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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 26

The Old Fort Point Site: Fort Wedderburn II?

by Karlis Karklins


In 1968, the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch initiated the Western Fur Trade Research Program in accordance with recommendations by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to interpret this major theme of national historical importance and general interest. The fur trade occupies a prominent niche in Canadian history since it was the nation's primary industry and the base upon which the country's economy was built. It also served as the impetus for the original exploration and settlement of the interior of Canada.

As a first step in the project, Terence Smythe, then National Historic Parks and Sites Branch staff historian, prepared a report, "Thematic Study of the Fur Trade in the Canadian West, 1670-1870," which presented a detailed discussion of the fur trade posts located in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (Smythe 1968). In 1969, a general reconnaissance of the areas discussed in the report was undertaken by Smythe and James V. Chism, former staff archaeologist, to determine the location of fur trade sites, their state of preservation, the technical feasibility of on-site research, the logistical problems of maintaining research parties in the areas under investigation and the status of local interest and research (Smythe and Chism 1969:1).

One of the areas visited was the west end of Lake Athabasca where several sites were sought, including Fort Chipewyan I, a late 18th-century North West Company post located on a peninsula called Old Fort Point on the south shore. A brief survey of the north shore of the peninsula resulted in the discovery of two sites (Smythe and Chism 1969: 94). Although neither seemed large enough to be Fort Chipewyan I, there was the possibility that portions of the sites had eroded away and that excavation would reveal more features. Thus, as an archaeological follow-up to the survey work, the two sites were investigated during the summer of 1971 by five university students under the direction of the author.

Test excavation of the smallest site revealed an approximately 22-ft.-square building which contained artifacts dating to the third quarter of the 19th century. On the other hand, the few diagnostic artifacts (buttons, gunflints, etc.) that were uncovered in the initial trenches at the other, much larger site were in keeping with what would be expected at a late 18th-century fur trade post. It therefore seemed that a structural portion of Fort Chipewyan I, possibly the main house, had been located and archaeological work proceeded in earnest.

Only after the site had been almost completely excavated did doubts arise concerning its identity. While the size and floor plan of the structure were compatible with that of a trading post's main house, certain expected features were lacking. Cellars, which are usually found at fur trade posts, were not encountered inside or outside the building, nor was there any evidence for documented features such as a palisade or outbuildings in any of the test trenches dug around the main excavation. Furthermore, several fragments of a transfer-printed pearlware bowl found on the floor of the building during the last few weeks of the project were of a type which dates from about 1810 to 1815. Although it was possible that the structure had been part of Fort Chipewyan I originally and was subsequently used as a fishing station or outpost after the post was moved to the north shore of the lake around 1800, the historical identity of the excavated structure was far from certain.

In an attempt to determine whether the site was Fort Chipewyan I or not, the available literature on the fort was reviewed once more. This revealed the possibility that Fort Chipewyan may have stood on the west side of Old Fort Point (Tyrrell 1934: 398) and not on the north side as suggested by Guy Blanchet (1946: 34) who had supposedly found the remains of the fort there in 1925. With this in mind, a four-day foot survey of Old Fort Point was carried out by the author in June of 1972, with the assistance of W. Dean Clark, Director of the Heritage Sites Service of Alberta, and Daniel M. Cameron, a summer employee. The survey resulted in the discovery of nine additional sites on Old Fort Point, including a substantial one on the point's west side which is almost certainly Fort Chipewyan I. Hence the identity of the site excavated in 1971 remains to be determined. Thus, aside from describing the structural remains and artifacts uncovered at what is hereafter referred to as the Old Fort Point site, this report attempts to date and identify the structure using both archaeological and historical resources.

The faunal material recovered from the site is not discussed in this report but is the subject of a separate report by Anne M. Rick, Head of the Zooarchaeology Research Centre, National Museum of Natural Sciences, Ottawa. Her detailed study, "Analysis of Animal Remains from the Old Fort Point Site, Northern Alberta," appears elsewhere in this volume.

The author wishes to thank the Department of Lands and Forests of Alberta for permitting the excavation of the Old Fort Point site which is situated on provincial land. Thanks are also extended to John S. Nicks, until recently the Historic Sites Officer for the Province of Alberta, and his wife Gertrude for providing much useful information concerning the archaeological findings at other historical sites which helped in the interpretation of the Fort Point site and the analysis of the recovered artifacts. Gerald Lyster, recently retired Park Warden of Wood Buffalo National Park, Fort Chipewyan, provided general assistance while the archaeological field party was in the area.

The field crew, consisting of Krystyna Spirydowicz, John J. Hill, Daniel M. Cameron, Steven R. Acheson and James V. Caddy, did an outstanding job of excavation despite poor weather, numerous mosquitoes and horseflies, leaky tents and other problems. Gratitude is also expressed to those of the staff of the Research Division of the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch who helped with the analysis of the artifacts and the preparation of the illustrations, as well as to all the others who provided information or constructive criticism.

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