Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fur love of history

Trading posts take visitors back to Manitoba's rich past

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WINNIPEG -- The Latin motto of the Hudson's Bay Co.says it all. "Pro Pelle Cutem," roughly "A Skin for a Skin."

It was on the backs of Canada's fur-bearing animals a nation was created, the west was opened and the rich history of that past is still visible in stone and wood in many parts of Manitoba.

"The fur trade was what it was all about here in the early history of the West," says Manitoba historian Jack Bumsted, whose books include Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada.

That book tells of the fight for fur between the North West Company, with its French-Canadian roots, and the British Hudson's Bay Co., which had what it viewed as legal title to much of Western Canada.

"It was not an internationally huge trade, but it was what kept this part of the world humming until at least the first half of the 19th century."

The trade led to permanent settlement and the construction of trading posts and forts, where aboriginal inhabitants of the region would exchange their furs for tools, blankets and other items.

These bastions of commerce stretched north to Prince of Wales Fort, near present-day Churchill on the shore of Hudson Bay, and south to the last remaining gate of Upper Fort Garry in downtown Winnipeg, or even farther south to border-hugging Pembina, N.D. (thought to be in Canada until 1823).

Some are perfectly preserved, others have been rebuilt and run as parks. Some have been recreated as tourist attractions and some, like Upper Fort Garry, are but shadows of their former selves or live on in name only.

But they and other sites in Manitoba tell a story of what life was like when it took months of backbreaking labour to travel rivers and lakes by canoe or York boat and take furs to market in Montreal or London.

Bumsted admits he has visited very few.

"I haven't seen the one I really want to see, which is York Factory, because it's almost impossible to get to. It really is unfortunate, because it is probably the most important one surviving."

For those interested in adding a little fur-trade history to a trip around the province, here are some attractions, starting with those that are relatively easy to see:

Fort Garry

Later known as Upper Fort Garry to distinguish it from Lower Fort Garry 32 kilometres north, it was the HBC replacement for Fort Gibraltar, outpost of the rival Northwest Company. Built in 1822 and rebuilt after the flood of 1826, it sits somewhere near the site of Fort Rouge, one of the French forts built in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario by explorer La Verendrye in the 1730s. A casualty of urban development in the 1880s, all that remains of Fort Garry is the north gate, located in a tiny park on Main Street in Winnipeg near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. It isn't much to look at now, but there are plans to expand and spruce up the area in 2011.

Lower Fort Garry

About a half-hour north of Winnipeg, on the west bank of the Red River, Lower Fort Garry is a restored National Historic Site that brings history to life each summer with costumed re-enactments. Parks Canada says it's the oldest surviving stone fur-trading post in North America. Treaty No. 1 was signed there between the Crown, Ojibwa and Swampy Cree. It was built on higher ground after Upper Fort Garry flooded, but the "location, location, location" rule kicked in and it never supplanted its southern cousin.

Fort Gibraltar

A major site for activities during Festival du Voyageur, Winnipeg's annual celebration of all things winter with a distinct fur-trade theme. Fort Gibraltar is a reconstruction of an early 19th-century log fort and likely not far from where its namesake actually stood 200 years ago. It also features costumed re-enactments during July and August. It's located at 866 St. Joseph St.

Fort la Reine

Built at or near present-day Portage la Prairie, like all the wooden structures built almost 300 years ago by or for La Verendrye, it no longer exists. But the name lives on in the city's Fort La Reine Museum. Portage is located about 45 minutes west of Winnipeg along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Getting harder, but still doable

Prince of Wales Fort

The most northern surviving fort of the HBC empire in Manitoba is the descendant of Arctic outposts that date back to the creation of the Company of Adventurers in 1670. The fort dates back to 1731. Impressive stone walls lined with cannon failed to prevent it from being captured and partially destroyed by the French in 1782. It's a National Historic Site and easy to visit from nearby Churchill, but tours are offered only in July and August.

Fort Alexander

The last name of several outposts built on the Winnipeg River, it is still the home of the Sagkeeng First Nation, also known as the Fort Alexander First Nation. There is a model of the old fort at the Sagkeeng Cultural Centre Museum. The community is adjacent to Pine Falls, about 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Norway House

Although it moved around a little, the former HBC outpost on the Nelson River at the top of Lake Winnipeg has been where it is now since about 1826. The largely First Nations' community of almost 5,000 is 456 kilometres by air north of Winnipeg, but it's almost twice that if you drive. In the first week of August, the Norway House Cree Nation hosts Treaty & York Boat Days to honour their history. Like the birchbark canoe, the sturdy York boat was a mainstay of the fur trade.

Diehard history buffs only

York Factory

Like Bumsted, few people will ever see what remains of what was likely the most important outpost of the Hudson's Bay Co. Located near where the Hayes River empties into Hudson Bay, about 250 kilometres southeast of Churchill, the first York Factory dates back to 1684. The one that exists today is the final version of the third York Factory built in the area starting in 1788. It closed in 1957. It's a National Historic Site, but the depot and outbuilding that remain are more archeological than tourist attraction because of their remote location.

Fur-trade connections

Festival du Voyageur

This year it takes place Feb. 18-27. Founded in 1969, it's now a 10-day event that includes snow sculpting, plenty of parties and lots of costumed traditional activities. It takes place at various locations in St. Boniface, Winnipeg's historic French quarter on the east side of the Red River.

Battle of Seven Oaks

What was essentially a bloody food fight took place in 1816 near what is now the corner of Main Street and Rupertsland Boulevard in Winnipeg. A band of Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant, took back a supply of their pemmican stolen by or for the HBC, intending to sell it to traders of the North West Company. They were met by Red River settlers led by colony Gov. Robert Semple and in a gunfight Semple and 20 settlers were killed. Only one of Grant's men died. A cairn and plaque marks the spot.

Riel House

Although not directly linked to the fur trade himself, Métis leader Louis Riel was a descendent of the French and Indian liaisons the trade produced, and it was at Upper Fort Garry he based his provisional government in 1869. His family home, where his body lay in state in 1885 after his execution, is preserved in Winnipeg at 330 River Rd.

-- The Canadian Press


For more information: Most of the fur-trade sites in Manitoba have some sort of historic designation. Many are listed on the National Historic Sites website:

Fort la Reine Museum:

Fort Gibralter:

Other things to do in Churchill: polar bear excursions, whale watching; and

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2011 E4

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