Opponents and Neighbours: Decades in the making

Editor’s note: After years of research and writing and working in conjunction with the Friends of the Forts Society, it is with great pleasure and pride that we announce the publication of Opponents and Neighbours: Fort George and Buckingham House and the Early Fur Trade on the North Saskatchewan River 1792 to 1800. Below you can read about the journey it took to publish the book, as well as some excerpts from the publication. Opponents and Neighbours is available for purchase through the Provincial Archives of Alberta store. Proceeds from book sales go to the Friends of the Forts Society whose mission is to support and enhance the Fort George & Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site.

Written by: Suzanna Wagner, Program Coordinator, Fort George and Buckingham House and Victoria Settlement

BETWEEN 1792 AND 1800, the North West Company’s Fort George and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Buckingham House operated on the North Saskatchewan River, attracting trade from the parklands in which they were located, the grasslands to the south, and the woodlands to the north. Indigenous nations interacted with a varied group of traders. The trade was conducted with respect and offered reciprocal benefits to all parties as befits transactions between friends, allies and eventual kinship groups. Trade protocols involved ceremonies, speeches, ritual gift exchanges, sharing of the calumet peace pipe and mutual professions of friendship and brotherhood. The posts were more than venues of commerce; they were a common meeting ground for people of diverse cultures. There were numerous country marriages or marriages a la façon du pays between company men and Indigenous women. Many children were conceived, born and raised into adulthood by stable, supportive and nurturing families. Children, whose mothers were of this continent and whose fathers travelled half the world would themselves have offspring whose descendants inhabit the land till the present time.

Opponents and Neighbours had its start as part of the research done to support the building of the Fort George & Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site in 1992. This large research project was undertaken by Douglas Babcock, a historian with the Government of Alberta’s Heritage Division. The manuscript was eagerly devoured by interpreters at the historic site for many years.

Several years after the initial manuscript was written, another historian with the Heritage Division, Michael Payne, reviewed the manuscript. He took all the fur trade research and history that had been published after Babcock’s manuscript was written and used it to better understand his research. Payne updated the manuscript to reflect the latest historical writing and research.

And in the last few years, a third Alberta Heritage historian, Peter Melnycky, also reviewed the manuscript and updated it based on yet more newly published historical research and scholarship.

With support from the Friends of the Forts Society and graphic design work from Alberta Heritage graphic designer Denise Ahlefeldt, publication is now complete.

This book, much like the fur trade it discusses, took many years and a great many people to successfully bring it up the long road to publication: writers, researchers, historians of the fur trade who work with Alberta Heritage and those who don’t, archivists, distribution and marketing people, a graphic designer, and of course, our funders. Thank you so much to everyone who directly or indirectly, made this book possible.

We hope you enjoy a few excerpts from Opponents and Neighbours:

IN NOVEMBER 1797 NWC CLERK DUNCAN MCGILLIVRAY SENT A LETTER to HBC Chief Inland William Tomison urging continued cooperation between the two companies, in which case Tomison would have “no cause to complain of us as opponents and neighbours.” The phrase “opponents and neighbours” neatly captures the ambivalence that characterized relations between the HBC and NWC people who shared the site of Fort George and Buckingham House on the North Saskatchewan for eight years. During that period animosity and outright conflict between the residents of the adjoining posts was rarely very far from the surface, yet frequently they engaged in acts of friendly cooperation and mutual aid. For example, McGillivray had written in his journal in March 1795:

We have had several quarrels with our neighbours this
winter in which we have always come off victorious; this they
attribute to our Superior numbers, which objection will be
done away in the Spring, when all our differences will probably
be decided by a general battle with equal numbers.

But three weeks later when a fire broke out at Buckingham House McGillivray recorded that he and his people at Fort George set such disputes aside in a crisis.

forgetting at that instant our former animosity we obeyed
the dictates of humanity by running to their assistance &
the Fire, after having consumed part of the roof, was happily
extinguished. Soon after we received a letter of thanks and an
invitation to pass the evening at Mr. Tomisons, where all our
differences were accomodated over a dish of tea, whilst the
Canadians and his [Tomison’s] men diverted themselves with
dancing and drinking plentifull draughts of what they called
delicious punch.

Economic rivalry was intense, but employees of both companies faced similar challenges of subsistence, defense, and working conditions. Under these circumstances, competition had to be tempered, and even put aside, when need or danger dictated. On those occasions, common interest could turn fierce opponents into good neighbours – despite the official policies of their parent companies.

Opponents and Neighbours provides an in-depth look at the people who lived and worked and traded at both Fort George and Buckingham House: their backgrounds, communities, and experiences. The following excerpt is about the officers of the North West Company’s Fort George:


Ties of friendship and kinship and a shared Scottish background also characterized the NWC officers stationed at Fort George. Five officers are known to have wintered at Fort George during the 1790s: Angus Shaw, Duncan McGillivray, John McDonald of Garth, James Hughes, and David Thompson. Three of the five officers—Shaw, McGillivray, and McDonald—were born in Scotland; Hughes was born in Montreal, and Thompson in London. All five became partners in the NWC after serving as clerks. More significantly all five were related by country marriages, or subsequent marriages to non-Indigenous women, to Simon McTavish. These connections to McTavish, the most powerful man in the NWC, were reinforced by pre-existing family connections as well.

