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.
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.