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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

Rocky Mountain House, 1866-75

The actual work of constructing the new Rocky Mountain House took place during the summer of 1866, with Paquet and McCleod in charge of the crews. The palisades and gates were in place by May; the factor's house was roofed by June, and work was continued on the men's houses, the Indian house and the interpreter's house throughout July. In August, a shortage of food forced a curtailment of building operations while everyone searched for food. The entry for 24 August, "hard work to keep ourselves alive,"1 was typical of the month. In the autumn, supplies were received from Edmonton, and the building work was resumed. By November, much of the fort was erected and the men were engaged in gathering stones for the chimneys.

The new Rocky Mountain House was an imposing structure with high palisades and bastions at each corner. The front gates faced upon the river while the two-storey factor's house was located against the back wall. Flanking the square on both sides were long structures housing the men's quarters, trading room and storage rooms. Scattered through the compound were the blacksmith's shop and other small buildings, while adjoining it to the southwest was an enclosure for the garden.

This fort was located "about fifty chains [1,100 yards] downstream from the old one"2 and was about a mile above the mouth of the Clearwater.

This was the Rocky Mountain House which became famous in the 20th century when the chimneys from the chief factor's house were preserved as a historic landmark. Over the years a romantic aura developed around this site and many local people believed it to be the only fort site in the area. The tradition was accepted that this was the fort used by David Thompson during his explorations, and was visited by Paul Kane and Captain Palliser. Even the cairn and plaque placed at the site in 1927 by the federal government implied that this was the "original" Rocky Mountain House. The plaque stated that "David Thompson wintered here in 1800-01, 1801-02, 1806-07, and from here he set out in 1807 for the discovery of the Columbia River." A plaque giving more accurate information replaced the old one in 1967. In actual fact, this particular fort was in active use for less than a decade during the dying years of the fur trade.

These years were colourful ones, though, for the turbulent Blackfoot still brought some of their robes and meat to the fort. During this period, the population of Indians trading at Rocky Mountain House was estimated to be 300 lodges of Blackfoot, 300 of Bloods, 40 of Peigans, 30 of Sarcees, and 109 of Stonies.3

Campbell Munroe, who lived at Rocky Mountain House during this period, described a typical trading scene.

The Blackfeet came to the Fort twice a year. They sent two men ahead to let the people at the Fort know that they were coming. On this particular occasion, a Blackfoot named Hind Bull and a Blood named Medicine Owl were the messengers who came a day early to tell the traders that the Bloods, Blackfoot and Peigans were coming. Their chiefs were Rainy Chief of the Bloods, Crowfoot of the Blackfoot, and Morning Plume of the Peigans.

There were four or five families of the Stony Indians camped near the Fort. John Munroe and the others hid [them] in the basement of the Fort. On the next day the Blackfeet came, the three chiefs rode ahead; there were thousands of them.

John Bunn and John Munroe met the chiefs. The first thing that was asked of the chiefs is to provide four mad-dogs. The mad-dogs were Indians sworn to protect the Fort. Four were picked out by Crowfoot. They had war-clubs and circled the outside of the Fort night and day. The other Indians were asked to camp away from the walls of the Fort, about fifty yards away. . . .

The chiefs were taken inside and treated with tobacco and other presents. All the gates were shut and locked, only one narrow door was used to let the traders go in and out. The door was so narrow that only one person could pass side ways.... The Hudson Bay men would present the chiefs with rope tobacco and carrot tobacco; it was considered a great honor for any Blackfoot to receive this carrot tobacco. The chiefs would also receive hats with two plumes each, one at the back and one in the front.

Trading was carried on for three days; when it was over the mad-dogs escorted the Indians across the River. Then the chiefs departed from the Fort, leaving behind their best horses as presents to the Hudson Bay men.4

At other times small groups of Blackfoot came to trade and were allowed inside the fort. Some were also permitted to stay overnight in the Indian hall.

Details of trading activities inside the fort also were provided by William Butler, who visited Rocky Mountain House in 1870.

Within the fort all the preparations have been completed, communications cut off between the Indian room and the rest of the buildings; guns placed up in the loft overhead; and men all get ready for any thing that might turn up; then the outer gate is thrown open; and a large throng enters the Indian room.

