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Brandon House

by Dr. Ross Mitchell

Manitoba Pageant, January 1962, Volume 7, Number 2

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The traveller going west on Provincial Highway No. 2 will never fail to be thrilled at his first sudden view of the broad deep valley of the Souris in which nestles the village of Wawanesa. The river is small but the breadth and depth of the valley speak of its size in prehistoric days. Nearby is its junction with the Assiniboine. At the present time, the junction is of little note, yet when waterways were the only trade routes it was an important trading area.

The valleys of the two rivers supported vast herds of buffalo, whose hides and dried meat (pemmican) were staple items of trade. The great southward loop of the Souris brings it close to the Missouri River where lived the Mandan Indians, village dwellers, who cultivated and stored corn and traded with the surrounding tribes and white traders. It is not surprising, therefore, that at one time in the late part of the eighteenth century there were five trading posts along the Assiniboine near the mouth of the Souris.

They were: (1) Pine Fort of the North West Company ten miles below the junction, (2) a free traders' post two miles upstream, (3) Fort Assiniboine, a North West Company post, on the north side, also two miles above the junction, (4) Brandon House No. 1 of the Hudson's Bay Company, located nearby, also on the north side, (5) the X.Y. Company house across the river on the south side. The foundations of this Brandon House were laid on October 16, 1793. For a time relations between the rival posts were reasonably amicable until the outbreak of "The Pemmican War" in 1814.

This arose when Miles Macdonnell, Governor of the Selkirk Colony along the Red River, and under the aegis of the Hudson's Bay Company, decreed that, because of crop failures, no pemmican could be exported. This would have cut off supplies for the North West Company's voyageurs throughout the Northwest. The North West Company and its allies, the metis buffalo hunters, defied the order. Violence erupted. By this time there were only two posts in the area, the Hudson's Bay Company's Brandon House and the North West Company's La Souris. They faced each other across the river at new locations, six miles up the Assiniboine from the mouth of the Souris.

On June 1, 1816, Brandon House was seized. Peter Fidler, the officer in charge, records that the fort was invaded by forty-eight half-breeds, Canadian Freeman and Indians. Their leader, Cuthbert Grant, came into the yard, demanded all the keys and his men plundered the post. They claimed they did so because of Mr. Colin Robertson's taking their Fort Gibraltar at the Forks. This sacking of Brandon House was the curtain raiser to the bloody drama of Seven Oaks, eighteen days later, when Governor Semple, twenty of the Colony men and a North West Company employee were killed.

The two companies amalgamated in 1821 but Brandon House was maintained for several years more. The Council of the Northern Department then directed that "in order to protect the trade of the Assiniboines and Crees from American opposition on the Missouri, a new post be established at or in the neighborhood of Beaver Creek to be called Fort Ellice". This is close to the present village of St. Lazare.

Some twenty-eight years ago, the writer was one of a party which set out from Ninette to seek the site of Brandon House. The head of the party was Dr. D. A. Stewart who had made a special study of the Souris mouth forts. Crossing on the Treesbank ferry we met Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Criddle [1] and their children at their home which lay to the south of Shilo military camp. Though surrounded by a fine farming district, that particular area remains as remote as it was nearly two hundred years ago. The two cars in which we had started had to be left when we came to a muskeg. We leaped from tussock to tussock of the marsh in which the remains of an old corduroy road could be seen. Then on higher ground, and flanked by a grove of tamarac on one side and aspen on the other, we found a clearing which marked the site of an old fort. We could see depressions which had been cellars, and stones marking old fireplaces.

The bank of the river was steep, about thirty feet in height. To the north a path led down to the mouth of a small stream, which had been damned by beavers. So quiet and remote was the clearing that one's fancy could reconstruct the trading post of an earlier century, the log buildings enclosed by a palisade, and a group of Indians leaving their canoes and filing up the path to exchange pemmican and buffalo hides for powder, tobacco and tea. It was an experience never to be forgotten.

Photo: There are no surviving pictures of Brandon House or the other trading posts on the Assiniboine, but this picture of the posts on the Red River at the mouth of the Pembina River illustrate the fort in use in the early nineteenth century. Courtesy of Provincial Archives.

Notes

1. See: Pageant, January, 1961.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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