined with a personal knowledge of the ground comprised in the Winnipeg area during 57 years’ residence here, and many conversations and interviews had with several of the last surviving members of the original Selkirk settlers, all of whom have long since passed away. I am fully aware of my temerity in attempting such an undertaking, but can only say in explanation that I am endeavouring to give the citizens of Winnipeg some knowledge of the history of their own city, culled from many sources not available, and, in fact, unknown, to the great majority of our people. I make no excuse, however, for placing on record the facts connected with the establishing of some of the fur trading posts, or, as they were generally termed, trading forts, which have never adequately been brought into the light sothat we, living in Winnipeg, can understand and appreciate some important events in our history.

I will now review, necessarily keeping within the scope of a paper of this description, the information I have gained concerning the forts of Winnipeg. It is to be always understood that in the early days of the fur trade, in Western Canada, whether under French or British occupation, practically every trading post, especially if it was protected by palisades, was called a “fort.”...

Charles Bell’s map of the old forts in Winnipeg. 1. The “mythical” Fort Maurepas, and also Fort Rouge, Fort Legardeur de St. Pierre, Fort Bruce and Boyer, Fort Alexander Henry, and original Fort Gibraltar; 2. Fort Douglas; 3. Fidler’s Fort; 4. original Fort Garry; 5. second Fort Garry; and 6. traditional H.B.C. post.

Fort Rouge

It has been generally accepted, and passed on, by many writers on the subject, that Fort Rouge was built by Verendrye himself in 1738, when he made his first voyage of discovery from Fort Maurepas, at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, through Lake Winnipeg and up the Red and Assiniboine Rivers to the Mandans of the Missouri River. It is passing strange how readily this idea, erroneous as it is in fact, has prevailed. An authentic copy and translation of Verendrye’s journal, or narrative, for the years 1738-39, is to be found, as in several other places, in the annual report of the Canadian Archives Department, 1889, and when hereafter I use the words “Verendrye’s Journal,” I refer, unless otherwise specifically stated, to this particular document, of which the opening paragraph is as follows:

Journal in the form of a letter, from the 20th of July, 1738, date of my departure from Michilimakinak, to May, 1739, sent to the Marquis de Beauharnois, Commander of the Military Order of St. Louis, Governor and Lieutenant-General of the whole of New France, lands and country of Louisiana, by his very humble servant, Laverendrye, lieutenant of a company of the detachment of the Marine in Canada, commissioned by his orders for the discovery of the Western Sea.

There is not one word in this paragraph relating to trading in furs, but the journal reveals that at least one principal object of his expedition was the discovery and examination of the strange people called the Mandans, who, the Indians questioned had reported, were white men like the French, having a light complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes, and that they lived upon a great stream which flowed to the ocean.

Now, let us examine the journal itself to ascertain just what small part Verendrye himself announces he actually had in the establishment of Fort Rouge. After leaving the French fort or post at Kaministiquia on the 6th August, 1738, where “I had your orders published and left a copy with the French who keep the fort concerning that post, and that of Tekamamihouenne (Fort St. Pierre, Rainy Lake), to be handed to M. de Lamarque, who was to arrive there at an early date,” he proceeded on his western journey. On the 22nd August, he was at Rainy Lake, and then went on to Fort St. Charles at the west end of the Lake of the Woods. There he writes:

I deferred leaving until the 11th of September, waiting for Mr. de Lamarque, to whom I had promised not to hasten, so as to give him the opportunity of joining me, he having promised me at Michilimakinak to make haste, so that he might come with me in the autumn for the discovery of the Mandans. Seeing on the 10th of the month that he had not arrived, and everything being in good order, I left on the 1 1 th, hoping that he would join me soon to come with me.

Verendrye arrived at Fort Maurepas, at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, on the 22nd September, where he examined the arms, published the Governor’s Orders concerning the post, gave a copy of it to Mr. Lariviere (misprint in Archives copy. Should be D’Amours de Louviere), clerk to these gentlemen, (that is, to his creditors in Montreal) and selected five of his men to take with him. His next sentence is: “I went to the Fork of the Asiliboiles (Assiniboine) on the 24th. (Sept.), where I found ten Cree huts and two war chiefs, who expected me, with a quantity of meat, having been notified that I was coming.”

It is somewhat strange that Verendrye gives no description of his voyage across Lake Winnipeg and up the Red River, and, as Indians were at the Forks awaiting him, it would appear that he was quite well informed on the route he had just traversed, and was in some measure at least in touch with the Assiniboine River Indians. His description of the country commences with his journey up the Assiniboine, of which river it is quite clear he previously had no personal experience after waiting at the Forks (he says in his tent) for only two days to banquet with the Indians, he sent on the canoes up the Assiniboine, and himself proceeded on foot on the north side, and so continued until he arrived on the 2nd October at the prairie portage (now Portage la Prairie), where the Indians of that region passed north to Lake Manitoba, and so on down to conduct their trade with the English (Hudson’s Bay Company’s traders or posts). While avowedly desirous of ascending farther, probably to the Souris, where the regular route to the Mandan country started, as proved by the accounts of all travelers and traders after his time, he found that the stage of water in the Assiniboine was unusually low, and so could not proceed further up with his canoes. He emphasized that he had no resources to repair canoes, having neither gum nor resin, and, therefore, after careful examination of the land, he built Fort la Reine, which, for many years following, was the centre of the French operations in the western country.

