Fort Assiniboine

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort

Fort Assiniboine was one of many posts along the Athabasca River west of the mouth of the Clearwater River, although most posts on the river were located in the Jasper Valley. So let’s see what we can learn about this old post. The others might appear in another blogpost, which I will attach at the bottom of this one when it is written.

But before I begin, I hope you all had a good Christmas and don’t mind me taking a little time off. We all need breaks, particularly in these difficult times (Pandemic et al).  

The first mention I have of Fort Assiniboine is from John Work’s journal of his voyage west to Spokane House in 1823, found in the B.C. Archives. He and Peter Skene Ogden stumbled on the brand-new fur trade post as it was being built. In his journal, he wrote:

Wedy. 24 [October 1823]. Sharp frost in the morning. Cloudy, mild though cold weather afterwards. Embarked at day light and about noon arrived at a new House which Mr. [Ranald] McDonald the gentleman who is superintending the building calls Fort Assiniboyne, it is situated on the North side of the River. This is the House which was to have been built at McLeod’s Branch, the distance of which is four days work up the River, so that we were surprised at understanding that the buildings were here.

So John Work believed that the new post was to be built at the junction of the Athabasca with McLeod River, on the present location of the Alberta town of Whitecourt. That is what he had been told by Governor Simpson, who also did not yet know that the post was built where it was. 

This is what Ernest Voorhis has to say about Fort Assiniboine in his “Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies,” published in 1930 and found in many places on the internet.

Hudson’s Bay Company fort on Athabaska river at confluence of Freeman creek on north bank, about 114 degrees 45′ West. Shown on map northwest Territories 1894 (No. 37) as “in ruins,” also on map northern Canada 1907 (No. 34), also Devine map Crown lands 1857 (No. 12). It is noted on the Hudson’s Bay Co. map 1857 )no.8) and appears on the 1857, 1869, and 1872 lists of forts. Probably closed about 1880.

I understand that it was abandoned by the time some explorers came through, and as you see below, I am right. However, it might have been re-opened in later years. The first name of Fort Assiniboine was Athabasca or Athabaska River House, and its builder was Ranald McDonald — not the son of Archibald McDonald of Fort Colvile, whose story we all know. It is not known today why Fort Assiniboine was not built at the junction of the McLeod’s Branch, as Governor George Simpson wrote to William Connolly, then in charge of the Lesser Slave Lake post, that he wanted it re-built there. “All the opposition that was made in Council to the Establishment of McLeod’s Branch did not alter the opinion I formed on that subject,” he wrote in January 1824. “I therefore confidently expect that in the event of your having arrived too late last fall to effect those changes, the necessary steps will be taken this spring, conformable to the Minutes of Council.”

It did not happen. As Richard Frances McCarty said in his now-published University of Alberta Thesis, Fort Assiniboine, Alberta, 1823-1914: fur trade post to settled district, “The question of why Fort Assiniboine was located on its present site and neither at McLeod’s Branch, as per Council’s resolution, nor above the same, as per Simpson’s instructions, must remain, at least for the moment, unanswered.” (I downloaded this thesis, or was sent it, while it was still available on Our Roots. It is no longer there, and is now a published book, which you can order by googling the above title.)

So the fort was built over the summer of 1823 by Ranald McDonald. Although John Work’s journal does not state how many buildings were on the site, there must have been two or three of them at the time he passed through. The number of staff was small, and the post was supplied through the Lesser Slave Post downriver. This must have been one of the years when the supplies did not reach the Athabasca River posts in time, because McDonald travelled to Edmonton House on several occasions to get supplies. And that means that there was already a trail of sorts south of Fort Assiniboine to Edmonton House, two or three years before the Athabasca Portage trail was hacked through the bush. 

 Interestingly, in 1823, Peter Skene Ogden left his family at Fort Assiniboine, and they probably spent the winter of 1823-24 there. In 1824, Governor Simpson detached Fort Assiniboine from the Lesser Slave Lake post and attached it to Edmonton House, which made it even more necessary to have a good trail between the two places. The author of this thesis also says that, “Its returns went out by this route. Thus Chief Factor McIntosh’s trip to Edmonton and through to York Factory with the returns is the first known instance of a payload travelling over the newly-constructed trail.” So the first outgoing brigade bringing out the furs over the Athabasca Portage did not occur in 1826, as I have said, but in 1825!

