History of Upper Fort Garry
The history of the fort is filled with intrigue, conflict and espionage, however it also played a major and decisive role for peace and unity. From revolts and uprisings to the introduction of Manitoba as the fifth province in confederation, our province’s roots are planted deep within this site.
For more on the history, click here to watch this video.
Upper Fort Garry was the administrative centre of Rupertsland, a massive mercantile empire that stretched from the east of Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean to Alaska to the Pacific coast as far south as Oregon.
Archaeological investigations have shown that 3000 years ago, Aboriginal peoples from the north, the south, and the west camped and traded at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The rivers were the highways and over the centuries, people frequently met at The Forks, including the great Peace Meeting of 700 years ago.
Fast forward to the 1700s when La Verendrye arrived here, presaging the advent of the Fur Trade Era in Manitoba.
Now, we have to make a couple of side trips. First, to London in the year 1670 when a group of investors headed by Prince Rupert received a Royal Charter for “The Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay”. The company was granted a trade monopoly over all lands that were drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay.
The focal point was York Factory with traders only venturing limited distances inland.
The second side trip is to Montreal in 1779 when the North West Company was formed and pioneered trade routes through the Great Lakes into the West. The competition resulted in both companies leapfrogging past each other to build new trading posts further and further inland.
By 1810, both the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company had trading posts at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The continual competition between the companies was reducing profits, and in those days, a hostile takeover involved muskets rather than proxy votes.
Eventually, the two companies amalgamated in 1821, using the first Fort Garry as headquarters. The flood of 1826 destroyed that structure and Lower Fort Garry was built further upriver. But, as they say in real estate and the fur trade - location, location, location!
A presence was required at the transportation hub at The Forks and it was there, in 1836, George Simpson, Governor of the HBC, decided to erect what would be known as Upper Fort Garry. He wanted an imposing structure which reflected the power and the permanence of this company which held sway over an area larger than Europe. The stone-walled fort was square, approximately eighty metres to a side, with five metre high walls and bastions at the corners. It was a physical manifestation of the dominance of the company over the lives of the inhabitants of Rupertsland.
Within the walls, an assortment of buildings were built: the Governor’s House, quarters for the HBC staff, the trade store, and storage buildings for fur and pemmican. The need for pemmican gave rise to the annual bison hunt where the Metis of the Red River settlements traveled as far west as central Alberta to harvest meat for the fur brigades.
The fort was the administrative centre of the company and also became the seat of the Council of Assiniboia, an appointed body of advisors to the Governor of the HBC and the de facto government of the time. The fort was also the social centre of the settlement that was growing in the Red River valley, including the Selkirk Settlers, Metis, retired fur traders, and the business community of Winnipeg on the northern side of the fort.
In 1846, to counter possible American expansion, the British government stationed the Sixth Regiment of Foot at the fort.
With the addition of 246 troops and officers, the fort was extremely crowded. Many temporary changes were made and buildings built to the north of the existing wall.
The regular troops were replaced by the Chelsea Pensioners (former soldiers and their families) who generally established homesteads while acting as an informal militia. As a result of the military overcrowding, plans were made to double the size of the fort by expanding to the north. The new walls were made of wooden planks spaced one metre apart and filled with heavily packed soil. The only stone portion was the northern gate.
The construction was interrupted by the flood of 1852, but by 1854 the complex was finalized. The old Governor’s House became the Factor’s House and a new Governor’s Residence (also known as Government House) was built, along with other buildings.
The government of Ruperstland was undertaken by the Council of Assiniboia but in reality, the Governor of the Hudson Bay Company made most of the decisions. Decisions were based solely on economics and people often chafed under the heavy-handed rule of the company.
In 1869, the transfer of Rupertsland to the Canadian government occurred. The HBC was paid 300,000 pounds and retained its trading posts, its trading monopoly and a parcel of land adjacent to each post as well as extensive land grants. The parcel of land at Red River Colony consisted of more than 1000 hectares which extended from the Assiniboine River north to Notre Dame Avenue and from the Red River west to Colony Creek (just west of the present Legislative Grounds).
As neither the HBC or Canadian Government had consulted with the people of Red River and provided no assurance that their land titles would be honoured, the inhabitants rallied under the leadership of Louis Riel. This set in motion events which culminated in the declaration of the Provisional Government of Manitoba at the fort and, eventually, the Riel Rebellion.
A steady influx of settlers and the rise of other businesses throughout the West diminished the power of the company. Some functions were transferred out of the fort and some buildings dismantled.
The beginning of the end was in 1883 when the east wall was demolished to straighten Main Street. Shortly after, the remaining buildings and walls were dismantled. The limestone was used to build structures in Winnipeg and Government House was sold for $100.00 to be turned into firewood.
Only the gate remained, and in 1897, after a good deal of local advocacy the HBC gifted the gate and the lot on which it stands to the City of Winnipeg “as a public park forever”.
Move your mouse from the right portion of the image to left to view timeline.