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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 6

A History of Rocky Mountain House

by Hugh A. Dempsey

Acton House, 1799-1821, and Rocky Mountain House, 1799-1834

When Rocky Mountain House and Acton House were built in 1799, they marked the climax of two decades of frantic fort building and competition by the North West and Hudson's Bay companies along the North Saskatchewan River. When the North West Company ventured onto the river with Cedar Lake Post, Cumberland House and Isaac's House in the early 1770s, the Hudson's Bay Company was not far behind. The race up the river reached Alberta in 1792 with the building of Fort George (North West Company) and Buckingham House (Hudson's Bay Company) by the two companies near the present town of Elk Point. Three years later, Fort Augustus (North West Company) and Edmonton House (Hudson's Bay Company) were built by the two companies near the mouth of the Sturgeon River, east of the present city of Edmonton.

The Edmonton posts marked the most westerly point of penetration during the mid-1790s, but the traders knew of the great Rocky Mountain barrier which stood in their path. As early as 1790, North West Company trader Peter Pangman had explored the North Saskatchewan River to a point five miles above the mouth of the Clearwater and had carved his initials in a tree at that point.

The transmountain Indians also knew of the traders, for they had met Hudson's Bay Company explorer Peter Fidler with a party of Peigans near Crowsnest Pass in 1792.1 But the Blackfoot tribes, who were selling European goods to the Kootenays for huge profits, would not permit those Indians to visit the forts. In 1795, Duncan McGillivray observed at Fort George that the Kootenays "are determined to force their way this year to the Fort or perish in the attempt....The Coutonées have already made several attempts to visit us, but they have been always obstructed by their enemies and forced to relinquish their design with loss."2

The 1795 attempt was not successful, but in the spring of 1798, two Kootenays managed to visit Edmonton House with some friendly Peigans. "These have not brought any furs of any kind," reported the factor, "but by their account their Country abounds with all kinds, but far off."3 During this period the North West Company was also aware of the potential Kootenay trade for, as a Hudson's Bay Company trader noted wryly, "Beaver are said to be numerous in the Country of the Cotta na ha's & nothin will prevent the Canadians [North West Company] getting part of them.4

1 Peigan Indians at Rocky Mountain House, 1 November 1871.
(Public Archives of Canada.)

After the visit of the Kootenays, the Nor'Westers decided to build a fort near the mountains so the transmountain tribes would not have far to travel through enemy lands. Early in June, 1799, a canoe with six Nor'Westers left Fort Augustus and went upstream to build the fort, but were turned back by a band of "Southerd" (Cree) Indians who were opposed to the venturer.5 A second attempt in early summer was also unsuccessful but in September, 1799, after the annual supply of trade goods had arrived, John McDonald of Garth sent a larger North West Company party upstream from Augustus to build the fort.6 As soon as the Hudson's Bay Company was assured that a site had been chosen, its men were sent out to build an opposition post nearby.

The Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company men travelled together to the site. The Hudson's Bay Company party of nine men and supplies left Edmonton House in a boat and joined the Nor'Wester flotilla, while Hudson's Bay Company chief factor James Bird, with six men, started overland with a group of Nor'Westers on the following day. Bird had already learned that the country was a poor source of food, a problem which was to plague the traders for years to come. "The Indians give us. . .alarming accounts," he wrote, "telling us that it will be impossible for us to subsist."7

On their way to the site, the party met some Peigan Indians who were coming to trade at Edmonton House. When they learned of the proposed fort, they decided to accompany the traders overland to the new location. On 24 September, Bird reported that he "arrived at the side of the Saskatchewan river, rode across and encamped near the place where we intend building."8

When completed a few weeks later, the Hudson's Bay Company post was named Acton House, in honour of James Bird's English home of Acton, in Middlesex County, while the North West Company post was called Rocky Mountain House.9 Both were located in the same general area, on the north side of the North Saskatchewan, a short distance above the mouth of the Clearwater River. Although no precise location or physical description of Acton House has survived, Alexander Henry the Younger provided considerable information about the location of the Nor'Wester post.

While the two forts were under construction, messages were sent to the Kootenays by some friendly Peigans, but not until the autumn of 1800 did the first party of 27 men and 7 women arrive. During the trip they had been harrassed by Peigans who stole their horses and threatened to kill them. David Thompson went to meet them and only with great difficulty did he get them to the forts unharmed where all but one of the Indians went to his more energetic North West Company post.10

Two Nor'Westers were sent back across the mountains to encourage more Kootenays to trade but the experiment was a failure. The only way the Kootenay trade could be had was by building posts on the west side of the mountains. The Hudson's Bay Company was not equipped to do this, so they were content to maintain Acton House for the Peigan trade. The Nor'Westers, on the other hand, began to plan and search for a practical route across the mountains.

In 1800, Duncan McGillivray explored the region to the northwest, reaching Brazeau Lake and the Sunwapta River,11 while later in the same year, Thompson and McGillivray explored the foothills region south to the Highwood River. In June of 1801, Thompson made his first attempt to cross the mountains but his guide led him to an impassable barrier.

