Rival Fur and Provision Posts on the Saskatchewan, 1792 - 1800
In 1792 the principal fur trade rivals on the Saskatchewan River — the Montreal-based North West Company and the London-based Hudson's Bay Company — extended their competition for furs and provisions westward into what is now Alberta. Side by side, a few kilometres below modern Elk Point, they established Fort George (NWC) and Buckingham House (HBC), and for the next eight years traded their metal goods, textiles, arms and ammunition, rum and tobacco for the coveted furs, especially beaver, supplied by the Indians. The chief fur suppliers were the Cree and Assiniboine who hunted in the woodland to the north and the parkland to the south of the river.
Both companies required large quantities of meat and fat as well, from which to make pemmican, the concentrated food that nourished the men of the canoe brigades on their long and gruelling voyages to and from the Great Lakes of Hudson Bay. The main source of pemmican was the great herds of buffalo hunted mainly by the Blackfoot tribes in the grassland and parkland to the south of the forts. Thus, both forts were not merely productive fur trade posts; they were also key provision posts which annually supplied tons of pemmican for use throughout the northwest.
BUCKINGHAM HOUSE 1792 - 1800
- October 1792 - March 1793
- October 1793
- April 1794
At Fort George in 1792, NWC partner Angus Shaw was in charge of some sixty men, mostly Canadians from Quebec, many of whom had Indian wives and mixed- blood children. At neighboring Buckingham House, Inland Chief William Tomison supervised only thirty-eight men, all but four of them Orkneymen like himself. Fort George was decidedly the larger fort, but living quarters at both establishments were terribly cramped for the men and their families. Officers such as Shaw and Tomison, however, enjoyed more spacious quarters. Each post also included fur and meat warehouses, a blacksmith shop, an ice house, a trade shop, and a trade goods store, all surrounded by a high stockade with corner bastions or blockhouses. These defences were vital: in 1793 and 1794 the Fall (Gros Ventre) Indians attacked four posts in the Saskatchewan district and burned one of them to the ground.
Always the underdog in manpower and supplies, the HBC at Buckingham House were lucky to trade half the quantity of furs and provisions traded by the NWC at Fort George. Though trade rivalry was keen, the two forts cooperated when danger threatened and always shared the water supply from the well located between them. The successes at these two forts in large measure dictated the fortunes of the parent companies in London and Montreal for the short but crucial span of five years. But at the inland posts, five years could be construed in some instances as a sign of longevity. But by 1800 the fur resources of the immediate area were nearing exhaustion and both companies abandoned the site in favor of others on the Saskatchewan.
Some one hundred and ninety years ago the twin forts battled for predominance in the western fur trade. In many ways it was a conflict that held the seed of destruction for one or the other of the two great fur trading companies, one "Canadian" the other "British". It was a blaze of hemispherical interest in this otherwise unheralded site on the banks of the North Saskatchewan that was extinguished almost as rapidly as it had caught fire. There is now no visible remnant of the presence of two large fortified wooden fur trade posts, much less the European or Natives who frequented them. Yet the first meter of soil is littered with the fragments of that early and highly specialized society as well as the outlines of the buildings and encampment that were erected there. Alberta has long recognized the significance of the Fort George/Buckingham House site and in 1976 it was placed under protection through designation as a Provincial Historic Resource. Long before the Province's direct involvement, the people of the Elk Point area had known about the site and its historical interest. In large measure, the survival of the site and the continued preservation of the resources for later research programs is due to the concern of local historic preservation advocates. Similarly, the current interest in the potential development of the site for historical interpretation is the direct result of a strong local support for Provincial involvement. The Fort sites have since been the subject of intensive archaeological and historical research projects. The findings of these projects confirmed the importance of the site, and led in turn to an interpretive development concept.