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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

William Flett

In September, 1868, William Flett arrived with his family to take charge of the Company's operations at the lower fort. Flett presided over the gradual decline of the fort in the following 15 years. The coming of the railway, changes in Company policy, and the decline of the fur trade all conspired to lessen the importance of Lower Fort Garry. But, although the importance of the post declined, the Big House continued to serve as a useful residence, receiving more visitors in the rooms left vacant by the declining role of the fort.

The peaceful daily routine of the lower fort and settlement was disrupted with the outbreak of the troubles of 1869.1 Lower Fort Garry, located on the fringe, was relatively free from direct involvement; but its very isolation gave the fort an indirect role. Stoughton Dennis attempted unsuccessfully to rally loyal settlers there during the first ten days of December, and no doubt stayed in the Big House during his attempt. And in February when Donald Smith, then Dominion Commissioner, and Archbishop McLean came down to the lower fort "to consult with influential parties" they were allegedly visited by Riel in the Big House.2

In 1870, when Colonel Garnet Wolseley arrived with troops he stopped first at the lower fort and then continued up the river to occupy Upper Fort Garry. That winter the lower fort was garrisoned with a detachment of Quebec Rifles. The officers were accommodated in the attic of the Big House where bedrooms were created and new windows cut into the roof. The presence of troops introduced new vigour into the social life and the journal of the lower fort makes note of the attendance of clergymen from the upper settlement. In September, the Lieutenant-Governor held a levee which "a great many of the volunteer officers and most respectable of the settlers and clergy were invited to attend."3

With order restored, the lower fort and Big House settled down to a quiet routine of business, interrupted only occasionally by a special event or unusual visitors.4 In July and the first part of August, an official government party arrived at the fort to negotiate a treaty with the Indians.

Gov. Archibald and his family with the Indian Commissioner W. Simpson, Esquire, Provincial Secretary Howard arrived here this evening preparatory to the negotiations that has been appointed to take place with the Indian tribes of the province tomorrow.5

The protracted negotiations dragged on until 6 August, and during its stay, the official party was probably given quarters in the Big House. An illustration of the meeting shows the government negotiator on the porch of the Big House with the Indians assembled on the lawn below.

Commissioner Donald Smith, like his predecessors, was also a frequent visitor to the fort. In September, 1871, he held a council at the lower fort and reported the results of his trip to England to the anxious officers of the Company:

All the commissioned gentlemen, who are in the settlement were called here by Mr. Smith (namely Chief Factors, W. J. Christie, R. Hamilton, Wm. McMurray, and l. G. Stewart with Chief Traders — Wm. Watt, J. Hackland, A. McDonald and Thomas Taylor) to hear Mr. Smith's report from England and after Mr. Smith had an interview with the Gentlemen, he went up with Mr. J. H. McTavish to the Upper Fort.6

Smith spent a few months and perhaps the whole winter (1871-72) at the lower Fort.7 Like J. G. McTavish who came down to the fort "to write his letters"8 in December, 1872, he may have wished to get away from the hectic life at the upper fort.

In 1873, the house again served as an officers' quarters when the newly formed Mounted Police were stationed at the lower fort for a training period. They were given the attic rooms used by the Quebec Rifles and complained strongly about them:

The barracks accommodation for the men is very good, the officers quarters are about as bad as they well could be, being merely the attics of the quarters occupied by the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company and divided from each other by wooden partitions which do not reach the ceilings.9

Perhaps the austere, uncomfortable quarters were partially overcome by the active social life. Soon after they arrived, a group of Company officials from the upper settlement came down and "had a dance;"10 probably one of several social events which took place in the Big House.

5 At the height of its existence, the Big House was photographed in 1858 by H. L. Hime of the Hind Expedition. (Public Archives of Canada.)

With the departure of the Mounted Police in 1874, the Big House was again left with vacant space. In the fall, inspecting Chief Factor Robert Hamilton moved in with his family after making elaborate changes in the house. His stay there precipitated a wrangle with Commissioner James A. Grahame which ended finally with Hamilton's resignation. In the spring of 1875, Hamilton was sent to Edmonton, and when it was learned that Chief Factor Hardisty planned to resign, Hamilton was designated to take his place. Hamilton wanted to leave his family at the lower fort where they had been settled at considerable expense, and to go alone to Edmonton. Grahame was insistent that his family should move with him instead of remaining a charge on the Red River district. In July, Hamilton submitted his resignation. The wrangling continued, however, when Hamilton sent a long letter to Grahame outlining the history of the difficulties.

You considered my case an exceptional one, and I have a perfect recollection of thanking you for the same, feeling assured as I believe you did also, that the Board would have no objections to my family remaining for a short time in the quarters which had already cost me a good deal of money to make comfortable for them [They each have a different interpretation of the Board's decision but Hamilton must take Grahame's interpretation as standing.]. . . no matter how arbitrary I may consider it, remembering as I do the conversation which led to this matter being spoken of, when you expressed the intention of making use of the quarters now occupied by my family as a summer residence for your own family. [Grahame's comment in the margin concerning Hamilton's statement is "a transient remark in case of sickness at Fort Garry."]11

Hamilton's family remained in the house over the next winter when they were unable to make alternate arrangements. The whole incident was given tragic overtones when Hamilton's youngest child died at Lower Fort Garry in the spring "from the accidental upsetting of a cup of carbolic acid on its chest."12 The Hamiltons vacated the house shortly thereafter.

As soon as the Hamiltons departed, Grahame prepared to make the Big House over to G. S. McTavish, who appears to have been Robert Hamilton's replacement.

You are required in this Department and . . . you will please report yourself here. Like myself you must expect to be constantly on the move but your family will be furnished with quarters at Lower Fort Garry and it is for you to decide whether you will bring them here now or leave them below until spring.13

The offer of the house to McTavish indicated that the feud between Grahame and Hamilton was as much a personal matter as one of Company policy. McTavish did not take up the offer of the house.

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