The journal now informs us in express terms who did build the post, always since referred to as Fort Rouge.

On the 9th October, Mr. de Lamarque, with the Sieur Nolant, his brother, and eight men, in two canoes, arrived, which gave me much pleasure. I testified my gratitude to Mr. De Lamarque for the trouble he had taken to bring us reinforcements. I questioned him if he had left many people at Fort St. Charles, Lake of the Woods, and whom he had left at Maurepas. He answered me that he had left eight men at the first, with two traders, having brought all the canoes he had, not because he hoped to be able to load them, not having been able to bring the heavy goods, but that he had promised he would join me, and did not wish to break his word, that I required people for my expedition, that he had brought them without injury to himself, not requiring his people during the winter. I thanked him, telling him that if he joined in our expedition, he would be saved, himself and all his people, the expense until they returned. He told me he wished to share the expense. I answered that that could not be, it was enough for me that he supplied the men and himself without the necessity of sharing the expense, which I had already provided for. I gave him room, at his request, in my fort, to build a house to lodge all his people. Mr. de Lamarque told me he had brought Mr. de Louviere to the Forks, with two canoes, to build a fort there for the accommodation of the people of the Red River. I approved of it if the Indians were notified.

There can be no doubt, in view of the above explicit statement by Verendrye himself, that it was de Lamarque who built Fort Rouge, and that his status was that of an independent gentleman (probably representing Verendrye’s eastern creditors), but certainly a valued and trusted friend to Verendrye. The latter, in many places later on in his journal, refers to de Lamarque as being treated as an equal, consulted in all matters of importance, and sharing in all matters connected with their life and hardships as an intimate friend and companion. And this friendly relationship was extended also to de Lamarque’s brother, the Sieur Nolant. Benj. Sulte affords the information that de Lamarque can Nolant) was born in Quebec in 1694, and under his mother’s name became the companion of La Verendrye.

Judge Prud’homme (St. Boniface Historical Society) is my authority for stating that in the spring of 1735 Verendrye himself wrote: “I had, before leaving (June 6, 1735) ceded to my tradesmen the privilege of trading and the business of the posts I had established, the previously interested parties having finished their term,” and that this action was taken so that he could devote all his energy, untrammeled by commercial interests, to exploration.

It is foreign to the subject of Fort Rouge to make any extended comments on the expedition of Verendrye and de Lamarque from Fort la Reine to the Mandans on the Missouri, beyond stating that they were unquestionably the first white men to discover the upper Missouri and this Indian Nation, but the latter greatly disappointed the explorers, who had been hoping to find white people, possibly Spaniards, living on a great river that flowed into the “Western Sea.” In the spring of 1739, after returning from the Mandan expedition to Fort la Reine, where they were very short of provisions, Mr. de Lamarque left for Fort Maurepas, at which place he heard his people were starving, and from the context of Verendrye’s journal, it seems most probable that he visited his outpost at the Forks, although no specific statement to that effect is made. That one winter’s occupation apparently comprises the history of the actual existence of Fort Rouge, except that it continued as a place on the maps a printed name only.

It is to be noted that neither de Lamarque nor Verendrye in the journal names this post as “Fort Rouge,” but, on the contrary, it is simply stated that de Lamarque had brought Louviere to the “Forks” to build a fort there for the accommodation of the people (Indians) of the Red River. Neither is it stated on which side of the river it was situated. It is reasonable to assume that the person who drew the 1740 map from the information supplied in the reports of Verendrye, instead of naming it Fort Riviere Rouge decided on the condensed form of Fort Rouge—the Red Fort. Certainly these explorers and traders did not paint their temporary rough barked log structures. It is significant in this connection that Verendrye both hitherto and afterwards named every fort established by him west of Lake Superior, after some high official person. Why did the individual who prepared this map for the Governor of Canada depart from Verendrye’s previously invariable policy in selecting names for forts?

The only three writers who, so far as I have read, lay any stress on de Lamarque’s connection with Fort Rouge, are Judge Prud’homme (St. Boniface Historical Society, 1916), De Land (State Dept. of History South Dakota, 1914) and Morice (Catholic Church in Western Canada, 1910).

Out of the multitude of books written on Verendrye’s journeys, I refer to but two of the more ambitious to illustrate how the main feature of who was responsible for the building of Fort Rouge was completely overlooked. Dr. Bryce (Five Forts of Winnipeg, 1886) does not mention de Lamarque, and apparently never heard of him. Burpee (The Search for the Western Seas, 1908) merely refers to de Lamarque as a trader taken by Verendrye with him on the Mandan expedition. But then Burpee on two pages preceding had written that it was the two sons of Verendrye who had built both Fort Rouge and Fort La Reine, and this two years before these forts came into existence, which is just another illustration of the danger of relying on second hand authorities when the original documents are available.

