Great Canadian RIVERS 


An Exploration Timeline of the North Saskatchewan

1690 - Henry Kelsey - Long before any other Europeans reached the western interior, young Henry Kelsey and his native guides journeyed far into Assiniboine Country, southwest of the Saskatchewan River. The goal of Kelsey's mission, on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company, was to encourage inland First Nations tribes to bring their furs east to the Company's trading post at York Factory. (His outreach assignment was a notable exception to the HBC's 17th century "stay by the bay" policy; the Company did not send another inland envoy for more than 50 years, when competition with Montreal-based traders became intense.) Kelsey is known to have travelled on the lower Saskatchewan River as far as modern-day The Pas, where he spent the winter. He then turned southwest, and headed into buffalo country as far as the Touchwood Hills, below the present-day city of Saskatoon. Kelsey spent 2 years with the Plains Indians, but it is not clear whether he navigated any further stretches of the Saskatchewan. Although he returned to York Factory on Hudson Bay with astonishing tales, and a fleet of aboriginal traders in tow, Kelsey's accomplishments were regarded with suspicion by the hierarchy of the Hudson's Bay Company and he was never fully recognized for his achievements.

1743 - François La Vérendrye - Part of the great La Vérendrye family fur trading/exploration dynasty of the early 18th century, François La Vérendrye was the son of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye, first explorer to reach Lake Winnipeg. After its success in establishing Fort Dauphin at Winnipegosis and Fort Bourbon at Cedar Lake, in 1741, the La Vérendrye exploration juggernaut reached its westernmost limit in 1743, when François constructed the small Fort Pasquia (or Paskoya) at the confluence of the Carrot, Pasquia and Saskatchewan Rivers (now known as The Pas, Manitoba). Some historical records suggest that the junior La Vérendrye may have travelled even further upstream on the Saskatchewan, as far as the Forks of the North and South branches of the river.

1754 - Anthony Henday - The La Vérendrye family's penetration into the western interior in the 1740's, and the lucrative interior French fur trade that followed, was the impetus for Hudson's Bay Company employee Anthony Henday's western expedition in 1754. Henday was dispatched by the Chief Factor of the Company's York Factory trading post to investigate claims that the French traders had set up a chain of inland posts, and were diverting valuable furs to Montreal. With the help of Plain Cree guides, Henday set out along the Hayes River, following the Utik River - Moose Lake - Pasquia River route to the Saskatchewan River. At Fort Paquia (The Pas), Henday had his first encounter with the French, who, after threatening to seize him, eventually allowed him - and his imposing flotilla of Cree guides - to continue upriver. The explorers navigated the North Saskatchewan as far west as present-day North Battleford, before leaving their canoes and striking out on foot across the plains southwest of the river. Like Henry Kelsey before him, Henday encountered the buffalo hunting aboriginals of the prairies. Although some appeared eager to enter into new trading relationships, others, such as the chief of a large native band at Red Deer, sagely rejected the idea of giving up the comforts of a well-fed western life for the hardships of a marathon journey to Hudson Bay. As Henday, who is thought to have travelled as far west as the foothills of the Rockies, headed back home along the North Saskatchewan River, he began to realize the full extent of the region's French influence. Native groups, through both direct contact with the French traders, and trading relationships with Cree middlemen, were already well-supplied with European goods. At the newly-established Fort Saint-Louis, also known as Fort à la Corne, just below the Forks of the river east of modern-day Prince Albert, and again at Fort Pasquia further east, Henday observed that the French traders made liberal use of brandy as a trading currency, and that they were well-versed in the languages and culture of their aboriginal fur suppliers. Back at York Factory, Henday's observations of the native economy, and the nature of the fur trading competition with the French, were met with skepticism and outright disbelief. In the service of his company, Anthony Henday had travelled further west than any other European, but like Henry Kelsey before him, his reports were downplayed and largely disregarded by his superiors.

1772 - Matthew Cocking - The third in the line of early Hudson's Bay Company "travelling salesman," Matthew Cocking, a young HBC bookkeeper, was sent west by his employers in 1772 in a renewed attempt to encourage Bay-bound trade. During his year-long journey, Cocking canoed the waters of the North Saskatchewan, and lived with the Blackfoot on the western plains. Upon his return to York Factory, he reported that he had met "Montreal pedlars," (independent Montreal-based fur traders) at every turn, and warned his superiors that the venerable Hudson's Bay Company was in danger of losing the competition with the aggressive Montreal traders. For the first time, Company officials paid attention; in 1773, they sent the rugged and resourceful explorer Samuel Hearne to establish Cumberland House, their first trading post on the Saskatchewan River. Matthew Cocking took over the management of Cumberland House in 1775, and eventually became commander of the HBC's York Factory post in 1781.

