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European Fur Traders reach Alberta (1778 –1795)

Fur traders travelling by canoe

By the mid- 1770s competition in the fur trade between the Hudson's Bay Company(HBC) and traders from Quebec had become very intense, and the HBC began to build inland posts to compete directly with the Montreal-based traders. The first of these posts was built at Cumberland House in what is now northeast Saskatchewan in 1774. This sparked a rapid expansion of posts north and westwards by both the Hudson's Bay Company and its Montreal rivals, particularly the North West Company. In 1778 Indian guides showed Peter Pond the Methy Portage (or Portage La Loche). This portage connected the Hudson Bay and Arctic water systems and could be used to get traders into the rich, and largely untapped, fur resources of the Athabasca region. Pond crossed the Methy Portage and established a post near the delta of the Athabasca River, just south of Lake Athabasca.

Emblem of the North West CompanyPond had remarkable trading success at his new post and other traders were attracted to the Athabasca region. In 1788, the newly formed North West Company established a new post called Fort Chipewyan on the south shore of Lake Athabasca. The location at what came to be called Old Fort Point was not ideal and sometime in 1796 or 1797 Fort Chipewyan was moved across the lake to its current site near the mouth of the Peace River. At about this same time traders also started building posts on the Peace River, and Fort Vermilion is often credited along with Fort Chipewyan as being the first permanent fur trade site in Alberta.

Fort Chipewyan rapidly became the most important centre for the fur trade in the Athabasca area and one of the most important posts in all of Canada. Fur traders began to call it the "Emporium of the North" in honour of the size of the post, the amount of trade that passed through it, and the number of people who lived within its walls. The Hudson's Bay Company also built posts in the area, Fort Wedderburn and Nottingham House, but with less success than the North West Company.

Competition between the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies also led to the expansion of posts on the North Saskatchewan River. By the early 1790s the westward march of posts had reached the boundaries of what is now Alberta. In 1792 the North West Company built a new post called Fort George on the north bank of the river a few kilometers east of the present-day town of Elk Point, Alberta. The Hudson's Bay Company followed suit by building a second post about 250 meters upstream. This post was named Buckingham House. There is also some archaeological evidence to suggest that independent traders, not associated with either the North West or Hudson's Bay Companies, may also have used the site. The two posts and the people stationed at them operated as both opponents and neighbours from 1792 to 1800. In 1800 the posts were abandoned as the companies built new posts further upstream. In recognition of the importance of these posts, both are operated as a provincial historic site.

Foundation of the old house at Fort George - Buckingham HouseThe men working at Buckingham House were mostly Orkneymen, from the Orkney Islands located just north of the Scottish mainland, and a few Englishmen. Fort George was manned almost entirely by French Canadians and a few Highland Scots. Many were married to Cree and Métis women, who played a vital role in operations of these and other posts. The First Nations who traded at Fort George and Buckingham House were even more varied. They included members of the Blackfoot, Peigan, and Blood, T'suu Tina (Sarcee), Gros Ventre, Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa First Nations. Métis and Iroquois hunters also traded at these posts. The company traders offered guns, blankets, beads, tobacco, liquor, knives, and many other goods from Europe in exchange for a variety of furs, hides, meat, fat, and horses. Both posts were particularly important to their companies as sources of dried meat and pemmican.

Fur Trade Rivalries (1795-1821)

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