Saskatchewan River

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archive, image na-843-14, used with their permission

As the York Factory Express men rushed down the flooding Saskatchewan River in their boats and canoes, they passed historic posts almost without noticing them. On their way upriver, they had time to recall the history of these old forts. So, let’s learn a little bit more about theses posts. Much of this information comes from “Historic Forts and Trading Post of the French Regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies,” by Ernest Voorhis. You can google this document and find it yourself: it’s quite accessible.

These are the forts that the incoming York Factory Express men made note of: Cumberland House, of course. “Thoburn Rapids,” named for an early NWC trader William Thorburn, who had a series of posts around Nipiwan, near where Tobin Lake is now (Thoburn Rapids is buried by Tobin Lake). Fort Aux Trembles, built around 1773. Fort à la Corne. Batoche’s Fort or Point, perhaps where the NWC’s old Fort Batoche stood for a year. And finally, Fort Maranquin.

There are a lot of other posts, too, that they did not notice or did not remember. Let’s see how many I can fit into a simple blogpost. So, starting from the Grand Rapids where the Saskatchewan River flows into Lake Winnipeg, and heading west:

Grand Rapids House — Hudson’s Bay Co. post at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, Lake Winnipeg, at the foot of the rapids. (This little stretch of river was called Rapid River by the York Factory Express men.) The fort was built by the HBC soon after the old French Fort Bourbon was destroyed, before 1775. In the 1870s it seemed they established or re-established Cedar Lake post upriver, at the head of the Grand Rapids, “which the river steamer descends to.” About 1875 they built a tramway four miles long, parallel to the rapids, at both ends of which the company maintained a house. This was twenty years after the York Factory Express stopped running, but the Saskatchewan Brigades would still be travelling down the Saskatchewan River.

Fort Bourbon — a French fort on a small island dividing Cedar Lake from Mud Lake, now called Fort Island, at or near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River. Built by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, one of the sons of Sieur de la Vérendrye, in 1751. It was destroyed before 1775. It is included in Bougainville’s List [see below] and he locates it as being “150 Leagues from St. Charles, at the entrance of Lake Ouimpeg (Winnipeg).” The northern half of lake Winnipeg and Cedar Lake were called Lac Bourbon by Vérendrye, and Saskatchewan River he called the Pascoyac, and sometimes Rivière aux Biches (Deer). The HBC had a fort on this lake succeeding the French Fort, called Cedar Lake House, also a later post called Grand Rapids House. The North West Company operated a small post on this lake, which was abandoned in 1802.

“Bougainville’s List,” mentioned above, is a list of French forts given in “Mémoire de Bougainville sur l’Etat de la Nouvelle France 1757,” in Pierre Margry’s Relations et Mémoires inedits pour servir à l’histoire de la France, etc., 1867, Paris, one vol., pages 39 to 84. For the Americans who follow me: The early French forts are those owned by the French, not Canadien, fur traders who came to Canada and who surrendered their forts to Britain by the Treaty of Paris, 1763. The French nobility returned to France, the Canadien voyageurs remained behind and worked for themselves, and later for the Scottish fur traders.

Cedar Lake House — The North West Co. post was built on or near the site of the old French Fort Bourbon in 1790 and was abandoned in 1802. The old French fort was destroyed in 1775 or a little earlier, and the Hudson’s Bay Co was almost immediately established in the locality. Their first post seems to have been built at the mouth of the Saskatchewan river below Grand Rapids and was called Grand Rapids House. In 1856 the Company built a fort, known as Cedar Lake House, about half a mile below the main Cedar Lake on the right or west bank of the river…

Fort Pascoyac — French fort at the mouth of Pascquia River (also called Montagne du Pas river). the name is written also as Paskoya, Pasquia, Paskoia. Pascoyac was the First Nations name for the Saskatchewan River. Fort Pascoyac was built by Vérendrye in 1749 (or 1744) and was located very near the present own of The Pas. Vérendrye was succeeded by de Noyelle who through one of the sons built Fort Bourbon on Lake Winnipegosis, and Fort Pascoyac. In 1808 Alexander Henry Jr. found the remains of an old fort which he estimated to be 50 years old at the locality of Fort Pascoyac. In 1755 Hendry stated that many furs were obtained here from First Nations going to Hudson Bay. The first post built by the NWC on Cumberland Lake was near the site of Pascoyac.

