Pre-Contact and Fur Trade: 11,000 BCE to 1870

The arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s began a major disruption to the lives of Aboriginal peoples, who had called the prairies home for thousands of years. In the early years, Europeans survived on the prairies due to the good will of the local populations, who far outnumbered them. However, as interest in Canada’s west increased, the balance of power began to shift. The Dominion government would soon open the land to settlement, thus displacing Aboriginal peoples and creating the systemic discrimination that continues today and from which many are still healing.

The Prime Minister of the new Canada, John A. Macdonald, and his confederation colleagues had carefully laid down a provision for the expansion to the west. Discussion had been going on for some years about the possibility of Canada buying out the HBC control of Rupert’s Land. It was agreed that the Dominion would assume responsibility for the protection and well-being of the region's Aboriginal residents. By 1869 the agreement was finalized and Canada purchased Rupert's Land and the North-West Territories from the HBC. It would start in motion the growth of Edmonton beyond the Fort.

Effects on Architecture

Although First Nations peoples living on the plains are known to have maintained their land through growing crops and burning strategic grass fires, they also engaged in a pattern of movement by following seasonal sources of food and other resources. Since travel was such an essential part of life, shelter had to be temporary, transportable, and incorporate available materials. It also had to stand up to Alberta’s weather, which is hot in the summer, can be extremely cold in the winter, and has been known to fluctuate wildly day to day. The resulting structure was the tipi. These innovative and highly practical structures used locally available materials like buffalo hides and wooden poles, and were small enough to be transported by dogs. The introduction of horses in the 1700s made transportation easier and tipis became larger. Tipis were also designed to adapt to changing conditions such as cold winters, wind, and hot, bug-infested summers.  

By contrast, the early traders, many of whom were Métis, originally used European-style canvas tents as their main form of shelter. These tents were maladapted to the conditions of the region and did not make for easy living. As more fur traders arrived, structures became more complex and were built using local materials, such as wood and mud, but were mostly based on European building techniques. Materials and supplies were still required to be shipped from the more established settlements to the east. Finally, after some trial and error, forts that were more adapted and suited to the region were built and continually improved upon.

Historical Context

Aboriginal people have lived in Alberta from time immemorial. Edmonton exists today because of its importance among Canada’s First Peoples as a gathering place. For more than 500 generations many Indigenous Nations, including the Cree, Chipewyan, Beaver, Nakoda, and Blackfoot gathered on what are  today the Rossdale Flats to trade with one another and to participate in religious and political ceremonies. The Edmonton area was part of a system of their meeting places across Western Canada. 

In the late 1700s and early 1800s fur traders began to arrive in the west, and they were naturally drawn to areas where First Nations people were already gathered, such as the North Saskatchewan River Valley.

In the 1750s, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was in competition with Montreal-based traders. Rather than rely on trading posts, the Francophone traders sent people inland to meet First Nations groups to trade. The HBC was concerned about profits, so that the company asked Attickasish, a Cree trading chief, to allow a young HBC employee to join them on their annual trip west. Attickasish agreed, and thus Anthony Henday began the trip that made him famous. Once Henday finally reached his destination and met with First Nations leaders, he was dismayed to learn that they had no interest in travelling to far off Fort York to trade. The HBC soon realized that fur trade forts had become a necessity in order to trade in the west.

The HBC, and their rivals the North West Company (NWC), established a series of trading posts throughout the later 1700s. These developed initially from small scale operations, with traders making short trips upriver from the more established posts into semi-permanent “log tents” that allowed a few traders to spend the winter. In 1795, more permanent developments occurred with thebuilding of the NWC Fort Augustus, followed quickly by HBC’s Edmonton House. Both posts were built close to each other and were located at the mouth of the Sturgeon River near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan. Edmonton House was probably named for an estate near London, England, belonging to the company's Deputy Governor.  For the first twenty-five years, the NWC’s Fort Augustus was very much the larger of the two establishments.  

The two companies merged in 1821 after years of difficult relations. Fort Edmonton increased in importance under the leadership of Chief Trader John Rowand. For the next half century it was the most important HBC location west of Fort Garry (Winnipeg), and it became the distribution centre for the whole of the northwest. In 1824, with the opening of the Fort Assiniboine Trail, Fort Edmonton became a major supply centre on the HBC’s trans-Canada route. The combined HBC-NWC forts accommodated this expansion through the 1820s, but by the end of the decade Fort Edmonton was becoming over-crowded. Serious floods in 1825 and 1830 caused construction to begin on a new fort higher up the bank close to where the Alberta Legislature now stands.