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

The Excavation and Historical Identification of Rocky Mountain House

by William C. Noble


Rocky Mountain House was first established on the North Saskatchewan River by the North West Company in September 1799, by John McDonald of Garth (Dempsey 1967:8). From 1799 until its close in 1875, this fort, which appears to have had four major periods of building, was the most western and southern outpost in the Blackfoot country (Dempsey 1962:19). As such, its history spanned much of the late period of rival trading, exploration and final consolidation of the fur trade in western Canada and it is in this larger historical context that Rocky Mountain House played a colourful role.

By 1799, three major fur trading companies were actively vying with one another for control of the western trade and exploration. These rivals were the North West Company, the Hudson's Bay Company and the XYZ Company. The latter firm, founded by Alexander Mackenzie in 1798, was especially competitive with the North West Company and instances are on file in which the two came to physical blows (Rich 1960:11, 229). In 1804, however, the XYZ Company was amalgamated with the North West Company, thus leaving but two major rivals for the fur trade of the Canadian northwest.

Competition between the Hudson's Bay and North West companies continued to be keen. The North West Company established Rocky Mountain House, or Mountain House as it was sometimes called. In 1799, the Hudson's Bay Company sent a party of men up the North Saskatchewan from Fort Edmonton to erect a fort nearby, opposing Acton House, built by James Bird (Dempsey 1967:9). Opposition continued between the two forts during the successive years that each fort was occupied.

Amalgamation of the North West and Hudson's Bay companies was effected under the terms of the Deed Poll in March, 1821. Consequently, Rocky Mountain House came under the jurisdiction of the Hudson's Bay Company. Available historical and archaeological evidence favours the interpretation that Acton House was abandoned in favour of Rocky Mountain House. Chief Trader John Rowand, a former Nor'Wester, took charge in 1821-23 (Dempsey 1963: 1).

The ensuing years after 1821 were years of virtual fur trade monopoly by the Hudson's Bay Company in many areas of the Canadian West, but not so at Rocky Mountain House. Competition from American firms and free traders continued the disruptive type of rivalry characteristic of the previous decades.

In its early years, Rocky Mountain House was more than just a far western trading post. It became an important depot and point of embarkation for transmountain exploration. Of the many scenes and famous persons connected with this aspect of Rocky Mountain House, David Thompson emerges as one of the important figures. Indeed, his mapping exploits and successful crossing of the mountains from the fort to the headwaters of the Columbia River in 1807 have made him legendary. Thompson wintered at Rocky Mountain House in 1800-01, 1801-02 and 1806-07 (Thompson 1916: 88, n.), and also passed part of the summer of 1810 here.

Other famous persons passed through Rocky Mountain House between 1799 and 1864; their presence at the fort contributes colour and significance to its history. Some of the better known persons and their dates of sojourn at the fort are John McDonald of Garth, 1799, 1806-07, 1810; Duncan McGillivray, 1800-01; Peter Fidler, 1801; Alexander Henry the Younger, 1810-11; John Rowand, 1821-23; Sir George Simpson, 1822; John Fisher, 1828-32; John Edward Harriott, 1834-41, 1843-46, 1848-53; Reverend Robert Rundle, 1841; Father De Smet, 1845; Paul Kane, 1848; William Gladstone, 1848-61; Henry Moberly, 1854; Sir James Hector, 1858 and Captain John Palliser, 1859. The passing remarks of each provide us today with useful information for historical identification, and shed light on some of the events of the period.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell of the Geological Survey of Canada visited and photographed Rocky Mountain House in 1886. At that time corner bastions and one building were still standing (Tyrrell 1887: 53). In later years he identified this site as the original fort (Thompson 1916; xlvi, 190, n.), but in fact it is the final version, 1864-75, partially excavated in 1966.

Since the precise location of the early Rocky Mountain House was not definitely known an attempt was made in October, 1958, to locate the old fort. A three-man party composed of Mr. Jack D. Herbert, Mr. Hugh A. Dempsey and Dr. Richard G. Forbis of the Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Calgary, made a reconnaissance visit to the present town of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Using aerial photographs, historical descriptions and a mine detector, the three men found a site producing metal, glass trade beads, buttons and rocks marking the location of former chimneys. This site was on the ranch of Mr. William Brierly, approximately three-quarters of a mile up the North Saskatchewan River from the federal cairn erected in 1931 on the site of the final Rocky Mountain House, 1864-75 (Dempsey 1962: 19-20).

Another three-man field party from the Glenbow-Alberta Institute travelled to the new site on 10 June 1962 to carry out archaeological testing. This party, under the direction of Dr. Richard G. Forbis, was composed of Mr. Alf Trent, an interested volunteer, Mr. Frank O'Leary and Mr. Don R. King who joined the party somewhat later. Work continued at the site until 7 July, during which time the limits of the fort and some of its interior structures were determined. Colonel Erick Harvey, founder of the Glenbow-Alberta Institute, also paid a visit to the site during this testing.

Positive historical identification of the fort was not possible, however, upon completion of the 1962 excavations. Hudson's Bay Company buttons bearing the insignia PRO PELLE CUTEM clearly established a Hudson's Bay Company occupation of the fort, but no positive evidence was found of the earlier North West Company's Rocky Mountain House. The test trenching of 1962 raised many new questions which only additional complete excavation of the site could answer. Accordingly, between 3 June and 3 August 1963, the site was completely excavated and mapped. This operation was carried out under the field direction of the author, then of the University of Toronto, for Dr. Richard G. Forbis, Glenbow-Alberta Institute archaeologist. Upon completion of the 1963 excavation there was a significant revelation — two forts with differing styles of architecture were represented on the same locale. The description and historical identification of these two structures constitutes the basis of this report.