Elk Point's Peter Fidler
Visitors to Elk Point, just north of the North Saskatchewan River about halfway between Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, Alberta, can see a 10-metre-high wooden statue of Peter Fidler, erected in celebration of the town's 1992 Bicentennial.

1792 - Peter Fidler - As a steady string of fur trading forts, built by both the Hudson's Bay Company and the newly-established North West Company, began to appear along the north shore of the North Saskatchewan River, Hudson's Bay Company surveyor and astronomer Peter Fidler was sent to the Saskatchewan River to assist the company in stabilizing and extending its new fur trading district. Fidler, who had been trained by the chief Hudson's Bay Company surveyor Philip Turnor (also a mentor of the legendary map-maker, David Thompson), was a veteran of an ambitious 1791 expedition to Athabasca country, where he had wintered near with the Dene near Great Slave Lake. In 1792, Fidler navigated the North Saskatchewan River from Fort George (near present-day Elk Point, Alberta), all the way to the Rocky Mountains, mapping the river route and much of the area to the southwest. During the winter of 1792 - 1793, he wintered with the Peigan, and was the first European to initiate trade with the Kootenay. Fidler recorded detailed observations of the life of the Plains natives, before returning to York Factory in 1793 to undertake an expedition to the Seal River.

Travel the David Thompson Highway
Today, the David Thompson Highway, named in honour of the legendary mapmaker and explorer, provides travellers with a spectacular route from Red Deer, Alberta through the North Saskatchewan River towns of Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg to Saskatchewan River Crossing, on the Icefields Parkway just inside Banff National Park.

1798 - David Thompson - One of Canada's greatest mapmakers first canoed the North Saskatchewan in 1798, soon after joining the ranks of the Montreal-based North West Company. For the next 12 years, in his capacity as a fur trader, surveyor and company clerk, Thompson travelled almost continuously up and down the river, charting the positions of North West Company forts and overseeing the flow of western furs to Montreal. During his greatest era of exploration, Thompson and his family claimed a variety of North Saskatchewan River addresses - Buckingham House, Fort George, Fort Augustus (near modern-day Edmonton), and Rocky Mountain House, at the foothills of the mountains. His first child was born in 1802 at Rocky Mountain House, and in 1807, the upstream post served as the launching pad for his historic crossing through Howse Pass to the Columbia River. In 1810, he made his final journey from the Boggy Hall trading post, below Rocky Mountain House on the North Saskatchewan, into the valley of the Athabasca River, over the Athabasca Pass to the Columbia River, and on to the Pacific Ocean in July of 1811.

The Fur Trading Forts of the North Saskatchewan

Along with 17th, 18th and 19th century exploration, the North Saskatchewan's history was shaped by fur trading and fort-building. Edmonton, the province of Alberta's largest city, had its beginnings as Fort Edmonton, a major 19th century provisioning post and cross-roads of western fur trading networks. The western Alberta foothills town of Rocky Mountain House was once the base of David Thompson's trading and surveying operations, and Elk Point, Alberta, near the Saskatchewan border, is founded on the former site of the Hudson Bay Company's Fort George and the North West Company's Buckingham House. Elk Point's dual corporate beginnings are not unusual: all along the north shore of the North Saskatchewan, the Hudson Bay Company and the upstart North West Company played out their bitter rivalry, as first one company, and then the other, leapfrogged their way toward the Rocky Mountains. Before the enemy traders finally merged in 1821, their battle for commercial supremacy on the North Saskatchewan sometimes reached almost hilarious heights, as rival posts were built side-by-side in the middle of the western wilderness. Tracing the timeline of fort construction on the North Saskatchewan can be challenging; fur trading centres and provisioning posts were often relocated several times, as furs became depleted, buffalo and other game ran out, spring floods threatened, or more advantageous sites became available. From the North Saskatchewan's earliest fur trading days, major fort-building on the river follows this chronological order:

Fort à la Corne - Built by the Fort Frontenanc (Kingston, Ontario) - born French fur trader, Louis de la Corne (also known as Chevalier de la Corne) in 1753, this trading post at the Forks of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers was the first European post west of The Pas. It was also the first place in Saskatchewan that grain was grown: la Corne and his men seeded a few acres of land surrounding the post, and were agreeably surprised by the crop that resulted.

The François-Finlay Post - After the fall of New France, the inland trading network of the French collapsed, but an entrepreneurial excess of independent traders from Montreal were waiting to take their place. Built in 1763, the first "pedlar" post on the Saskatchewan River was a combined effort of François Le Blanc, a veteran of the La Vérendrye family's 1740's expeditions, and James Finlay, a Scottish-born businessman. Located just about 150 kilometres east of Prince Albert, below Finlay's Falls near present-day Nipawin, Saskatchewan, the stockaded post was the focus of 20th century archeological excavations. It now lies under several metres of water in a man-made lake created by the Nipawin Hydroelectric Project. The François-Finlay Dam, built in 1986, was named in honour of the river's early traders.

