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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

The Fort and the Transportation Revolution

That the Red River Settlement was for nearly five decades the Hudson's Bay Company's major supply centre for men and provisions made it central to the transportation system of the fur trade.

Why Red River and Fort Garry should have been the centre of the trade is not evident at first sight. York and Norway House were the seats of the Council of Rupert's Land and the distributing centres for trade goods. But the pemmican of the plains, the trip men, and the flour from the river lots made Red River the force which sent the great transport shuttles weaving in the spring. When the York boats filed down the Red in June, following the ice in its northward retreat, like the wild geese flying on their way to the Arctic, they began the northern summer, the season of furious activity in the fur trade.1

In addition, the fur trade experienced a transportation revolution that replaced Norway House with Red River. This revolution entailed a change in both the mode and the routes of transportation. From the 1820s to the 1860s, furs and supplies were moved by a system of York boat brigades, the canoe having been discarded in favour of the boat after the union with the North West Company in 1821. At specified points inland, returns of furs were exchanged for outfits of trade goods, the two brigades returning to their respective starting points before the rivers froze over. Only in this way could the vast distance of the fur trade empire be spanned in the short navigation season.

Several systems were tried and changes were made in the interest of greater economy and speed. By 1830, the pattern of boat communication had been more or less stabilized. All trade goods were transported down the Hayes River trunk line from York Factory to Norway House, the inland depot. At the end of May, the LaLoche or Methey Portage brigade left Lower Fort Garry for Norway House where it received the outfit for the Mackenzie district. It then went to Methey Portage where in July it exchanged the outfits for the returns. Retracing its route, the brigade returned to Norway House and thence to York Factory where the Mackenzie furs were exchanged for a portion of the Red River outfit. By early September, the brigade was back in Red River where the trip men made their homes.2 In the early spring there was also a direct shipment of goods to Red River from York Factory.3 The Athabaska depot of Fort Chipewyan being twice as close to Norway House as the Mackenzie depot of Fort Simpson, its brigade went directly to Norway House and back in the navigation season.4 The Saskatchewan brigade from Fort Edmonton, "the wildest men in the service," travelled a much more southerly route with a longer navigation season, and consequently was required to carry its furs directly to York Factory.5 The English River district east of Lake Winnipeg, with its depot at Fort Alexander on the Winnipeg River, carried its furs to either York Factory or Norway House, and on returning, stopped at Lower Fort Garry for its provisions.6 The fort also shipped goods west to Lake Manitoba via the "Little Saskatchewan."7 Traffic between Norway House and Lower Fort Garry was heavy, and from 1831-32, two small sloops were used on Lake Winnipeg to carry provisions north and bring back part of the Red River outfit.8 These made it practical to supply forts Pelly and Ellice and the southern valleys of the Qu'appelle, Assiniboine, and Souris rivers from Upper Fort Garry.9

2 Transportation routes of the fur trade, 1860-80, by York boat, Red River cart and steamboat. (click on image for a PDF version)

The commercial use of the Red River cart on the trail from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Red River was the first step in a significant transportation revolution which rendered obsolete the river route from York Factory, leaving the upper and lower forts even more central to the Hudson's Bay Company's trading system. The pioneers of the new route were free traders, and their trade grew alarmingly after the Sayer trial in 1849 showed the Company's inability to enforce its monopoly. By 1854, these interlopers were even trading on English River, deep in Hudson's Bay Company territory. In 1852, the first American railway reached the Mississippi, thus increasing the speed and economy of the southern route and its inevitable triumph over the northern route.10 Goods could then be shipped by rail from New York to the Mississippi, by steamboat to St. Paul, and thence to Red River by cart train. The increasing volume of trade and the new necessity of competition accentuated the faults of high cost and low capacity on the York route.

While free traders like Norman W. Kittson, who had established himself at Pembina in 1843, could order goods during the winter and expect delivery in the summer, the Hudson's Bay Company was bedeviled by a system at once "slow, laborious, and uncertain....The Company's outfits were ordered two or three years in advance of delivery; and to guard against the system's occasional breakdowns, reserves had always to be kept on hand."11 As opportunities for employment increased (for example, carting from St. Paul), the Hudson's Bay Company found it more and more difficult to obtain satisfactory trip men for the tortuous York route and the inland brigades. This was discernible as early as 1836, after which date most of the freighting on the trunk line was done by contractors.12

In 1849, 1858, and 1859, ships carrying goods from England to Hudson Bay were lost because of overloading.13 In 1857, the trunk line between York Factory and Norway House broke down completely when it was found incapable of carrying both a detachment of the Royal Canadian Rifles and the year's outfit.14 It was this low capacity which had prompted Simpson to attempt to build a winter road along the route in 1825.15 The Company yielded, and in 1858 imported a portion of the Red River outfit via St. Paul. The experiment was a success; however, the process of completely displacing the York route took 17 years, not being completed until 1875.16

