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The Fur Trade Period



In 1892 Joseph Burr Tyrrell of the Geological Survey of Canada visited Fond du Lac in the course of his investigations of what is now northern Saskatchewan. At Fond du Lac he spoke with Jose Mercredi who had founded the post there and had lived there for over 40 years. According to Mercredi:

...in the early part of the century the Hudson's Bay Company had a trading post on a point on the south side of the lake, lying in a direction S. 20W., and that the three inhabitants were killed by Chipewyan Indians. At the same time the North-west Company had a post on a point on the north shore a short distance farther east, but after the murder of the Hudson's Bay Company's men they moved across to the point on the south shore. The place was afterwards abandoned until 1845, when Mercredi arrived and built the present post. It is on one of the principal lines of travel of the Barren Ground caribou, in their regular migrations north and south (Tyrrell 1895:62-63).

This quote indicates the presence in the Fond du Lac area of at least two trading posts preceding that built by Mercredi for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). However, Mercredi's account indicates that both of the earlier posts were occupied at the same time; in fact, the documentary sources indicate that he telescoped certain events of the first half of the 19th century and assigned occurrences to the wrong company (or Tyrrell has distorted Mercredi's statements).

The first trading post in this region was established by the Northwest Company (NWC), apparently a few years before 1800 (Rich 1938:416). However, this was during the period of intense rivalry between the NWC, the HBC and the XY Company and the "business" tactics of the Northwest Company were particularly unacceptable. According to Morton (1973:517-518):

In the summer of 1804 even the Chipewyans broke out in protest. They attacked the old Company's fort at Fond du Lac, near the eastern extremity of Lake Athabasca, and killed the two men in charge, their wives, and their children.

This post seems to have been named Fond du Lac, although this was simply the name applied to the whole eastern end of Lake Athabasca. Its location is not certain, although Mercredi has suggested that it was situated on the south shore of Lake Athabasca, farther west than the present Fond du Lac. After the massacre the NWC terminated its activities at this post and concentrated its forces at Fort Chipewyan on the western extremity of Lake Athabasca.

Fifteen years later the Hudson's Bay Company established a post in this region. This was Harrison's House, built in 1819. The man in charge of this post was George P. Andries, a former NWC employee. Governor Simpson (Rich 1938: 362) described Harrison's House as consisting "of a Masters House, Mens House and Store all in tolerable repair and sufficient for the place". He (Rich 1938:361) provided this rationale for the establishment of Harrison's House:

... the objective thereof is to attract the Chipewyans who generally reside on their Lands (usually called Carribeau Eaters) towards the Rich hunting grounds to the Southward and Westward.

The Caribou Eater Branch of the Chipewyan were those who preyed upon the migrating Kaminuriak and Beverly herds and generally lived to the north and east of Fond du Lac. Simpson hoped that by establishing Harrison's House, two purposes could be achieved: (1) since these Chipewyans were obliged to travel to Ft. Chipewyan to trade, the HBC could intercept them at the eastern end of Lake Athabasca and (2) these Chipewyans could be induced to occupy the regions to the south of this area in order to trap fur bearing animals, especially beaver and otter.

Since Harrison's House was established at the height of the competition between the HBC and the NWC, a rival post of the latter company was immediately built in proximity. This NWC establishment is believed to have been named Fond du Lac (Smythe 1968:244) and was sufficiently large to take most of the trade, leaving Andries with very little:

Mr. Andries, formerly a North West Clerk, has hitherto had charge thereof, but being too strong opposed, has done little more good than annoying our antagonists, compelling them to squander their property and creating a diversion of their forces (Rich 1938:361).

Simpson felt that in the winter of 1820-21 Andries would have "cleared the Expenses of the Post"; however, it was not possible to deliver a sufficient number of trade goods to the Athabasca region in that season and so the trade suffered.

The actual location of Harrison's House is not known. Smythe (1968:244) has indicated that it was located on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, near the mouth of Oldman River. In fact, there seems to be no documentary evidence supporting this assertion; however, this would place the post in approximately the area indicated by Jose Mercredi, so it is likely that it was located on the north shore of this arm of Lake Athabasca, some distance west of present day Fond du Lac.

Upon the amalgamation of the NWC with the HBC in 1821, many of those trading posts which had operated at a loss were terminated and the premises abandoned. Harrison's House was one of those which was discontinued and the HBC consolidated its operations at the former NWC post at the opposite end of the lake, Ft. Chipewyan.

The documentary sources indicate that it was not until 1851 that the HBC re-established operations in this region by building a post at the present site of Fond du Lac. However, Jose Mercredi who established this post told Tyrrell that he had been at Fond du Lac since 1845. Perhaps a HBC winter outpost had been operated here for a few years preceding the decision to establish a permanent post. Tyrrell described the Fond du Lac of his day in this way:

The lake is here but two miles wide, and the trading post is situated on a low point of sand and rock on its north shore. It consists of a number of well-built log houses, with a yard surrounded by a palisade of stout posts. In 1892 it was in charge of Jose Mercredi, a venerable old French half-breed seventy-five years of age, who had lived there continuously for the past forty-seven years. In the immediate vicinity is a Roman Catholic mission church where a priest lives during the winter (Tyrrell 1895:62).

Tyrrell has erred here in his estimation of the width of the lake at this point. The channel is only a little more than a mile (1 1/2 km) across at Fond du Lac and becomes somewhat narrower to the east.

The Hudson's Bay Company has remained in operation at Fond du Lac from (at least) 1851 to contemporary times, when its stores have transformed into the "Northern" company.

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