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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

Historical Identification

Historical sources concerning the Fort Chipewyan area during the first half of the 19th century suggest several possibilities for the identity of the Old Fort Point site. Taking all the possibilities into account, the site could have functioned either as (1) a native dwelling; (2) an independent fur trader's post; (3) a temporary camp or wintering post; (4) a fishing station, or (5) the temporary location of Fort Wedderburn during the winter of 1817-18. Taking each of these in turn, the first possibility — that the building at the site is a native dwelling — can be discounted immediately because the indigenous population did not begin to use wooden houses until the 20th century (Oswalt 1966: 45). Prior to this time, the typical dwelling was a tepee or tent (Oswalt 1966: 42-45).

It is also unlikely that the site functioned as an independent trader's post. First, there is no record of any independent trader ever operating on Old Fort Point. Second, Fort Chipewyan II, located on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, was the major post in the area after 1800. Therefore, to be in an ideal position to compete with this concern, an independent trader would have had to establish himself in its general vicinity rather than 21 miles away on Old Fort Point. However, it is improbable that even this happened until the late 19th century because the North West Company, and after 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company, were too powerful for an independent trader to challenge profitably.

It also appears that the Old Fort Point site did not serve as a temporary camp or wintering post. Although several explorers and surveyors (John Franklin on his two arctic land expeditions; George Back and his party in search of Sir John Ross, and Peter W. Dease and Thomas Simpson on their way to survey the arctic coastline) passed through the area during the suggested 1810 to 1840 period, all set up temporary camps at Fort Chipewyan II (Alan B. McCullough 1973: pers. com.), the only source of supplies and companionship for many miles. While numerous other unrecorded persons probably travelled through the area as well, it is doubtful that they would have done differently. Old Fort Point was just too far away from the post to be the logical place for a camp site.

Considering the fourth possibility, Old Fort Point was one of the best fall fisheries in the west end of Lake Athabasca and both the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company maintained fishing stations there during the period that the site could have been occupied (Krause 1972). Unfortunately, little information concerning these stations has survived and it is, therefore, impossible to positively identify the site as such. However, several inferences can be made on the basis of the information that is available.

In most cases, the fishing stations on Old Fort Point consisted of "sheds," "huts" and "small houses" which accommodated only two to four men (Krause 1972), yet a "house" built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1816 to serve as a fishermen's residence is documented as being 30 ft. in length and divided into two apartments (Krause 1972: 26-27). Other "houses" may have been even larger, especially those constructed by the North West Company during near-famine years when almost all the men at Fort Chipewyan II were sent to the various fisheries in the area to fend for themselves (Krause 1972: 23). Nonetheless, it does not seem likely that a seasonally occupied fishermen's house would be as large or have as complex a floor plan as the building at the Old Fort Point site. Thus, while the recovered artifacts and the inferred short occupation or a series of such occupations for the Old Fort Point site are in keeping with what could be expected at and of a seasonally occupied fishing station, the size and complexity of the Old Fort Point structure would tend to refute its identification as such.

Another possibility along the same line is that the building at the site functioned as the Superintendent of Fisheries' dwelling established on the point by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1816 (Krause 1972: 27). (The superintendent had jurisdiction over the area fisheries and made periodic checks to ensure that the fishermen were performing their duties [Krause 1972: 27].) Unfortunately, nothing is known about this structure's dimensions or layout. Furthermore, it is quite possible that the superintendent's dwelling and the two-room house mentioned above are one and the same. Thus, no positive identification can be made.

Regarding the fifth possibility: the permanent site of Fort Wedderburn (Hudson's Bay Company, 1815-21) was on Potato Island opposite Fort Chipewyan II. However, in October of 1817, it was decided that a residence on the island would not be feasible that winter because of a lack of dogs for hauling fish from the area fisheries to the fort (Krause 1972: 28). Hence, to be near a productive source of fish, the men of the company removed doors, boards, etc., from the fort and moved to Old Fort Point (Krause 1972: 28). It is not certain whether new buildings were constructed there or if structures already in existence were repaired (Krause 1972: 28). In any event, the site was not occupied for long; by the end of March 1818, Fort Wedderburn had been reestablished on Potato Island (Krause 1972: 29).