The name “Fort Rouge” appears on a map, dated 1740, which, admittedly, was prepared by the Governor of New France from the information contained in Verendrye’s journals, and, as thereon the Assiniboine and Red Rivers are shown as running almost parallel for a considerable distance before joining, and thus becoming the “Forks,” it was quite natural for the compiler, whoever he was, to assume that the fort was placed in the immediate angle formed by the junction of the two rivers, but to anyone cognizant of the topography of the land on both sides of the Assiniboine River at the Forks, (the south side being relatively very low, subject to spring floods, heavily covered with willows and small trees, and quite open to attack by the fierce and hostile Sioux, who had already killed Verendrye’s son, a priest, and nineteen of his men near Fort St. Charles, while the north bank was and still is much higher, and, in fact, the edge of a large prairie area extending both north and west, with a shallow line of heavy timber reaching back from the banks of both streams), common sense would dictate that the side to build on was the north bank, which naturally and invariably afterwards was chosen by the French and British traders for camping ground and building site purposes. Indeed, fortunately, we have evidence regarding the site of Fort Rouge.

Alexander Henry (the nephew) arrived at the Forks in 1800, and his journal, written while in camp on the north bank of the Assiniboine, under date of August 19th, contains the following entry: “Upon this spot, in the time of the French, there was a trading establishment, traces of which are still to be seen where their chimneys and cellars stood.” Henry gives a number of descriptions of his campsite, which quite conclusively prove that he was on the spot where Fort Rouge stood. (See also evidence of John McDonnell in 1793 under “Fort Bruce and Boyer”, following). For fully 60 years after de Lamarque erected this fort, which, so far as is known, existed only during the winter of 1738-9, the name “Fort Rouge” appeared on many different European maps, British, French, Dutch and Italian, as if the fort was still in existence. It is curious how that name stuck in the minds of map makers, who copied it one from the other, long after the French had withdrawn from the western country, and even after the occupation of the territory by the British traders from Montreal. An impartial study of the ascertained facts must convince any student that Lamarque built the Fort Rouge post, that it was in existence for probably only one winter, and that it was on the north bank of the Assiniboine River at the Forks. That McDonnell, and afterwards, Henry, at least 50 years after Fort Rouge passed out of existence, should recognize the remains of the post, is quite within the understanding of men like Mr. J. B. Tyrrell (who edited the Champlain Society’s Vol. of Thompson), who has located, and even photographed, the remains of many trading posts which had existed nearly a century before. Some forty years ago, I myself, located the ruins of old trading posts, which were erected eighty or more years previously, near the mouth of Souris River, and easily identified the sites by the cellar hollows and scattered chimney materials, and, in cases, the outline of the enclosing stockades could be traced. Also when in 1872-3, as a youth of eighteen years of age, I traveled and hunted in the North Saskatchewan country and far down south into the buffalo areas, my half-breed companions pointed out to me the easily discernable sites of traders’ posts erected three-quarters of a century before. Sir Alexander Mackenzie recorded that before 1800 the marks of wheeled carriages and agricultural implements were visible about the old posts of the early French traders situated on the Saskatchewan River below the forks of that river.

Legardeur de Saint Pierre’s Fort

Legardeur de St. Pierre (whose journal or report is in the Canadian Archives report, 1887) in 1750 was appointed by the authorities in Quebec to succeed Verendrye, in charge of the western posts, and arrived, with his Lieutenant de Niverville at Fort Maurepas, situated at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, but the season was so far advanced that it was impossible for de Niverville to travel by canoe to Fort Bourbon on the Saskatchewan River, (his destination) and he and his men were forced to proceed overland on foot from the mouth of the river, carrying their baggage and provisions on their backs or dragging them on small sleds. Finding no provisions at Fort Bourbon, they were exposed to starvation, and passed the winter miserably in a state of famine. M. de St. Pierre reached Verendrye’s Fort La Reine on the Assiniboine, which, having been abandoned since the departure of that explorer and his sons, was dilapidated and devoid of provisions. His report informs us that he started north to join de Niverville, who had become seriously ill, but turned back and did nothing further during the summer of 1751. During the winter of 1751-1752, de St. Pierre had quite an exciting adventure at Fort La Reine. On the 22nd February, he was in the fort with five Frenchmen, having sent the rest of his men out to secure provisions, which he had been without for some days, when 200 armed Assiniboines came into the fort, became very turbulent, and announced to the interpreter that they wanted to pillage the place and kill St. Pierre. The latter no sooner learned of their intention than he seized hold of a burning brand, burst open the door of the powder magazine, and smashed in the head of a barrel of powder, over which he waved the burning torch, which the Indians no sooner beheld than they, in great fear and consternation, fled out of the fort.

After spending the winter of 1751-2 at Fort La Reine, de St. Pierre in the spring left with all his men for Grand Portage, Lake Superior. The adventure of February had so frightened his employees that none of them would consent to remain during the summer to take care of the fort, so he asked the Indians to do so. However, while traveling down the Winnipeg River on his return voyage from Grand Portage, he was informed on the 29th September that four days after his departure from Fort La Reine, the Assiniboine Indians had burned it to the ground. This information, combined with the scarcity of provisions he found prevailing, obliged him to go to spend the winter at the Red River, where game was abundant. At just what point on the Red River he wintered he does not state, but most likely it was at the strategic “Forks,” and, with his experience of the turbulent Assiniboines, he undoubtedly erected the customary stockaded protection for his winter houses. (See under “Fort Bruce and Boyer”).