Cumberland House — The first trading post on Cumberland lake was built by Joseph Frobisher in 1772, a free-trader at the time. Cumberland Lake was then known as Pine Island Lake, and Sturgeon Lake. This fort was built for the purpose of intercepting the First Nations hunters going to Fort Nelson [York Factory]. It was built close to the portage to Gull Lake, not far from the site formerly occupied by the French Fort Pascoyac. It was a temporary structure and soon replaced. In 1775, when Alexander Henry Sr. passed, Frobisher’s post had disappeared.

The second fort on Cumberland Lake was built by Samuel Hearne for the HBC in 1774. It was called Cumberland House, situated at the end of the lake near the portage to Gull Lake, where it leaves Cumberland Lake. This fort has been maintained since 1774 and is the oldest HBC post in the interior. It is a strategic point, as two routes open thence to the interior, west and south by Saskatchewan river, northwest and north to the upper Churchill Country. The HBC post was located about 500 yards from Frobisher’s house of 1772, on the south shore, “on the Saskatchewan river at a spot where it is touched by Cumberland Lake.” It was built on an island at the southeast end of Pine Island Lake, about 4 miles north of the Saskatchewan River, into which are three outlets from the lake, namely, Big Stone River immediately in the rear and west of the fort, Tearing River 4 miles to the east, and Fishing Weir Creek farther east. Pine Island is made by the lake on the north, Saskatchewan River on the south, Big Stone River on the west, and Tearing River on the east. [Aemilius Simpson must have come in by the Fishing Weir Creek. Later all of these creeks were silted in and by 1848, no one got into the lake at all with a York Boat].

In 1780 the North West Co. constructed their new fort (also called Cumberland House or Station) about 100 yards from the HBC post, and about 1 1/2 miles west of the first house built by Frobisher in 1772. Alexander Henry Jr. was there in 1808 and describes it as being at the north end of this little river called Little English river, ie. the Tearing River. This fort was sometimes called Fort Sturgeon Lake, but in general both companies used the same name, Cumberland House. This was the first permanent post for the NWC on Cumberland Lake and was maintained by them to the coalition of 1821. There was also an XY Co. post nearby.

Hungry Hall House — House of free-traders Ross and William Thorburn, built 1792-93 on the Saskatchewan River at Thoburn or Grand Rapids, about 14 miles above (west of) Sturgeon River, where Tobin Lake is now. Alexander Henry Jr. passed this “old establishment abandoned many years ago,” in 1808.

Fort Lower Nipawi — Known also as Nipawi, Nepiwa, Neepoin, Nippewean, Nepowewin, and Fort Des Prairies or Aux Trembles. An old French fort on the south side of the Saskatchewan River, about 100 miles above the Pas and just below the Nipawin Rapids and about 3 miles below the Cadotte Rapids. The fort was built about 1748, and was mentioned by Alexander Mackenzie who calls it Nepawi House. It was regularly operated by the French until the cession of Canada and was abandoned about 1763. After the French, the first English trader to reach the locality was James Finlay, who in 1767 either occupied the old French fort or constructed Finlay’s House nearly opposite on the north bank. Finlay wintered there in 1771-72, also 1775-76, and both Laurent Cadotte of the HBC, and Nor’wester Alexander Henry Sr. were there in 1776, and David Thompson in 1808. After the formation of the North West Co. in 1783, the old French fort was occupied by that Company and it was called “Nepoin” fort. Porter and McLeod were in charge in 1794, for the NWC. About 1808, the Company abandoned the fort. Alexander Henry Jr. passed “the old establishment at the Nepawee” on August 30, 1808, apparently deserted. Fort à la Corne (St. Louis, see below) was known as Upper Nipawi and Nepoin as Lower Nipawi.

Fort aux Trembles — There were two Fort aux Trembles, one on the Assiniboine River, and one that Alexander Henry says “this was the former name given to the french Fort Des Prairies or Nepoin.” The rest of the information is found in the description of Fort à la Corne, below, or in the Fort Lower Nipawi, above. Take your pick.

