Edmonton House

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

Edmonton House was built in 1795 on the North bank of the North Saskatchewan, but it moved many times over the years as the local fire-wood supplies were used up. Its traders traded furs with Natives who came from as far away as present-day Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. In fact, Edmonton House was 1,500 miles west of any of the fur trade posts in what is now the United States (excluding those on the west side of the Rockies) , and so it was much closer to these Native hunters and traders than the American houses were!

The post was built as far west as the Saskatchewan Brigades [which included the men of the York Factory Express] could travel in safety from York Factory, on Hudson Bay, before the prairie winter arrived and the rivers froze. The Big House — called Rowand’s Folly — was three stories tall with a basement, and had windows of parchment and a slab door. A large ice house filled with blocks of ice from the river held up to 700 buffalo carcasses and provided food over the winter for the various residents, and water was carried in from the river. The big front gate had a bell, which was rung for entry, and there was also a bell over the smaller “Cattle Gate.” These bells were rung for danger, but they were also rung to welcome the incoming expresses and brigades from the north via what is now the St. Albert Trail — and from the east via the North Saskatchewan River. If anyone wanted access to the fort from the south side of the river, they stood on the riverbank and fired their guns, and someone would paddle across in a canoe to bring them to the post.

Of course, Edmonton House was a major stop on both the outgoing York Factory Express, and the incoming. It was the place where the men from the West side of the Rocky Mountains joined the Saskatchewan men and became part of their brigade — carrying out the Saskatchewan furs and bringing in their supplies. Everyone who arrived on the West side of the mountains after 1826 — the year of the first of many York Factory Expresses — traveled through Edmonton House as a matter of course (unless they came in by sea, which happened more often in the later years). In his 1826 journal, Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson described his arrival at Edmonton House in September, traveling west with the Saskatchewan brigades:

Sunday 9th. Gloomy and cold raw Weather, at 4.30 we Embarked & pursued our Journey favoured with a fair breeze from the NW, but on turning up to the West it became a contrary wind, oblidging [sic] us to Track against a very strong current. Having come a distance of 19 miles, we arrived at Fort Edmonton, or Augustus, at 4pm. The Gentlemen & Horse party that had left us on the 3rd ulto had made their Journey to this in five days, and the time occupied in our Journey from Carlton [House] was eighteen days… Fort Edmonton is the most important Trading post on the Saskatchewan. It is situated on the North Bank of the River & is in a good state of defense against Indian attack — a very necessary precaution, as the Indian Tribes visiting it are formidable, viz. The Blackfeet, Blood & Crees.

Edmonton House served as the Western headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] east of the Rockies, and was the most important post on the North Saskatchewan River. In 1826 to 1828, when Aemilius Simpson and Edward Ermatinger arrived at the post, the fort stood on Edmonton’s Rossland Flats, on the north banks of the river close to a ford. But high river waters occasionally flooded the flats, and in 1830 the HBC men rebuilt Edmonton House on the top of the high bluffs that overlooked the curving river valley. In 1841, George Traill Allan described Edmonton House as he saw it, in its new location above the river:

The fort… is built upon the Saskatchewan and is of great strength, having a balcony [galleries] all round with a bastion at each angle in which we kept always charged a number of fire arms, there is also an observatory of considerable height which commands an extensive view of the adjacent country. All these presentations are by no means unnecessary as Edmonton is frequented by bands of Blackfeet, Assiniboines and other lawless tribes who consider it almost a duty to plunder & even murder a white man when opportunity offers.

The palisades at the rear of the post were twenty-feet tall — they had to be that tall to protect the men inside the fort from the Natives. The fort was built in an irregular hexagon shape, with galleries front and back. Just inside the front gate, or the gate that faced the river, was the trading house, consisting of the Indian Hall, the trade room or shop, and the traders’ living quarters tucked in at the far end of the building. Rowand and his family lived on the second floor of the Big House, and servants lived on the floor above. The main floor of the Big House was, of course, the meeting and business place — and the party room.