It would appear, then, that once again there was a fort, occupied but for one winter, at the Forks, and within the limits of the present City of Winnipeg.

St. Pierre was succeeded in 1753 by the Chevalier de la Come, who caused to be built a fort below the juncture of the two branches of the Saskatchewan River, and named it Fort La Come, which name was recognized by the first British Montreal Traders, and has continued for that place to the present day. In 1756 all the western posts were abandoned by the French, whose regime west of Lake Superior terminated.

Fort Bruce and Boyer

A partner of the Northwest Company, John McDonnell, while serving in the interests of his company on the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle Rivers, in 1793-5, kept a quite complete journal, extracts from which are included in Masson’s Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest. Writing of the old French forts of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, he placed the following information on record: “At the Forks, the remains of several old posts are still to be seen, some of which were built as far back as the time of the French Government”; and again—

three leagues above Portage la Prairie stood Le Fort des Trembles, or Poplar Fort. In the year 1780 or 1781, the Indians made an attempt to pillage the traders, Messrs. Bruce and Boyer, and, in the scuffle that ensued, two Frenchmen and seven Indians were killed upon the spot. Owing to this affair, the traders were obliged, for fear of being cut off, to re-embark their canoes and return to winter at the Forks. The smallpox seizing the natives, and sweeping off three-fourths of them, compelled them to lay aside their intention of cutting off all the white men in the interior country.

This is a definite statement, afterwards in all essentials corroborated by Alex. Henry (nephew) in 1806 that a fort was in existence at The Forks in 1781. Sir Alexander Mackenzie in his book makes a short reference to the fight at Fort des Trembles, but says nothing of the traders’ retreat to The Forks.

It is not clear from any of the accounts whether Bruce and Boyer were employees of one of the large trading concerns antedating the formation of the Northwest Company, or independent traders from Lake Superior. Boyer certainly was in the employ of the Northwest Company in 1787, when he was sent to the Peace River by Sir Alex. Mackenzie to establish a fort, and remained there for two years. Of Bruce nothing further seems to be on record.

In view of the fighting that had taken place, it may be safely assumed that Bruce and Boyer, with nearly a score of men, had their post well protected in case of an Indian attack. John McDonnell’s statement, that in 1793 the remains of several old posts were still visible, which had been in existence during the French regime and before the British traders from Montreal had reached the Forks is, like the evidence of Henry in 1800, valuable as locating where Louviere in 1738, and likely St. Pierre in 1753, had each passed at least one winter on the north bank of the Assiniboine, where the latter stream merges with the Red River. It is especially valuable as a record that this post of Bruce and Boyer was the first fort we know of as built at the Forks by British traders following the close of the old French regime.

Alexander Henry’s “The Forks’s Fort”

Alexander Henry (the nephew), a partner of the North West Company, left us a journal, which includes a lengthy account of his life on the Red River during the years 1800-8. I was fortunate enough to discover this journal in the Library of Parliament at Ottawa in 1887, and extracts from it form the substance of three papers read before the Manitoba Historical Society in 1888 (Transactions Nos. 31, 35 and 37), or nine years before the talented Dr. Elliot Coues published it in full with such extensive and wonderfully explanatory notes in three volumes under the title of New Light on the Early History of the Great North West. Henry, on September 27th, 1803, established, as an outpost of his main trading fort at Pembina, a small trading post at the Forks, under the charge of one Louis Dorion. Henry, under date of January 19th, 1804, recorded that he visited this post for inspection, and found Dorion practically starving through lack of provisions; and about two weeks later, on reaching this establishment for the second time, found his men starving, as were also his people at Portage la Prairie. As a consequence of Dorion’s experience, the post was discontinued the following year, and so another “fort” at the Forks disappeared.

It is interesting to have a record of the furs that Dorion, in conjunction with another outpost, existing at the same time, at the Dead River (now Netley Creek), secured in trade for the North West Company. The list includes: 350 beavers, 24 black bears, 16 brown bears, 52 fishers, 35 otters, 200 martens, 146 wolverines and 700 muskrats, and a considerable mixed lot of other furs.

All the traders, who have left us journals describing their life and movements in the Red and Assiniboine rivers country, give more or less extensive notes regarding the Forks, which was the rendezvous where the brigades of canoes and boats, arriving from both Lake Superior and James Bay, re-sorted their trading goods to fill the assignments destined for the various posts and outposts scattered along both rivers up into the interior. Winnipeg’s status as a distributing centre certainly dates from this period.

In Henry’s journal we get a sidelight into the customs which prevailed at The Forks in 1806, when it is related that Henry, returning from an inspection of his post at Portage la Prairie to take to Fort William his brigade of boats laden with the winter’s trade of furs at Grand Forks and Pembina and their outposts, joined his men at The Forks, and on the 4th June “played with J. McKenzie of the H. B. Co., with drum, fife, etc., and drank out a ten gallon keg of brandy.” It is to be hoped that the brandy was the diluted article called “trade liquor,” but in any case both parties were able to leave next day en route for Albany House on James Bay, and Fort William, Lake Superior.

