In the beginning

Dateline 1670; King Charles II, King of England Scotland and Ireland, grants the exclusive right to trade within the drainage area of one of his Majesty’s more remote possessions, a body of water of the Arctic ocean, lying more or less in the middle of Canada called Hudson Bay.

An expedition had returned from Hudson Bay with a boat load of valuable furs, obtained by trading with the local inhabitants. The expedition’s investors wanted a guarantee that they would be the only ones who could tap into this potentially lucrative opportunity. King Charles gave them what they asked for and more.

The new company, headed by Charles II’s cousin Rupert, was given the exclusive right to pretty much do as they pleased within the lands they had been granted, to be named Rupert’s land. The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay, still known as Hudson’s Bay Company, was also granted authority to build, colonize, in other words, rule Rupert’s Land in addition to trading for furs. Apparently no one examined the fine print for some time or at least on acted on it. The King had handed over near total control of approximately one third of Canada and good sized chunk of the future USA.

The inhabitants of Rupert’s land, unaware that their ancestral lands had been given away by a king they had never heard of welcomed the traders who they assumed correctly at first only wanted to exchange things like knives, guns and beads for furs. If the Hudson’s Bay Company’s business was to be trading for the furs with Indians, the last thing the company wanted was colonizing and sod busting.

At first the Hudson’s Bay Company operated a few forts on or near Hudson Bay, expecting Indians wanting to trade to come to them. Other fur traders, including a group in Montreal called the Northwest Company, sent their people to trade with the Indians throughout Western North America. This eventually moved the Hudson’s Bay Company to set up forts on the lakes and rivers of Rupert’s Land.

Fort Edmonton ca 1850’s Paul Kane

Edmonton is located on the North Saskatchewan River in the aspen parkland eco zone, a transition zone between the grass covered prairie and the densely treed boreal forest. The North Saskatchewan River, the northern fork of the Saskatchewan River, runs through the aspen parkland between the river’s source in the Rocky Mountains, and its end in Lake Winnipeg. From lake Winnipeg rivers run to Hudson Bay, as well to the Great Lakes and the rivers of Mid Western USA.

The prairies were the home of the buffalo and Plains tribes, boreal forest held the fur bearing animals wanted by the Hudson’s Bay Company and was peopled by Woodlands tribes. Plains and Woodlands people traded buffalo meat and, hides and pemmican (preserved dried meat), furs, fish and game with each other, and both traded with Europeans within the aspen parklands. Men and women from the tribes were also needed by the Company as guides, transporting trade goods, making clothes and preparing food. The region became an important meeting place for at least four cultures, Woodlands Indian, Plains Indian, Metis, British European, English Canadian, French Canadian and traders from the USA.

By the late 1700’s the fur trading companies had a string of trading posts or forts across Western Canada. Edmonton house was one of about a hundred trading posts in what would become Alberta. At first Edmonton House, also known as Fort Edmonton, was located on the North Saskatchewan River at the junction of the Sturgeon River, near Fort Augustus, a Northwest Company trading post. By 1813 both company forts were permanently located at the present site of the city of Edmonton. In 1821 The Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies were forced to merge by the British and Colonial Governments following a gun battle between the two companies near Winnipeg that left 21 dead.

By 1821 the fur trade was starting to decline, the fur trade had nearly wiped out the beaver, the most valued and traded fur bearing animal. Beaver fur was prized as raw material for felt for hats and everyone wore a hat. European fashion industries sought more reliable sources for their raw materials. The buffalo were also being hunted off the prairies.

In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay company, now under new ownership by investors who were less interested in the fur trade, made a deal to hand over Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government. In return the company would be given 20 percent of the Western Canadian lands suitable for homesteading, as well as the land surrounding their posts.

The Canadian Government promised the world it would build a railroad that would cross the newly acquired territory and connect Eastern Canada to British Columbia.

The Hudson’s Bay Company entered the real estate business.

A federal police force was sent west to maintain order. Treaties were made with the first peoples, who were persuaded to place themselves peacefully on reservations. Their livelihood had disappeared with the buffalo and the decline of the fur trade. Their numbers were decimated by disease and starvation.

The federal government made plans to survey the West into the vast checkerboard familiar to any airline passenger who has flown over the prairies. Rupert’s Land became crown land. Homesteaders could be granted free land if they lived on it and ‘improved’ it, ie, clearing, plowing and building on it.

Canada made plans to transform the west from its natural state to breadbasket of the world.