Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

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

A History of Rocky Mountain House

by Hugh A. Dempsey

Rocky Mountain House, 1835-61

When Harriott and his men reached Rocky Mountain House on 20 January, 1834, the structure was "in a very shattered condition,"1 having been abandoned for almost two years. On the following day, the men began "putting in windows and hanging the Doors"2 to make the place habitable, and probably remained there until spring. There was no doubt, however, that a new fort was needed as "the old one is entirely in ruins."3 When the post was reopened in the autumn of 1834, plans for a new structure had been approved and having been fortunate in getting our stock of fresh meat in Jan'y [1835]," reported Harriott, "enabled us to get a good strong Fort erected at a short distance from the old one."4 The work was not completely finished by spring, as the men had to leave the area a month earlier than usual when they were needed at Edmonton House. "We are not allowed any Summer Men," complained Harriott, "tho' two or three would have been highly necessary this Summer to prepare the Fort for next Fall."5

No record was made of the precise location of the new fort, except for Harriott's casual statement that it was a short distance from the abandoned one.

When the new Rocky Mountain House was opened, it began a long period of regular habitation as a winter post. Except for the winter of 1847-48, the fort was occupied each trading season until the spring of 1861. These were not always peaceful years, for the Peigans were troublesome customers. To add to the unrest, the Crees and Stonies began to invade the area in increasing numbers as the Peigans withdrew to the southern part of their hunting grounds. In the autumn of 1835, war parties of Crees and Stonies guarded the trails to Rocky Mountain House and laid in wait for unwary enemies. They attacked a party of Blood horse raiders, robbed a family of freemen, and killed eight Peigans within a short distance of the post. Such activities discouraged the Peigans from trading at the fort, except when they came in large numbers.

When the Peigans did come to trade, they expected special treatment because of the risks, and because they had not gone to the Americans. "One Rascal," commented trader Fisher, "the chief of the band, had the impudence to ask [for] a Chief cloathing for himself and a suit of each for his children, seven in number. . . and was very much displeased on being refused."6

The 1840s marked a new change in the history of Rocky Mountain House when it began to receive outside visitors and travellers. Until that time, only traders, employees and Indians went to the fort and any written accounts were usually limited to post journals and routine letters.

The first visitor was the Reverend Robert T. Rundle, a Methodist missionary, who first saw the fort in February, 1841. He had travelled overland from Edmonton House and on 22 February, he commented, "I reached Rocky Mountain House and was very kindly received by J. E. Harriott, Esq., the gentleman in charge. I found several Indians at the Fort, and, shortly after my arrival, another party arrived from the plains. . . . Their dresses were profusely adorned with beads and gay embroidery, with porcupine quills, and other ornaments."7

Two days later, Rundle saw a large number of Blackfoot and Peigan Indians coming to trade, and observed the ritual they performed. He commented:

The first that came were the Piegans. Before they started from their camp, which was near the Fort, they sang and then sedately marched in order to the Fort; the Chief leading the van, bringing with him a white horse, the head of which was striped with red ochre, as a present to Mr. Harriott. On his appearance. Mr. Harriott went forward to meet him; and when they met a salute was fired by men stationed there for that purpose. The Blackfeet entered much in the same manner, except that there was no singing. At last they all sat doen together in the Indian House.8

Rundle was concerned with the spiritual welfare of the people, so his journals made only limited reference to the fort and its activities. He did indicate the flurry of activity accompanying the few days of Blackfoot trade, but at other times the fort was relatively quiet.

Four years later, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit priest, arrived at the fort while searching for the Blackfoot. He reached "Fort des Montagnes"9 on 4 October 1845, and there met the Reverend Mr. Rundle who was making a regular visit to the fort. In spite of their doctrinal differences the two men got along well, although Rundle observed in wonderment, "To think that I should be in company with a Jesuit Priest near the R. Mtns. in N. America."10 After meeting the Blackfoot, De Smet went on to Edmonton House where he remained for the winter.