Fort Gibraltar

The autobiographical notes of John McDonald of Garth, a partner of the North West Company, which are to be found in Masson’s Volume 2, under date of 1807, contain the following passage:

“I established a fort at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Second Fort Gibraltar, 1821 rivers, and called it ’Gibraltar,’ though there was not a rock or stone within three miles.”

Thus was established Fort Gibraltar, the headquarters of not only the fur trade of the North West Company on the Red, Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle Rivers, and country adjacent to these streams, but of the operations of that company against the Hudson’s Bay Company, following the establishment of the Selkirk Colony, which came into existence in 1812, with the arrival of the first contingent of Selkirk settlers.

Fort Gibraltar was erected on the north side of the Assiniboine River, where that stream joins the Red River, and extended somewhat along the bank of the latter. In the year 1871, following my service as a soldier of the Red River expedition, under General Wolseley, which reached Fort Garry in 1870 via the old fur traders’ route from Lake Superior to Winnipeg, in company with my friend Corporal (afterwards General) Sam B. Steele, I took a walk down the Assiniboine from Fort Garry a few hundred yards to the traditional site of Fort Gibraltar, and there, plainly to be seen very near to the edge of the bank, were recognizable hollows representing cellars, and the mixture of semi-calcined limestone, remains of chimneys, and while at that time we were rather hazy on the subject of the history of Fort Gibraltar, it was clear to us that buildings of some kind had been on that ground, though it was also evident that almost the whole area of the enclosure that had once been there had disappeared into the river through the washing away and crumbling in of the banks. Steele drew to my attention several much decayed human bones and one skull close to the water’s edge, which had apparently rolled down from near the funeral ground level of the bank through under-mining by the heavy spring flood. (Henry in 1800 refers to the extensive Indian graveyard hereabouts). I am quite satisfied that the hollows and chimney debris which we then saw were the last remains of Fort Gibraltar.

I visited, and carefully inspected this site this present month, and found that if not in the two rivers, what remains of it is now buried many feet under the cinders and general refuse of the railway yard of the Canadian National.

It is not necessary for me, in connection with Fort Gibraltar, to give any details of its history after the arrival of the first Selkirk settlers, because the history of that period has been fully covered, not only by the published statements of the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Lord Selkirk’s Colony Officials, but by a multitude of writers, who have written everything from fact to fiction regarding the aggressive acts of the two companies which took place at that time, culminating on the 17th March, 1816, in the destruction by the order of the Selkirk Colony Governor Semple of Fort Gibraltar, during the absence of the partner in charge, when even the material of the fort was pulled down, floated by the river to Fort Douglas, nearly a mile below, and used to strengthen the Colony Fort; and shortly after in the killing of Semple, the Colony Governor, and a number of his followers by employees of the Northwest Company on the site known as Seven Oaks, in the northern part of Winnipeg. As a result of this clashing of interests, Colonel Coltman was sent by the Governor-General of Canada as commissioner to inquire into the whole facts of the situation, and following this lamentable state of affairs, which almost financially ruined both companies, the rival interests came together and amalgamated under the charter name of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Whether Fort Gibraltar was re-erected by the Northwest Company in 1816 has been somewhat a matter of conjecture. Beckles Willson in The Great Company, states that “Fort Gibraltar had been destroyed, but the Northwester’s at once set about erecting buildings to carry on their trade.”

Hon. Donald Gunn, for years following the year 1813, in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, finally settling in the Red River Colony, in his book History of Manitoba, wrote as follows: “The Northwest Company’s fort had been razed to the ground and could not be restored; but that active and energetic body procured new materials, built new houses and stores on the old site, and commenced business anew.”...

That the Hudson’s Bay Company immediately after the amalgamation did do business in a fort at the Forks is also proved by the recorded evidence of eye witnesses like Donald Murray (see statement under “Fidler’s Fort”), for the stores of the company at Fort Douglas were closed. (Also see statement of marriage entry in St. John’s Church under the heading of “Fort Garry”).

Fort Douglas

There was in the early days of the Red River Settlement a floating tradition that the Hudson’s Bay Company at one time had a post or fort on the east bank of the Red River, opposite the mouth of the Assiniboine, in what is now St. Boniface, but I have not been able to obtain much information relating to it, and it must have had a very transitory existence. It is true that Arrowsmith’s map of the “Interior Parts of North America,” which was inscribed by permission to the Hon. Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into the Hudson’s Bay, and dated January 1st, 1796, shows that a house was on that site in 1780, but gives no indication as to whether or not it was a Hudson’s Bay Company’s establishment. I have not come across any definite claim that such a post was established by the Northwest Company, and it is generally accepted that Fort Douglas, erected on the north side of a small coulee, emptying into the Red River, at the foot of what is now Robert and George Avenues, in the City of Winnipeg (I found the coulee outlet through the river bank to be easily discerned as late as this month) was the first Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort established in the Winnipeg area, and this fort was not only utilized for the stores of the company, but was the official headquarters and residence of the Governor of the Selkirk Colony after the arrival of the settlers in 1812. Fort Douglas, therefore, became the centre of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s and Red River settlement interests. After the Seven Oaks conflict in 1816, it was temporarily occupied by the officers and employees of the Northwest Company, their own Fort Gibraltar having been previously destroyed by the order of Semple, the Colony Governor.

