Colonialist Enterprise: The Hudson’s Bay Company at the Forks, 1812-1883
The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, in the heart of what is now the city of Winnipeg, represents one of the major crossroads in the movement of people, culture and resources throughout the western half of the North American interior. The significance of the Forks as an “historic place” can be traced back as far as 4,000-6,000 years. Over perhaps six millennia the site has played a key role in the establishment of trading routes while serving as an assembly point for the aboriginal people who travelled through the parkland zone of the central prairie provinces. In the post-contact era the Forks became a critical link in the western fur trade transship ment and provisioning network, a focus for Native, Metis and European settlement, a major debarkation point for immigrants to Western Canada, and an important centre for railway and urban development in the West.
With an Aboriginal presence at the Forks dating back thousands of years, Euro-Canadian occupation at this important river junction represents only a minor part of the site’s long history. It was the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), formed by merchant traders in 1670, that came to have a major im pact on the development of the Forks in the 19th century.
For much of its history the HBC, one of the largest over seas colonial monopolies in the world, influenced the development of political, economic and social life in the old Northwest. Competition with the North West Company and the move inland from the bay by the London-based company after 1774 resulted in the proliferation of fur trade posts along the key river systems of the West. While many of these locations were important for the strategic expansion of commerce, few could rival the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine for its significance as a staging area, transshipment depot and as a centre for Native and European settlement. For Aboriginal peoples who had for generations travelled seasonally along the rivers of the plains and parkland, the Forks represented an important hunting, fishing and meeting place. With the establishment of the Red River Settlement at the Forks early in the 19th century, alongside the extensive administrative and supply apparatus of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine maintained its critical role as a focal point for commercial and social affairs in the western interior. From its headquarters at Upper Fort Garry the Company attempted to maintain at least nominal control over the economic life of the Red River settlement, a control that would be successfully challenged by the growing class of Metis traders and entrepreneurs.
The significance of the Forks in the western fur trade first emerged in the late 18th century. At that time the site developed as a provisioning centre and rendezvous point for the canoe brigades of the independent “Pedlars”, and later the North West Company, which traveled the complex system of river routes between Lake Superior and the Athabaska district. While the Forks during this period was less important in terms of the fur trade than the upper Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle valleys, it did serve as an im portant provisioning centre. Here the products of the buffalo hunt—pemmican, fat and hides—could be cached awaiting pick-up by the bri gades heading west along the Assiniboine. Between 1760 and 1800 a number of short-lived posts were established by Montreal-based traders in the Red River district.  According to records, the first HBC trader known to have passed by the Forks was William Tomison, sent to the interior by Humphrey Martin at Severn House in 1768 in order to entice Native peoples of the region to journey down to the bay to trade. 
In the early 19th century a number of Metis gens libres, or freemen, settled in the vicinity of the Forks where they worked as commercial buffalo hunters and contract freighters for the North West Company. As settlers at the Forks they joined the Saulteaux-Ojibwa peoples who had moved into the area in the late 18th century, as well as bands of Cree and Assiniboine who for centuries had inhabited the prairie and parkland regions of southern Manitoba.
Recognizing the potential role of the Forks in the expansion of trade, the North West Company decided in 1810 to build a pemmican provisioning post at the junction, on the west bank of the Red River.  Called Fort Gibraltar, the new post was used to store the products of the Metis buffalo hunt for use by the company’s canoe brigades as they paddled to the posts of the Swan River, Saskatchewan, English and Athabaska districts. Soon realizing the strate gic importance of the Forks, the HBC pursued a two pronged strategy to combat its rival’s influence in the Red River district. The first was to establish a settlement there that would effec tively disrupt the Nor’Westers’ supply line. In 1812 the first group of impover ished Scottish settlers arrived at the Forks and settled on lots north of Fort Gibraltar along the west bank of the Red at “Frog Plain” . The second was to build its own post at the Forks in 1813. McLeod’s House, as it was called by HBC surveyor Peter Fidler, was on the east bank of the Red opposite Fort Gibraltar.  Meanwhile, the new settlers at the Forks, with help from local Metis and under the direction of the HBC, built Fort Douglas about a mile below Fort Gibraltar.  But as relations between the settlers and the North West Company deteriorated after 1814, the HBC house on the east bank was moved in the summer of 1815 across the river to a location close to Fort Douglas. 
