Site Profile: Fort George-Buckingham House
The construction of Cumberland House in the interior by the the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1774 signaled a major change in trading policy for the company. No longer content to wait by the bay for First nations people to bring their furs in, the HBC planned to go to the trappers themselves to collect these furs. The HBC was driven to this by the activities of traders from Montreal who were aggressively seeking out trappers in the interior and trading directly with them. As a result the HBC was getting fewer and fewer furs and the furs they got were of declining quality. Most of the best fur was being diverted to Montreal.
After setting up Cumberland House the HBC realized it needed to expand its system of posts in part because the Montreal traders had expanded their reach as well. Competition drove fur trade companies west and north in search of new areas where the fur resources were relatively untapped. Much of the action took place in the north, especially after Peter Pond crossed the Methye Portage in 1778 and opened up the fur trade on the Peace and Athabasca Rivers.
As supply lines for distant posts lengthened (by the 1780s some posts were located over 3000 miles or nearly 5000 kilometres from Montreal) companies such as the North West Company (NWC) and HBC developed a real need for a staple food that offered lots of calories, but was light and portable. Pemmican filled this requirement very well. A mixture of dried and pounded buffalo meat and fat (sometimes with added berries for taste) it could last without spoiling for years, it offered lots of calories for hard-working canoemen, it was light and easily portable when stored in leather bags, and it was easy to prepare. It could be fried or eaten straight, but mostly it was turned into rubbaboo or burgoo, a kind of soup or stew made by boiling pemmican with water and flour (and anything else available). Quick, convenient and nourishing pemmican was vital to the fur trade by the late 18th century.
In order to secure supplies, companies had to go to the main source, the huge herds of buffalo that grazed on the plains and parklands of the west. As a result both the HBC and the North West Company built posts along the North Saskatchewan River, primarily as provisioning posts to secure supplies of pemmican, dried meat and less frequently fresh meat to feed their employees. These posts also served a secondary trade function. They were located between the Plains and Parklands regions and could exploit the trade potential of both areas. The Nor'Westers called these vital posts the Forts des Prairies.
Most of these posts had a limited life span. Intensive hunting in any area thinned herds and these posts were often slightly akin to abatoirs. In a few years most would have been distinctly unpleasant places to live. Even a post such as Fort Edmonton, the longest serving of these Forts des Prairie was moved several times. In 1792 the North West Company began construction of a new post on the North Saskatchewan to replace a post at Lac d'Orignal just north of the North Saskatchewan River near what is now Bonnyville. The post at Lac d'Orignal had outlived its usefulness and it was too far north to be really useful as a producer of pemmican. This new post was called Fort George. The HBC, ever careful to watch what the NWC was up to, followed suit building a second post called Buckingham House beside the North West Company post that same year. These were the first two posts in what would become Alberta on the North Saskatchewan River and really were the precursors to Forts Edmonton and Fort Augustus.
Fort George was commanded by Angus Shaw and Buckingham House was managed by William Tomison the HBC's senior inland officer so they were important posts in both companies systems. The close proximity of the posts also had some consequences. Duncan McGillivray to William Tomison characterized the relationship as "opponents and neighbours". The companies competed aggressively with each other for trade with a variety of First Nations groups (this was a very multicultural milieu) but they also had to get along as well. The posts shared a well for example and tried to offer a degree of mutual protection, if need be. Post residents visited back and forth and exchanged goods and supplies on occasion. Later competition would become more cut-throat but in the early 1790s on the North Saskatchewan traders had to be a little co-operative as well.
In 1795 the role of these posts as the major sites on the upper North Saskatchewan was supplanted when the NWC built Fort Augustus and the HBC built Fort Edmonton further upriver near what is now Fort Saskatchewan (at the mouth of the Sturgeon and North Saskatchewan rivers). By 1800 the posts were abandoned and the trade had moved on.
Now designated as provincial historic sites, Fort George and Buckingham House had several features of interest to historians and archaeologists. First of all as archaeological sites they offer a very focused snapshot of life in the fur trade at the very end of the 18th century. Sites with longer periods of occupation offer a more confusing archaeological record so for research purposes Forts George and Buckingham House are very significant. The sites are also very rich in materials - the dumps are enormous there and allow for all sorts of interesting work on diet and provisioning for example. For historians these posts are equally intriguing. Their location meant that they drew a wide variety of peoples: Woods and Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Peigan and even the Blood from southern Alberta as well as a few other groups too. The companies also had both similarities and real differences. Buckingham House was considerably smaller than Fort George, reflecting the different histories of the two firms and their trade and transportation situations. The HBC was largely staffed by Orkneymen while the NWC relied on Highland Scots, Canadiens from Quebec, and Métis employees. There is much to be learned from studying a site like Fort George and Buckingham House.