Fort George/ Buckingham House - By the 1790's, many of the independent "Montreal pedlars" had joined forces as the North West Company. In 1792, intrepid Nor'Wester Angus Shaw built Fort George on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan near present-day Elk Point, Alberta. Not to be outdone, Hudson Bay Company senior officer William Tomison responded by constructing Buckingham House, high on the hill above his rival. The Fort George staff of 60 French-Canadian and Métis men and their families, and Buckingham House contingent of 38 Orcadians (of the Scottish Isle of Orkney) battled fiercely over furs; the Nor'Westers often succeeded in intercepting the best pelts before they could reach the HBC post. Nevertheless, in a precarious balance between cooperation and competition, inhabitants of Buckingham House sometimes took refuge within the palisades of Fort George when they feared attack from Plains tribes. The two structures shared a well, and when business was put aside, exchanged goods, supplies and social entertainments. Both forts were abandoned in 1800, when the centre of western trade shifted to Fort Edmonton and Fort Augustus, further upriver. Fort George/Buckingham is a Province of Alberta Historic Site.

Fort Carlton - As one of the North Saskatchewan's most important "Forts des Prairies," or provisioning posts, Fort Carlton sat on the banks of the North Saskatchewan at the ford of La Montée. Built in 1810 by Hudson's Bay Company employee James Bird, it was the 3rd Fort Carlton to be constructed in the Saskatchewan district. The first had been built in 1795 at the junction of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, and the 2nd, 150 kilometres upstream on the South Saskatchewan. At its North Saskatchewan location, it served as a strategic crossroads for not only river travel, but also overland wagon trails that stretched from Fort Garry in the south, to Fort Edmonton in the west, and from Green Lake to the Churchill River. Supplies, not furs, were its main stock in trade; situated on the doorstep of the great buffalo plains of the west, the Fort served as a key distribution point for pemmican and "country produce" - locally available foods such as venison, fish and berries. Each year, if the buffalo hunt was good, hundreds of kilograms of pemmican, fat and dried meat were collected by the Fort and shipped to far-flung trading posts. The operations of the rival Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company were even more intertwined than usual at the Fort Carlton: during its early years, the 2 companies shared the Fort's stockade! Today, Fort Carlton has been reconstructed as a Province of Saskatchewan Historical Park.

Fort Edmonton/Fort Augustus - Like Fort Carlton, which moved twice before finding its long-term home, the Hudson's Bay Company post of Fort Augustus and the North West Company post of Fort Edmonton relocated several times between 1795 and the 1820's, before settling on a high ridge above the North Saskatchewan River at the site of Alberta's present-day provincial legislature in Edmonton. The positioning of the upriver North Saskatchewan fort was intended to be the most westerly point that fur brigades from the east could reach before the winter freeze-up; Acton House, a post constructed earlier further up the river, had proved to be too far. Like Fort Carlton, which it eventually supplanted, Fort Edmonton was a provisioning post. It also became a "fur trade entrepôt," an agricultural centre that produced potatoes and barley, raised horses, and produced pemmican and other bison products, including the English delicacy of pickled buffalo tongues. The Fort also became a major supplier of York boats: the fur traders' essential cargo craft rarely lasted for more than 3 trips on the long, punishing rivers, and the never-ending need for new boats kept a crew of Orcadian boat-builders busy at the Fort year-round. Throughout the 1800's, the Hudson's Bay Company's trading post remained the centre of trading activity on the North Saskatchewan, evolving into a public retail operation with the waning of the fur trade in the 1870's. When the Alberta Legislature was constructed near the Fort in 1915, Fort Edmonton was dismantled. Its elements have been preserved in reconstructions at Fort Edmonton Park, and the Provincial Museum and Archives, in the city of Edmonton.

Rocky Mountain House - Between the years of 1799 and 1875, 4 forts bearing the name of Rocky Mountain House were built on the upper North Saskatchewan west of Red Deer, Alberta. With its customary Hudson's Bay Company/North West Company side-by-side beginning, the post was originally designed to encourage trade with the Kutenai (Kootenay). But the western tribe was severely weakened by smallpox and threat of attack by the Blackfoot Confederacy, and trade occurred mostly with the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine. Rocky Mountain House evolved into a secondary provisioning post, but was closed several times because of a lack of supplies. Explorer David Thompson frequently visited the upriver post, using it as his base in 1897 when he crossed the Rockies to the Columbia River. Today, the fort has been reconstructed as the Rocky Mountain National Historic Site, located 7 kilometres south of the town of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.