Fort George and Buckingham House: Fur Trade Rivals on the Iron Horse Trail
Nov. 21, 2017
Before the first Iron Horses were driven across Western Canada, the area surrounding what is today Alberta’s Iron Horse Trail was a key site in the Alberta history of the fur trade. For decades European trappers and the multinational companies they represented remade land that had for millennia been occupied by indigenous tribes- all to feed a trend for beaver-skin hats half a world away.
Two of the biggest companies were the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company. Today they’re a chain of grocery stores and high-end department stores respectively, but in the 16th and 17th century they were massive political and even military powers- the Hudson’s Bay Company even issued its own money. In 1812 the two companies launched the Pemmican War against each other, with the North West Company siding with the Métis people against settlers supported by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a conflict that ended with the two companies merging in the face of declining profits from their trade.
Their rivalry went back to the earliest days of the fur trade, and a key flashpoint can still be seen at a point along the Iron Horse Trail, 13 kilometres east of Elk Point.
The Fort George and Buckingham House forts on the North Saskatchewan River were established in 1792 by the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company respectively. They were one of the outposts that was furthest west, having been forced to move over 120km after they hunted their previous site dry and angered the local tribes. Fort George was established first, and Buckingham House not long after a hundred yards away. At their peak, they housed sixty men and as many women and children- indigenous ‘country wives’ and their Métis children.
There was naturally tension between the two settlements–though there is no record of violence between them–and even some instances of sharing supplies. Their main concern was the indigenous tribes- another settlement, South Branch House, had been massacred in 1794, prompting both forts to bolt themselves up for six weeks. For the largest stretch though, the two trading posts were reliable sources of food for canoe teams heading up the river
Sustainable hunting wasn’t a major concern for fur trappers, so the beaver around the area were soon depleted. By 1800 the forts had to be abandoned and by 1809 they had been taken apart and moved to Fort Vermillion.
Today, they are part of Alberta History and a Provincial Historical Site where actors and modern technology recreate the peak of life in the forts, covering the lives of both the fur trappers and the indigenous people they sometimes worked alongside, sometimes married, and sometimes displaced from land they had occupied for centuries. The site is open from May to early September- more information on Alberta history and trail history can be found here.