Art. IX. Historic Site Profile,
In which various historic sites and living history programs in the Northwest are reviewed. This issue : Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.
Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is located seven kilometers south of the town of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, on highway 11A. The site's facilities include an interpretive center with a small museum, theater, and small gift shop, and washrooms. The interpretive center is wheelchair accessible ; officially, the two historic sites north of the center are also wheelchair accessible, but they were difficult to push a stroller through. Outside there are picnic tables and a small parking lot which can accommodate tour buses and large RV's.
The historic site consists of the four fur fort locations which were on this spot from 1799 to 1875. Of the four sites, the two earliest are the most interesting.
A ten minute walk south of the interpretive center brings you to the site of the Rocky Mountain House run by the North West Company from 1799 until the union with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. From this very spot, David Thompson set out on his epic explorations of the Columbia, and his first child was born at the site in 1801.
In his journal, Alexander Henry the Younger, factor at the Rocky Mountain House site from 1810 to 1811, gives an impression of what life was like during the winter of 1810 :
' Nov 20th, B. Desjarlix hunting ; seven men out to raise dog trains : four laying up canoes and cleaning the fort ; one making a wood train ; one off for meat, one cutting wood, one carting, one making kegs. Our canoes are much split by the frost, and four of our large axes broke to-day, being nearly as brittle as glass. Desjarlaix killed nothing, as the animals about the fort have all been roused by men going for trains, searching for horses, etc. 23rd. Sawed plank for gates; made trains for a journy to Terre Blanche. Two Sarcees arrived from near Wolf river, where buffalo are numerous ; they brought a few beavers. 24th. Willy Flat's boy is very ill ; this is the sixth day since he has tasted anything but chocolate. He desired to shift his berth. 25th. A roof-stick fell last night, and the boy ate for the first time. 26th. Began to make our fort gates and took down the flag-staff to arrange the haulyard. 27th. A gale prevented us from erecting our flag-staff. 28th. A piegan and three Fall Indians arrived with dog travailles. They informed us that a Piegan had been murdered at Terre Blanche by the Crees, that a war-party of Piegans and Fall Indians had just returned with 60 horses stolen from the Flat Heads, that a fresh party were off for the same purpose ; also, that a Fall Indian Woman, taken prisoner last summer, had escaped from the Flat Heads, with whom she said our people were camped. If this report be true, Mr. Finan McDonald must have abandoned his house.
Dec. 1st. Pichette finished the fort gates, and the bastions were put in order, but they are wretched buildings for defense. 4th. Nine young Fall Indians arrived, each with a dog travaille and a few bad wolfskins, for which they wanted tobacco. 5th. Fall Indians off with most of their wolves, as we took only the best. Every chimney in the fort smokes, which renders our houses very disagreeable. ' (Henry, 665-666).
This very site has been excavated, and the size and layout of the original fort is easy to visualize. You can see the remains of Henry's disagreeable chimneys ; fire-reddened stones mark the spots where six fireplaces once stood.
Many of the artifacts from the site are on display in the museum. Buttons, pipe stems, trade silver, knives, beads, &c. — all excellent reference material for the re-enactor.
Just a few hundred meters further up river (Henry would have said 'above'), stands the site of the Hudson's Bay Company's Acton House. This was the rival trading post which operated from 1799 until 1835. Like Fort George/Buckingham House a few days' travel below, the juxtaposition of these two establishments is remarkable. Here, three thousand miles in the wilderness, in the heart of the Blackfoot confederacy, these two firms were competing with each other.
The park has rebuilt the first few feet of the walls and buildings at the Acton House site. This really gives a sense of the scale of the place.
Behind these two forts is a fenced area where the park keeps a small herd of buffalo. From where you stand, the town is invisible, and there are few signs of modern civilization. With the river on one side and the buffalo on the other, you can get a real sense of what the site must have been like, although today there are no doubt many more trees in the immediate vicinity.
A much shorter walk north of the interpretive center takes you to the two sites where Hudson's Bay Company forts were situated from 1835 to 1875. The 1865 to 1875 site has two restored stone chimneys, which give you an idea of what Alexander Henry's must have looked like.
At various locations around the newer sites are a lever style fur press, a Red River cart, and a York boat. Near the Acton House site is a canoe display which has interesting information on the various canoes used by the voyageurs.
Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is a 'must see' for anyone interested in the period. The artifacts on display from the 1799 to 1821 fort site are some of the best reference materials available for the re-enactor.
Henry, Alexander. New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson, 1799 - 1814. Elliot Coues, ed. Ross & Haines, Minneapolis, Minnesota : 1965.
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