Three or four of the first-comers are now admitted through a narrow passage into the trading-shop, from the shelves of which most of the blankets, red cloth, and beads have been removed. . . . The first Indians admitted hand in their peltries through a wooden grating; and receive in exchange so many blankets, beads, or strouds. Out they go to the large hall where their comrades are anxiously awaiting their turn, and in rush another batch, and the doors are locked again. . . . So the trade progresses, until at last all the peltries and provisions have changed hands, and there is nothing more to be traded.5

The first person to record visiting the new fort after its completion was the Reverend John McDougall. He arrived there in February, 1869, and found Chief Trader James Hackland in charge. He observed that the fort "had been thoroughly rebuilt, and was now a large place in regular fort style, with stockade, bastions and citadel."6

At this time the trade was brisk, largely because of the number of skirmishes between the Blackfoot and Americans in Montana. As a result, the factor at Edmonton House was able to report on 5 December 1869 that "A great many Indians had been in on a Trade at the R[ocky] Mo[untain] House. Most of the American Indians being at war on the other side, come to this side to trade. Trade pretty good, but very expensive, Indians troublesome & great beggars."7

But even the trade on the North Saskatchewan was no longer exclusively that of the Hudson's Bay Company, for free traders were beginning to come in from Red River. It was common knowledge that negotiations were under way for the transfer of the western territories from the jurisdiction of the Hudson's Bay Company to that of the Canadian government. This left the Hudson's Bay Company without its legal powers to control the trade, and freemen from Red River colony were quick to take advantage of the situation.

In the fall of 1869, a small trading party led by two Red River men settled near Edmonton House with a supply of goods. In February, 1870, Thomas Bird and James Gibbons bought them out and took three dog teams of goods to Rocky Mountain House. "My goods were rum, powder, shot, and some dry goods and trinkets," recalled Gibbons.8 When they arrived at the Hudson's Bay Company fort they were refused admittance, but the rum provided them with a means of approaching a smallpox-ridden Blackfoot camp in the area. By the time they finished trading, they had obtained 108 buffalo robes and 9 horses for one keg of rum.

This was a prelude to the kind of trading tactics which the Blackfoot could expect, for Americans were also beginning to take advantage of the weak legal position of the Hudson's Bay Company. In December, 1869, a small party of Montana traders led by Alfred Hamilton and John Healy penetrated the heart of the Blackfoot hunting grounds in southern Alberta and built Fort Whoop-Up near the present city of Lethbridge. As whiskey was an important item of trade, they soon cut into the volume of rum-free trade carried on at Rocky Mountain House.

In February, 1870, Father Lacombe paid a return visit to Rocky Mountain House and then came again in November to spend the winter. On the latter trip he was accompanied by Father Constantine Scollen, and the two men spent fruitful weeks collecting and revising notes for a Cree grammar and dictionary.9 While the priests were there, Captain William Butler arrived for a brief visit. Butler noted that the fort "is perhaps the most singular specimen of an Indian trading post to be found in the wide territory of the Hudson's Bay Company. Every precaution known to the traders has been put in force to prevent the possibility of surprise during 'a trade'. Bars and bolts and places to fire down at the Indians who are trading abound in every direction; so dreaded is the name borne by the Blackfeet, that it is thus their trading post has been constructed."10

The warlike reputation of the Blackfoot figured prominently in a number of deputations given in Montana in 1870 during an investigation of horse-stealing activities. According to a prospector, John Newbert he was at Rocky Mountain House in 1869 when a party of Blackfoot brought in horses bearing Montana and United States military brands. "I also saw an Indian, a Blackfoot," he swore, "who bragged that he had killed twelve white men. . . . The Indians invariably stated and bragged to me that they had stolen [horses] from U.S. citizens."11

The statement of Newbert, as well as those of other miners who had visited Rocky Mountain House, soon created an international issue that was the subject of correspondence between the United States, Great Britain and Canada. The Americans claimed that Rocky Mountain House was a source of ammunition for the Blackfoot tribes and was a centre for trading off horses stolen in the United States. The Hudson's Bay Company, on the other hand, claimed that American weapons had turned the Blackfoot into dangerous customers. "Every other Blackfoot who trades at the Rocky Mountain House now has a revolver in his belt," stated Christie, "and in our trade with them our Lives are often in great danger. They generally visit our Fort in large bands, and are very troublesome."12 He also added that Hackland, the clerk, "would not encourage or ask these Indians to bring American horses to him, or trade them knowing them to be the property of the American Government or American Citizens."13 Then he concluded with the innocent comment that "Rocky Mountain House was established for the benefit of the Assiniboine or Stone Indians, peaceable and harmless Indians, who hunt along the mountains, also with the view to keep the Blackfeet away from Edmonton House (the Head Quarters of the Saskatchewan District)."14

By early in 1872, John Bunn was in charge of Rocky Mountain House and although some Blackfoot parties came in, the trade was not brisk. His returns for the 1871-72 season included only 437 buffalo robes, 490 beaver, 95 marten, 70 bear, and lesser numbers of other skins.15 Much of this trade had come from the local Stony Indians while the Americans, who were operating illicit forts on the Belly, Highwood and Bow rivers, were cornering most of the Blackfoot trade.

