A new the­ory on the old fort

Arche­ol­o­gist rekin­dles de­bate on Ed­mon­ton’s ori­gins

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - ELISE STOLTE

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.

Nancy Saxberg

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