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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

A New Establishment

In early June, 1830, a small group gathered on the high banks of the Red River about 20 miles down from the forks of the Red and Assiniboine. Governor George Simpson, his young wife Frances, and the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Red River district, Donald McKenzie and Duncan Finlayson, examined the area carefully.1 Before they parted company that afternoon, the Simpsons and Finlayson continuing their journey to York Factory and McKenzie returning to the forks, they selected the "site of a new establishment." It was "a beautiful spot on a gentle elevation," recorded Frances Simpson, "surrounded by Wood, and commanding a fine view of the river."2

There was a definite need for a new establishment. The old Fort Garry at the forks had been badly damaged in the great flood of 1826, and had languished dilapidated since then. The Red River district was gaining significance in the Company's operations and would demand a more substantial administrative centre. Apparently Simpson looked to the higher banks of the lower Red for protection from flooding. He carried the proposal for a new Fort Garry to the meeting of the Northern Council at York Factory, and quite predictably the Council approved.

Construction began on the new fort in the fall when the Simpsons returned to Red River Settlement. The Big House was among the first buildings erected. Pierre Leblanc directed the project, and probably in conjunction with Simpson worked out the plans for the new buildings. Construction moved ahead quickly with the coming of spring, 1831.

At first, Simpson may have looked to the new establishment as his own future base of operations and to the house as his own eventual home. It was his intention when he came with his new bride to the settlement to spend some years in the country and probably at Red River. He may have designed the Big House with this in mind, giving the residence an extra flourish to replace the English comforts which Frances had recently left behind. But he soon tired of Red River society and with his wife's awkward confinement and lingering illness longed to get away to join his friend John George McTavish at Moose Factory. "I am most heartily tired of Red River or rather of its good inhabitants," he wrote McTavish in April, 1831, "and should be delighted to join you at Moose next fall, indeed my better half is constantly entreating me to take her there so that she may enjoy the society of her friend [McTavish's wife] to whom she is most warmly attached."3

Simpson and his wife, together with their servants, were quartered in a house at the forks which had been renovated by Pierre Leblanc before their arrival in the fall. They planned to move into the residence at the new fort when it was completed — if they were still in the settlement. After their first winter in the Red River Settlement, it was by no means certain they would remain.

We are building at the Rapids, which is the highest & best situation on the River, the materials stone & lime & if the plan I have begun be followed up it will be a respectable & comfortable Establisht. I don't expect to occupy it, as it will not be habitable until the Fall of 1833. — Leblanc conducts the work and the McKenzie River men & recruits of last fall are the labourers. I must pass another winter here & probably two if you cannot make room for me at Moose, but if you can, I should like to join you in the Fall of 1832.4

When the next winter proved to be even more of an ordeal than the first and their child, George Geddes, died in the spring, Simpson began to make preparations to take Frances home. They stayed on, however, because of the "gloomy state of things in England."5 And in the fall the Simpsons moved into the new house at the lower fort. "The new Establishment of Fort Garry is in such a state of forwardness," Simpson reported to the Governor and Committee in the summer of 1832, "that we shall remove into it at the close of the present season."6

Although Lower Fort Garry was in a "state of forwardness" it probably lacked much in finished detail, and certainly did not have the many buildings and facilities it would have in the 1860s after three decades of expansion. The defensive walls and bastions of the fort had not been started (these were not constructed until the 1840s). Only the Big House and one or two stores stood clustered on the high banks of the Red. Even the Big House would be far from completed. The spacious veranda which gave it such a marked appearance in the 1850s had not yet been constructed, and inside there was probably a number of small details which still required completion. The grounds around the buildings presented a dreary aspect for like any construction site they were bare of foliage, especially trees, and dotted with piles of construction material. In spite of the construction site atmosphere, however, Thomas Simpson could still write that "We are exceedingly well housed here in the new buildings,"7 when he corresponded with James Hargrave in December.

