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Site Profile: Dunvegan

Aerial view of Dunvegan Post

Following a glowing description of the area by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1793, Dunvegan was founded in 1805 by Archibald Norman McLeod of the North West Company (NWC). The post was built primarily to serve the local traders but also to act as a provisioning post (supplying bison and moose, and maintaining gardens), especially for the brigades. It also had value as a staging post for the North West Company's plans to develop the trade beyond the mountains in the interior of British Columbia (New Caledonia).

A big post at the time, it was surrounded by a large stockade with bastions, included a large officers' house, smaller houses for the men, an ice house, blacksmith shop, warehouse, trading shop, and powder magazine. It was also defensible against an outside attack, a very important point as the Nor'Westers were never totally sure of their reception in new territories. Fort Dunvegan also boasted a large population for the time. During the first winter it had 6 officers and 45 men, many of whom brought their wives and families with them. During the summer months the staff dropped to 9 men with 8 women and 7 children at the post. This was a pattern that was not uncommon and continued throughout the North West Company years - a large winter population and a skeleton summer staff.

Factor's house at Fort DunveganThe Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) tried to compete with the North West Company on the Peace River but with limited success until 1818, when they built St. Mary's House near what is now the town of Peace River. In 1820 they succeeded in establishing a post between Dunvegan and the mountains called Pine Fort in order to compete with the North West Company's Fort St. John. Increased competition was ruinous and the HBC and North West Company finally merged in 1821.

The renewed HBC included many former North West Company people but the overall direction of the firm was in the hands of George Simpson. Simpson immediately set about rationalizing and reforming the trade to lower costs and increase profits. Many posts closed and most saw their numbers sharply reduced. Dunvegan's excellent location meant it was kept open but with a much reduced staff. By 1824 Dunvegan had just 10 winter employees - a figure that wouldn't change much for the next few decades.

The rectory study room at Dunvegan MissionIt still had a substantial trade, productive gardens and other virtues though and it remained the major post on the middle Peace River. Company records suggest it was reasonably profitable and it did produce a lot of furs from the local Beaver Indians and a group of "freemen" living south and west of the post along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. It also still served as a transhipment and supply base for the New Caledonia posts.

This was a difficult period in the fur trade and in 1823 when the HBC threatened to close Fort St. John some local trappers reacted violently. They overran the post and killed several HBC employees. The following year another violent incident occurred at Dunvegan - one of the very few - when an Indian was shot there. In response Simpson decided to close Dunvegan. The post remained closed from 1825 to 1828 when Simpson decided he had made his point.

Traders carrying canoeDunvegan was rebuilt and reopened it entered one of its most productive periods. While the gardens did well, often producing 250 or more kegs of potatoes (kegs were about 9 gallons in size) it became a centre for keeping livestock including a substantial horse herd. In 1844 for example post records indicate that Dunvegan housed 60 horses, 8 cows, a bull and 10 oxen for heavy hauling on local trails. Dunvegan also produced a lot of meat for the trade. Initially bison was the meat of choice but by the 1820s bison herds were in decline and the last bison had disappeared from the middle Peace River area in about 1830. Thereafter, post hunters concentrated on moose which became the staple food of the post. Dunvegan usually produced between about 30,000 and 40,00 pounds of meat each year - a significant figure but one which may seem less vast when it is remembered the post itself could consume nearly 200 lbs of meat a day or about a ton every 10-14 days.

The HBCs trade monopoly came to an end in the 1860s when Dunvegan began to change rapidly. The first newcomers arrived in 1865, when a former gold miner from the Quesnel area set up across the river from Dunvegan. Henry "12 Foot" Davis got his nickname when he discovered a gap of 12 feet between two gold claims during the Cariboo gold rush and parlayed this oversight into $15,000 strike. After the gold petered out he and his partner William Cust moved into the Peace River area looking to trade in competition with the HBC. They were the first of a flood of independent traders that moved into the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - including other large international firms such Revillion Freres a french trading company that rivaled the HBC for a time (and which briefly operated a post at Dunvegan as well).

The original site of Fort DunveganThe first missionary to reach Dunvegan was the Methodist James Evans who stopped there briefly in 1841. Robert Rundle another Methodist operated a mission at Lesser Slave Lake in 1842 and visited Dunvegan as part of his territory, and in 1845-46 the Catholic priest, Reverend Joseph Bourassa wintered at Dunvegan. It was not until 1867 however that a permanent mission was built at Dunvegan by Father Christophe Tissier of the Oblates. Called St. Charles Mission the church and rectory still exist at Dunvegan. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this church which was built in 1884 is the paintings done in its interior by Emile Grouard, later Bishop Grouard.

In 1879 the Anglicans established a rival mission, St. Saviour's, at Dunvegan . The Reverend Alfred Garrioch served there from 1886 to 1891. The Anglicans had little success though and in 1895 the mission was abandoned and the church moved to Shaftesbury Settlement near Peace River. The Oblates lasted a little longer but St. Charles Mission was in trouble too and in 1903 it was abandoned in favour of a new church at Spirit River.

Rifle trading at Dunvegan PostSome of these changes were caused by population movements in the area in the late 19th century. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, Treaty 8 in 1899, and speculation about railways all led directly or indirectly to new people moving into the Peace River area (and old groups such as the Beaver Indians moving out). By 1909 Dunvegan was a cable Ferry site and farmers were moving into the area. The need for a trading post declined and in 1918 Dunvegan finally closed as a fur trade post. The new economy of the Peace River area sealed Dunvegan's doom as a trade centre although it soon developed a new community of market gardeners and people providing services for travellers using the ferry and later still the bridge.

Courtesy of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine, also read: St. Charles Mission - The Art of Log Construction,by Dorothy Field.

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