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  Trading in Fur

FORT CARLTON PROVINCIAL HISTORIC PARK — Few places in Saskatchewan are as rich in history as Fort Carlton. The fur-trading post was constructed on the North Saskatchewan River in 1810, but it owes its existence to a 17th century English monarch.

A lovely setting on the North Saskatchewan River, on the cusp of parkland and prairie.
- courtesy Saskatchewan Environment
A lovely setting on the North Saskatchewan River, on the cusp of parkland and prairie.

In 1670, King Charles II granted the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) an enormous swath of North America called Rupert's Land. Encompassing all the territory in the Hudson Bay drainage system, Rupert's Land stretched from present-day northern Quebec all the way to southern Alberta and part of what's now the Northwest Territories. This vast, undeveloped region was teeming with fur-bearing animals whose pelts would bring tremendous returns to the stockholders of HBC, today the oldest traded company in the English-speaking world.

Charles ruled that the company would have exclusive trading rights to Rupert's Land, although the French, among others, didn't accept his edict. For decades, HBC factories on Hudson's and James bays processed furs delivered to them by First Nations people in the territory. But competition from French and independent traders eventually forced the company to take its business inland, closer to the source of the furs.

The first of almost 100 HBC trading posts created over the next century was built in 1774 at Cumberland House, located on what's now the east-central edge of Saskatchewan. Carlton House, which came to be known as Fort Carlton, was established in 1795 near the junction of the North and South Saskatchewan rivers. The original post was abandoned around 1804 and re-established some 150 kms (90 miles) to the southwest, on the South Saskatchewan River. In 1810, the post was moved west to its present site on the North Saskatchewan River.

Due to its location, Fort Carlton quickly evolved into a key provisioning centre in addition to its role as a trading post. Situated at the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, on the cusp of prairie and forest adjacent to a major overland trade route linking Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton, it was perfectly positioned to supply the more northerly posts with the necessities of life. Fresh meat and pemmican were obtained through buffalo hunts organized by the fort, and fresh produce and grains were grown in nearby fields.

For today's visitors to the partially-reconstructed fort, located an hour north of Saskatoon, the interpretive focus is the fur trade.

The chief factor's house, circa 1880.
- courtesy Saskatchewan Environment
The chief factor's house, circa 1880.

The fur-trading season got underway in autumn, when First Nations trappers arrived at the post to pick up their 'outfits' - the food, clothing and other goods required for a winter spent in the forest. The outfits, purchased 'on credit', were tailored to meet the needs and wishes of each individual trapper. However, only those with good credit ratings from previous seasons were allowed to include convenience and personal items in their outfits.

In spring, the trappers returned to the post to settle their accounts from the previous autumn. The furs they used to pay for their outfits were called the 'returns of trade', and HBC clerks used a currency called the Made Beaver (MB) to determine the value of these returns. The MB was the value of one beaver pelt, but it was used to calculate the worth of all furs. And like today's currencies, its value varied according to shifts in the market. In the 1820s, for instance, a blanket or a good knife cost two to three MB, while a new rifle ran about 20-25 MB.

One of three reconstructed buildings within the stockade of Fort Carlton is the trading shop, where visitors can see examples of the blankets, beads, pots and pans, knives and rifles First Nations trappers purchased on their MB accounts. The nearby fur and provisions store is filled with beaver, fox, mink and other furs that were appraised here, and then baled by press or lever for shipping to Hudson's Bay in the spring. The most valuable furs were silver fox, white ermine, marten and fisher.

The three or four HBC clerks who worked at Fort Carlton at any given time kept meticulous records of every transaction that occurred at the post. They were literate men - often Scots, from the Orkney Islands, who saved their money to purchase land back home. Their quarters, reproduced at the site, were spartan but comfortable. According to an interpretive guide, however, their living arrangements were luxurious compared to the barracks-style facility that housed laborers, usually Metis (mixed-blood) men and women, who worked in more menial jobs at the post.

The clerks' superior was the 'chief factor', who was responsible for the overall operation of the post. For most of the Fort Carlton's 75-year existence, the factor's private residence was located within the stockade. In 1879, the chief factor of the day had a new residence built outside the walls of the post, and his reconstructed home today serves as a modern visitors centre.

