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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon


For a hundred years the Hudson's Bay Company confined its trading for furs to the shores of Hudson Bay. In the later 18th century, it established its first inland posts, responding to Canadian competition. The success of the North West Company of Montreal, especially after it had absorbed the breakaway XY Company in 1804, made a more aggressive policy essential. The Hudson's Bay Company was faced with the necessity of building a network of trading forts in the interior and uniting them to the entrepôt of York Factory, Moose Factory and Albany House by boat brigades, just as the North West Company's forts were sustained by the canoe brigades from Fort William. Skilled men must be found to conduct trade and man the fur-trade brigades, and the brigades, like armies, must travel on their stomachs.

In 1811, the Company accepted the Earl of Selkirk's proposal to establish a colony in the prairie region near the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers because it hoped thereby to establish a labour pool and source of provisions in Rupert's Land. This was bound to cause trouble with the North West Company which had built Fort Gibraltar at the forks, where it collected pemmican to provision its own canoe brigades. Some Métis and retired Canadian traders had also settled nearby along the river banks.

Pemmican, the dried, pulverized meat of the prairie bison mixed with its melted fat and packed in sacks made from its skin, was the first staple of the prairie economy. Violence erupted over the question of who should control the supply of pemmican and generalized into a conflict between the two companies. Financially, the North West Company could not withstand the strain of the private war the companies waged or the legal disputes that followed. In 1821, it amalgamated with and was submerged in a new Hudson's Bay Company. For the colony at Red River, this meant stability and a chance to grow.

The settlers of Assiniboia lived on narrow farms on the alluvial silt flats fronting the rivers. The Selkirk group settled the parish of Kildonan along the Red below the forks. In 1818, French Canadian settlers arrived to found St. Boniface across the Red from Fort Garry at the forks and to raise the first church in western Canada. Most of the Métis were then living to the south at Pembina, but in 1823, many moved north to the banks of the Assiniboine and eventually more settled south along the Red above the forks. Company "servants" from the Orkneys retired to St. Andrew's on the lower Red, Kildonan, and St. James on the lower Assiniboine.1

Imported grains were cultivated and imported animals raised. Although both were ill-suited to the harsh prairie climate, from 1827 to 1858, the settlers provided sufficient for their own needs and those of the fur trade. In addition to farming, the Métis continued to hunt buffalo, after 1820 in a highly organized fashion, providing pemmican and dried meat for the Company as well as for themselves.

There were two posts at Red River: the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Garry at the forks and the colony's administrative centre, Fort Douglas, downstream at the centre of the Selkirk settlement. It built yet another post in the colony and the only one standing today, Lower Fort Garry, the history of which is here traced in relation to the fur trade and the settlement, from trading post to national historic site.2

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