1 During restoration, the stucco covering was stripped from the exterior of the annex (ca. 1840-41) revealing the colombage pierroté construction of the walls. (National Historic Sites Services.)

For the Simpsons the stay at the lower fort could not have been pleasant. Frances, especially, was slow in recovering from the loss of George Geddes, and Simpson's dislike of the society of the settlement continued. There appears to have been some gaiety with fêtes, horse racing on the frozen river, and the Governor and his lady riding in state in their colourful cariole.8 But any gaiety would only be surface deep. In May, Simpson wrote again to McTavish, reviewing the misfortunes of their stay in Red River and concluding, "In short, I am grieved to say that our House has been a scene of Sorrow & Sickness for nearly 18 months past & I myself am more broken hearted & depressed than I am well able to describe."9 Later in the month, Simpson was struck with an attack of "blood in the head" and immediately he and Frances began the long journey home. Simpson would return to Red River again but Frances never came farther west than the Canadas in her future stay in the country.10

In the fall of 1832, most of the Hudson's Bay Company personnel in the settlement had moved down to the lower fort with the Simpsons. Only a retail shop was maintained at the forks and the lower fort became the administrative centre of the Company in the district. With Simpson present, the affairs of the Company hummed. Thomas Simpson (George's cousin and his secretary) complained to James Hargrave in December that "I have been so desperately busy for weeks back and have kept such late hours that I scarcely know at this moment what lam writing."11

With Simpson gone in 1833, Chief Factor Alexander Christie was left in charge, presumably stationed at the lower fort. Thomas Simpson remained as clerk, less pressed than he had been before under Governor Simpson. Each summer a part of the Red River establishment including Thomas Simpson went to York Factory to assist in unloading the ships and sending out the brigades. In the fall and winter of 1833-34, however, Thomas Simpson and the other men from Red River were again located at the lower fort and were well housed there. "We are exceedingly comfortable here this season," wrote Simpson to Hargrave, "indeed our worthy Bourgeois kind and estimable nature would make any place so."12

But the lower fort was already proving less than ideal for the Company's operations. Simpson had advised the Governor and Committee of its construction only after it was a fait accompli. And as Thomas Simpson remarked to his brother, the "Big Wigs" at home were "rather cool on the subject."13 Alexander Christie as the Governor of Assiniboia was required to travel regularly to the forks to attend to the administrative duties of the colony, and his commuting was bothersome and costly in time. The forks was the natural centre of the settlement and therefore the most logical position for the Company's own headquarters. When Simpson returned for the winter in 1834, he established himself at the forks and seems to have taken most of the Company's personnel with him. Only in the spring did they plan to "resume our quarters at the New Fort."14

Simpson's stay at the forks in 1834 augured a permanent move back there of the Company's operations. That fall he selected the site for the rebuilding of the old Fort Garry and as soon as it was completed in 1837, it re-assumed the role of administrative centre for the district. Until then the Red River establishment probably continued to commute between the forks and the new fort. Simpson's elaborate plans for the lower fort were left in abeyance for the time being and for the next 25 years it remained a lesser post which played a role secondary to and in conjunction with the upper fort. A clerk or postmaster was usually placed in charge.

With the slowdown in activity at the lower fort, large parts of the Big House were left vacant and were used to accommodate a variety of people associated directly and indirectly with the Hudson's Bay Company. The clerk, of course, or the person in charge of the fort, continued to have his accommodations in the house, and lesser employees such as the shopkeeper or accountant (if necessary) may also have been given quarters there. But the house had a much larger capacity and parts of it were given over to other occupants.

George Simpson made the house his own headquarters when in the settlement and stayed there a number of times in the late 1830s and 1840s. In 1841, for instance, Duncan Finlayson assured him that he would find suitable accommodation in the addition to the house at the lower fort when Simpson expressed concern about the sagging ceilings in the main house:

We shall, I think, have sufficient for all Comers at either Fort, so that you may hold your Council at whichever you please. You need be under no apprehension on the score of the bellied appearance of the ceiling of the Lower house as you will find better accommodation in the addition, which has been built thereto, last summer, than in the old house.15

During the 1840s, the meetings of the Northern Council were held in Red River quite frequently and probably at least in part at the lower fort where Simpson would stay during his visits. This may have been the case in 1841; and similarly in 1845 when Alexander Christie recommended that the various commissioned gentlemen reside at the upper fort and Simpson stay at the lower fort, he suggested that the actual council meeting could take place at either place.

