Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 6
by Hugh A. Dempsey
Rocky Mountain House, on the upper waters of the North Saskatchewan River, had a varied and colourful history. Located approximately 50 miles west of the modern city of Red Deer, Alberta, and about 3 miles from the town of Rocky Mountain House, it served the fur trade in several ways. While primarily a fur-trading post, it was not just a local establishment to serve the Indians in the area; rather it was a link with the unknown lands to the west and with the unwelcome prairies to the south.
Rocky Mountain House and its neighbor, Acton House, were built originally to reap the hoped for harvest of furs from the great unexplored lands across the mountains. Rather than trying to penetrate the Rockies, the traders hoped to persuade the Indians to come to them. It was a sensible plan, but it failed. Although the name "Rocky Mountain House" implies a close association with the mountains, the fort was actually located in a desolate muskeg area about 50 miles from the Rockies. Any mountain Indians who came to trade had to pass through the country of jealous Peigan and Assiniboine warriors.
When the plan failed, Rocky Mountain House was closed. This, however, was not the end; it was only the beginning. For the next 75 years the fort was opened when it had another role to play in western history, and was abandoned whenever it had served its immediate purpose.
In all likelihood, the great trading companies never really wanted Rocky Mountain House. It was in an uninviting location, food was scarce, famine was common, and the heavily fortified structure was expensive to maintain. Yet maintain it they did, for the Blackfoot tribes wanted Rocky Mountain House and they often got what they wanted.
In a way, the Blackfoot discovered the fort before it was actually built. A band of Peigans (part of the Blackfoot nation) met a combined party of Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company men who were on their way to build the posts in 1799 and accompanied them to the site. The Indians immediately liked the post, for it was close to their hunting grounds and far from the troublesome enemies that frequented the posts farther downstream.
When the mountain Indians failed to arrive, Rocky Mountain House was abandoned in 1802, but was opened four years later when David Thompson needed it as a depot while establishing posts across the mountains. Again the Blackfoot tribes came to trade, but again it was abandoned about 1807, after Thompson's work was done.
Then, with a regularity which became almost a trademark, it was reopened in 1810 when the Peigans threatened to stop the transmountain trade which was placing guns in the hands of their enemies. As an excuse for taking their boats to the upper waters of the Saskatchewan, and to appease the unruly Peigans, the traders gave back to them their favorite post. But not for long.
By 1813, the Peigans were back to normal and a more northerly route over the mountains had been found, so Rocky Mountain House again said farewell to its isolated traders and its wild customers. Again, however, the closure was not permanent, for the traders soon learned that by sending the Blackfoot tribes farther east, they drove them into the hands of their mortal enemies, the Assiniboines. The whole prairie region was rocked by the strife until finally the Blackfoot refused to go in to trade. While their dried meat might not be valuable, it was needed to provision the more northerly posts, so in 1818, Rocky Mountain House was back in business.
During all these turbulent years, the Hudson's Bay Company's Acton House and the North West Company's Rocky Mountain House were opening and closing their posts together. Not until 1821, when the two great companies amalgamated, did Rocky Mountain House become a solitary structure in the wilderness. But now the Hudson's Bay Company had no competition and, with the Assiniboine Indians moving eastward into Saskatchewan, the trader decided to economize and closed the fort again in 1823.
Then a new situation arose a problem which was to plague the British company for the rest of its years of association with the Blackfoot. A few Americans were moving in from the south and, while they found the Blackfoot tribes to be hostile, their furs and robes were good. In 1827, these men began to trade with the Blackfoot in the Snake River Country of Idaho, so the Hudson's Bay Company was forced to reopen Rocky Mountain House to keep their customers. From that time on, the Blackfoot Indians constantly pitted British against American for their business and never again could the Hudson's Bay Company be assured of their trade.
The Americans also were the cause of Rocky Mountain House's next closure in 1832, but this time the purpose was to get closer to the Blackfoot, not to drive them away. In the previous year the American Fur Company had built a fort in Peigan territory on the upper Missouri River. In an attempt to compete, the Hudson's Bay Company made its first incursion into the forbidding plains of southern Alberta. Rocky Mountain House was closed and Peagan Post, or Old Bow Fort, was built on the Bow River, west of Calgary.
The Blackfoot soon made it clear that they wanted the white man's trade goods but they did not particularly want him. Peagan Post survived a couple of hectic years, but by January, 1834, it was evident that the traders were not welcome, so they retreated to the muskegs of Rocky Mountain House. There they built an entirely new fort a short distance from the old one and began the longest period of regular residence in their checkered history. Except for the winter of 1847-48, the fort was occupied every trading season until 1861. When it closed at the end of that year, it did so because of the hostility of the Blackfoot, many of whom were well armed with American weapons.
The fortunes of the Blackfoot soon changed, however, for the gold rush in Montana drove them north and in 1864, Rocky Mountain House was again opened to accommodate them. By then the fort was in such dilapidated condition, it could not provide adequate protection from the increasingly hostile tribes. As a result, a new structure was built in 1866.
But the day of glory was almost at an end. The buffalo were becoming scarce, free traders and whiskey pedlars were pouring into Blackfoot country and the Hudson's Bay Company lost its exclusive trading rights when Canada took over the territory in 1870. Finally, in 1874, the Hudson's Bay Company moved back to the Bow River and, in the following year, Rocky Mountain House was abandoned for the last time.
Situated as it was on the edge of the plains, the fort served a vast area that extended well into Montana. Although it was usually kept open only in the winter months as an outpost of Edmonton House, its importance cannot be underrated. Its role in opening up the transmountain trade may have been brief, but it was important. It was the Blackfoot trade which gave the fort its lasting place in history, however. As a link in the network of posts that established British domination over the western territory, it served as a block against American penetration. From the days of the Snake River trappers in the 1820s, the fort provided keen competition and kept many of the Blackfoot under British influence. Had there been no Rocky Mountain House, most of the trade would have gone to the Americans instead of to the British posts downstream in enemy-infested territories.
Rocky Mountain House was ideally situated on the edge of the Blackfoot hunting grounds, but away from the open prairie where it would have been exposed to the turbulence of the warlike tribes. Peagan Post failed because it was too close to the Blackfoot; Rocky Mountain House succeeded because it was close, but not too close. Seldom, if ever, was it subjected to an open mass attack and never was it destroyed while abandoned in the summer. Tucked away in its relatively uninviting location, it was provided with natural defences which enabled it to survive three-quarters of a century of trade with one of the most warlike tribes on the northern plains.