The third visitor to the fort during the 1840s was Paul Kane, a travelling artist. He reached the post in April, 1848, and noted that is was "beautifully situated on the banks of the Saskatchewan, in a small prairie, backed by the Rocky Mountains."11 He made only passing reference to the structure, observing that "It is built like most of the other forts, of wood, but with more than ordinary regard to strength."12 His gifted brush produced the only known 19th-century illustration of this fort. Although it occupied only a background place in his painting, Kane showed clearly a well-fortified structure with high palisades and bastions.

James Bird, Junior, or "Jimmy Jock," a son of the founder of Acton House, was in charge at the time of Kane's visit. The artist learned much about the Indians from him and painted portraits of two Stony Indians, but a shortage of food forced him to return to Edmonton House before the big Blackfoot trading parties arrived.

One of the few Hudson's Bay Company employees to write his reminscences about life at the fort was William S. Gladstone, who was at Rocky Mountain House intermittently between 1848 and 1861. Through his notes and the reports of other visitors, a fairly complete picture of life at the fort for that period can be gained.

3 View of Rocky Mountain House, Hudson's Bay Company, sketched by Jean l'Heureux, 1873
(Photo in Glenbow-Alberta Institute).

Engaged in Montreal as a carpenter, the fifteen-year-old Gladstone reached the fort after travelling overland from Edmonton House on a thin horse "that looked like a box of cutlery."13 When the party arrived at Rocky Mountain House, the young carpenter found it to be a most forlorn place."14 It was occupied only during the winter months, and when the party arrived, wild grass was growing three feet high all around it.

In what was probably a routine procedure, the grass was cut and the fort put in order in preparation for the supply boats which were expected in about ten days. A party of Blackfoot Indians got there before the boats, but patiently awaited their arrival. The day after the boats were unloaded, the trading season began.

Gladstone was put to work in the boat yard, helping to build York boats to carry the furs and robes to Edmonton House in the spring. Because of the availability of good timber, the men built more boats than they needed; the remainder was floated down to Edmonton House with the loaded boats and used in the flotilla bound for York Factory.

"It was a monotonous life," Gladstone recalled, "nothing but work, dried meat and sleep. The evenings were very long and I had nothing to read. That was the worst part of life."15

In the late autumn, large bands of Blackfoot began to arrive from the plains. They camped along the Clearwater River or on the flat near the fort, and remained only long enough to make their trade. The main items brought in by these tribes were dried and pounded meat, grease, buffalo robes, leather, wolf skins and horses.16 In turn, they received an assortment of goods ranging from weapons to rings and ornaments.

During this period, goods were valued on the basis of a large, prime beaver skin, or "Made Beaver." By the early 1850s, some of the typical prices paid at Rocky Mountain House were as follows: a horse for 20 Made Beaver (or MB); a good buffalo robe for 2 MB; a dressed hide for 1 MB; a 40-pound parflÍche bag of dried meat for 1 MB; a wolf skin for 1/2 MB; a red fox for 1 MB; a cross fox for 2 MB; a silver or black fox for 5 MB; 100 pounds of grease for 1 MB; fresh meat from half a buffalo cow for 1/2 MB; and eight buffalo tongues for 1 MB.

At the same time some of the prices charged for trade goods were as follows: 1-1/2 feet of roll tobacco for 1 MB; one-fifth of a pound of vermilion paint for 6 MB; a bunch of seed beads or a scalping knife for 1 MB; a small axe for 2 MB; a large axe for 4 MB; ten balls or a quarter pound of gunpowder for 1 MB.17

During this period, rum was still being sold to the Indians. A mixture made of three gallons of rum and forty gallons of water was prepared and a length of black tobacco was added to satisfy "the Indian's love for something that would bite and scratch."18 Gladstone had many opportunities to see the Blackfoot Indians after trading for liquor. "I saw 300 Indians drunk on rum at the same time," he recalled. "It was a wild and woolly sight and made the hair rise on my head."19 During times like these, no employees were allowed to drink and all business was transacted through portholes in the gate.