In addition to the bonds of marriage and blood, friendships were easily forged at the isolated forts among men of similar social and cultural backgrounds. For instance, despite their differences in rank and experience, a warm relationship developed between Angus Shaw and Duncan McGillivray at Fort George in 1793-94. This was Shaw’s second year as a NWC partner and probably McGillivray’s first year in the northwest as a clerk. In July 1794 both wrote letters to Simon McTavish. Shaw said of McGillivray, “he is realy a Very promising youth, and I am positive will be a Credit to his friends and relations.” Writing of Shaw on the following day,

McGillivray said:

I have Spent as agreable a Winter with Mr Shaw as the Nature of the country could admit, my obligations to that

Gent[lema]n are many, as well on account of his good advice & instructions, as the friendly attention with which he treated me on every Occasion, & it has certainly consoled me much for my transition from the agreable Metropolis of Great Britain, to the interior regions of the bleak North West that I was favored with the friendship & confidence of a Master whose conduct has been at least as lenient & indulgent as Mr F’s was insolent & Severe.

McTavish would have been glad to hear that his nephew was so promising, for it was McTavish who had brought young Duncan into the NWC, together with Duncan’s brothers William and Simon. Such nepotism on the part of the Montreal director, or any other partner, could generate resentment among the wintering partners as may have been the explanation for Mr. F , probably James Finlay, the NWC partner in charge of Pine Island Fort in 1793-94, and his “severe” treatment of Duncan. The potential for resentment put pressure on such sponsors as McTavish to recruit wisely, and equal pressure on such recruits as Duncan to perform well. Early in his 1794 letter Duncan assured his uncle:

Since . . . fate has designed me for this Country I shall attempt to perform the functions of my duty with alacrity & cheerfulness & I have hitherto had the Satisfaction to observe that my endeavours to this purpose have been attended with all possible Success.

The yearly round at Fort George and Buckingham House and the details of trade and daily life are strongly featured:

The great bulk of the trade of Fort George and Buckingham House occurred at very specific times of the year when Indigenous groups arrived at these posts with pelts and provisions. According to McGillivray, the “usual time of trading” began in early March when Indigenous groups arrived with their winter hunts. A second flurry of trading activity occurred at the start of May, just before the embarkation of the brigades, when they arrived with their spring hunts. At these times there could be upwards of two hundred people visiting the posts to trade, many with their families, and representing seven or more distinct peoples. Most camped just outside the stockades of the two posts on a cleared campsite that was called the “plantation” by HBC writers. Tomison also mentions a summer and fall hunt as well, and the Cree and Assiniboine living close to the posts might visit to trade at almost any time they were in the vicinity and in need of supplies.

The actual exchange of goods at the posts was conducted within a framework of ritualistic observances that reinforced the economic and social and political significance of trade. These rituals underscored the shared understanding that the exchange of goods was taking place between friends, allies, and equals.

Not all trade was conducted at the forts themselves:

The bulk of the trade of Fort George and Buckingham House occurred when groups of Indigenous people of varying size and representing multiple nations arrived at the posts with furs or provisions. Both posts, however, also engaged in trade at a distance in the camps and gathering places of their Indigenous partners. The Montreal-based companies called this trading “en derouine,” and it had been an important aspect of fur trade life since the early coureurs de bois.

The North West Company was probably more prone to use this trading approach and was generally more successful in acquiring furs and provisions in this fashion, but the Hudson’s Bay Company also saw value in travelling with Indigenous bands and trading far from its posts. For example, although Peter Fidler’s official task was to survey the country between Buckingham House and the Rockies when he and John Ward accompanied the Piegans on their winter journey of 1792-93, it was also an opportunity to conduct trade with the Piegans away from the post. Indeed Fidler observed that, prior to his journey, “Several of our people have been with those Indians, remaining with them for several Winters & used to make a small Trade with them.”

Fidler and Ward were equipped with two horses each and an assortment of goods. Fidler carried tobacco, vermilion, flints, beads, knives, gunpowder, and other items valued at 58 1/6 Made Beaver (MB), but these goods were intended “to give Indians for keeping us 2 during all the winter & as presents;”Ward’s goods were “his own property & belonging to some of our Men at Buckingham house, who have supplied them with a part to dispose of for them which they allow half for his Trouble in Trading & carrying the skins.” Only nine days into the journey, Ward had traded 30 MB in fox and wolf pelts from the Piegans. A few days later Fidler became a trader too, albeit reluctantly:

The [Piegan] Indians we now came up to being very much in want of Tobacco & other small articles, would give me no rest until I traded a little with them. Traded 32 MB altho what small articles I have with me was intended for presents & for paying the Indians for our living with them in the winter & towards spring if any thing remained I intended then to trade with them before we went for the House.

By mid-December Fidler had to trade more of his goods for two poles to make a travois “as the Skins I have been obliged to Trade are too many to carry conveniently upon Horse back, which I have hitherto done till this Day.” By journey’s end both Fidler and Ward had expended their entire supply of goods, and when the Piegans arrived at Buckingham House in March 1793, Tomison gave them gifts of “many small articles for their good behaviour to the 2 men with them all Winter.” Fidler’s furs belonged to the HBC, but Ward’s were credited to his account and to the accounts of the men who contributed to his venture with their own property.

Excerpts from pags 125-126, 161-163, 84-85, and 96-97.

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