In keeping with the convention of numbering different sites of the same post in chronological sequence, the temporary location of Fort Wedderburn will henceforth be referred to as Fort Wedderburn II. Accordingly, Fort Wedderburn I is the designation of the post on Potato Island which was occupied from 1815 to 1817, while Fort Wedderburn III is the post that operated on the island from 1818 to 1821, and was apparently not situated on the same site as the first post (John S. Nicks 1974: pers. com.).

Unfortunately, detailed information concerning the structures at Fort Wedderburn II is lacking. It is therefore impossible to positively identify the Old Fort Point site as this establishment. Nevertheless a tentative identification can be made on the basis of the information available and comparative data from other fur trade posts.

To begin with, the optimal date range derived for the Old Fort Point site (ca. 1810-40) is compatible with the 1817-18 date of Fort Wedderburn II. The short occupation inferred for the Old Fort Point site is also in keeping with that of Wedderburn II. Furthermore, that the site was utilized from late fall to early spring is indicated by the faunal remains (Anne M. Rick 1975: pers. com.), as well as two recovered artifacts — a possible sled dog harness buckle and an ice creeper. Moreover, of all the sites found on Old Fort Point in 1972 (excluding two sites which have been tentatively identified as Fort Chipewyan I and a Hudson's Bay Company wintering post), the Old Fort Point site is the only one which is large and complex enough to be Fort Wedderburn II.

In addition, the size, as well as the layout, of the building at the Old Fort Point site is similar to that of other Hudson's Bay Company "houses." In fact, the Old Fort Point structure is practically identical to the main house at South Branch House (1786-94), a pemmican post located on the South Saskatchewan River in central Saskatchewan. This structure had a 36 ft. by 24 ft. interior that was divided into five rooms: a 24 ft. by 12 ft. "master's room" in one end; the same sized "guard" or trading room in the centre; and three 12 ft. by about 8 ft. "mens' rooms" in the opposite end (John S. Nicks 1974: pers. com.). Comparing the Old Fort Point building to this floor plan, it is clear that the 23.3 ft. by 12 ft. north room is equivalent to the master's room; the similarly sized central room is the trading room, and the two small rooms in the south end of the structure are the men's rooms.

Less conclusive proof is found in the form of the ditch near the northwest corner of the Old Fort Point structure. The historical record states that shortly after the establishment of Fort Wedderburn II, the North West Company set up pickets around the post, presumably to mark off the latter's boundaries (Krause 1972: 28-29). This prompted the men of the English company to set up their own pickets (Krause 1972: 29). In light of this, it may be that the ditch represents a portion of one of these picket lines. However, this is quite speculative as no evidence for a picket line was encountered elsewhere at the site.

In a similar vein, it is also known that after erecting the pickets, the NorWesters built new buildings (probably huts or small houses) within 50 yards of Fort Wedderburn II — one on either side of the post — so that they could observe their rivals (Krause 1972: 29). While no evidence of such a building was found to the east of the Old Fort Point site, a small, single-structure site was located about 100 yards to the west during the 1972 site survey. Thus, it may be that the latter site represents one of the North West Company's observation posts. However, since the distances do not match and the exact nature of the unexcavated site is unknown, this identification is highly speculative.

Conversely, a possible point of contention concerns the implication that more than one "house" comprised Fort Wedderburn II (Krause 1972: 28-29). As only one structure was unearthed during the 1971 field season, it is debatable whether Fort Wedderburn II is represented. However, the term "house" may have been used in the Wedderburn journals as an aggrandized, inclusive term used to denote various structures, such as huts and hangards, or individual compartments in the main building and not just dwellings. This is suggested by the fact that such terms as "warehouse," "men's house" and "cabin," as used in other Hudson's Bay Company journals, often refer to specific rooms in a single building and not to individual structures (personal observation). Thus, it is quite possible that Fort Wedderburn II may have consisted of only a main house and one or two small outbuildings. Although the remains of such small structures were not found, they may have been situated in areas left unexcavated, or they may have decayed or eroded away without leaving a trace.

From the foregoing it is obvious that the Old Fort Point site can not be positively identified on the basis of the information that is presently available. However, considering all the possibilities mentioned above and taking all the evidence into account, it seems probable that the site excavated in 1971 and the temporary location of Fort Wedderburn are one and the same. Hence, the Old Fort Point site is tentatively identified as Fort Wedderburn II.

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