Aemilius Simpson described one of the parties Chief Factor John Rowand threw when the York Factory Express men passed through the fort. Remember that Aemilius is brand new to the fur trade, and his writing sometimes reflects the newness of the situation he finds himself in. I apologize ahead of time for the squaw-word in these comments, but this is 1826, and 1847:

Mr. Rowan [sic] favoured us with a Ball in the Evening, which appeared to diffuse a great deal of delight & pleasure amongst the numerous partakers of the Amusement. All appeared anxious to decorate themselves in their best attire, and altho’ among so many there were some grotesque figures, yet the general appearance of the group was very pleasing, and I was not a little amazed to see Scotch reels, and even Country dances, danced with a spirit & grace that would not disgrace a far more refined society. Among the half breeds and Canadians particularly, I observed some excellent dancers, & the half breed girls, tho’ evidently not so proficient in that Art, made a very good appearance & seemed most pleased with the Entertainment. We have all reason to feel obliged to Mr. Rowan for his great Kindness & hospitality since our arrival at his establishment.

The Christmases at Edmonton House were also celebrated in fine style, and Paul Kane, another stranger to the fur trade, describes his Christmas, I believe in 1847. He gives a good description of the hall of the Big House [called Rowand’s Folly]. This is not the same place where Aemilius Simpson’s party would have been held. Remember that Kane is describing the new fort, and Simpson was at the old:

About two o’clock we sat down for dinner… The dining hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach, but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder…

No tablecloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright tin plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast…

My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped [with] the buffalo tongue, while Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose..

Of course a dance followed the dinner, and Paul Kane’s description of its attendees is much better than Aemilius Simpson’s. However, you can see how Simpson could describe some of the attendees as “grotesque.”

In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriott had invited all the inmates of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it.

The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally I, among the rest, led out a young Cree squaw, who sported enough beads around her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst my partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once.. [Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The story of Fort Edmonton]

Edmonton House was surrounded by horses — on the North bank of the river the four hundred horses were kept safe with a horse guard of only a few men. The Natives, as much as they desired the animals, could not cross the river to steal them.

The post was also surrounded by numerous dogs, “two or three hundred who forage for themselves like the horses, and lie outside. These dogs are quite as valuable as horses, as it is with them that everything is drawn over the snow.”

It would be almost impossible to catch these animals who are almost as wild as wolves, were it not for the precaution which is taken in the autumn of catching the dogs singly by stratagem, and tying light logs to them, which they can drag about. By this means the squaws soon catch as many as they want, and bring them into the fort where they are fed — sometimes — before being harnessed…. Next morning I was aroused by a yelling and screaming that made me rush from my room, thinking that we were all being murdered; and there I saw the women harnessing the dogs. Such a scene! The women were like so many furies with big sticks, thrashing away at the poor animals, who rolled and yelled in agony and terror… [Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies].

Travelers through Edmonton House often mentioned the dogs, and I imagine that as the York boats came upriver, the dogs were the first to know and to give the alarm! That is, after all, what dogs are for!

And here, below, is the last story I have about Edmonton House. It plays no part in any of the stories I write, but it amuses me. It comes from an article titled: “The Indian Drum,” by Frank Oliver, published in the Alberta Historical Review, vol. 3 no. 1, Winter 1955, pp 3-15. Oliver was the publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin at the time of the Resistance, and this story describes the fears of the white settlers who thought they would be attacked by the Natives that surrounded them.

The rebellion mentioned is, of course, the Riel Rebellion of 1885, which took place in Red River but which spread across the prairies! Outside Edmonton, for many years running, there was an Indian encampment, and there the drums were always beating. When news of the Rebellion reached Edmonton, an old timer at the fort is said to have assured the Edmonton Newspaperman that there would be no danger as long as the drums at the nearby Indian encampment continued to beat. The next morning, the drums were silent, and the camp empty. “It was altogether an experience none involved would care to have repeated,” and everyone considered that a state of war was in existence. During the period of the attacks, both Fort Pitt and Fort Carlton, downriver from Edmonton, were burned to the ground, Nothing happened at Edmonton.

Wasn’t he the Edmonton newspaperman? [He was]. But can you imagine the fear the early residents of Edmonton would have experienced at the drums falling silent?

And imagine the relief they felt, when the noise of the drums began again!

However, I can also picture the Natives (who could read the newspapers) intentionally putting a stop to the constant beat of their drums. I think they may have been laughing.

It is something else to add to your picture of Edmonton House, however — the constant drum beats from the village just outside the post walls. Another noise to add to the barking and howling of the many dogs. This was not a quiet place, by any means.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.