Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermilion
Fort Chipewyan, located on the extreme northwestern tip of Lake
Athabasca, is acknowledged as Alberta’s oldest community. The settlement
traces its roots to a North West Company post built in the area in 1788.
During years of fur trade rivalry, Fort Chipewyan was the centre of the
worst conflicts and most intense rivalry between the North West Company
(NWC) and Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). After the amalgamation of the two
companies, Fort Chipewyan was chosen as the headquarters for the
Athabasca District of the HBC.
Fort Chipewyan is steeped in history. In 1778, Peter Pond built a fur
trading post on the banks of Lake Athabasca and began trading with the
Mikisew Cree (Woodland Cree) and the Denesolene (Athabasca Chipewyan
First Nation). In 1788, Roderick McKenzie established a post at Old Fort
Point for the North West Company. From then on, the area was a
significant stop-over for the fur trade and northern expeditions.
Alexander Mackenzie used the post as a jumping-off point for his trip up
the river named for him in 1789, and in 1792, on his trip to the Pacific
Ocean via the Peace River. Philip Turnor and Peter Fidler conducted the
first survey of the Athabasca River and Slave River between the years of
1790 and 1792.
In 1802, Peter Fidler returned and built the first HBC post,
Nottingham House, on English Island. The XY Company came in and set up a
post at Little Island in 1800. In 1804, the XY Company joined the NWC,
in an attempt to oust the HBC and the rivalry in the area became
particularly intense. Although the HBC abandoned Nottingham House in
1808, the company returned to the area in 1815. On behalf of the HBC,
John Clarke established Fort Wedderburn on Coal Island to challenge the
NWC’s Fort Chipewyan.
When the NWC and HBC amalgamated, Fort Wedderburn was abandoned in
favour of Fort Chipewyan, which became the headquarters for the
Athabasca district. Perhaps one of the reasons the settlement was
important was its location. Three rivers meet at Fort Chipewyan: the
Athabasca, the Rocher, and Quatre Fourches. This confluence resulted in
Fort Chipewyan being the starting point for exploration and the centre
The Athabasca region was the best source for prime beaver pelts and
other furs. It was the focal point of the fur trade rivalry both before
1820 and again in the late 1800s, when independent traders exerted their
influence on the market.
The location of the town made it a key transportation point before
the extension of the railway to the town of Hay River on Great Slave
Lake. Materials moved through the area on barges and steamboats on the
Athabasca, Peace and Slave Rivers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Given its central location, everything moved through Fort Chipewyan.
The First Peoples of the area were the Beaver people to the west, the
Cree to the south, and the Chipewyan to the north. The Beaver and Cree
people had made peace only a few years after the arrival of the first
European traders. The Chipewyan suffered 90 percent fatalities during
the smallpox epidemic in 1784, a reaction to first-contact with the
disease. Peter Pond reportedly grew vegetables at his post in 1787, the
first time European foods had been introduced into the area.
The fur trade also introduced European people into the population and
many fur trade employees took Aboriginal wives. Although Métis voyageurs
from the East were among the employees, in the Fort Chipewyan area, a
Métis community never developed. Considering the movement of all people
through the area, the Métis never had the necessary conditions to form a
group identity and remained part of the Aboriginal and fur trade