The story of the events of those critical years—the Pemmican Proclamation, the first departure of the Selkirk settlers, the destruction of Fort Gibraltar and finally the Battle of Seven Oaks—is a well-known one. The standard version of the Selkirk apologists; the tales of massacre and mutilation and the portrayal of the Metis as barbarians, has helped to promote the traditional portrayal of the Metis in Western Canadian historiography, as the “misfits” of the Canadian West.  But of course another version exists. Macdonnell’s ban on the export of pemmican in 1814 and the later prohibition against the running of buffalo in the Red River area, along with the seizing of Fort Gibraltar by Hudson’s Bay Company agent Colin Robertson in the spring of 1816, helped to precipitate the events at Seven Oaks that June. The Metis of Red River opposed the colony near the Forks because it was in their best economic interests to do so and because they were determined to defend their claim to the Forks based upon first occupancy. These assertions of ownership, of course, implicitly challenged the Company’s claim to absolute sovereignty in the Northwest as a result of the Royal Charter of 1670. While the impact of the events of 1816 soon faded, tension between the Company and the Metis inhabitants of Red River would influence the affairs of the settlement for decades to come.
The union of the two fur trade companies in 1821 had important consequences for the Forks. Firstly, as a result of its new monopoly the HBC was able to expand its commercial operations at this important river junction, developing the Forks as one of its major transshipment and supply centres in Rupert’s Land. Secondly, by laying off over half of its Metis workforce in the West—many of whom relocated in Red River—the Company created a large and accessible labour pool for seasonal work on the boat and cart brigades. This new community of agriculturalists and buffalo hunters in Red River could also supply, under controlled monopoly market conditions, foodstuffs and plains provisions to the new streamlined fur trade. The pemmican processing industry was a critical part of the Company’s consolidated operations throughout the Northwest as more than sixty tons of the dried meat was required for the trade annually. As Red River was by that time a largely native community, the hunt formed the basis of its economy, at least before 1845.
The building of Upper Fort Garry at the Forks by the HBC in 1835 not only demonstrated the Company’s commercial pre-eminence in the area, but represented its attempt to control the colony’s civil administration and most aspects of work and daily life in Red River. But as was the case with many monopolistic colonial enterprises of the 19th century, such control by the HBC was largely illusory as social relations, small and varied economies, as well as other aspects of an increasingly stratified society developed and even flourished outside of attempts to enforce Company hegemony in the settlement.
Shortly after the 1821 merger the overseas governor of the HBC, George Simpson, decided to occupy Fort Gibraltar at the Forks, renaming it Fort Garry in honour of Nicholas Garry, a member of the Company’s London Committee. Less than a decade later, however, Simpson realized the necessity of removing the Company’s operations from the Forks, largely because of the dilapidated state of the wooden Fort Garry and also because of the perennial threat of flooding at the river junction. The Company’s new establishment, situated some thirty kilometers downriver was known as Lower Fort Garry, or simply “The Stone Fort”. When it became apparent that the location of Simpson’s new headquarters was ill-suited for the retail trade in Red River, the decision was made to rebuild at the Forks. Construction of Upper Fort Garry began in the winter of 1835 and was largely complete by 1838.  The Company’s new limestone edifice at the Forks possessed stout, fifteen foot high walls and four comer bastions. In the 1850s the walls were extended to the northeast with new walls of oak construction.  The north gate, still standing, was constructed using stones from the original north wall of the fort. Militarily, the walls were designed for defense against a lightly armed and mounted enemy rather than for protection against artillery. Limestone construction of the Upper Fort was chosen by Simpson for a number of practical reasons; it lasted longer than wood and served as a protection against destructive floods and prairie fires. But there were other reasons for the Company’s choice of building materials at the Forks. Architecturally, a stone fort served as a symbol, a statement of the HBC’s desire for power and authority within the settlement. Limestone walls and bastions, more than wooden palisades, reinforced this particular image.
Inside the fort, the general layout of the post buildings followed the “H” configuration common to many HBC forts throughout the Northwest. Loewen and Monks have argued that this layout can be traced to the British “great hall” model of the early Middle Ages where the flanking buildings of the parallel axis of the “H” declined in importance the greater the distance from the central residence.  At the upper fort the Main House, or officers’ quarters (and later the clerks’ quarters and Government House), located at the centre of the original fort quadrangle was flanked on the west side by the inland depot, fur store and pemmican warehouse. Along the east wall was the Recorder’s or Chief Magistrate’s house, the Men’s residence and sale shop. Warehouses, originally built outside the north wall, and eventually enclosed within the 1850s fort expansion, also followed this basic configuration. A variety of smaller buildings such as the court house and jail, workshops and stables were located outside the fort walls.
