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
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.
The 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
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.