There is no doubt that the liquor caused many tragedies among the Indians that visited the fort. On one occasion in the winter of 1859-60, the Many Fat Horses band of Bloods with their brother chiefs, Hind Bull and Fish Child, was camped across the river from the fort.

After finishing their trade, Hind Bull became involved in a drunken argument with his son-in-law and when Fish Child tried to intervene he was shot by his fellow chief. But Fish Child in turn shot and killed Hind Bull before he, too, fell dead.20

Gladstone observed at least one battle at the fort. This happened when a band of Blackfoot arrived to trade and found a camp of Stonies about a mile from the post. When the Stonies saw their old enemies from the plains, they prepared to attack. "From the gallery of the fort we could see the battle," said Gladstone, "but it was no bloodier than a French duel. Both sides fought with bows and arrows and guns, and though the fight lasted from noon till dark, not a single warrior was hurt. The guns were harmless old flintlocks that could not send a ball over 75 yards and as the Indians stood about a half a mile from each other, it is no wonder that no one was hurt."21

Usually, the Blackfoot sent messengers ahead for tobacco and to tell the traders that the main party was coming. This was a signal way for any Cree or Stony Indians in the vicinity to leave and as a result, incidents between enemy tribes seldom occurred around the fort.

A change in the daily routine at Rocky Mountain House took place on New Year's Day, when the men were each given a quart of rum and were allowed to hold a dance. For the rest of the time they traded and worked. And, if game was scarce, they starved. When the buffalo herds were near, large hunting parties were sent out; at other times the post hunter constantly searched for smaller game. Usually, though, the fort relied upon the Blackfoot tribes to supply provisions as items of trade.

Sometimes the men were reduced to eating horses, dogs, or any other available food in order to survive. During one such period, Gladstone observed that the men "had killed and eaten 25 dogs for want of other food."22 Later they killed a few of the Company's horses but were reprimanded by the factor who said it was "easier to replace a few men than five dead horses."23

Gladstone's main duty was to help build boats. The ribs were made of roots obtained from a pinery a day's journey downstream, while lumber was probably from timber in the neighbourhood of the fort. In the spring, the six or seven boats commissioned for the season were loaded with furs, robes and dried meat. They were launched at the end of April and the fort was closed for the summer.

"Two of us were sent to dig a hole in which to cache all the articles we intended to leave behind us," said Gladstone. "In this hiding place we stored our cooking utensils, working tools, tobacco and such goods as remained over after the winter's trade."24 The cache was well hidden and sometimes could not be found in the spring. In fact, one year Gladstone accidentally discovered a cache which had been lost some 20 years earlier.

After the fort was closed, the goods destined for Edmonton House were loaded, usually in the form of 100-pound packs. The furs and robes in particular were prepared in this fashion by use of a fur press. (Because of their bulk, furs were placed in a box-like frame, pressed tightly together with weights and lever, and bound into compact, easily portable packs.) During his first season, Gladstone noted that 100 packs of goods were taken from the fort. In the spring of 1855, the trade consisted of 2,500 buffalo robes, several tons of dried meat and grease, more than 300 buffalo tongues, 600 wolf skins, and other furs. About 200 horses taken in trade were sent overland to Edmonton.25

Gladstone's trip down the river to Edmonton House took about six days, with the men spending considerable time in the icy water pushing the boats away from sand bars. From Edmonton the boats continued down the river, picking up returns and boats from other forts until a large flotilla of Saskatchewan River boats was assembled to carry the goods on the first lap of the journey to Britain or other points of destination.

In 1854, Henry Moberly was placed in charge of Rocky Mountain House for one season and he, too, recorded his experiences. Although his descriptions of the fort tend to be inaccurate when compared with later observations by Dr. James Hector, his memory of daily activities was good. He left vivid descriptions of trading expeditions to the Blackfoot camps, and of near starvations when travelling to Edmonton House. On one occasion when returning to Rocky Mountain House, he met "a mob of Blood and Peigan Indians in the midst of a big spree and all the gates locked. It taxed our whole force, when the gates were opened for us, to keep the Indians out, and before I succeeded in getting into the fort my face and hands were plentifully smeared with grease and vermilion acquired through the handshaking I had had to endure from the drunken rascals."26

Three years later, in the autumn of 1857, the Reverend Thomas Woolsey, a Methodist missionary, paid his first visit to the fort. He commented that "judging from present appearances, half-a-dozen able-bodied men might uproot the entire building in a very short time."27 He visited the nearby fur traders cemetery, which was not enclosed, and said it was the biggest one he had ever seen. The graves were scattered over a considerable area and only a few were fenced or marked.

