Go Back in Time When You Visit the Old Trading Posts of Saskatchewan
A visit to Saskatchewan takes you on a journey through history to a time when Canada, in the eyes of Europe, was a wild and unexplored frontier. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, European traders ventured into Saskatchewan, or the “Land of the Living Skies,” to barter with the First Nations people.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, beaver fur hats were all the rage in Europe, and the continent’s beaver population was, unfortunately, already on the road to extinction. When the French and English merchants discovered the thriving multitudes of beavers living in Saskatchewan, they felt that they had stumbled on a goldmine. Hundreds of trading posts scattered across the province, as French and English merchants met with Aboriginal families to exchange knives and iron pots for furs.
Visiting these trading posts today provides the opportunity to feel the tensions and intrigue that characterized first experiences of contact between Europeans and First Nations people.
Cumberland House Provincial Park
Standing in front of the stone walls of Cumberland House, the sole architectural remains of one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s first inland trading posts, you cannot ignore the legacy of history. It was here that Saskatchewan’s very first permanent village emerged. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Hudson’s Bay Company faced growing competition from fur traders who were penetrating inland western Canada with increasing enthusiasm. Initially independent, these traders eventually formed the North West Company, which competed directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company. In response, in 1774,the Hudson’s Bay Company sent English explorer, Samuel Hearne, on a mission to establish a post on the Saskatchewan River. Accompanied by eight European companions and, with some advice from the locals, Hearne settled on Pine Island Lake. A surge in trade followed the establishment of Cumberland House, as many more trading posts soon sprang up along the river’s1,200 or so kilometers of banks.
Initially, Hudson’s Bay Company depended on York boats to deliver goods, but 1873 saw the very first steamboat chug its way down the Saskatchewan River. Sadly, she did not make it very far, sinking on her maiden voyage. In 1874, a new steamboat, The Northcote, took to the river with greater success. In fact, you can see remnants of The Northcote today when visiting the Cumberland House Provincial Park, and imagine her meandering down the Saskatchewan River, loaded with beaver furs, one hundred and thirty years ago.
The Cumberland House Provincial Park, which was established in 1986, is located in Prince Albert and can be accessed from Highway 123. The site, with its limited facilities, maintains an authentic atmosphere. It is a place where you can really feel the pace slow down and find the time and space to allow your imagination to wander.
Fort Carlton Provincial Park
Further west, in Saskatoon, you can visit Fort Carlton Provincial Park. The Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Carlton in 1810, thirty-six years after establishing Cumberland House. While Cumberland House contains only original remnants of the trading post that once flourished there, Fort Carlton offers visitors a different kind of experience – a historical reconstruction of life in the nineteenth century.When walking through Fort Carlton, your surroundings actually transport you through time.
Guides will accompany you through a teepee camp, trading stores and a clerk’s house. The stores feature the kinds of goods that were traded and used during the nineteenth century, from the furs of beavers and the skins of buffalos, used and provided by the First Nations people, to the guns carried by the European traders. Your guides will also offer you the chance to participate in activities that imitate how traders behaved and lived. If you really want to deepen your experience, you can even camp for the night. Fort Carlton engages all of the senses and provides visitors with a rare opportunity to really “live” the fur trade era.
The Visitors’ Centre displays detailed information regarding Fort Carlton’s history. Apart from serving as a significant post for the trading of furs and the provisioning of meat, Fort Carlton was the site where the First Nations people and the government began working out the terms of Treaty Six in 1876.As a result of the decline of the buffalo population and the spread of smallpox, the First Nations people faced severe hunger and illness. In negotiating Treaty Six, they agreed to swap large areas of the prairies for small reserves, healthcare and the government’s protection from famine.
In 1885, however,violent clashes between the government and the Metis people led to a fire which burnt down Fort Carlton. Reconstruction and use of the site as an educational facility began in 1967.
Fort Pitt Provincial Park
While initial negotiations started at Fort Carlton, Treaty Six was actually signed on September 7th, 1876, at another trading post, Fort Pitt, which lies about 400 kilometers to the west. Built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1826, Fort Pitt provided a kind of “halfway house” between Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton, which is in modern day Alberta.
As well as providing a trading post for furs, Fort Pitt was also a place where the European merchants traded with the First Nations people for meat, which was essential to maintaining the health and strength of the Hudson Bay Company’s workers.
Furthermore, Fort Pitt is known as the site at which conflict broke out between the government’s North West Mounted Police and Big Bear and the Cree in 1885. Following some violent clashes, Big Bear and William McLean, a Hudson Bay’s Company trader, managed to reach a truce.
When you visit the site today, you can see plaques dedicated to Big Bear and to Treaty Six. You can paddle a canoe on the river that played such a significant role in the fur trade and you can walk amongst the archaeological remains of what was once a busy nineteenth century trading center.
A tour of the old trading posts of Saskatchewan province is, truly, a journey through an era that played a pivotal role in shaping Canada as we know it today. Whether you visit the genuine remnants of nineteenth century buildings and boats and allow your imagination to run free; take a guided tour through a fully reconstructed settlement; or contemplate a site of momentous historical significance, a trip to Saskatchewan will make you feel as though you have travelled through time.