The Earl of Southesk wrote in his journal for 1859:

Thursday, the 10th of June was a notable day at Fort Garry. The first steamer that had yet navigated the Red River made her appearance that morning, bringing two or three passengers from Minnesota. "Ans Northup" was the name of this small, shabby, stern-wheel boat, mean and insignificant in itself, but important as the harbinger of new developments of what Americans are pleased to call civilization.17

According to A.C. Gluek, the establishment of steamboat traffic on the Red was to lag this pioneer venture by a decade, mainly because the water level fell below navigable depth between 1863 and 1869.18 The cart trains were active, however, and as early as 1861, a significant proportion of the Red, Swan, and Saskatchewan river districts outfits was being imported by the southern route.19 But the 1860s were as difficult a decade for carters as for boatmen. The Sioux War (1862), the American Civil War (1861-65) and the inefficiency, if not corruption, of St. Paul agents combined to render the southern route less than successful. But conditions were even worse on the York route where the brigade system in which "none but the scum of the population worked" broke down. From 1867, the Athabaska outfit was shipped from St. Paul, and from 1868, furs from the Mackenzie and Athabaska districts were shipped out via the southern route.20

Steamboat traffic eventually displaced the cart trains. The carters moved northward and in the 1870s worked overland between Edmonton and Upper Fort Garry. The steamboats themselves were overtaken by the railroad in 1878 when the south branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed.

Goods imported by the southern route were made up into inland packages not at Norway House, but in Red River. Lower Fort Garry became the transshipment point for northern destinations. This was not because the St. Andrew's rapids between the two forts prevented trans-shipment for northern destinations at the upper fort. The Lower Fort Garry journal beginning in 1868 contains several references to York boats and river steamers travelling between the two forts.21 If the river's water level was low, cart trains were used.22 The significant factor seems to have been that different kinds of craft were used on the river and the lake. According to the journal, steamers from the lake or upper settlement never passed beyond Lower Fort Garry. It is probable that inland packages sent out from the lower fort were made up there from baled goods, since to have prepared them at the upper fort would have involved another costly and time-consuming step in the business of transshipment.

The Company's small sloops on Lake Winnipeg were dwarfed by the schooner which was added to the fleet in the 1860s. Large vessels from the lower fort began to meet the Saskatchewan brigade at Grand Rapids and deliver goods and provisions at that point. The Chief Commissioner, first steamer on the lake, was launched in 1872. In 1874, the Northcote began operation on the Saskatchewan and in 1877, a tramway was constructed over the Grand Rapids portage.

The dismantling of York Factory began in 1872 when the task of making up the accounts for the Northern Department was transferred to Upper Fort Garry. Only the difficulty in perfecting steamboat navigation prevented immediate abandonment of the York route. Finally in the summer of 1874, Chief Factor Fortesque sent his overstock of trade goods to Red River and settled down to a quiet local trade on the coastal plain of the historic bay;23 and so York Factory continued until the ancient depot, built before 1853, was abandoned in 1957. Thus all goods were now passing through Red River; and except for those destined for the southwest, east of the South Saskatchewan, all goods were funneled through Lower Fort Garry. This activity is reflected in Robinson's description of Lower Fort Garry in the 1870s:

Leaving the trading-store, a succession of warehouses containing stores and supplies, is next encountered. The last and most massive building, near the gateway, is the warehouse of packages destined for posts inland. These are goods imported from England and other countries, and to be used in the fur-trade exclusively. In this vast bulk of merchandise there is not a single package of over one hundred pounds weight. The greater portion weigh but eighty or ninety pounds. strongly packed, the cases lined with zinc and bound with iron.. . . Twice annually this warehouse is emptied by the departure of the boat-brigades for the interior, and as often replenished by shipment from England. Summer is the busy season, as then all freighting is carried on, and the accounts for the year closed.24

The boat brigades mentioned by Robinson seem to have been a thing of the past at the lower fort when Gunn wrote the following description about 1880:

This station, though the walls and towers have been left in an unfinished condition and giving tokens of decay, is notwithstanding the most important post the Hon. Company has in the country on account of its being the terminus of lake navigation for steamers. Here they receive their cargoes of trading goods, which they take to the Big Fall at the mouth of the Sascatchewan, whence these goods are forwarded to the west and to the districts lying to the north of that river. The steamers on their return trips bring the furs collected on the Sascatchewan and in the districts to the north during the winter, and are thence forwarded through the United States to England.25

Thus the southern route gradually replaced that from York Factory, and the two forts Garry divided between them the functions of Norway House as inland depot. Sloop, schooner and lake steamer in turn had enhanced the position of the lower fort as distributing centre for the vast regions that drain into Lake Winnipeg and thence to the Bay.

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