The site of Rocky Mountain House is known in the Borden (1952) system of site designation as FcPr-1. This method of designating archaeological sites in Canada is based upon the position of a site by latitude and longitude. FcPr-1 is located at 52°21'20" N. latitude by 114°58'50" W. longitude on Lot 3975, Township 39 of Range 7, west of the 5th meridian, Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. David Thompson's calculation of the position of Rocky Mountain House is extremely close to this, being 52°22'15" N. latitude by 115°07'00" W. longitude (Thompson 1962: liv).

1 Map of Rocky Mountain House area, Alberta.

The fort site is situated on the North Saskatchewan River approximately two and one-half miles up-river (south) from the present town of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta (Fig. 1). It sits on the northwest bank, one and one-fifth miles up-river from the entrance of the Clearwater River (Rivière-à-l'Eau-Claire). The first major rapids on the North Saskatchewan River is presently located immediately opposite and slightly up river from the site, and has probably been migrating slowly upstream since the days of the fur trade. Alexander Henry the Younger (Henry 1897: II, 642) relates that:

The current was too swift to cross opposite the house, where there is a strong rapid; we therefore passed about 1/4 of a mile above, to the head of the rapid, where we crossed with ease.

Rocky Mountain House is 3,760 ft. south of the benchmark at the base of the federal cairn resting on the site of the final Rocky Mountain House. Both sites are easily accessible by a concession road leading south from the David Thompson Highway.

Rocky Mountain House is located immediately south and below the Brierly homestead buildings on the north end of an open plain. This plain represents the first major river terrace in the area and has an elevation of 15 to 20 ft. above the river. Altitude above sea level is 3,286 ft. and the plain has a noticeable rise of an additional two feet in the vicinity of the fort. The present distance from the river's western bank to the northeast corner of the fort measures 140 yd., while the western edge of the concession road east of the fort is 93 yd. to this same corner of the fort. In all, then, the fort covers a rectangular area of a little over one-third of an acre. Its maximum length measures 116 ft. and it is 90 ft. wide. The orientation of the fort is northwest to southeast.

Some 67 yd. immediately to the west of the fort, the plain grades into a depressed area of marsh and swale. This marsh contains a sizeable body of spring water and lies at the base of a second former river terrace which rises 10 ft. above the plain on which the fort is situated. A third and yet higher terrace forms the plain to the north on which the Brierly farm buildings are located (Fig. 41). Finds of historic trade goods on this third terrace may be clues as to the location of Acton House which is believed to have been located close to Rocky Mountain House.

2 Contour map and quadrants at Rocky Mountain House.
(click on image for a PDF version)

It is apparent that the lower fort plain is a former meander course and flood plain of the North Saskatchewan River. Gravelly sands and water-laid silts containing flecks of coal cover the area, and were encountered during excavation of the fort. The river floods seasonally and Mr. Allan Turnquist of Rocky Mountain House reported to the author in 1963 that during the last major flood in 1915, the North Saskatchewan covered the entire site plain. Top soil on the plain is very sandy and thin.

The Brierlys first cleared and broke the lower plain in the early 1930s (William Brierly: 1963, personal communication). At that time the plain was quite sandy and overgrown with willows. Rocks from the old chimneys at the site were visible above ground level and many of these were removed for incorporation into the Brierly's barn and house foundations. Today the plain is grassed over in clover and rye. The only trees in the area grow east of the fort along the concession road down to the river bank. These include large black spruce, aspens, willows and cottonwoods.

Alexander Henry the Younger gives an excellent description of the flora present in 1810 (Henry 1897: II, 700), which may be compared with the present flora.

The country about the house is in general wooded, with small prairions at intervals of a mile or more, when large, open swamps are found. The wood is principally pine of several kinds, aspen, willow, and birch. What we call Rocky Mountain pine grows tall and straight; the bark resembles that of cypress, the leaves are like those of the common white pine, and bear similar knobs. The wood is soft and easy to work, when split into boards and well seasoned it acquires a yellowish hue, and will take a smooth, glossy surface. In the swamps grows the juniper or épinette rouge, but seldom to any great height; in many places below, these swamps are only covered with long, coarse grass and low willows. Among the pines grows a particular kind of goose-grass, four inches high and very thin, of which the horses are very fond, and on which they soon fatten; but it does not answer for them in winter, as it becomes so brittle that when the horses scrape away the snow with their hoofs they break the grass into small pieces, and can get very little of it.

Henry continues his description by stating that the spot on which Rocky Mountain House was built was formerly covered with aspen and pine, which have been cut down for the use of the place, leaving a large open space." He also states that

Frequent fires have aided much in clearing away the wood and brush, so that now we have a grand view of the Rocky Mountains, lying nearly S. W., and apparently running from W. N. W. to S. S. E. (Henry 1897: II, 701).

These statements clearly indicate a forest cover much denser than is to be found today over much of the region.

The climate about Rocky Mountain House appears to have changed little since 1810. Henry remarks (Henry 1897: II, 701) that,

The climate is too inconstant for gardening. In the daytime the heat is excessive, but no sooner has the sun set than the weather becomes chilly, with a white frost almost throughout the summer.

Similar conditions were encountered during the 1963 summer excavations, and it usually showered at least once daily. Such rains and dampness are probable factors contributing to the decaying and rotting of the fort. Prevailing winds in the area are westerlies from the mountains 50 miles distant.

3 Ground plan of Rocky Mountain House.
(click on image for a PDF version)

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