In the meantime, trading continued at Rocky Mountain House, with the Peigans and Swampy Ground Stonies being the most frequent customers. In 1801, a party of 26 Kootenays arrived, most of their furs going to the Nor'Westers, but in the same year a young Kootenay was killed by Peigans while en route to the fort.

The years at the turn of the century were ones of keen competition for not only did the two great companies have each other to oppose, but another firm, the XY Company, appeared on the scene. In order to drive the competitor out of business, the two companies built numerous tiny posts "with a view of Distressing the new Companies who are very ill off for able Traders."12 Although a number of references were made in Hudson's Bay Company journals to XY posts above Edmonton House, none appear to have been built as far upstream as Rocky Mountain House.

The Nor'Westers absorbed the XY Company in 1804, but the need for extra posts had diminished long before that date. Acton House and Rocky Mountain House were abandoned in 1802 and were replaced with smaller posts downstream to serve the Stonies.

In 1806, after the costly fight with the XY Company had been won, Thompson received orders to return to the Saskatchewan River and to establish a post on the west side of the Rocky Mountains. When he reached Rocky Mountain House in October, the fort had already been reopened for his benefit. Nearby, Acton House was also open, with John Peter Pruden in charge.

Upon their arrival, Thompson's men were put to work "repairing the House," until the canoes with supplies arrived. When Jacco Finlay, who had gone over the mountains to contact the Kootenays, reported that the trade prospects were poor, Thompson decided to stay at Rocky Mountain House for the winter. While there, his men built a half-bastion over the gate and generally put the post in order.13

During the winter, Acton House also was maintained, although fears were expressed for the safety of the men. In the summer of 1806, a battle had taken place between the Blackfoot and Cree tribes, with the latter "flying in all Quarters to conceal themselves in the woods," and the Blackfoot threatening vengeance.14 A few weeks later, the traders at Edmonton House had the mortification to hear of fresh massacres among the Indians and even that an attack on Acton House is threatened."15 But no attack came, and by spring, 1807, most of the Peigans had taken their trade to Acton and Rocky Mountain House. They were often in an ugly mood and at Acton House, "Mr. Pruden was under the necessity of Trading articles from them of little value and paying them better than he would have done under other circumstances."16

After Thompson set out to build Kootenae House across the mountains in 1807, Rocky Mountain House again was abandoned. It had served its purpose as a base for exploration but with the traders successfully established across the mountains, it was no longer needed. Acton House was closed at the same time and the traders moved downstream to build small posts for the Stonies. Not until 1810, when it was again needed to help retain the transmountain trade, was Rocky Mountain House reopened.

The posts in Kootenay country proved to be good sources of revenue for the North West Company, but they also placed guns in the hands of the plateau tribes. These Indians, once at the mercy of the Blackfoot, now offered resistance and, in one battle alone, 16 Peigans were killed.17 In anger, the Peigans told the traders not to supply their enemies with any more arms or ammunition.

As the only known route across the mountains was up the North Saskatchewan through Peigan territory and over Howse Pass, Rocky Mountain House suddenly became a vital spot on the river. In desperation, the Nor'Westers reopened it in 1810, ostensibly to mollify the Peigans, but actually to provide an excuse for taking supplies so far upstream. However, when the first canoes tried to pass above the forts, they were stopped by Indians. Alexander Henry took charge of Rocky Mountain House and, after a number of ruses and crises, he finally saw Thompson off across the mountains on a more northerly route that skirted Peigan territory. Thompson discovered the Athabasca Pass and from that time the upper Saskatchewan was avoided on the transmountain route. Any significance which Rocky Mountain House had held as a link in the route to the Pacific Ocean was gone. Henceforth its history was confined to the Indian trade of the plains and foothills.

Henry remained at the fort during the winter of 1810-11, while Acton House was reopened by William Flett. The two forts probably remained in use until the autumn of 1813 so the North West Company could maintain friendly relations with the Peigans. These Indians had shown a preference for Acton and Rocky Mountain House so the traders kept them open, even though they were expensive to maintain.

By 1813, however, the transmountain trade had become well established and the danger of Peigan aggression had abated. Accordingly, the buildings were abandoned at the end of the 1812-13 season and remained closed for five years. Then in October, 1818, the factor of Edmonton House stated that "Part of the people [are] preparing to set out tomorrow for the purpose of reestablishing Acton House, usually called the Mountain House, which was abandoned in 1813 on account of it being found that the Muddy River [Peigan] Indian trade could be much cheaper procured at this place. . . .I am now obliged to establish it in consequence of the NWCo so doing."18 The move was prompted by the failure of Dog Rump Creek House, located downstream from Edmonton, to attract the Peigan trade. That post had been built in 1817, but hostilities between the Assiniboines and Peigans had driven the latter tribe westward. Edmonton House was too far inside Cree territory, so the traders had to give the Peigans their favourite posts near the mouth of the Clearwater19