The detailed history of Fort Douglas, like that of Fort Gibraltar, is so fully covered in the Government reports of the day, and books of many writers, more or less accurate or colored, according to the prejudices of their writers, and which may be obtained in any good Canadian library, that I need not further dilate on the subject.

After the conflicts, Fort Douglas continued to be the residence of the Colony Governor as apart from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and one of these, Andrew Bulgar, writing under date of August 4th, 1822, gives a shocking description of the place. His words are:

As to what is styled Fort Douglas. It is well situated, though there is a better position for a fort about 200 yards higher up, upon the land which Mr. Pritchard gave up. But as to the fort itself, it is, as Mr. Halkett can tell you, the most filthy, miserable place imaginable. It is by at least 25 feet too small, and the stockades are for the most part rotten and tumbling down. The buildings, except one, are mere log huts, very old and so full of holes as to be perfectly unsuitable. The only one that is of any value is what is called the new house, but even this is nothing more than the shell of a badly built log house, being nowhere boarded outside, and having but two rooms finished inside, and so badly have these been done that the light may be seen through the walls in many places.

I regret that while I secured possession of a large number of letters and documents of that period, which would be very valuable in connection with a description of Fort Douglas, at his request I, many years ago, surrendered all these papers to the late Lord Strathcona, and they are no longer available as historical matter. It so chances, however, that I have in my possession the original official file of the copies of various documents relating to the Red River Settlement, which was given to Captain Robert Parker Pelly as “Governor of Ossiniboia” on his departure from London, 21st May, 1823. When either of the governors of the General Territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company was present, the power of the Governor of Ossiniboia was suspended for the time being for judicial purposes.

After the repurchase from the Selkirk estate of his rights under the original deed of sale, the governors came strictly under the authority of the Hudson’s Bay Company itself.

The end of Fort Douglas came with the high waters of what is locally called the great flood of 1826, when the people of the settlement were forced to flee from their homes and take refuge for a time on the high grounds of Bird’s Hill or Stoney Mountain.

Fidler’s Fort

In the year 1887 I interviewed Donald Murray, George Bannerman, John Matheson, John Polson and Mrs. Kaufman, all survivors of the original Selkirk Colony, who were old enough at the time of their arrival in 1812-15 to remember the events that transpired in connection with the disputes and local occurrences resulting from the conflict between the rival interests of the Northwest Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Selkirk colony government. The evidence of these survivors, bearing on a number of matters not hitherto recorded, is contained in my work The Selkirk Settlement and the Settlers, 1887. Evidence of the fort building activities of the two companies following the conflict of 1816 is very meagre, hence the great value of the statements obtained from persons who were residents of this locality during that period.

Mr. Donald Murray, long since deceased, was in that year a wonderfully clear minded and physically active old gentleman, and the information which he afforded me, endorsed by the other survivors, when checked where possible by the official documents of the period, agreed in almost every detail. Mr. Murray, who was born at Kildonan, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, in or about the year 1801, came to the Red River in 1815 with Lord Selkirk’s fourth party of colonists, and lived there until his death, consequently he was a participant in, or eye witness of, most of the events and exciting times of what are commonly termed “the Colony Troubles.”

In connection with the forts at the mouth of the Red River, Mr. Murray said, his words being taken down in writing at the time and read over to him at the close of the interview:

The Northwest Company’s fort was called “Gibraltar,” and stood on the Assiniboine point, at the mouth of that river, but it has now gone into the river a good many years, I think. I do not know of any traces of any earlier fort known as Fort Rouge. The Hudson’s Bay Company, however, had a fort which stood close to where Notre Dame Street, East, is now. This was the fort which Dr. Bryce was unable to locate when he wrote his book about the old forts. This fort was built by Peter Fidler about 1817-18, but he went to Brandon House in the latter year, and it was first occupied by one James Sutherland, who finished it in 1819. As nearly as I can now locate its position, it was situated between what is at present McDermot Ave. and Notre Dame St. East, but perhaps nearer Notre Dame than the other. It was near the rise in the ground, and a few hundred yards from the Red River. It was about square, the principal entrance facing exactly to the point between the two rivers. At the farther end, opposite to this gate, stood the master’s house, which was larger than the others, which ranged down each side of the palisaded enclosure, about four on each side, but I do not remember exactly how many there were. There was a walk between them and the palisades, and an open courtyard in the centre. (I still have the plan Mr. Murray drew for me of the fort. —C.N.B.) I often slept in this fort, and in 1818, when I went to Brandon House, I started from it. I do not recall that it had any particular name other than “the Company’s Fort.” It was quite distinct from the later Fort Garry, and stood at the same time as Forts Douglas and Gibraltar. I forget just when it disappeared, but it probably stood until the flood of 1826, and was then swept away, like the remains of Fort Douglas, then owned by Mr. Logan. If you doubt that this fort was there, just find out about a marriage ceremony I was at in it. I was the only guest from the colony invited, when the following persons were married by the Rev. John West: James Bird, the chief factor, to a daughter of Thomas Thomas; Thos. Thomas, a retired chief factor, to Miss Monture; and Jos. Bird, a son of James, to a Swamp Cree woman.

