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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

A New Man and a New Idea

In the fall of 1830, men were cutting cellars out of the virgin prairie some 23 miles down-river from Fort Garry. This was the beginning of the construction of the Hudson's Bay Company's first stone fort in Rupert's Land since the building of the ill-fated Fort Prince of Wales, begun in 1732. This new fort was to replace Fort Garry which stood further south at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and would bear the same name. The need for a new fort was imperative, for old Fort Garry had been severely damaged by the great flood of 1826 which had also carried off Fort Douglas.

Why the new fort was being built so far from the traditional site at the forks is not immediately clear. George Simpson, Governor since 1826 of the southern as well as the northern departments in Rupert's Land, and the man responsible for the decision, explained it in his 1841 journal in terms of the growth of population in the lower Red River valley:

Some few years ago I had noticed the gradual extension of the colony down the River, which induced me to think that a Fort in that direction might be of service to the Company, and one day whilst riding through the settlement I came upon a fine level spot, where the banks of the river were high, with abundance of limestone and wood on the opposite shore, this I at once fixed upon as the scite of the new Fort.1

It is out of character for the economy-minded Simpson to have built a stone fort where a wooden sales shop would have sufficed. The above explanation was written at a time when Lower Fort Garry appeared to be a half-abandoned and expensive failure, when certain of its intended purposes were only bitter memories and others not yet realized. Writing to the Company's London Committee ten years earlier, Simpson had given more concrete reasons and emphasized the foresight of his decision:

The Establishment of Fort Garry is in a very dilapidated state, as much so as to be scarcely habitable, and lies so low that we are every successive spring apprehensive that it will be carried away by high water at the breaking up of the ice. It is moreover very disadvantageously situated, being about 45 miles from the Lake and 18 miles above the rapids. I therefore determined last faIl [1830] on abandoning the Establishment altogether, and, instead of wasting time, labour, and money in temporary repairs of tottering wooden buildings to set about erecting a good solid comfortable Establishment at once of stone and lime, in such a situation as to be entirely out of the reach of high water and would facilitate any extensive operations connected with craft and transport which may hereafter be entered into.2

While the difficulties associated with the problems of transportation and safety from flood damage might provide an adequate explanation of the move from the forks, Simpson had a more personal reason for wanting a "solid comfortable Establishment" to be built; this was his intention to live at Red River. Schemes to raise cattle for tallow, to cultivate hemp and flax, and to raise sheep on a large scale, all intended to stabilize the colony's economy and reduce the danger of disaffection by the colonists, were projects requiring his presence in the settlement.3 It is also possible that he felt his residency would be good politics and that a gubernatorial establishment would heighten the prestige of the Hudson's Bay Company in the settlement.

1 Transportation routes of the fur trade, 1830-60, showing only the York Factory-Red River trunk line and the Portage la Loche York boat brigade route. (click on image for a PDF version)

There is yet one more explanation for the building of Lower Fort Garry. Simpson did not intend to live alone at Red River, but with his eighteen-year-old cousin and bride, Frances. This could explain the building of the gracious Big House of the fort, more like a country manor than a trading post, and its secluded setting. Compare this retreat to the primitive mixed-blood society of the forks which a young Englishwoman might well have considered barbaric and where Simpson's own illegitimate offspring made their homes. As Frances wrote, she was "terrified to look about her in case of seeing something disagreeable."4 What weight Simpson may have given to each of these various reasons when making his decision to build the Stone Fort is something we cannot know and of which he may have been himself unaware.