Just as Paul Kane had found the inhabitants to be starving in 1848, so did Woolsey encounter the same situation. Two French Canadians ate two dogs while he was there, and when the post hunters came home with almost nothing, the missionary decided to return to Edmonton. During his ten days at the post he had conducted daily services, baptized nine children, and burned a deck of playing cards.

Later in the 1850s, Rocky Mountain House was visited by members of the Palliser expedition, which was exploring the western prairies on behalf of the British government. Dr. James Hector went there once during the trading season in January, 1858, and again while it was deserted in autumn of the same year, while Captain John Palliser stayed there for part of the winter of 1858-59.

Hector's first visit to the fort enabled him to meet the Blackfoot chiefs on friendly territory so he could tell them about the proposed explorations. He was successful in his mission and as a result, members of the expedition were able to travel safely through Blackfoot territory during their explorations.

In autumn, 1858, Hector again visited the fort while on his way from the mountains to Edmonton House. When he reached the post on 31 September, he discovered that the traders had not yet arrived. "We found it looking very desolate," he commented, "with the courtyards choked with weeds, and all the windows and doors were standing open. We took possession of it for the two nights we were at this place, but did not find it so comfortable as our camp fire."28 By this time, the fort was showing the results of its summer abandonments and was apparently falling to pieces.

Captain Palliser went to the fort in the winter of 1858-59 after making two hunting trips south of Edmonton. "I made an extensive acquaintance among the principal chiefs and leading men of the Blackfeet and Peigans," he stated, "and also hunting with them, sleeping in their tents."29 Unfortunately, he did not publish any notes or observations about the fort itself.

By this time the days of Rocky Mountain House were numbered. Palliser spoke of the terror the halfbreeds had of the Blackfoot and said that the "Hudson's Bay Company have long given up the posts they once held in [Blackfoot Country] as too dangerous to maintain."30 In addition, the Blackfoot trade was being effectively drawn off by Americans on the Missouri River. Gladstone noted that in the winter of 1859-60 the Blackfoot supplied the fort with only enough meat to last until the new year. "After that we got no more for the rest of the winter," he commented, "since the Indians who were camped on the Belly River found it much nearer to go to Fort Benton to trade."31 He also said that regulations prohibiting the sale of liquor had been introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company and "I expect that had something to do with the loss of their custom."32

By the spring of 1861, the situation had become intolerable. The failure of large trading parties to come to the fort meant starvation, while the Blackfoot who did wisit were exceedingly hostile. In addition, the fort was no longer in any condition to provide adequate defence. Finally, in March, 1861, the fort was abandoned, the party reaching Edmonton House on the twenty-eighth. "Two men arrived this afternoon," observed the Edmonton House clerk, "coming ahead of Mr. Brazeau and Party from the Rocky Mountain House who have from starvation been compelled to abandon that establishment. Mr. Brazeau reports the Blackfeet who have always come in large numbers to the Fort armed, brought no provisions or anything else, came apparently only to beg Rum and threatening to kill the people . . . 4 men voluntarily remained at the Rocky Mountain Ho. on this side of it a few miles, to take care of a Cache of 72 pieces, Returns, etc."33

One of the men who stayed behind was William Gladstone; the others were his two assistant boat builders and an American, Thomas Clover. When Brazeau decided to abandon the post, the men built a blockhouse about four miles down stream and cached all the trade goods and supplies in it. When the others left, Gladstone and the trio stayed behind to finish five York boats which were to be used to transport the goods to Edmonton after the spring breakup. The men were on short rations and were limited to one meal a day, but they stayed with the job and on 4 May, the boats were taken downstream to Edmonton.