(Note: I personally examined the marriage register kept by the Rev. John West, still preserved in St. John’s Cathedral, Winnipeg, and the above three entries show on the record, and are dated as at Red River Colony—C.N.B.)

It is, I think, certain that Mr. Murray’s statement is in strict accord with the fact, and that there was a fort, the existence of which has been lost sight of, built by the Hudson’s Bay Company as apart from their then dilapidated Fort Douglas.

Mr. Murray also made the following statement:

Fort Garry (the First) for years was only called “the Company’s Fort” by the settlers, and it was not until the last fort was erected that it was regularly called Fort Garry, though, of course, that was its proper name for years before.

The Hudson’s Bay Company used an old building that stood about two or three hundred yards north of Fort Gibraltar as a stable. That was after the companies joined. I do not know if they ever had a fort there before, but they used that old building as a stable when they moved out, and occupied the Northwest Company’s fort about 1821. Before we came to the country, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a store on the east bank of the Red River, opposite to the mouth of the Assiniboine. I think on the property where Mr. Norman Kittson (a man afterwards most prominent in the affairs of Minnesota, especially of St. Paul), later had his trading store. The company may have had a fort there, but I only know for a fact that they had some kind of a store.

The First Fort Garry

The Hudson’s Bay post, named Fort Garry, after the amalgamation, certainly was the rebuilt old Fort Gibraltar of the North-west Company, and though, after its first occupation, it was simply known as the Company’s Fort, or the Forks, it was finally designated as Fort Garry, and in this connection it is interesting to note that on an occasion in the year 1887, when consulting the old register of births, marriages and deaths of St. John’s Church, Winnipeg, I came across an entry under date of April 18th, 1822, of the solemnization of a marriage, with George Simpson (after-wards Sir George) attesting as witness, at “Fort Gibraltar,” the next following six entries being of marriages at “Fort Garry,” one of which was also witnessed by Simpson, while a star was placed opposite the first above mentioned entry, drawing attention to a footnote, which reads “Fort Gibraltar is now named Fort Garry.” Without doubt on that date Simpson changed the name to remove all feeling of resentment still existing amongst the Northwestern element with the occupation of the place by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Nicholas Garry, a member of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Council, after whom the fort was named, visited the settlement about this date, his name afterwards appearing, with that of Simpson, as witness to a marriage at Norway House, Lake Winnipeg, on the 12th August, 1821.

That the First Fort Garry was a good deal of a ramshackle place is described by Alexander Ross in his Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855). Ross, on his arrival at the Red River from British Columbia via the fur traders’ overland route, in 1825, rode up on horseback from below the present Selkirk to Fort Garry, reaching the fort on the evening of the 2nd July, and described it in the following words:

I was anxious to see the place, I had heard so much about it, but I must confess I felt disappointed. Instead of a place walled and fortified, as I had expected, I saw nothing but a few wooden houses huddled together, without palisades, or any regard to taste or even comfort. To this cluster of huts were, however, appended two long bastions in the same style as the other buildings.

These buildings, according to the custom of the country, were used as dwellings and warehouses for the carrying on of the trade of the place. Nor was the Governor’s residence anything more in its outward appearance than the cottage of a humble farmer, who might be able to spend fifty pounds a year. These, however, were evidences of the settled and tranquil state of the country.

This fort was occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Company as their headquarters, apart from the business of the Selkirk Colony as such, and with successive Governors until the appointment of Alexander Christie in 1835, who, in that year, began the erection of the Second Fort Garry, known to the present generation, of which the rear gateway now stands in the small Fort Garry Park which extends through from Main Street to Fort Street, immediately south of Broadway, and in the rear of the Manitoba Club. The buildings of the old evacuated fort, however they were utilized, remained until 1852, when as they were in part falling into the Assiniboine, they were demolished.

The Second Fort Garry

Realizing the necessity for better and greater accommodation for the conduct of their business, which, since the coalition of the two companies, had greatly improved, in 1831 the Hudson’s Bay Company built at the then head of deep water navigation, just below St. Andrew’s Rapids, the large and costly establishment which became known as the Stone Fort, or lower Fort Garry. The general tradition amongst the English population was that Sir George Simpson, viewing with some alarm the increasing turbulence of a part of the Metis of French extraction, deemed it advisable in case of a clash between the Company and that section of the Red River population, to have a stronghold nearer the centre of the English speaking white and half-breed inhabitants. Indeed, it was then generally understood in the Settlement that Government of the Company would be removed to the Lower Fort.

Whatever the policy may have been in 1831, it was changed, and Governor Alexander Christie, who had been a counselor of the governors of the Company’s territories, and later Governor of Assiniboia in 1833 (an office he held for two terms, 1833-39 and 1844-48), began the erection in 1835 of the large and quite imposing Fort Garry which, until 1882, was the centre of the Company’s business affairs in what is now Manitoba, and as well the centre of the social life of the Red River Settlement.

