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Site Profile: Fort Edmonton

Shopkeeper and customer re-enactors at Fort Edmonton

Not long after the establishment of Fort George and Buckingham House on the North Saskatchewan River in 1792 both the North West (NWC) and Hudson's Bay (HBC) Companies made plans to move their operations further upriver. Several scouting parties were sent out looking for an appropriate spot for a new post, and in 1795 the Nor'Westers settled on a site at the confluence of the Sturgeon and North Saskatchewan Rivers: just across the river from the modern community of Fort Saskatchewan. They chose this spot in part because it offered easy water access for people coming in to trade, in part because there was already a large Aboriginal population in the area, and finally because it was supposed to be so rich in furs - particularly beaver - that one journal writer said "Women and Children kill them with sticks and hatchets." The NWC called its post Fort Augustus.

Scene at Fort EdmontonWherever the Nor'Westers moved the HBC was likely to follow and that fall William Tomison followed his rivals upriver and built his post virtually next door (supposedly one musket shot away). Tomison's post came to be called Fort Edmonton. Both posts were very successful at first producing good trade returns. In 1797 12,512 made beaver worth of furs were traded at Fort Edmonton, but by 1800 the volume of furs traded started to drop. This was not uncommon as posts usually exploited the fur resources in the immediate area and when animal populations began to decline so did trade. In 1801 both companies decided to move again about 30 kilometers upstream to a river flat that had been used as a camping and meeting place for thousands of years.

The site chosen for the new Forts Edmonton and Augustus is now known as the Rossdale Flats in central Edmonton. This site proved a good one - at least for a time and the posts operated there for about a decade until 1810 when both companies moved their posts briefly to sites near the confluence of Wabamun Creek and the Saskatchewan. This new area did not prove to be really advantageous and after a brief stay the posts at Edmonton were re-established: first on the Rossdale Flats again. After the amalgamation of the HBC and North West Companies in 1821, the name Fort Augustus was abandoned and operations were centralized at a renewed Fort Edmonton. Fort Edmonton was selected as the district headquarters for the North Saskatchewan region and it joined Fort Chipewyan as the two largest and most important posts in what would become Alberta. Both posts were administrative centres, warehouse and storage facilities and places where trade and other goods were manufactured by tradesmen. They also retained their trade, transport and provisioning responsibilities - Fort Chipewyan was famous for its fish while Fort Edmonton was a "meat" post. It was the source of much of the pemmican and dried and fresh buffalo meat consumed by fur traders.

Re-enactor at Fort EdmontonShortly after the amalgamation, John Rowand was named Chief Trader in charge of Fort Edmonton and the North Saskatchewan District. Probably no individual is so closely associated with the history of this post as Rowand. He was a remarkable figure: tough, egotistical but an excellent trader and administrator. He was liked by many Aboriginal people, and respected by the rest. Company employees also found him tough and not shy about physical rebukes, but they respected and probably feared him a bit too. Rowand commanded Edmonton until his death in 1854.

In 1825 the Rossdale Flats flooded and again in 1830. This convinced Rowand that he should move his post to higher ground. The new Fort Edmonton was not completed until 1832 and its most imposing feature was the "Big House" or "Rowand's Folly" as some called it. The new location was on what would become the Legislature Grounds in Edmonton - a site the HBC occupied until completion of the Legislature required the final demolition of the last Fort Edmonton buildings just prior to World War I. By the turn of the century however the HBC was really out of the direct fur trade business for the most part in Edmonton and was well on its way to becoming a retail department store chain anyhow, so the end of Fort Edmonton was really a product of a real estate deal with the company selling a prime chunk of downtown land to the new provincial government for the Legislature.

You can get a sense of Fort Edmonton during its glory years under Rowand though by visiting Fort Edmonton Park. What you see there is a pretty faithful reconstruction of the post as maps, paintings, photographs and other documents indicate it appeared in about 1846.

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