One great fort

Manitoba is blessed with many national historically significant sites, including Winnipeg’s Exchange District and the Inglis elevator row, but topping the list is Lower Fort Garry, according to Canada’s History magazine (formerly the Beaver). In fact, the fort, located about 30-kilometres north of Winnipeg along PTH 9, was named by the magazine as one of Canada’s Top-10 national historic sites. This designation places the fort in the same company as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where Vikings arrived in AD 1000.

In 1925, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared Lower Fort Garry to be of “national importance.” Its selection by the board was not due to its long and prominent role in the fur trade, nor as Manitoba’s first penitentiary and asylum, but as the location where Indian Treaty No. 1 was signed. The first of the 11 numbered treaties in Western Canada  was signed in 1871 by Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald on behalf of the Canadian government and Cree and Ojibway chiefs just outside the fort’s west gate. A plaque commemorating the signing was affixed to the west wall of the fort during a public ceremony in June 1929. Every year, the signing of the treaty is celebrated at the fort by aboriginal people from southern Manitoba.

In 1951, the fort was deeded by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Canadian government, and on January 17, 1951, Lower Fort Garry was declared a National Historic Site. The Canadian Parks Service (now Parks Canada) began restoring the site to its 1830-75 character in 1964.

Lower Fort Garry is the oldest stone fur trading post in North America, and was the administrative headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast fur trading empire.

An earlier Fort Garry — the last Upper Fort Garry in Winnipeg was to the southwest of it, and all that now remains is its forlorn north gateway — had been built near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, but it was destroyed in the massive flood of 1826, which was four times the volume of the 1997 “Flood of the Century.”

George Simpson, the HBC governor of Rupert’s Land, decided to build a new fort on higher ground north of the treacherous St. Andrew’s Rapids and away from the “hectic” life at the Red River Settlement. A clerk wrote at the time that “not a wife can sell her butter nor a farmer his grain without an audience with the governor.” These mundane tasks had no appeal to the governor, which resulted in his selection of a new site to direct the affairs of the HBC, which encompassed almost half the land of the North American continent.

In 1831, Simpson brought in stonemasons, carpenters and other craftsmen. They first built a new residence for the governor and new wife Frances. The latter, a delicate new arrival from the Old Country, was not to be exposed to the robust life at The Forks where one or more of the governor’s “country wives” — aboriginal women with whom many of the early settlers cohabited and had children — still resided.

When the Big House was finished, two large warehouses were constructed nearby. This collection of buildings formed the nucleus of the complex, which eventually included the Men’s House, where male employees of the HBC lived, and the doctor’s house and a store. The buildings, as well as the eight-foot high retaining walls and four round bastions, are made of limestone quarried from the nearby riverbank.

Outside the compound are the blacksmith’s shop, the engineer’s cottage and Fraser House, an original post-on-sill structure built by James Fraser, a Scottish farmer, in the early 1830s. It is one of the few remaining Red River-frame buildings in Canada.

Today, the fort is open to the public as a living museum; that is, “animators” in period costumes re-enact the tasks of everyday life during the heyday of the fort. Researchers spent years scouring Canada, England and the U.S. for furniture, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, books, pictures and artifacts dating back to the mid-1800s. Period costumes have been copied to the minutest detail. Those participating are dressed as the associate governor, his wife, the store clerks, maids, cooks and the blacksmith. In the downstairs kitchen of the Big House, maids bake bannock, scones and ginger and oatmeal cookies.

The home of Associate Governor Eden Colville, who resided in the Big House in the 1850s, contains elegant furniture, silver urns, marble figurines, pewter jugs, quill pens and other artifacts. A set of orange-and-white stoneware dishes is displayed on the sideboard of the formal dining room where the Colvilles entertained chief factors, and factors of the HBC, as well and residents.

Doorways are low and beds are small since the average man at the time was about 165 centimetres (5-feet5) tall and women were about 152 centimetres (five-feet) tall.

A housewife in the Fraser House makes tallow candles from sheep or beef fat poured into metal tubes, with a string as a wick. She also makes soap from the same fat treated with wood ash lye.

In front of a bellows-fed fire, a blacksmith forges horseshoes, locks and bolts, tongs and candlesticks.

In the Women’s House are found spinning wheels, looms and skeins of wood dyed in rainbow hues with berries, herbs and bark, which are woven by women into shawls, rugs, wall hangings and cushion covers.

The ground floor of the fur loft building contains a replica of the original HBC store that served the community. Settlers received credit notes or tally sticks for their farm produce in order to make their purchases at the store. When shipments arrived each year from England, such impatient crowds gathered outside the store that customers were only let in two at a time, which coincided with the number of clerks behind the counter.

In the stone posts of the east gate visitors can see names carved by soldiers temporarily garrisoned at the fort in 1870-71. These were the soldiers sent from the east to quell the Red River “Troubles.” Unlike Upper Fort Garry, the Métis under Louis Riel did not seize  Lower Fort Garry.

The fort was later used as a training ground for the North West Mounted Police (now RCMP), as a provincial penitentiary, and as a temporary “lunatic” asylum. It was an HBC residence until 1911 when the fort was leased to the Manitoba Motor Country Club. The Big House was used as a clubhouse until 1962.

With all it has going for it, it’s no wonder that Lower Fort Garry was among the magazine’s Top-10 Canadian national historic sites.

This article was originally published February 18, 2011.