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Manitoba History: Review: Graham A. MacDonald, A Good Solid Comfortable Establishment: An Illustrated History of Lower Fort Garry

by David K. Hansen
Curator/Historian, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Number 25, Spring 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Graham A. MacDonald, A Good Solid Comfortable Establishment: An Illustrated History of Lower Fort Garry. Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer, 1992, X, 98 pp., illus. ISBN 0-920486-62-2.

Graham MacDonald’s recent illustrated publication on the history of Lower Fort Garry is a welcome addition to fur trade scholarship and interpretation in Canada and for those sites in the United States associated with the fur trade. The book traces the founding of Lower Fort Garry, named in honour of Nicholas Garry, Deputy Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, by Governor George Simpson in 1830 as an important fur trading post and administrative headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast Northern Department.

Lower Fort Garry was the first stone fort the Company had constructed since the 18th century. In a short time, this vital establishment developed into a focal point for business and settlement in the Red River area. Upon Simpson’s departure from Lower Fort Garry, the site briefly became the seat of Hudson’s Bay Company’s authority when Associate Governor Eden Colvile came to the Red River to assume field duties.

MacDonald’s book is well organised into chapters dealing with the general history of the site and continues into a building by building history of the Fort.

The principal reason for the establishment of Lower Fort Garry was the fur trade. At the centre of Lower Fort Garry, as with all Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts, was the trading shop, which served the fur trade, as well as a place for the exchange of locally grown grain and foodstuffs. MacDonald gives a detailed description of the duties of the shop clerk and the trading practices employed by the Company during the mid-19th century, as well as providing a concise analysis of the economic and social importance of this trading institution to the Red River area of Canada.

MacDonald’s other descriptions of Lower Fort Garry’s buildings and their relationships to economic and social life at the post and the Red River area are informative and instructive. He effectively weaves individuals and their importance to the story of Lower Fort Garry into the narrative. The book focuses on the industrial and agricultural importance of the fort. Lower Fort Garry, like its Pacific Northwest counterpart, Fort Vancouver, helped the Company maintain its profits by producing much of its foodstuffs and hardware, thus reducing the need for expensive imports from England. The section on Company administration gives a concise, yet detailed, understanding of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s managerial hierarchy, showing particularly how the Company was able to use a relatively few number of salaried officers (clerks, postmasters and apprentice clerks) to manage and oversee a vast commercial domain. MacDonald points out the important role of women in this fur trade society. A number of women were employed in various labouring capacities, while the wives of the officers occupied a high social status, quite typical of important Company post. He also describes the importance of the native population (Cree and Ojibwa) in the development of Lower Fort Garry and the Red River community.

MacDonald’s treatment of the arrival of settlers and missionaries in the 1840s and 1850s, a time of transition for the Company and Lower Fort Garry, illustrates the increasing conflicts that arose in fur trade society with the approach of “civilisation” The population of fur trade lands until this time consisted of mainly persons born into the fur trade or those who had adopted it by choice. Macdonald states that “the sudden intrusion into Red River of representatives of eastern or English members of the elite bent on elevating Red River society, had its darker side. Clerics such as James Hunter seemed to pose in stark terms, the assumption of class superiority and respectability favoured by many in the British ruling classes of the day.” The 1840-1850 transition period in Red River was also marked by the arrival of a detachment of the British army due, in part, to worsening relations between the United States and Great Britain over the Oregon question. The initial military period, though not long-lasting, in effect brought about the final stage of transition of Lower Fort Garry’s role from fur trade post to military post during the Riel uprising, to a period of treaty-making to settle native land claims.

After Confederation, Lower Fort Garry served provincial penal functions. By the late 19th century, the Fort served as a mental asylum, until finally in 1911 it ceased operation as a fur trade post. The “glory” of Lower Fort Garry lingered on as a motor country club. This status served to protect its historic integrity until, in 1951, the fort was deeded by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the federal government as a “gift to the nation.”

MacDonald’s final chapter on the history of the preservation and interpretation of Lower Fort Garry is an excellent chronicle, in capsule, of the evolution of historic preservation and interpretation in the Canadian Parks Service. As a visionary example of what an historic site can become, MacDonald points out the complex and interrelated tasks involved in creating an historic site, and the involvement of archaeologists, historians, curators, artifact conservators, engineers, planners, interpreters, and maintenance personnel. This subject has often been overlooked in presenting the evolution of an historic site.

The use of historic and contemporary illustrations and photographs is particularly effective. Juxtaposed against historic photographs of Lower Fort Garry and individuals associated with the site, are modern colour photos of park animators performing “living history” tasks. These illustrations help to bring to life the rich and colourful history of Lower Fort Garry and its importance to the development of the Canadian experience.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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