A new theory on the old fort
Archeologist rekindles debate on Edmonton’s origins
Just when Edmonton thought it had its origin story figured out, an archeologist who spent the last 16 years digging on Epcor’s Rossdale site now says she doesn’t believe it’s the location of the original fort in Edmonton after all.
But Nancy Saxberg’s newly published report raises another tantalizing possibility. If the first Edmonton House in Edmonton was built just upstream, somewhere around the east end of the modern-day Victoria Golf Course, whatever is left of the ruins would be relatively undisturbed beneath the top soil — a bonanza for local history buffs.
“If there was a new location for the fort, that would be very exciting,” said Tim Marriott, a member of the Edmonton Heritage Council. “I was a preteen in the 1960s, when Fort Edmonton plans were being laid. You wouldn’t believe how excited the city got.”
Edmonton House and its twin, Fort Augustus, moved up and down the river at least five times during the fur-trade years.
For decades, historians believed the first two forts in Edmonton were built on the Rossdale Flats, a spot at the heart of Edmonton and one that several aboriginal groups claim was a common gathering place for their ancestors for centuries.
Saxberg did find evidence of one fort under the Epcor power plants. She found an internal wall in 1999, then graves in a small fur-tradeera graveyard. She found a cellar pit full of ash and animal bones, an ice house and finally in 2012, parts of the actual palisade walls.
But the pottery and other artifacts found in the trench all date to after 1820.
Now she says all this is from the same fort, and it can’t be the first one.
“I can’t be absolutely sure what’s what, but you can attribute all of this to the same fort and I’ve seen a lot of excavation. There’s a good possibility (the first fort is) in another location.”
The fur trade journals contain hints of where that might be, she said.
Between 1810 and 1828, there were 39 references to the “old fort” or “old house,” suggesting it was at a different location.
“We got but 15 Kegs of Potatoes from the Old Fort above,” wrote someone on Oct. 18, 1825, using the common term for upstream.
“Sent three men to the old Fort for fuel which they brought in a batteau (sic),” someone wrote May 9, 1827, referring to a boat.
On May 2, 1827, someone at the existing fort saw smoke from near the old fort, ran up a hill to check on it and rescued a haystack by burning a strip of grass around it.
“It’s got to be upstream, on a river flat, not that far away and it has to be one that hasn’t been subject to significant development or we would know,” said Saxberg.
There’s another clue in the Edmonton Bulletin, an early newspaper. On Dec. 31, 1900, a journalist mentioned the marks of two forts could still be seen in the river valley “on the lower and upper H.B. flats.”
A 1930 map identifies those H.B. or Hudson’s Bay Company flats as Rossdale and the Victoria flats — the Victoria Golf Course, Victoria Park and Royal Glenora Club.
“It would have to be somewhere at the eastern end of the golf course, or maybe in the Royal Glenora parking lot,” said Saxberg. “Remarkably, that’s never had significant development.”
Experts are divided on how to interpret those journal references. Gerhard Ens, a University of Alberta history professor whose second book on the Edmonton fur trade journals is scheduled to be published in early 2016, said he thinks the journal references point to yet another fort location.
He thinks the fort moved downstream to a sixth location after 1821, and the “old fort” referred to is the one in Rossdale.
That says nothing about where to find traces of the first fort, but Ens would start searching Riverdale.
“If I had to choose between Victoria and Riverdale, I’d put all my money on Riverdale.”
Here are a few fur-trade era artifacts archeologist Nancy Saxberg found at the Rossdale Epcor site.