"The Blackfeet have been un-bearable for the last 3 years or more," concluded the Edmonton House clerk, "always getting worse and worse, destroying our crops, stealing our Horses & doing everything they could to annoy us, in order to provide a quarrel so as to kill us."34

By the summer of 1861, the traders had decided not to reopen Rocky Mountain House in the fall. Most of the Stony Indians were told to trade at Lac Ste. Anne and Fort Assiniboine, while Chief Factor W. J. Christie also proposed "sending a Boat up the River to about 1/2 way to the Rocky Mountain House and to appoint a rendevous for the Stonies, equip them & the Boat return to Edmonton."35

Thomas Clover, the American who had helped close Rocky Mountain House, was one of the first gold prospectors in the area. In the fall of 1860, a small party of miners on their way to British Columbia had prospected the area and had found signs of gold in paying quantities at Rocky Mountain House.36 As a result, a number of prospectors worked through the area during the next few years until they finally concluded that there was no mother lode, only deposits of minute flakes of gold mixed with coarse gravel.

In November, 1862, a prospector, John Atkinson, passed the deserted Rocky Mountain House and found more signs of gold, but he had no quicksilver to separate it from the sand, so he continued on to Edmonton.37 Other men such as Timoleon Love, George Gunn and George Flett also worked the upper waters of the Saskatchewan during the next few years and were probably the only visitors to the fort while it was abandoned.

The gold rush in the west soon affected the Blackfoot Indians, for down on the Missouri River, hundreds of gold seekers began pouring into Montana. As a result, a number of skirmishes took place and game was sometimes hard to find. Also, many of the traders began to ignore their Indian customers and turn to the more profitable gold mining camps with their goods.

As "the Indians find their treatment altered," commented Christie late in 1863, "they will in all probability be driven up this way and trade with us. In this case and for other reasons, it will be absolutely necessary for us to re-establish the Rocky Mountain House . . . . I shall not require any addition to our present complement of men in the District to do so. All that will be required will be a Commissioned Officer, experienced in the Trade, to take charge of the Post."38 But instead of renovating the old post, Christie received instructions to build a new fort and in September, 1864, he reported that "arrangements have been made for the re-establishment of Rocky Mountain House & our trade at that place with the Slave [Blackfoot] Indian tribes ... owing to the number of men required to build a New Fort, it may well be attended by some considerable expense the first year, but in a year or two it will clear all these expenses."39

Richard Hardisty was put in charge of the fort for the winter of 1864-65, although no construction work was started. Instead, the old buildings were probably repaired and reopened. Father Albert Lacombe visited the fort late in 1864,40 and while he was there, a starving party of American prospectors from across the mountains arrived. The men, James Gibbons, Sam Livingstone, Tom Smith and "Big Tex," had lost their horses to Blackfoot raiders and were obliged to spend the winter at the fort.41

Father Lacombe paid a return visit to the fort in late February, 1865, and found the Indians to be suffering from a measles epidemic. This was confirmed by Hardisty, who sent a report to Edmonton telling of the great mortality caused by the disease and found "the Indians to be very hard to deal with & threatening the whites very much," blaming them for the disease and threatening to kill the whites.42

By this time there was an urgent need for a stronger fort, so in February, Christie took steps to get the buildings erected. Two carpenters, Paquet and McCleod, were sent to Rocky Mountain House and after the spring breakup a crew of workmen went from Edmonton to provide extra help.

According to the Reverend John McDougall, "a temporary fort was built in the woods near by,"43 while the men prepared timbers for the new post. His comments, though, that the "temporary fort was built on a low flat near the river [while] the permanent new fort was to be placed on a higher bench"44 suggests that the old fort may merely have been renovated for the occasion. In any case, during his visit to the fort in January, 1866, McDougall observed that Hardisty and his men "were now taking out timber and sawing lumber preparatory to the erection of permanent buildings during the next season."45

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-10-24 To the top
To the top