HBC operations at the Forks also included the Company’s experimental farm established in the 1830s adjacent to the abandoned Fort Garry.  The old fort buildings at the Forks served as living quarters, for the farm workers and barns and stables for the animals. In 1841, however, the farm was abandoned, although it continued to be managed as a private concern for a number of years afterward.
As with all fur trade posts in the West, work for Company servants at Upper Fort Garry was largely sea sonal in nature. For the dozen or so permanent servants or “winterers”, which included officers, clerks, skilled tradesmen, storekeepers and labourers, most tasks were organized around the departure of the boat and cart brigades, the spring and fall buffalo hunts, the planting and harvesting of crops, as well as a host of other jobs dictated by the individual seasons. Labourers like William Drever or John Davidson who served at the Forks in the 1840s might spend their days repairing buildings and fences, cleaning the barns and warehouses, cutting and hauling firewood, packing furs, working in the sales shop, fishing or helping the post tradesmen. The busiest time of the year for these servants was in the spring when the upper fort played a major role in the pemmican trade and the shipment of supplies and country produce to interior posts. When the brigades left Red River in the spring bound for York Factory, they carried provisions such as pemmican, flour, corn, biscuit and vegetables. Returning from Portage La Loche via York and Norway House in the early fall the boats brought the trade goods, English provisions, manufactured items, agricultural equipment and mail that had arrived at the bay from overseas via the annual supply ships. Red River carts brought pemmican and plains provisions to the Forks from Pembina and beyond, and Metis cart brigades traveled overland as far west as Fort Edmonton.
Tradesmen at the upper fort, including carpenters, coopers, masons and blacksmiths helped to construct and repair buildings and make the kegs and cassettes used in the transport of goods. To clerks like Robert Clouston, in charge of the “dull and inspired calculations” that inevitably accompanied the retail trade with local settlers and the movement of goods and furs, fell the responsibility for keeping the detailed accounts in the post ledger, maintaining inventories, purchasing country produce and engaging tripmen.  When an overland supply route was opened to Red River via St. Paul in 1858, and Upper Fort Garry began to replace York Factory as the Company’s major entrepot in Rupert’s Land, the duties and scope of work at the upper fort increased, resulting in the construction of new stores and warehouses.
Aside from its commercial role at the Forks, Upper Fort Garry was also the seat of civil and judicial authority in the settlement. Government in Red River, as in most conservative societies of the time, reflected the attitudes of an exclusive and recognizable governing class. At the Forks this class was largely synonymous with the leaders of the HBC. Though nominally independent, the Council of Assiniboia, made up of representatives of the principal settlers and the local clergy, were all appointed by the Company and for the most part served its interests. It proved to be an anachronistic governing model, however, as the Council was largely out of touch with the colony’s lower classes, the growing population of Metis and Halfbreeds who had forged a unique economy based upon agriculture, hunting, freighting and trading.
Nowhere was this anachronism more apparent than in the dispute over the free trade in furs that culminated with the Sayer trial of 1849. Attempts by the Company to protect a monopoly based upon its long outdated charter were largely unsuccessful and served to alienate much of the native population around the Forks. By 1850 the HBC’s monopolistic control in the settlement had disintegrated. An independent Metis economy, fueled by what historian Irene Spry has described as “the mobility, the restless energy, and the resourcefulness of the native freemen of the plains” became firmly established and consolidated in Red River and prospered outside of the “official” limits of economic activity.  Traders like Alexis Goulet, Narcisse Marion and Urbaine Delorme were part of a new Metis entrepreneurial elite that developed extensive and inde pendent trading contacts in this period, providing what historian Doug Sprague called”the real energy and growth of the colony.” 
In the late 1850s Red River witnessed the arrival of annexationists determined to extend Canada’s control over the western hinterland. John Christian Shultz’s Canadian Party through its weekly newspaper The Nor’Wester, was the most vocal in the opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Metis in Red River. Ultimately, the Metis struggle for recognition of their traditional political and land rights after the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada led to the Resistance of 1869-70. Under the leadership of Louis Riel the Metis occupied the upper fort in November of 1869, declaring a Provisional Government and drafting a List of Rights. Negotiations with the Canadian government culminated in the passing of the Manitoba Act in 1870 which guaranteed provincial status as well as the protection of the religious, linguistic and property rights of the local citizens. The arrival at Upper Fort Garry of Canadian troops under Colonel Garnet Woolsey in August of 1870 marked the end of the Provisional Government and the beginning of the campaign to deny the guarantees of the Manitoba Act. Land hungry settlers poured into the new province. Over the next decade much of Metis property in Manitoba was lost to speculators and others, forcing many of these “original settlers” to seek new territories in Saskatchewan and beyond. 
