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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

Identification of Fort Sites

On the basis of existing historical information, there were four trading posts in the Rocky Mountain House area. These included Hudson's Bay Company's Acton House, 1799-1821; North West Company's and later Hudson's Bay Company's Rocky Mountain House No. 1, 1799-1834; Hudson's Bay Company's Rocky Mountain House No. 2, 1835-61, and Hudson's Bay Company's Rocky Mountain House No. 3, 1866-75. This is based upon the premise, although not conclusively proven, that Acton House and not the Nor'Wester post was abandoned in 1821.

At this writing two sites have been excavated and one site tentatively located.

Site No. 1 is on the NE.1/4 of 17-39-7-W5, on the west side of the North Saskatchewan River about three-quarters of a mile above its confluence with the Clearwater. The site is positively identified as Rocky Mountain House No. 3 through the survey of W.S. Gore, the sketch of Jean l'Heureux, and the archaeological investigation of 1966. This site is preserved by the National and Historic Parks Branch of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and contains the famous chimneys of the fort.

Site No. 2 is on the SW.1/4 of 17-39-7-W5, on the west side of the North Saskatchewan River about one and one-half miles above its confluence with the Clearwater. It is in a cultivated field in a flat below the Brierley farmstead, and was excavated by the Glenbow Foundation in 1962-63.

There are conflicting opinions among those involved with the dig as to whether it is the site of Rocky Mountain House No. 1 or Rocky Mountain House No. 2. Unfortunately, there is not yet sufficient historical evidence to make a positive identification, nor is there specific data to rule out either fort. For the purpose of assessment, some of the historical facts relating to both forts are presented.

There are several facts whcih favour fort No. 1 (1799-1834) as being at the site of the Glenbow excavation. First, Thompson and Henry indicated the existence of an overhead bastion, similar to the one found at that site.

Thompson's calculations of a trip to Fort Augustus in 1801 indicate the route N.1W. 1/2 mile, N.41E. 1/3 mile, N.81E. 1/4 mile, N.86E. 1/4 mile, and N.61E. 1/8 mile from the fort to the mouth of the Clearwater River.1 When this route is followed back, it begins on the river about 300 yards northeast of the archaeological site, on the same flat.

Henry mentioned that the fort was one and one-half miles above the mouth of the Clearwater, which is very close to the distance from the archaeological site to that river.

When Henry was trying to smuggle his canoes up-river on 11 October 1810, they passed his fort and had "scarcely got round the Point"2 when some Indians arrived unexpectedly. The canoes put up about a mile up-river from the fort and at 1:00 A.M, his men walked back to pick up the goods. This "Point" mentioned by Henry must be the one at the extreme corner of the NW.1/4 of 7-39-7-W5, as it is the only one in the area. As the archaeological site is about three-quarters of a mile below the "Point," it could conveniently fit Henry's description.

On the other hand, Henry mentioned on 1 May 1811 that his men were taking down the southeast bastion of the fort and were building a new one on posts. The Glenbow site has no southeast bastion. The argument, however, does not end there, for Thompson, who was at the same fort, told of "arranging" the south bastion. If one of these men was wrong in his direction, it was probably Henry, as Thompson was a surveyor who was concerned with such details.

The matter of building the new bastion on posts is another point for consideration, as only the north bastion at the archaeological site appeared to have been built in that fashion. The south bastion appears to have been made of horizontal logs with vertical corner posts.

On another matter, Henry said that "our establishment . . .stands upon a high Bank on the North Side of the River." This would seem to rule out fort No. 1, as the archaeological site is located on a flat where the river has relatively low banks. But, as if to confuse any seemingly concrete evidence, Woolsey visited fort No. 2 in 1858 and described it as being "situated on an emimence." So we have both forts being described in a similar manner as occupying high pieces of land. While no significant topographical changes could have occurred in the last century, the present forest growth and cultivation may give the modern highway traveller a different view of the archaeological site than that gained by travellers who first saw the fort from across the river.

There are also a number of facts which support the claim that the archaeological site marks fort No. 2 (1835-61). First, Tyrrell stated that Rocky Mountain House No. 3 was located 66 chains downstream from fort No. 2, and a survey has shown this to be the distance between the two excavated sites.

Then, in 1858, Hector described fort No. 2 as being located on a terrace 20 feet above the river, which descended slightly to some muskeg at the base of a second terrace. This is a perfect description of the Glenbow site, with the muskegs still in existence, and definitely places the fort in the immediate vicinity of, if not at, the site of the excavation.

On the other hand, Paul Kane's painting of fort No. 2 made in 1848 shows a structure which is quite different from the archaeological site. While Kane's fort has two bastions on adjacent corners and none on a third corner, the excavated fort had two bastions on opposite corners and a half-bastion over one gate.

Moberly's description of a fort in 1854-55 with four bastions and several compounds does not fit any of the available data and is therefore not being considered in this study.

From the above information, one may form opinions, but there is no basis for a positive identification. The fact that Thompson and Henry mention an overhead bastion on fort No. 1 while none is mentioned on fort No. 2 is significant, but not conclusive. Kane's painting is relevant, but it was done after he returned east and was based upon his field sketches. As the fort occupies only a background place in the painting, the possibility of error cannot be ignored. Unless mew evidence is forthcoming, the identification of the archaeological site is a matter of opinion, not conclusive fact. Regardless of which fort is involved, I believe that the companion fort must be extremely close, possibly on the same flat, and was just as Harriott said in 1835, "a short distance" from the other one.

Site No. 3 is located midway between excavated sites 1 and 2, in the Brierley farmyard. Gish felt that this might have been the site of Acton House and said that "a depression containing stones and decayed logs used to be visible."3 Today there are no obvious surface signs at the site as the area has been much disturbed and is among the farm buildings.

It is possible that Acton and Rocky Mountain House originally were built side by side within a single palisade at this site. A number of such posts were built downstream for mutual protection and were usually the result of prior planning. In this instance, the Nor'Westers and Hudson's Bay Company people did come to the site together both in their overland and their river parties; however, there is nothing in the papers of Thompson or Henry or in the Hudson's Bay Company records which throws any light upon this possibility. In 1806, Thompson commented, "find that the English are watching us, think'g that we have built above at the Mountains;" he also knew how many Indians went to the Hudson's Bay Company fort. In 1810, Henry noted the arrival of a Hudson's Bay Company party coming to "winter along side of me at this place," but his detailed description of his own fort includes no reference to his competitors.

On the basis of scanty historical information and no archaeological data, site No. 3 must be considered to be an unidentified one.

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