God’s Half Acre at Fort Pitt

In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built Fort Pitt on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River approximately half way between Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton. The fort was originally designed to serve as a pemmican production centre for the company’s boatmen and traders, and to operate as a local trading post within the HBC’s extensive fur trade network. The original fort burned to the ground, not an uncommon fate for the wooden buildings of the time, but was rebuilt in the mid-1870s.

However, by the mid-1870s, these were different times. Fort Pitt had become a regular stop for North Saskatchewan River steamboats, and for overland travelers and traders on the Carlton Trail to Fort Edmonton. The new fort was constructed further back from the river, and was larger than its predecessor. In addition, it became the headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt, played a role in the negotiations for Treaty 6, and was the location of one of the battles of the North-West Resistance.

Battle of Fort Pitt
By The Illustrated London News – Online at Canadian Military Heritage, Department of Defence., Public Domain, Link

It was also no longer a part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly since the HBC had relinquished those rights to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Although the HBC no longer received special trading privileges, it did retain ownership of its trading posts, and a certain amount of reserve lands surrounding each of them. Fort Pitt was destined to burn once again during the North-West Resistance, only to be partially rebuilt, and then, eventually, to be sold by the HBC in 1945 as farm land.

When I visited Fort Pitt Provincial Historic Park last weekend, it was for the role it played in the fur trade and the North-West Resistance. I already knew the fort had not been reconstructed, but that paths, interpretive signage, and the footprint of the former buildings for both forts did exist – and, there was a picnic area, which is where I planned to eat my lunch. What I didn’t know anything about was the gated and palisaded monument to God’s Half Acre.

… As the shadows lengthened into a purple wave,
I gently closed that lonely grave at old Fort Pitt,
And there resolved that these first-comers
Shall have title to that scarce half-acre of sod,
For I will deed it back to God. – R.H. Hougham

In 1945, Robert Henry Hougham (1889-1960) purchased the old HBC reserve lands unaware, until he began to break ground, that the original Fort Pitt cemetery lie just below the sod. The shallow, unmarked graves had had their markers either burned, or removed during the battle in 1885. Hougham set aside half an acre, and erected a cairn to pay his respects. In 1960, he was buried there, as well. With the river on one side, and surrounded on the others by a farm and its fields, this half acre offers the visitor an unexpectedly poetic pause.

God's Half Acre w/ R.H. Hougham

Traces of the Fur Trade

Today, my stretch of the North Saskatchewan River forms the centrepiece of Edmonton’s famous River Valley Trail System, a series of multi-use parks developed and maintained for residents and visitors, alike. Paddlers, recreational fishermen, jet-skiers, dragon boat racers and a holiday steamboat make good use of the river in warmer weather. This is a dramatic shift from the waterway’s former use as a transportation and communications corridor during the fur trade.

North Saskatchewan River w/ Paddlers
North Saskatchewan River w/ Paddlers, April 2015

The North Saskatchewan River begins in the Columbia Icefield astride the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, joins with the South Saskatchewan River 800 miles later at Saskatchewan River Forks to form the Saskatchewan River and, finally, empties into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. From Lake Winnipeg, it’s possible to paddle in a northeasterly direction to Hudson’s Bay or southeasterly to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. With tributaries reaching out all across the prairie provinces, this river system was the hub of the fur trade.

Trappers would head upstream for the winter to lands rich with beaver and other fur-bearing animals, then travel with their pelts back downstream, in the spring, for trade at the forts and factories; the furs would then be shipped to Europe. Indigenous peoples, European explorers and adventurers and fur-trade brigades traveled the North Saskatchewan River in birch bark canoes, then, york boats until the railways made water transportation impractical. Although the days of the voyageur and the Hudson’s Bay Company fort are gone, hints of their former presence remain.

Birch bark canoe 1959

Fort Edmonton Park, on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River is home to an 1846 Hudson’s Bay fort with a neighbouring Cree encampment. Re-enactments of the arrival of the fur-laden york boats (pictured at top) are regularly scheduled during the season and come complete with ceremony and revelry. Paddlers, following the routes of the historic brigades and early explorers, are becoming a more regular occurrence, as well. And, the beaver, star of the show, is still around – visible while swimming or, sometimes, slapping his tail in the river but, more often, we see the fallen trees and pointed stumps he’s left behind beside the river valley trails.

Signs of Beaver, Muskrat

A few weeks ago, at a picnic in McKinnon Ravine Park along the river, we caught sight of a family feeding a smallish brown animal. I immediately assumed it was a beaver and thought to myself how tame it seemed to be. Well, it wasn’t a beaver. It was a groundhog but, still…