Also, in 1825, “George Deschambeault, the clerk in charge in McIntosh’s absence, was too inexperienced for even temporary command of a post. He [Simpson] resolved to replace him for the summer with either Patrick Small or Henry Fisher, Jr., from Edmonton. Fisher was selected.” I knew that Henry Fisher Jr. was an early part of the history of Fort Assiniboine, and here he is now assigned to the charge of that post, no matter how temporary that might have been. McIntosh must now have been the man in charge of Fort Assiniboine, and I do not know which McIntosh it is, and the HBCA biographical sheets are of no help to me on this question. (If you know the answer to this question, you can let me know).

So, in 1826, Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson says this about Fort Assiniboine, in his journal of the journey west from York Factory in the first incoming Columbia Express:

Assiniboine is a small post located on the North bank of the Athabasca, enclosed by a Woody country but has intervals of Meadow Land, which furnishes good pasture for Horses. It is much used for that purpose, a number being always kept here belonging to the Edmonton Establishment & to supply the Brigades Crossing the mountains & as it is safe from the depredations of the Blackfeet & other Indians, who do not cross this Woody Country. A considerable quantity of dried meat is procured at this Post, which is made into Pemmican, to supply the passing Brigade to & from the Columbia &c. It gives fair return of skins, I am informed. 

In 1827 Edward Ermatinger’s journal reads: 

Arrive at Fort Assiniboine at 8 pm and learn that this Post has not provisions enough to furnish our men a meal — the want of which was one reason for my not delaying longer to endeavour to get down the Boat.

But more importantly, in a footnote of this journal [published in 1912] is a description of the post. It says: “As fort Assiniboine was abandoned over a quarter century ago it is not shown on present day maps. It was situated on the Athabaska river 75 miles northwest of Edmonton and was at the north end of the main trail from Edmonton. In 1859, it consisted “merely of a few ruinous log huts on the left bank built on a beautiful level prairie several miles in extent and elevated 30 feet above the river.” (Hector, Journals of Palliser Expedition).

Ermatinger does not mention a shortage of food on his return journey, fortunately, but the canoes were in bad shape when he arrived. In 1831, George Traill Allan describes it quite nicely on his incoming journey. A reminder, he always talks about food:

We arrived at Fort Assiniboine in time to sup with Mr. Grant. Fort Assiniboine is a small establishment situated on the banks of the River Athabasca and the surrounding country is chiefly composed of thick woods. The river takes its rise in the Rocky Mountains.

Aha! This is Richard Grant, who ends up as chief Trader in the Columbia district, in charge of Fort Hall and the Snake Expeditions, 1842-1851.

In his outgoing journal of 1825, James Douglas hardly mentions Fort Assiniboine, and they spent a very short time there. On his incoming journey there is an interesting and historic change in the method of travelling up the Athabasca River, which I am not going to tell you here. You have to buy the book — it is delayed. It will be published. It really will. 

In 1841, George Traill Allan arrived at Fort Assiniboine, with his boats bringing down the carcasses of two Moose. “It had heretofore been the custom for the Columbians to receive provisions at Fort Assiniboine,” he said, “but our success as hunters enabled us, instead of receiving provisions, to leave a portion for the people of the Fort in exchange for which we received some potatoes and dried Buffalo Meat.” So like many other posts in this territory, Fort Assiniboine grew potatoes! In fact, artist Paul Kane passed through the fort in 1843 on his way back from the Columbia, and remarked on the whitefish, “which were caught in nearby McLeod’s Lake, and that these fish comprised nearly the total diet of the post. There were also efforts by the men to get meat, which was sometimes stored in caches. Barley was grown, and supplies were also received from Edmonton and some pounded meat obtained in trade with the Indians.” The source for this information is the above mentioned thesis written by Richard Frances McCarty. McCarty continues with a list of the work the men had to do: 

There was also much time spent by the men of the post in gathering and carting firewood, and in maintenance of saddlery, mending traps, making ploughs, canoes, nets, etc. In spring, for example, the canoes would be patched and repaired. Linton noted on April 11, 1829 that the men were stripping bark and gathering gum for canoes. Horse and dog sleds were also made, from birch, for winter transport of meat, fish, etc. Some little time was spent in recreation; the manager went to Edmonton for the Christmas season, while the men usually received a ration of liquor for Christmas and the New Year. Moberly noted the arrival of officers from the district posts at Edmonton for the Christmas season of 1855.

George Linton is also a west-of-the-Rocky-Mountains man, about whom I will eventually write. He journeyed upriver with my great-g.grandfather James Birnie in 1826, going no further than Jasper’s House or Boat Encampment. In 1831 he was transferred to the Columbia District and worked in New Caledonia, at Fort George among other places. He was murdered on the banks of the Fraser River in November, 1835.