The Court House and jail was originally within the fort, but a minute of a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia held 3rd July, 1843, explains that “It being found exceedingly dangerous and inconvenient to have the public jail within the walls of Fort Garry; it was resolved: That the present jail be abandoned and that a new building be erected on some suitable spot by the Hudson’s Bay Company, to be in future used for that purpose.” The new Court House and Jail was built immediately adjoining the fort on the northwest side, and here several important cases were tried, particularly those connected with the claim of many of the inhabitants of the Settlement, both French and English, of their right to trade in furs, and which the Company, acting under the powers of its charter, granted in 1670, resolved not to concede. This claim of the people lay at the very root of the dissatisfaction which prevailed, causing serious outbreaks, and the presentation of their claims, by some of the people, to both the heads of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London and the Canadian and British Governments. I happen to have the original letter book of Fort Garry, containing much of the correspondence that took place between the Company and the leaders of the Red River people on this subject, and it affords very entertaining and instructive reading.

On several occasions detachments of Imperial troops were sent to the Red River Settlement by the British Government in response to urgent requests of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and these were all in turn, during their stay, quartered within the stone walls of Fort Garry. In 1846, eighteen officers and three hundred and twenty-nine men, being a wing of the 6th Royal Regiment of Foot, with artillery and engineers, under the command of Colonel John E Crofton, arrived, having made the long journey from England via Hudson Bay, Lake Winnipeg and the Red River. They remained quartered in the fort for two years, and then returned to Great Britain by the same route.

In the autumn of 1848, seventy pensioners arrived under command of Major Caldwell, the object of this corps being that they should form the nucleus of a local force to be recruited in the Red River Settlement, to support the enforcement of the laws of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Major Caldwell remained in the Settlement until 1855, but most of the men settled down in the country.

In 1856, the Company evidently brought strong pressure to bear on the Imperial Government to send another military force to Fort Garry. In this year also, two hundred United States troops arrived at Pembina, and the first act of this body was to issue a proclamation, notifying British subjects that they must not cross the International Boundary line to hunt or trade in furs. As a result of the situation, the Imperial Government in 1857 sent a company of the Royal Canadian Rifles via the Hudson’s Bay route, and these remained until 1861, when they returned to England. ...

From 1871 a small permanent force of troops were quartered in the fort until the erection of barracks and other necessary military buildings in an enclosed space, which received the name of Fort Osborne.

The Lieutenant-Governors of Manitoba resided within the northern enclosure of Fort Garry, to which the gateway yet remaining was the entrance, until the building known as “Government House” was erected, and which is still the official residence of that official.

Fort Garry, as built in 1835, enclosed a space of 240 feet from north to south, and 280 feet from east to west, the heavy walls being constructed of stone, with four large round bastions at the corners. The buildings, including the officers’ and employees’ residential quarters, warehouses and retail store were distributed within the enclosing walls. The large main gate faced the Assiniboine River, and was not far back from the bank of that stream. There were two small postern gates, one of which was in the east wall beside the retail store, and it was through this gate that Thomas Scott was taken for his execution by order of Riel and his Provisional Government in 1870. The other postern gave access, through the main wall at the northeast corner of the fort, to what was called the fur warehouse. It may be here pointed out that several years after the original fort was built an addition was made at the north end to provide quarters for the resident governor of the Company. The high walls of this added enclosure were constructed of large solid square oak logs, laid horizontally in the form of crib work, the space between the outer and inner oak walls being filled with earth, and it was at this time that the gateway still remaining in the small Fort Garry Park was erected.

In 1882, during the Winnipeg real estate boom, the Company sold the fort and the ground upon which it stood, this area having been surveyed into city lots, and the purchasers demolished the fort, except the small northern gateway, which still remains; and so passed Fort Garry, the Second, within whose walls many scenes of excitement, hospitality and commerce took place during its existence from 1835-1882. The Governor’s residence was the centre of many a jollification, on the occasions when he invited visiting and resident officers and other guests to grand spreads, the table being well supplied with choice tid-bits in the form of game obtained from all parts of the Company’s territory. Reindeer tongues and ptarmigan from the far north, buffalo tongues and joints from the plains, smoked bear hams, carefully prepared pemmican of deer and buffalo meat made with marrow, moose nose, beaver tail, sturgeon and whitefish, and other delicacies were provided for the guests, to be washed down by the best of teas, and generally drowned with the choicest of old liquors and wines taken from the well-stocked cellars of the fort. To be invited to dine at the Governor’s table was an event to be looked forward to. The newly articled clerk on his first arrival was initiated into the mysteries of the fur trade by listening to the tremendous yarns of the officials from the interior districts, and those of us who, at a later date, had the privilege of listening to these weather worn men know what wonderful experiences they could relate. Now and then in the old days, some traveler on his way to the far west or north, in pursuit of exploration, scientific observations or hunting, passed through the Settlement, and always received a hearty welcome at the Fort; indeed the travelers who have given us books on their work and adventures in the then vast uncharted areas of the country, invariably dwell on the hospitality extended to them at Fort Garry.

This Society was largely instrumental in securing the old gateway and park for the City of Winnipeg. Representatives of the Society taking the opportunity of Lord Strathcona visiting the City, waited on him and urgently pleaded that the site be donated to Winnipeg to be used for all time as a public park. His Lordship was most sympathetic and shortly afterwards the Hudson’s Bay Company made conveyance of the property to the City.

Page revised: 20 June 2014

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