About mid-summer, 1830, Pierre Leblanc arrived in Red River charged with the task of renovating a house for the Simpsons. Here was the man who was to be the builder of Lower Fort Garry. He seems to have been the one man in the Company's employ capable of such work and had been similarly employed before. In 1832, Simpson wrote of him that he "Has filled the situation of Carpenter, Painter, Storeman, Builder, Indian Trader, Conductor of Works at the Depots of York and Fort William and is now employed in superintending the building of the new establishment of Fort Garry. A very useful any capacity."5 Leblanc directed the works at Lower Fort Garry and later those at the new Upper Fort Garry as well. It is entirely possible that he never wielded the mason's hammer in Red River, his position being rather that of administrator and foreman — "Conductor of Works" as Simpson called him. In July, 1838, Leblanc went west to Fort Vancouver "for the purpose of conducting some building operations there." On 22 October, he and his three children drowned when their canoe overturned in the Columbia.6

Supernumeraries, always a great problem for the Hudson's Bay Company, provided the labour force which built the fort. Those employed in the earliest period were "of the McKenzie River Frêt Establishment, some of my [Simpson's] own crew, and a few of the young hands who came out by the ship...none of whom could have been so advantageously employed anywhere else."7 Tradesmen were hired, as stipulated in the original Northern Council Minute governing the work. Of the many masons who may have been employed, we know the name of only one, André Gaudrie, who was hired by Leblanc and began work in May, 1831.8 He probably remained with the Company until the end of 1834.

The first building erected was the Big House or officers' quarters which stands today in the middle of the fort. The gallery surrounding the house was not then covered and four dormers similar to those on the stores decorated the roof. Next the fur loft-retail store was built, it and the Big House being completed by the end of 1832. In March, 1834, Thomas Simpson wrote, "We are making preparations to build a large granery and provision store this summer, unless the work be stopped."9 Apparently the work was stopped, for in 1838, George Simpson ordered that new buildings erected at Lower Fort Garry should "form one side of the quadrangle or square of which the main House and stores already form two sides, and the River the third."10 Thus the site of the second storehouse was then empty, and the present structure was erected sometime after 1838. That Simpson may have regarded his new fort as something less than practical is suggested by the fact that he did not inform the London Committee until the project was well under way. "The Big Wigs at home are rather cool on the subject," remarked George's cousin, Thomas Simpson, "and I do not wonder at it."11

At the same time the attempt to remove business to the lower fort was a failure. The Company's business in Red River was too dependent on the retail trade which, of necessity, must be carried on in the area of greatest population density. The invaluable pemmican trade, too, had to be conducted at a more southerly point since hunters would not be inclined to carry their burdens an extra 20 miles past the traditional bartering place. Finally, it was difficult for the Red River servants of the Company to exile themselves to the country in a period when transportation was laborious. Nor was it well suited as a depot for those areas reached via the Assiniboine and Dauphin rivers. Although Simpson's new location was in some points a logical one, the pattern of settlement was by this time too well established to be ruptured by his mere wish. In 1834, he agreed that a fort was needed at the forks. John Charles mentions this in a letter to James Hargrave:

I believe our Premier is now fully Convinced that a Respectable Establishment is Necessary, & I understand from the Governor, Stones will be hauled during the Winter from all quarters but chiefly from the Hill behind Mr. Birds House where the Governor went and examined the Spot himself accompanied by your Humble Servant.12

The building of the upper fort was given top priority. In 1837 it was completely finished and Governor Christie moved there from the lower fort to live on a year-round basis. This fur trade double shuffle appeared a bit mad to Thomas Simpson. "Business here is tagged together in the most strange and unsatisfactory manner," he observed. "For instance, the new fort recently erected is already nearly abandoned and another fort (certainly much needed) is to be built at the Forks which, is now the headquarters."13

As the new fort failed to satisfy the exigencies of the fur trade, so did it fail to satisfy Frances Simpson. While still living in the upper settlement, she had given birth to her first child, only to lose it some months later. The rigours of the climate and the rude frontier society were unbearable to the young woman. In 1833, the Simpsons left Lower Fort Garry for London where they made their home for the next 12 years, although Simpson, of course, spent a fair amount of time travelling in the Company territories. The experiment of residency in Red River had failed.14

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