North Saskatchewan River Route of The Fur Trade

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Fur Traders Ft. Edmonton Park
Fur Traders – Fort Edmonton Park
Photo: Edmonton Tourism

By: Bob Kenyon

The Saskatchewan River gets is name from the Cree word “Kisiskatchewani Sipi,” meaning swiftly flowing river. The  watershed is approximately 1,223 km (760 mi) long and is the major eastward flowing river of the western Canadian prairies. The Saskatchewan  River was the major transportation route for the beaver fur trade, which developed through a European fashion calling for felt hats made from compressed beaver fur. The main waterway is the North Saskatchewan River, which flows from it’s headwaters in the Canadian Rockies to Lake Winnipeg, covering all of Alberta and Saskatchewan and western parts of Manitoba. These waters eventually flow into Hudson’s Bay, the huge body of water that is western Canada’s ocean connection to the Atlantic Ocean.

Whether traveling the river by canoe or boat, or using the highway system, travelers and historical trekkers can easily follow the North Saskatchewan River. Along the river and its tributaries can be discoverd the history of the western Canadian aboriginal culture, the two competing fur trade companies, and early settlement that opened up the west during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Hudson’s Bay Company operated from York Factory, near Churchill, MB and using large, sturdy york boats, moved the furs collected at western posts to the Bay. Canada’s best known department store chain, The Bay and HBC, is still the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The break off competitor was the Northwest Company, who operated with traditional birch bark canoes, from Montreal. Their route, to the west took them via the Great Lakes, portage routes (where canoes and gear are carried) and rivers to Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan Rivers. They also, traded and explored, over the mountains, in what is now British Columbia. Their best known explorer/trader was David Thompson.

Aboriginal Village Ft. Edmonton Park

Aboriginal Village – Fort Edmonton Park
Photo: Edmonton Tourism

The following are the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company posts and forts and Aboriginal heritage sites that can be visited along western Canada’s fur trade river. Many of the posts had multiple locations. Most don’t exist anymore, or have become towns, or cities, along the way. Some of the forts served a multi-purpose, first as a fur trade and then as a base for the Northwest Mounted Police (eg. Ft. Edmonton).

Métis Crossing is Canada’s first and only major Métis Cultural Centre. It’s located in Smoky Lake County along the Victoria Trail.

Victoria Settlement is where Reverend George McDougall founded a Methodist Mission to the Cree in 1862 and the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Victoria in 1864.

Fort Battleford at Battleford, Saskatchewan, is a Northwest Mounted Police fort, that was very important during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

Fort Carlton Provincial Historic Park is rich in western Canadian history. The Fort was built in 1810 as a fur-trading post on a spot well-used for crossing the North Saskatchewan River.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park Heritage Park under the leadership and guidance of First Nations people that contributes to increasing public awareness, understanding and appreciation of the cultural legacy of the Northern Plains First Nations people. 5 km. north of Saskatoon on Highway #11, follow the Bison signs.

As the supply of beaver pelts were devoured by the hunger for beaver felt hats, by the summer of 1792 the westward expansion of the fur trade reached what is now Alberta and there we find the site of the two fur trading depots of Fort George (NWC) and Buckingham House (HBC). Though little remains of the structures, the Province of Alberta a very informative museum and interpretive trail between the two posts. For more information about this site go to their website.

There were a series of locations for Ft. Edmonton, but eventually it was located at ford near where the Alberta Legislature is, east of Edmonton‘s High Level Bridge. Many famous people of 18th century western Canada, would have passed through Ft. Edmonton, including the fur trade era cartographer David Thompson and the painter Paul Kane.

Ft. Edmonton Park

Fort Edmonton Park
Photo: Edmonton Tourism

West of the city Ft. Edmonton Park is a fabulous historic theme park, which is built around a recreation of the last fort. This is a highly recommended attraction to visit, in Edmonton and give yourself lots of time!

A major initiative, within the Edmonton Capital Region, is to develop the largest river valley park in the word! The River Valley Alliance, which comprises the Town of Devon, Parkland County, Leduc County, City of Edmonton Strathcona County, Sturgeon County and the City of Fort Saskatchewan and will encompass 88 kilometers of the river valley.

For those looking for the history of the area, and the fur trade, that it and most of western Canada developed from, the town of Rocky Mountain House is a definite stop, with the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Park, in the David Thompson Pass being the prime focus.

If you visit the park be sure to give yourself several hours to walk the trails, back in history, to view the sites of the famous Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company forts built within the area. These forts were used as collection points for furs bound for Ft. Edmonton, on the North Saskatchewan River. There is also a fine interpretive centre, with examples of the aboriginal and fur trade history.

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