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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
Red Deer Forks

The Village of Empress sits on an elevated flat plain between the Red Deer River and the South Saskatchewan River, approximately four kilometres from their junction where First Nations and Métis communities, known as South Fork or Red Deer Forks, were previously found.

The low altitude has produced a very warm climate and Empress often matches or surpasses the "hot spot" of Canada. The semi-arid countryside lends itself to ranching and wheat farming and is home to deer, antelope, Canada goose, the pear cactus, ball cactus, and delicious cactus berries. Previously, in rainier years, and before the land was cultivated and then devastated during the dust bowl of the "dirty 30s", the area was known for its rich stands of grass, and excellent grazing.

Red Deer RiverThe area was first inhabited by Europeans when Peter Fidler built Chesterfield House in 1800. Fidler was soon joined by traders from the XY Company and the North West Company (NWC). The first Chesterfield House was established against the backdrop of intense and violent rivalry in the fur trade.

Chesterfield House was built near the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers and was the first post created in what was then the most dangerous part of the southern plains. The fur traders knew the area as La Fourche des Gros Ventres. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) probably intended to use the post to intercept pemmican supplies which otherwise would have gone to rival traders on the North branch. Nevertheless, whatever strategy was behind the move, no practical advantage was ever gained.

Peter Fidler, with 80 men (and their families) was the first to arrive in the area and began working on Chesterfield House on 26 September 1800. Only two days later, an XY Company party led by John Wills arrived and began building a mere 100 metres upstream. Pierre Belleau of the NWC arrived on 6 October. He set his men to building immediately west of Fidler's establishment so that the two posts could be enclosed within a common stockade.

The three posts were small in size and lightly manned. Taken together, they would not have equaled the size of forts that were normally built by the North West Company on the plains during this period. Despite their opposing allegiance, the men of the three companies were not keen rivals and depended on each other for mutual protection and support.

There were no serious problems with the First Nations during the first season of trading and the men of the three companies carried their furs away in April 1801.

Fidler returned to Chesterfield House on 21 September 1801, and John Wills of the XY Company followed 11 days later. There were 1,400 First Nations camped in the valley. The NWC people had not returned and Fidler set his men to work, pulling down their abandoned house to prevent it from falling into the hands of the First Nations.

On the night of 21 February 1802, a band of Gros Ventre forced their way into the XY Company's stockade, but the traders succeeded in expelling them. Foiled in their attempt to capture the post, the troublesome warriors sought new victims outside the stockade. The first to die were four Iroquois, servants of the NWC, intercepted on their way to Chesterfield House. Two of the murdered men were found by Blackfoot warriors, who buried them, but, as Fidler recorded, "the Gros Ventres pulled them up again and cut off their hands and feet, and brought to them their tents, which is about a quarter mile off."

Another NWC party was slaughtered—two Canadians and 10 Iroquois. On 3 March, the triumphant Gros Ventres rode insolently around the stockades, carrying a long pole festooned with 12 fresh cut scalps. The next day, the XY Company men moved over to the English company’s post and put their own stockade building to the torch

In April, the Blackfoot brought word that the post was in danger of an attack of the combined force of Gros Ventre and Crow. On 21 April, the traders slipped away. There was no trade at Chesterfield House for the next two seasons.

Joseph Howse, with a party of 20 men, reopened the Hudson's Bay post during the autumn of 1805. John McDonald of Garth, trading for the NWC (which had absorbed the smaller XY Company) built Chesterfield House, somewhat further downstream.

On 27 December, there was a two-day battle between the Blackfoot and the wandering band of Missouris. The Blackfoot brought the bodies of their slain back to new Chesterfield House and McDonald's men buried them. In the spring, the NWC people were virtually prisoners in their own fort, surrounded by a large band of truculent Blackfoot. They succeeded in escaping by trickery. During the next 17 years, there were no white traders in the valley of the two rivers.

In 1822, the HBC sent the Bow River expedition to establish Chesterfield House number two, which was located about 6 kilometres below the site of earlier posts. (Even as late as 1822, the South Saskatchewan River was still known as the Bow). This post was meant to serve as the base for the exploration of the southern plains, and if successful, was to exploit American territory around the headwaters of the Missouri. The considerations were political; the British claimed the land had to be upheld, for in American maps of the period, the international border was being drawn along the South Saskatchewan and Qu'Appelle rivers.

Chief Factor Donald McKenzie was the leader of the party and his trusted lieutenants were John Rowand and Edward Harriot.—three of the most prominent figures in the history of fur trade. There were up 108 men in the party, 14 women and 21 children—143 souls in total. While the post was being built, the traders were surrounded by hordes of First Nations. The Aboriginal population of the district was then made up of four tribes with a total of 2,200 tents—over 15,000 people.

The first of the number of the exploratory trips was the journey toward the headwaters of the Missouri, the men were turned back by hostile Aboriginal peoples. Another party explored along the Bow and Belly rivers. Edward Harriot led another expedition to the Bear River and Sweet Grass Hills.

The traders spent only one season at the second Chesterfield House, and on 27 April 1823, the post was abandoned.

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