Before an American rail line reached Minnesota in 1859, making overland transportation economically attractive, the large and sturdy York boat was the primary means of transporting furs and goods between Hudson's Bay and Fort Carlton. At spring breakup, company employees at Hudson's Bay set off upstream towards the post, their York boats brimming with trade goods.

Metis laborers were housed in cramped barracks.
- courtesy Saskatchewan Environment
Metis laborers were housed in cramped barracks.

Their arduous journey ended in late summer or early fall, just in time to stock the post with the goods required for winter outfitting. But the hard work didn't end there.

The boatmen remained through the winter at Fort Carlton, raising to perhaps 30 the total number of people who staffed the post in the cold season. Their time was spent constructing new York boats or assisting other HBC employees with maintenance tasks. Food was often short in supply and poor in quality - it wasn't unusual to find fur in one's pemmican. In spring, as their counterparts left Hudson's Bay with a new shipment of trade goods, they loaded their boats with 'returns of trade' and set off downstream for the slightly-less-arduous journey back to Hudson's Bay.

For better and worse, the fur trade fundamentally changed the way of life of First Nations people in the North West. It guaranteed them food and clothing, but made them dependent upon the 'white man'.

In concert with a nearby First Nations band, Fort Carlton several years ago began expanding its interpretive program to include the central role First Nations people played in the fur trade. Just outside the stockade, several tipis represent the 'tipi village' that materialized each spring and fall, and stretched as far as five kms (three miles) down the river bank.

Employees of the trading shop worked in unheated surroundings due to the gunpowder on site.
Employees of the trading shop worked in unheated surroundings due to the gunpowder on site.

Inside one of the surprisingly-spacious tipis are examples of the trade goods First Nations people received in return for their furs. Rifles were in high demand. But the Cree interpreter on site said First Nations people seldom used firearms to take fur-bearing animals - a single bullet hole could greatly diminish the value of a pelt. They were status symbols, used largely for self-defense or warfare.

First Nations people are solely responsible for the interpretation provided at the tipi village. To date, their focus has been mostly cultural in nature. But discussions are underway to expand their participation in the interpretation of Fort Carlton, especially regarding important events that occurred in the area.

Treaty Six, the most comprehensive and controversial of the so-called 'numbered treaties', was signed here in 1876 by the Plains and Wood Cree, and the Crown. It paved the way for European settlement of Saskatchewan by promising the Cree people land and assistance programs in return for their claim on the territory.

But it was signed under duress and unfairly executed. More than 100 years after the fact, First Nations people under Treaty Six are being compensated for these shortcomings through land entitlements and money.

One of the areas of economic development First Nations people are pursuing with these new resources is aboriginal tourism. There's been an expressed interest in creating a facility, in the vicinity of Fort Carlton, that would interpret treaty and other historical and cultural developments from a First Nations perspective.

Fort Carlton also played a role in the beginning and end of the North-West Resistance.

The fur trade gave birth to the Metis, people of First Nations/European blood. Cree-French Metis from nearby Batoche defeated North-West Mounted Police based at Fort Carlton in the opening volley of the North-West Resistance of 1885.

The first of three fires that destroyed the post is said to have begun accidentally, as police and volunteer militia abandoned Fort Carlton following their defeat by the Metis. While some historians question the accidental nature of the first fire - they speculate it was an attempt to deprive the Metis of a defensible fortress - there's little argument the next two fires were deliberately set after the post was evacuated. Plans to rebuild the facility never materialized.

The North-West Mounted Police established a presence at the fort when Metis in nearby Batoche began agitating for their rights (circa: 1884).
- courtesy Saskatchewan Environment
The North-West Mounted Police established a presence at the fort when Metis in nearby Batoche began agitating for their rights (circa: 1884).

Fort Carlton was home to one of the most prominent First Nations leaders in Saskatchewan history. Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), the famous Plains Cree who tried to establish a First Nations coalition to press the Crown to improve the terms of Treaty Six, was born in the Fort Carlton area.

During the resistance of 1885, his warriors fought Canadian militia at Steele Narrows in the last military engagement on Canadian soil. When Big Bear surrendered to police stationed at Fort Carlton, he brought to an end one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian history.

The park is open daily from the May long weekend to Labour Day. Snacks, camping, picnic facilities available. For more information, see the provincial government's page on Fort Carlton.

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