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Competitive Fur Trade (1850–1900)

Painted animal hide at Fort Whoop-Up

After the Sayer trial, Métis and other private traders expanded their operations. In Alberta the buffalo robe and hide trades were particularly attractive to plains hunters, especially after 1860. Most were traded with American companies operating from the Missouri River. This trade offered an alternative to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which had little interest in buffalo except as a source of food. A number of posts and settlements, including the notorious "whiskey posts" of southern Alberta such as Fort Whoop-Up and Spitzee Post, grew up as a result of this trade. A major Métis community at Buffalo Lake was also established in 1872 to pursue this business. The Buffalo Lake site, located south-east of Stettler, attracted traders and hunters and their families after 1872. Archaeological and historical records indicate that at its peak 800 or more people lived in the settlement.

Further north, the Hudson's Bay Company faced competition as well at its North Saskatchewan River posts, including Fort Edmonton. Fort Victoria, also a provincial historic site, was established in 1864 to capture some of the trade of an interesting mission settlement begun in 1862. In 1862, a Methodist missionary, the Reverend George McDougall, moved a small mission outpost from Smoking, now Smoky Lake, to a new the South wall at Fort Victoria site on the North Saskatchewan River. He named his new mission "Victoria" after the queen. His mission soon attracted about 150 Protestant, English-speaking, buffalo hunting settlers - many from Red River. These settlers were of mixed Cree and Scottish or Orkney background, and reflect the diversity of background and culture of people of Métis descent. The community they built was based on a mixture of farming, buffalo hunting and trading. An interesting feature of their settlement was that it was based on river lots - the narrow farms fronting on the river that were found in Red River and which can be traced back to the early settlement of New France.

The Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Victoria was challenged by several independent traders, including McDougall's son, David, and local Métis traders such as Sam Livingstone, Louis Thompson and Edward McGillivary. The historic sites in the Victoria area include the home of the HBC clerk at Fort Victoria, a church, and some houses or cabins and other buildings associated with the first Métis settlers. If you look closely you can also see evidence of the original river lot system of settlement at Victoria and in the nearby Lobstick Settlement as well. Other Alberta communities that grew out of the movement of Métis from Red River and the settlement of Métis families from Alberta posts include St. Albert, Lac Ste. Anne, Lac la Biche, Duhamel, and the first community around Fort Edmonton.

Former site of 12 Foot Davis' trading postEven in the far north competition reached the fur trade in this period. At Dunvegan, a former gold miner named Henry Fuller Davis, established a rival trading operation in 1865. Known as "12 Foot" Davis, he had come first to the interior of British Columbia as part of the Cariboo gold rush. There he made a small fortune when he noted that a thin band of unclaimed land separated two of the best gold claims. His claim on this gap of twelve feet would eventually produce about $15,000 worth of gold. After the gold rush ended, Davis and his partner headed over the mountains into the Peace River area and began trading furs. They were followed by a number of other independent traders and by the 1880s most posts in what would become Alberta faced competitors.

In 1870 the Canadian government acquired the Hudson's Bay Company's interests - based on the HBC's 1670 charter - and what is now northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and most of the North West Territories was added to the new country. Initially this had little impact on the fur trade in Alberta, but Canada was very interested in encouraging settlement of these territories. To accomplish this the government promised to see a railway built to the Pacific Ocean and it also put in place policies to encourage immigration and agricultural settlement, especially on the plains and parklands of western Canada. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Calgary in 1883, and the growth of settlement including new cities in Edmonton and Calgary, began a slow change in the Hudson's Bay Company from a fur trade to a retail department store company.

The Fur Trade After 1900

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