We shall endeavour to enter upon every preparatory outline likewise to get the accommodation at the lower Establishment enlarged and fitted up, in the best possible manner — I perfectly concur in opinion that lower Fort Garry, is the most suitable place for your headquarters, the situation is much more retired and consequently less liable to interruption than here. — but this retirement can only be experienced in the absence of the Several Commissioned Gentlemen as well as all others, who may not have any immediate occupation, and for this reason permit me to recommend, that the several Gentlemen reside here [at Upper Fort Garry] . . . . the actual meeting of the Northern Department Council could be held at the lower Fort or this place.16

At this time, Simpson was attempting to combine the meetings of the Council of the Northern Department with those of the Council of Assiniboia (the council for the settlement). Christie recommended that the business of the Council of Assiniboia be undertaken at the new court house at the forks and the Northern Council business at either the upper or lower fort. He made a similar suggestion in 1846 when he wrote to Simpson who had apparently just arrived at the lower fort.

I concur with you in opinion that in some aspects the lower Fort, is a more quiet place for the despatch of business than here [upper fort] but under existing circumstances, it is evident all the preliminary arrangements in reference to this Settlement, and the Councilling operations of the Season, will be much more readily and satisfactorily completed at this place, and after these are accomplished, and [sic] adjournment to the lower fort for closing the business of the season might be necessary; with this impression, I shall send down the Grey horse for your use and our canoe might bring up the luggage.17

And in the fall of 1848, when Simpson appears to have wintered in the settlement, Christie recommended that he establish "his headquarters at Lower Fort Garry, which is in every respect the most eligible residence."18 In each case the Chief Factor was so insistent that Simpson stay at the lower fort, it would almost seem that he preferred that the governor be somewhat removed from his own operations at the forks.

The meetings of the Northern Council and Simpson came only occasionally to the Big House and therefore a large part of the house remained vacant for most of the year. In 1839 came the first use of the house by occupants outside the Company's immediate service; Adam Thom, the newly appointed Recorder of Rupert's Land, arrived in the fall with his wife and was given rooms in the Big House.19 He shared the house with John Black, the clerk then in charge of the fort, and of course with Simpson, who landed on the doorstep occasionally. Simpson wrote to Finlayson in 1840:

I am glad to find matters have been satisfactorily adjusted with Mr. Thom in regard to a dwelling, and hope to learn that he was comfortably housed before winter set in. It is probable I may take up my residence principally at the Lower Fort during the sittings of council next spring, or at all events, for two or three days in the week when closely occupied with writing. It may, therefore, be well to have the upper end of the main house cleared and ready for business. If Mr. Thom occupied any part of that end, it will, therefore be necessary that he should vacate that part of the house.20

Thom stayed in the house at the lower fort for seven years. His son, Adam Bisset, was born 2 August 1843, probably in the Big House. In 1846, when the Sixth Regiment of Foot was brought to the Red River Settlement, Thom was asked to leave so the military officers could be accommodated at the lower fort. This he did, not very graciously, and took up quarters a short way from the fort.21 In 1847, he purchased the home of Chief Factor Charles where he remained until he left the settlement in 1854. He left in disgrace. The Company agreed to buy his home and provided his mess at the lower fort while he awaited passage to York Factory and England.

Mr. Thom on quitting his own house will proceed to the Lower Fort where he is to be allowed the use of that portion of the house he formerly occupied with the necessary furniture, until the 1 August following. Mr. & Mrs. Thom & their son are to be maintained by the Company at the mess of the establishment during the two months they remain at the Lower Fort.22

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