ART. VIII. Historic Site Profile
In which various historic sites and living history programs in the Northwest are reviewed. In this Issue : Fort George-Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site.
Fort George-Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site is located 13 kilometers southeast of the town of Elk Point, Alberta on Secondary Road 646 (about 90 kilometers northwest of the city of Lloydminster, Alberta). The site consists of a new interpretive center with a small gift shop and washrooms, and a trail leading to the two fort sites. Next to the visitor center, there are a half dozen picnic tables and a water fountain. The interpretive center is wheelchair accessible, but the fort sites are not. There are two gravel parking lots ; the second one is large enough to accommodate buses and large RV's.
The historic site consists of the sites of two fur forts, both operating from 1792 to 1801.
The interpretive center is small and innovative. As you move through the displays, you trigger audio and video tape recordings on various topics—the life of a voyageur and of a country wife, and various aspects of trading—all done as monologues from the point of view of the person in question. The tapes are short & entertaining while presenting a lot of important information. Unfortunately, the first presentation, about the voyageurs, is not quite as good as the ones that follow it, but don't let it deter you from listening to & watching the others. A large display of artifacts excavated from the fort sites is also of special interest to re-enactors ; these items are concrete evidence of what was actually used and traded at the forts here and throughout the area. The interpretive center staff members are friendly, helpful & knowledgeable. Just about everything in the center has a documentation card that staff can pull to answer questions about the artifacts & replicas, as well as answering any other questions you may have.
In the late 1700's and early 1800's, rivalry between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company pushed their posts further and further west up the Saskatchewan River. In 1792, they both built forts at a site on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan. The HBC called their post Buckingham House, and the Nor'westers christened their establishment Fort George. (Fort George seems to have been a very popular name throughout Canadian history ; there were at least four of them.)
Journals from both Buckingham House and Fort George have survived to the present day and the center devotes some space to them and their writers, specifically the HBC's William Tomison. (Tomison later rose to be Chief Inland for the HBC, a new post in which he was responsible for all the company's operations in what is now Canada.)
The following letter, to George Sutherland at Edmonton House, gives some idea of the routine at Buckingham House (Johnson, 79).
Buckingham House, December 20th 1796.
Dear Sir, Your men arrived here all safe the 18th instant, and have sent as much trading goods as loaded the six horses (which was all they brought down) as per list enclosed. The awls, steels, worms etc. shall be made as soon as the cold weather is over, which of late has been so intense (sixty below the cypher) that the smith could not get anything made of small articles ; hitherto he has been employed in repairing falling hatchets (as there was not any fit for use here) and making nails for the bateaux.
Shall pay every attention in getting the boats as fast forward as possible — one is nearly finished and the carpenters will go to the woods after Christmas to saw stuff for the other one.
...There are but few Indians about this place, but by two Blackfoots now arrived they say all their countrymen will be here with their spring hunt.
We are but middlingly off for provisions, having only three weeks stock before hand, but hope the buffalo will be soon nearer us than before by reason of the severe weather that has of late prevailed.
Wishing you health and a happy new year I remain dear Sir, your obedient humble servant, Peter Fidler.
P.S. The gun locks etc. shall be done as soon as possible.
The Nor'westers were also busy with the daily routine of trade, as the following entry from the journal of Duncan McGillivray at Fort George shows (McGillivray, 55) :
28th Febry  — The Bel Homme and Son arrived yesterday with about 80 Beavers. —The old man made a present of 40 for which he received a large Keg & cloathing, which he says will be the last that he'll purchase as he intends to resign his place and authority to his Oldest Son. — The amount of our trade is as follows — 118 Bales, 10,000 lb Pounded Meat, Grease, Bear Skins, &c and the Indians owe about 20 Packs of Credits since the Fall. The men are commanded to fell and square 3 logs of timber of certain dimensions each to Build a Block House in the Spring which is much wanted to beautify and defend the Fort...
Today, the Block House no longer beautifies Fort George, but a short walk (about 500 meters) through trees brings you to its former location. The Queen Anne ensign flies over the site again, just as it did during Duncan McGillivray's time. The locations of several of the buildings have been marked out on the open ground, and interpretive signs help the visitor to picture the fort when it was in operation. It had an unusual five-sided palisade, which was perhaps dictated by the gullies that border the site. About 50 meters further along the trail is the site of Buckingham House, the Hudson Bay Company's establishment, which is marked by a Queen Anne Union Jack flying high. This site is an open grassy field, and interpretive signs show some of the items excavated here and give a sketch layout of the fort, which is very helpful, since there is nothing on the ground to show where the buildings stood. Although the two forts were in commercial competition, they were practical about it, since they shared the same well. (Although the forts border the North Saskatchewan River, the bank is very high, and it would have been quite a climb to carry up buckets of water every day, not to mention 90 pound packs!)
This is an excellent site ; anyone who takes the time to read all the displays, listens to and watches all the tapes, and use some imagination when visiting the sites, will be sure to come away with a well-rounded picture of life in the fur trade during the 1790's.
For further information, contact Fort George-Buckingham House at (403) 724-2611.
Johnson, Alice M. (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence : Edmonton House 1795-1800, Chesterfield House 1800-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.
McGillivray, Duncan. The Journal of Duncan M'Gillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794-5. Arthur. S. Morton, editor. Reprinted by Ye Galleon Press : Fairfield, Washington, 1989. Originally published by Macmillan : Toronto, 1929.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?