In an effort to get more business, the Company kept Rocky Mountain House open throughout 1872, but by August, Bunn reported that "no Indians have been in worth talking about all Summer, so that the folks up here have had nothing to do but to eat up the fruits of last year's trade."16

By this time, the lawlessness accompanying the illicit trade in southern Alberta had reached government circles in Ottawa. Accordingly, Colonel P. Robertson-Ross, Adjutant-General of the Militia of Canada, was sent out to study the need for military protection. He arrived at Rocky Mountain House in September, 1872, just as a few Blackfoot parties were beginning to arrive. A French Canadian named Jean l'Heureux who lived with these Indians had prepared a map and census of the tribes and this was shown to the government official.17 This l'Heureux was the same man who, a year later, made a remarkable drawing of Rocky Mountain House. Authenticated by the results of the 1966 archaeological excavation, the sketch shows the precise location of buildings, as well as activities around the fort. L'Heureux gave the drawing to Sir Sanford Fleming, a Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor, in 1874, and it eventually was deposited in a library in Pittsburg.18

Robertson-Ross obtained some useful information at the fort, including the location of American whiskey forts on Canadian soil. Largely on the basis of the colonels findings, the North-West Mounted Police was formed a year later.

Rocky Mountain House was open during the winter of 1872-73, but the new clerk in charge, John Sinclair, felt it was a losing business. He became exasperated with the local Stony tribes and thought they were "the damest of Indians ever I came across. The Mountain Fort is just kept up to feed the Stonies with."19 He observed that there were "Americans within two days Ride from this place with Licquor, so I think their will be no trade at all at this place."20 He concluded his report with an appeal for books "to pass away dull times, for this place was not meant for me, its only fit for an Animal. It appears that the Indians wants this place to be shifted to the Porcupine Tail21 or some place at the Red Deers River."22

As the winter progressed, his predictions were confirmed and by the end of 1872, only 242 buffalo robes had been traded from the Blackfoot; of these, 52 had to be given away to destitute Stony Indians. The remainder of the half-yearly trade was equally as bad, with only 382 beaver, 72 bear and 26 marten being obtained.23

The west had been changing rapidly since it had been taken over by the Canadian government in 1870. Under a provision of the transfer agreement, even the Hudson's Bay Company's legal claims to its trading posts had to be established. Accordingly, in January, 1873, a surveyor named W.S. Gore arrived to measure the Rocky Mountain House claims. His survey included "500 acres fronting on the North bank of the Saskatchewan River, valueless for farming purposes, being a mossy swamp covered with Spruce and Tamarac. However. . .a few acres surrounding the Fort are good."24

4 Detail of fort from sketch by Jean l'Heureux, 1873
(Photo in Glenbow-Alberta Institute).

He did not show the fort in detail in his plans, but merely indicated a structure about 175 feet square with bastions on each corner and a garden on the southwest side. He commented that the fort "is new and substantially built but there is very little trading done there now, the 'Blackfeet' finding a market nearer their hunting grounds."25

During the remainder of the winter of 1872-73, the trade continued to deteriorate, with even the faithful Stony Indians going to the Americans.26 However, the post was kept open for another summer, with Angus Fraser being left in charge. By fall, he had taken in 248 buffalo robes, 136 beaver, and a few other pelts.27

In September, 1873, Alfred R.C. Selwyn of the Geological Survey of Canada visited the fort and noted that "barley, potatoes, turnips, and onions were being grown successfully."28 He had come overland from Edmonton and in order to reach the fort he had to go about a quarter of a mile above the mouth of the Clearwater River. There he probably used the old crossing which had been associated with the earlier forts.

The trade did not improve during the winter of 1873-74 so, in desperation, John Sinclair led an expedition out to the plains in March, 1874, in search of food and to trade with the Indians. He came back with only 40 buffalo robes and commented that there were "too many free Traders out amongst them and all well supplied with goods & Liquor."29 He also had visited Dave McDougall, brother of the Methodist missionary, who was trading on the Bow River, and noted that he had "no person to oppose him; they have all the trade to themselves."30 Not far away, he met a whiskey trader who had taken 6,000 buffalo robes during the winter.