Fort à la Corne — an old historic fort on Saskatchewan River, about 12 miles air line below the Forks, on south side of the river, close to the mouth of PayDenan Creek. Originally built by La Vérendrye in 1748, who named it Fort St. Louis. It was rebuilt by his successor in the old French company Legardeur de St. Pierre in 1753, who renamed it Fort à la Corne. In 1896, the old trails and stockades were still visit. In 1765 Hendry, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, stopped there and it was then occupied by six men for the French company. It was deserted for some time after the cession of Canada (when the French left Canada), although in operation in 1763. Cocking of the Hudson’s Bay Company found it deserted in 1772 except for an Indian camp. In 1776, James Finlay occupied it. Alexander Henry Sr. also stopped there in 1776, and spoke of a considerable establishment, about an acre of ground, enclosed by a stockade and having 50 to 80 men attached, under James Finlay. The old fort was occupied by the North West Co and rebuilt by them in 1797, and called Fort St. Louis. It was also known as Upper Neepawa, Des Prairies, and Des Trembles. The fort was abandoned by the North West Company in 1805, reason unknown. the site was unoccupied till 1846-8 when the Hudson’s Bay Company rebuilt on the site of the old fort and renamed it Fort à la Corne (They did?). In 1887 it was moved three miles upstream to its present location (It was?). This fort was one of the oldest and most continuously occupied of the establishments in the west. It was mentioned in Bougainville’s List and there named “Des Prairies.” Alexander Henry Jr passing in 1808 speaks of remains of the old French Fort St. Louis in a low bottom on the south side “where some years ago were still to be seen remains of agricultural implements and carriage-wheels.”

Fort St. Louis — North West Company fort on the Saskatchewan River a few mile above Fort à la Corne, near Pine Creek. Alexander Henry Jr., in 1808 going upstream passed Nepoin, then à la Corne (St. Louis), then this N.W. Company Fort St. Louis, of which he says, “passed old establishment of our own, which has been abandoned since 1805, and called St. Louis from its proximity to the old French fort below.”

Isaac’s House — David Thompson mentions a free-trader’s house under the name of Isaac’s House, on the Saskatchewan river east of the Forks (I am presuming that means east of the junction of the North and South Saskatchewan rivers) somewhere in Range 17 West of 2nd Meridian in 1794.

Fort Maranquin was in this immediately neighbourhood too, but it is not mentioned in this list of historic forts. It might be Isaac’s House by another name. James Douglas says, in 1835: “Passed Fort La Corne at 8 o’clock and 2 hours after Batoche’s Fort, and encamped for the night 3 miles below Fort Maranquin.” Please note, this was before he reached the forks of the North and South Saskatchewan River. Also note, this confirms Batoche’s Fort, below. Either one of these two forts could have been Isaac’s House, above — or for that matter, old Fort St. Louis, also above.

Batoche’s Fort is also in this region, and not on the list. But Edward Ermatinger mentions it on his return journey in 1827, when he says: “Encamped 2 points above Fort a Batosh.” He had already passed Fort à la Corne’s old location, and the editor suggests he had camped on Batoche Point.

I think I have all of the Saskatchewan River forts listed, but I might have missed one or two. If I did, you can tell me. There were quite a few forts on this river — it is the most history filled part of the entire journey from York Factory to Edmonton House. For the incoming York Factory Express men, this section of the river is filled with stories!

If you wish to order “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: The book tells the story of the HBC men who journey to Hudson Bay and return every year, in the York Factory Express and the Saskatchewan Brigades. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Saskatchewan River

  1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    I missed Finlay’s House, a free traders post on the Saskatchewan River on the north side, at Nipawin Rapids, about 35 miles east of Fort a la Corne. It was built by James Finlay, pioneer free-trader in 1767. Journal of Matthew Cocking of HBC 1772, says that Finlay occupied the post in 1767. Alexander Henry passed the site of Finlay’s fort in 1776. The original fort was probably destroyed by First Nations and was rebuilt and used promiscuously by traders for many years. this was probably the first post built in this region after the cession of Canada.