For the next three years the forts were maintained throughout the year and when an attempt was made by the Hudson's Bay Company to close their post in the spring of 1820, the Peigans threatened to take their furs across the mountains to the Nor'Westers.20

In 1821, the North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company amalgamated under the name of the latter firm. When the news reached Edmonton House in October, John Rowand, a former Nor'Wester, was placed in charge of Rocky Mountain House. His crew, 11 Hudson's Bay Company men and 27 former North West Company employees, was probably the largest ever seen at the fort, as the new company had a temporary surplus of men. The amalgamation also meant that wherever two forts existed, one now could be abandoned. In such areas as the Peace and Athabasca rivers, the Nor'Westers had dominated and their larger posts were retained. Along the Saskatchewan River, however, Edmonton House was kept and the Nor'Westers' Fort Augustus was closed, while downstream the Hudson's Bay Company's Carleton House was retained and the opposition, La Montée, was closed.21

2 View of Rocky Mountain House from the south side of the Saskatchewan River, September, 1886
(Geological Survey of Canada).

No record was kept to indicate whether Acton or Rocky Mountain House was retained, but evidence would tend to support the latter post. John Rowand, who was put in charge of the fort, was a Nor'Wester and would probably have chosen his own post. Also, the Nor'Westers had dominated the region, both in exploration and trade, and probably had a better fort. And finally, the name Rocky Mountain House was retained, and never again does Acton House appear on the records. While it is true that Hudson's Bay Company traders used the terms "Acton House" and "Rocky Mountain House" for their fort before 1821, some of the traditionalists would surely have used the name "Acton House" after 1821 if that structure had been retained.

Immediately after the amalgamation, Rocky Mountain House was kept open to serve the Peigan Indians, but because the new company no longer had any competition, it soon began to abandon its expensive outposts. In the spring of 1823, the traders decided to close Rocky Mountain House and the Peigans were told to go to Edmonton House. The closure angered the Peigans and John Rowand wrote that they regret exceedingly that the Mountain House is abandoned, as the distance from their general hunting grounds is too great to come this length [to Edmonton House], as well as being afraid to fall in with the Stone Indians on their way hither.22

Within a short time, however, the situation again had changed. Americans were trading in the Snake River region of Idaho and a number of Peigans began taking their furs south. Alarmed, the British traders took quick action. "We have this season," reported Rowand in July, 1827, "permanently established the Rocky Mountain House for the accommodation of the Peigan, which will have the effect of drawing them during the winter from the Flathead lands and there by keep them out of the way of the American Trappers."23

The post was partially successful in bringing the Peigans back to the British, so it was kept up for several years. By this time, trading began to follow a regular pattern, with the Peigans visiting the fort only during the winter, when the furs and robes were prime. There was no need to keep the fort open during the summer, so it was generally opened in September and closed in May. For this reason it was seldom in good condition and was constantly being repaired. For example, when Henry Fisher and his men wintered there in 1828-29 and 1829-30, their main activities were food gathering, trading, and repairing the fort. During the two seasons they installed new palisades, put new floors in the houses, repaired the bastions, mudded the houses, repaired the roofs and chimneys, and made a new gate and doors.24

As long as the Hudson's Bay Company retained the Peigan trade, the future of Rocky Mountain House seemed secure. However, events along the Missouri River soon created a new crisis for the British traders. The Americans had made several unsuccessful attempts to invade the valuable beaver country in Montana, but the killing of a Peigan Indian by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806 had made enemies of any visitors from the south. By 1830, the American Fur Company had penetrated as far as the edge of Peigan territory where it built Fort Union and tried again to get the Peigan trade. The company engaged an ex-Hudson's Bay Company employee named Jacques Berger who finally brought some friendly Peigans to Fort Union on the Upper Missouri River. In the following year, the Americans were able to build Fort Peigan further upstream within the heart of Peigan territory.

The effect of this move upon the Hudson's Bay Company was immediate and disastrous, for the Peigans were known as "the beaver hunters of their nation [Blackfoot]."25 A British expedition was sent out in June, 1832, to persuade the Peigans to come back to the Hudson's Bay Company and at the same time, plans were made to build a fort for them further south. In that year the Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land ordered the traders "to abandon that Post [Rocky Mountain House] and to establish a new Post to be called the Peigan Post on the borders of the 49th Parallel of Latitude."26

A site was chosen on the Bow River, west of the present village of Morley, and the fort was built in the summer of 1832. There it enjoyed a brief but precarious existence until January, 1834, when it was abandoned by J.E. Harriott in favour of Rocky Mountain House. Its failure had been due partly to its exposed position on the prairies, and to the jealousy of the Blood Indians who, although a part of the Blackfoot nation, were obliged to trade at Edmonton House. The tribe prevented the Peigans from visiting the fort and several times threatened to destroy.27

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