Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan River

 North Saskatchewan River and Fort Carlton in 1871 (Charles Horetzky, National Archives) and in 2013 (CW collection).

Late 1600s to Mid-1700s: European Traders Reach the Prairies

From its incorporation in 1670 until the late 1700s, the Hudson’s Bay Company operated by encouraging First Nation middlemen (usually Cree or Chipewyan) to obtain furs from the interior, and bring them downstream to obtain trade goods the posts of Churchill and York on tidewater on Hudson’s Bay. In 1691, the company sent Henry Kelsey inland with Cree traders returning upstream to visit with other native groups and request that they travel to the bay. In August of that year, Kelsey reached the plains, likely near the site of Saskatoon. He visited with First Nations that did not use canoes (possibly Assiniboines and Sioux), and was the first European visitor to describe grizzly bears and bison on the northern prairies. 1 In the 1700s, Montreal traders moved westwards across the Great Lakes and began to directly trade with peoples in the Saskatchewan and Mississippi watersheds.  Pierre La Vérendrye and his family, from Trois Rivieres, established trading posts in what is now Manitoba on the Red River near the present sites of Winnipeg (in 1734) Portage-la-Prairie (in 1738), and Dauphin (by 1743). In 1738 he visited the Mandan villages on the Missouri River. 2 In the 1740s, Quebecois traders continue to extend their posts westwards up the Saskatchewan, obtaining furs from Cree, Assiniboine, Sioux, and other nations that had historically sent their furs to the English at Fort Churchill.

 In 1754, in response to this competition, Hudson’s Bay Company employee Anthony Henday went west from York Factory to convince native peoples to again trade with the forts on the bay. Again, like Kelsey he travelled with a group of Cree returning inland after trading. In August the band left their canoes below the forks of the Saskatchewan rivers, and began travelling overland, likely crossing the South Saskatchewan River near the location of Saskatoon. Henday’s journal describes encountering abundant wildlife– first moose, then as they reached more open country, waskesew (elk), wild horses, and on August 15 he saw his first live female bison in small herds. The group ate well, often killing 4 to 6 elk per day, and harvesting from a rich crop of “fine berries like unto black currents.”  On August 20, they reached the North Saskatchewan River, likely just west of the future site of Fort Carlton (see repeat photographs).  Although Henday’s route westwards from here is unclear, it’s possible that his group of Cree could have wintered as far west as the parklands between the Red Deer and Battle rivers in the current-day province of Alberta.3 Historian James MacGregor believed that Henday may have been the first European to actually see the Rocky Mountains from near what is now Innisfail, Alberta. Although this cannot be substantiated in from his journals, clearly after visiting several tribes and spending many months in the area, he likely that he must have known of the the mountainous terrain further west 4  

On October 14, 1854 Henday visited a camp of “Archithinues” (Blackfoot, or Piegan, Kainai, and Siksikas collectively). His journal records:

….upon the top of a hill I seed 200 tents, where they were pitched in 2 rows, and an opening Right through the middle, and att ye farther End of the Street their was a large tent pitcht in front, where all the old men were seated, and their King in the middle, and in the middle was full of fatt Buffaloes flesh…”5       

Henday asked the Chief to allow some young men to return east with him the following year to trade at the Hudson Bay’s York Factory, but “he answered it was far off, and they could not live without buffaloes flesh, and that they would never leave their horses.” 6.

Throughout the winter of 1754-55, Henday and his group of Cree wandered generally northwards towards the North Saskatchewan River, obtaining beaver and wolf skins by trapping and trading. On April 28, with 20 canoes of skins, he headed down the river, meeting other native groups with fur-laden canoes also going downstream to trade. On May 23, with nearly 60 canoes he reached La Corne’s, then most upstream of the Montreal “pedlar’s” posts built on the mouth of the Pasquia River. A month later he completed his trip at York Factory. Henday’s expedition showed the productivity of the land between the North and South Saskatchewan rivers for furs and bison. He also found the great degree to which the Cree served as middlemen in moving the furs eastward, and trade goods back to the west. If the Hudson’s Bay Company wished to increase its profits by directly trading with western peoples, and compete with the Montreal traders, it would have to establish posts inland.7

After two placing the post previous locations further south and east, in 1810 the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Carlton on its current site. This was a main crossing point of the North Saskatchewan River, and provided good access for hunters to access bison herds to the south. The 1871 photograph shows the effects of frequent fires and a half century of heavy grazing around the post in creating large areas of grass and shrublands. In similar aspen parkland vegetation to the north, fire ecologist Jeff Weir found that fires burned across a given patch of land every 20 to 30 years during the 1800s up until the 1945. These fires usually burned in spring or late fall because the moist condition of aspen forests usually makes them fire-proof in summer. First Nations, then early settlers may have lit many of these burns. Since the 1930s, fire frequency has declined. Fort Carlton, now a Saskatchewan provincial park, is now surrounded by dense poplar forests interspersed with cultivated fields of canola and hay. The park lies about 30 km north of the city of Saskatoon (see Map).  8 

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  1. K. G. Davies, “KELSEY, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 28, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kelsey_henry_2E.html 
  2. Yves F. Zoltvany, “GAULTIER DE VARENNES ET DE LA VÉRENDRYE, PIERRE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 28, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gaultier_de_varennes_et_de_la_verendrye_pierre_
  3. Belyea, B. Editor. A Year Inland: The Journal of a Hudson’s Bay Company Winterer. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Press:64-71
  4. Belyea, A Year Inland: 325-338 describes at least two expeditions of Hudson’s Bay Company “winterers” on the north-western plains during the period 1750 to 1780 that also failed to describe the Rocky Mountains to the west
  5. Belyea, A Year Inland,102-103
  6. Belyea. A Year Inland, 106
  7. Belyea, A Year Inland, 128-198
  8. Weir, J.M.H., E.A. Johnson, and K. Miyanishi. “Fire frequency and the spatial age mosaic of the mixed-wood boreal forest in western Canada.” Ecological Applications 10 (2000): 1162-1177