With the defeat of Riel’ s Provisional Government thousands of immigrants from Ontario began arriving in the new province, encouraged by Ottawa’s developing National Policy for western expansion. In order to protect its interests in Red River and throughout the West as the old order crumbled, the HBC reorganized its corporate structure, creating new policies with respect to land, merchan dising and transportation. Individuals like Donald Smith, James Grahame and Charles Brydges, through such new Company bureaucracies as the Land Department, were determined to reap profits from lands and resources that no longer served the fur trade. With a view toward the potential value of HBC property at the Forks, the Company had their 500 acre reserve adjacent to Upper Fort Garry surveyed into town lots and put up for auction in 1872. The HBC, in an attempt to control development away from the Forks, offered land grants to the new provincial government so that it might locate public works projects near the river junction. With the exception of immigrant sheds, built in 1872 on the north point, and some other smaller projects, the Company’s policy was largely a failure. Instead, the HBC planned some of its own developments at the Forks, including a large warehouse built in 1872 and a grist mill in 1874. But it was their opposition to the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg in 1873 which angered the nascent business elite in the settlement and led to the location of the new city’s commercial centre north of Upper Fort Garry. When the real estate boom of 1881-82 occurred, it was the new property owners who benefited the most from soaring land values, not the old elite of the HBC. 
For Upper Fort Garry itself the 1870s and early 1880s were a period of decline and finally demolition. Beginning in the early 1870s a number of the dwellings and stores inside and outside the fort walls were pulled down. The construction of a bridge over the Assiniboine south of the fort created pressure to straighten the Main Street jog around the east wall and bastions. As a result, the stone walls were demolished by 1883 as were many of the original fort buildings, and by 1900 only the north gate was left standing.
Throughout much of the 19th century the Hudson’s Bay Company, through its hierarchical governing structure and elaborate system of patronage, attempted to control most aspects of life in the predominantly native commu nity centered at the Forks. The economic hegemony of the fur trade, together with the administrative and judicial authority vested in the Company-controlled Council of Assiniboia, underscored the HBC’s claim to political power in Red River. But if the Hudson’s Bay Company represented nominal authority over the society at the Forks, after 1850 and the establishment of an independent Metis economy in Red River, the actual leadership of the colony shifted to the growing class of Metis entrepreneurs. With the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1869, the Company had effectively played out its part at the Forks. The later dismantling of Upper Fort Garry, long the Com pany’s symbol of authority, civility and permanence in old Red River, served as the most poignant symbol of this denouement.
1. This included a fort built by Forrest Oakes and Thomas Corry on the Red River near Lake Winnipeg in 1776, Joseph Frobisher’s 1770 post near Netley Creek, referred to as “Lake Fort”, and according to C. N. Bell, the ”Forks Fort” built at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine around 1800 by Alexander Henry the Younger. The evidence for the existence of the latter post is inconclusive, however.
2. A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71, (Toronto, University of Toronto, 1973) p. 273.
3. While John McDonald, a North West Company partner, claimed to have built Fort Gibraltar at the Forks in 1807, the evidence suggests that the provisioning post was in fact constructed by bourgeois John Willis of the NWC in 1810. Archives of Manitoba, MG2 A 1,Selkirk Papers, p. 8546, as cited in C. N. Bell, “The Old Forts of Winnipeg, 1738-1927”, Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, No. 3, May 1927, Winnipeg.
4. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, B.l60/a/4, folio 23d, 16 May, 1813.
5. George Bryce, “The Five Forts of Winnipeg”, Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Section II, 1885, p. 146.
7. While this portrayal is evident in the work of early Red River historians such as George Bryce and Chester Martin, it received its strongest affirmation in the writings of W. L. Morton. See especially Morton’s Cuthbert Grant of Grantown and Manitoba, A History. For an analysis of the historiography concerning Seven Oaks see Lyle Dick, “The Seven Oaks lncident and the Construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816-1970”, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, New Series, vol. 2, Kingston, 1991, pp. 91114.
8. James Hargrave to George Simpson, 1838, as quoted in M. A. McLeod, “Winnipeg and the Hudson’s Bay Company”, The Beaver, June, 1949, p. 6.
15. For a discussion of the Manitoba Act and the subsequent process of amending the act to free up territory in the new province for “actual settlers” see D. N. Sprague, Canada and the Metis, 18691885, (Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988), especially chapters 6, 7 and 8, pp. 89-139.
Page revised: 18 December 2011