But that is not yet. In his thesis, McCarty lists the work that the men at Fort Assiniboine did:

The men were also occupied in maintaining and improving the structure of the post. The buildings were white-washed; Beauchamp and Tappage were performing this duty on October 14, 1828. There were probably four or five buildings at this time: a trading hall and manager’s residence in one; a stable, referred to in the journal for 1828-29; and two or three houses for the men and their families. A bridge was constructed over the ice on the Athabasca River in December, 1830, and a fur press was noted as having been in use during that outfit. These were added to the three buildings described by Alexander Ross in 1825, and by 1859, when Hector stopped there, a kitchen and palisades, probably low, as the Indians were friendly, were present. Hector found the kitchen floored and the hall had been floored by Parisien in October, 1828. The buildings were probably all floored. This is the sum total of knowledge on Fort Assiniboine’s structural history, except that it possibly had corrals for horses. Most of the men’s time was spent at tasks such as those described above, particularly in gathering provisions.

There is lots more information on Fort Assiniboine in this thesis. I will finish with the HBC’s descriptions of the travel through the fort, in the various York Factory Expresses. In 1847, Thomas Lowe had some good information on Fort Assiniboine on his arrival there, on the return journey from York Factory: 

Thursday 30th, Sept. 1847. Very cloudy, but fortunately no rain. Arrived at Fort Assiniboine about noon, and found that the Guide had got our three boats repaired, and in the water. Had the different cargoes divided tonight. There are 35 pieces per boat, exclusive of 3 bags Pemican each boat, for provisions for the men in the Athabasca. Besides the 40 packs Otters and 10 pieces Sundries for Jasper’s House which we brought with us, we likewise take with us from Assiniboine the 40 packs Otters left last season. With the 4 men lent by Mr. [John Edward] Harriott, there will be 8 men per boat, including the steersman. Having brought a keg of Rum from Edmonton to be given to the men, I served out a dram to all hands, after which they had a dance at the Fort before beginning their hardships in the Athabasca. 

The packs of Otter skins were part of the deal that the Hudson’s Bay Company made with the Russians on the Northwest Coast (now Alaska Panhandle), that allowed the HBC access to the furs in that territory. The otter skins were a never-ending trouble for the men of the York Factory Express in later years! As you can see, they often got left behind because of bad weather upriver, or lateness in the season. I know that when Paul Kane went upriver in 1842, the otter packs were returned to the fort. It appears as if they were also sent back in 1846.

In 1848, Lowe had a quick journey through Fort Assiniboine on his way to York Factory. It was not so easy on his return journey.

September 21, Thursday [1848]. Made an early start from our encampment, and reached Assiniboine about 2 hours before sunset, but a few did not arrive until the evening. I found that Michel [the Guide] had not yet begun to work at the boats, as he found the seams so open that he was obliged to leave them sunk in the water for two days, and had only hauled them ashore a short time before our arrival, so that we will have to wait here all day tomorrow. We have come across the Portage this year in 5 days as it was in a fine dry state, it having been a very fine summer. Rained heavy during the night. 

22, Friday. Remained at Assiniboine all day, and had our two boats properly caulked & gummed & allowed them to remain sunk in the water all night. Took from Assiniboine 8 bags of Pemican, which we found in the store here. Divided the cargoes & crews tonight. I expected to have found a large canoe here, but none can be had, and we are obliged to embark all on two boats. There are upwards of 40 pieces per boat, also the men’s bags, which are not few. There are also 16 men per boat, besides passengers. 

23, Saturday. Had the boat bailed out this morning and took breakfast after they were loaded. Started from Assiniboine about 9 am and as the water is in fine order we got as far as the grand Bas-fond…

But this is very interesting information about the maintenance of the Athabasca River boats, I think! In 1849, John Charles arrived at Fort Assiniboine after about ten days on the still-frozen Athabasca River. “Had the boat taken up the bank and placed under the boatshed. The saddles &c &c for the Portage were taken across to the place where we unloaded the boat. It rained so hard all day that we could not possibly leave until tomorrow.”

So the boat-shed was another building, not mentioned in the list of buildings above. And I have a question, that I have always had and cannot find the answer to. The saddles that often mentioned in these journals — what were they like? Were they English saddles, or something else. Where did they come from? Were they imported from England, or were they hand-made? Does anyone have any information at all about this?

So I left you with some homework, and hope you enjoy the next few days. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.


One thought on “Fort Assiniboine

  1. Murray Daneliuk

    Once again, you’ve put together an interesting history of a trading post, Nancy!
    Exactly what I read and collect about.
    Can’t wait for the new book!