The diminishing returns, combined with McDougall's proof that the plains were no longer a dangerous territory, sealed the fate of Rocky Mountain House. At a meeting of the Northern Council of the Hudson's Bay Company in July, 1874, a resolution was approved "that in consequence of the Indians having ceased to frequent the country in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountain House, the establishment at that post be reduced to 2 men, for the purpose of looking after it, and that a small supply of goods be furnished them for Trade, in the event of any Indians visiting the fort."31 Angus Fraser was sent back to the fort in the fall while plans were made to re-enter the Bow River country for the first time since the abandonment of Peagan Post in 1834. Early in October, John Bunn was transferred from his post near Victoria Mission and set out for the new Methodist mission station of the Reverend John McDougall near the confluence of the Bow and Ghost rivers. As soon as he had set up a temporary trading camp there, he reported that "A few Blackfeet have been in who report that most of them have gone to Belly river to trade but that a good many intend coming in here."32

At the time Bunn was writing his report, the North-West Mounted Police had marched across the western plains and were building Fort Macleod on the Oldman River. Within a matter of weeks most of the illicit whiskey trade was stopped and any danger of Blackfoot aggression was past.

In the meantime, Fraser continued to maintain Rocky Mountain House during the winter of 1874-75. Shortly after his small supply of trade goods was received in October, 1874, a party of Sarcees arrived with 2,500 pounds of dried meat, 200 pounds of pounded meat, and 78 buffalo robes. He also had promises from the Stony Indians that they would trade with him,33 but by spring, he needed only a small bateau to bring the returns downstream to Edmonton.

By this time, plans for the abandonment of Rocky Mountain House had been completed. During the winter, Hudson's Bay Company Commissioner J.A. Grahame observed that "the Post at the Rocky Mountain House has been a grevous expense to us & as you acknowledge, its Returns are of no importance. If no improvement is exhibited this winter you will at once close it up, endeavouring to find some one you can depend upon to take charge of it. . . . The question of the removal of the Rocky Mountain House Buildings to Fort Pitt has been discussed but I have not yet had your final opinion upon the expense thereby likely to be incurred and have to request you to furnish it by first opportunity."34

In accordance with the commissioner's instructions to find someone to look after the buildings, Hardisty offered to advance food and trade goods to Angus Fraser in the spring of 1875 if he would stay at the fort at his own expense. Fraser accepted and the arrangements were approved by the commissioner "provided you are certain of recovering the advances you have made [and] I presume your agreement with him gives you the control of any Furs he may collect."35

Although Fraser was now a free trader, he reported to Hardisty on the situation there in November, 1875. "Some of the Stonees Broke open one of the Store Windows this summer and stold grease, Robes and leather," he stated. "And they left the window open and the dogs got In and eate up all the grease, Robes, leather and old Harness about the place."36 By this time, the fort was only a pitiful reminder of its glorious past and Fraser sadly observed that "I have three of the old dogs Here, all the rest are stolen or dead."37

A few Stony Indians came to the fort and Fraser succeeded in getting 78 beaver skins, 46 marten, one fisher, 3 lynx, one mink, 8 muskrats, 142 antelope skins, 15 buffalo robes, 26 buffalo skins, 28 moose skins, and 7 bear skins.38

Fraser may have stayed at the fort during the next winter of 1875-76, to act as caretaker while the dismantling of the buildings was being considered; however, by the fall of 1876 he was in charge of a small post on the Ghost River for the Hudson's Bay Company.

The fate of the buildings at Rocky Mountain House cannot be determined from available records. In January, 1876, Hardisty was told that "If the cost of taking down to Fort Pitt one of the Buildings at the Rocky Mountain House would not exceed $200.00, I think it would be advisable to make the attempt, leaving the others for the present."39

Although there is no evidence that any action was taken, the fact that these instructions came from the commissioner makes it seem likely that the building was moved. The only other official mention of the buildings came in June, 1877, when Lawrence Clarke wrote to Hardisty, saying "I am instructed by the Chief Commissioner to ask you to be prepared at the meeting of ensuing Council at Carlton to lay before him an estimate of cost of removing store at Rocky Mountain House and rafting same to Carlton."40 Again, there is no direct evidence to indicate whether the move was ever made.

In the summer of 1882, A.D. Patton and J. Murphy visited Rocky Mountain House and said it was "still in a good state of preservation."41 They also observed that "A large amount of lumber is piled on the bank as if intended for transportation down the river,"42 but did not say that the lumber was actually from the fort itself.

In 1886, J.B. Tyrrell of the Geological Survey of Canada took a photograph of the site; it showed only two bastions, a small cabin and four chimneys still standing. In his report, Tyrrell noted simply that "Rocky Mountain House, the ruins of an old fort of the Hudson's Bay Company, is situated in an alluvial grassy flat bounded on the south and east by the river and on the north and west by dense forests and swamps."43

And so ended Rocky Mountain House. Built when the transmountain country was still unkown and closed during the dying years of the fur trade, it had 76 precarious years of existence. As a Kootenay post it was a failure; as a Blackfoot post it was a success; and as a historic site it figured prominently in many events relating to the development of western Canada.

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