Description of Historic Place
The Fort Chipewyan III archaeological site contains evidence of one of the most influential late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century fur trade posts established in the Athabasca region, and the oldest continuously occupied Euro-Canadian settlement in Alberta. It is situated on nearly three hectares of land within the modern town of Fort Chipewyan, approximately 220 km north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Although no buildings remain standing, rectangular mounds, cellar depressions, rock alignments and dispersed historic materials represent the site. An historic cairn was established to honour the fort in the 1930s, and in 1959 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorated the location with a plaque. Artifacts excavated from this site are housed in the collections of the Royal Alberta Museum.
The heritage value of the Fort Chipewyan III archaeological site lies in its identity as one of the most important fur trading posts in Canada, serving as a key distribution centre for furs, goods and men trading in the Peace, Slave, Athabasca and Mackenzie River basins. It was also the Athabasca regional headquarters for both the North West Company (ca. 1803-1821) and the Hudson's Bay Company (post-1821).
Fort Chipewyan III was the third location selected for the post. Its strategic lakeside location near the debouchments of four major rivers provided a connection with the Peace, Slave, Athabasca and Mackenzie River systems. Its operation was instrumental in the expansion of trade to the Mackenzie River basin and the regions which would later become the Yukon, British Columbia and northern Saskatchewan.
Fort Chipewyan III administered and supplied several subsidiary posts. It also served as the stopping or overwintering location for numerous nineteenth-century northern exploration parties, and was an important regional centre for the work of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Between 1815 and 1821, Fort Chipewyan III was at the centre of the armed conflict that developed as a result of competition between the North West and the Hudson's Bay Companies, resulting in an eventual decline in the dominance of the North West Company in the Athabasca region and the amalgamation of the two companies in 1821. It became headquarters for the Hudson's Bay Company's Athabasca operations after 1821.
After 1870, the Hudson's Bay Company rebuilt and expanded the post. In 1883, the transportation system was modernized when the traditional York boats were replaced by a fleet of sternwheel steamers. Jurisdiction over the Athabasca region passed to the Dominion of Canada in 1869, when Canada purchased the Hudson's Bay Company territories. Despite this, the local and regional economy continued to be dominated by the fur trade until after the Second World War, and the Hudson's Bay Company retained interests in Fort Chipewyan. The fur trade seriously declined during the 1950s, although the Hudson's Bay Company continued to maintain a store in the town of Fort Chipewyan until the mid-1960s.
Archaeological excavations were carried out at Fort Chipewyan III in 1978, 1979 and 1985. Excavations revealed at least three phases of rebuilding, noting that the remains of early buildings had not been completely removed by successive reconstruction phases. Building remains were identified with either 'post-in-ground' or 'post-on-sill' construction with stone foundations, and a few had evidence of dove-tailed corners. Artifacts and animal bones were also identified, representing activities from the early nineteenth century to the modern era.
Sources: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 19); Parker, James. 1987. Emporium of the North: Fort Chipewyan and the Fur Trade to 1835 (Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Canadian Plains Research Centre: Edmonton, Alberta); 1979, Heitzmann, Roderick J., Historical Resources Assessment, Fort Chipewyan III, Archaeology in Alberta 1978, Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper No. 14, compiled by J. M. Hillerud, p 14-21; 1980, Heitzmann, Roderick J., Fort Chipewyan III and IV Historical Resources Assessment Programme 1979, Archaeology in Alberta 1979, Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper No. 15, compiled by Paul F. Donahue, p 91-100; 1990, Forsman, Michael R.A., The archaeology of fur trade sites in the Athabasca District in Proceedings of the Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermilion bicentennial conference edited by Patricia A. McCormack and R. Geoffrey Ironside, pp. 45-62; 1993, Forsman, Michael R.A., The last bourgeois' house at Fort Chipewyan in The Uncovered Past: Roots of Northern Alberta Societies edited by Patricia A. McCormack and R. Geoffrey Ironside, Circumpolar research series number 3, pp. 45-62.
The character-defining elements of the Fort Chipewyan III archaeological site include:
- the information potential resident in the remaining archaeological deposits at the site;
- the information value in the records made and collections recovered in the several archaeological studies conducted at the site;
- the site's strategic location, which was suited to the related requirements of fur production, provisioning and transportation to and from trading locations in the Athabasca, Peace, Slave and Mackenzie River systems and provided access to abundant natural fisheries that provided a plentiful and inexpensive source of food for the residents, the fur brigade participants and northern explorers;
- extensive archival records for the post, which detail its function as a depot and administrative headquarters for widely dispersed subsidiary posts at Fond du Lac, Fort McMurray, Salt River Post (Slave River), Red River, Fort Vermilion, Battle River, Dunvegan and Fort St. John and Hudson's Hope on the Peace River;
- the information value in the historic records available for the post, which detail its involvement in some of the most violent armed conflict between the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies between 1815 and 1821, resulting in both taking up armaments and capturing prisoners to disrupt the others' trade.