Tourist Sites

Fort Carlton Provincial Historic Park

The Golden Era of Carts and Pemmican

The decade of the 1860s was an era of intense activity at Fort Carlton. A steady flow of Red River Carts, York boats, horse and dog sleds, and people-Indian, Metis, Hudson's Bay Company Officials, Servants and travelers-kept the fort bustling and prosperous. Within 50 years of its establishment, Fort Carlton had become a key provisioning and transportation post for the vast fur Trade Empire of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The functions of this Hudson's Bay Company post were as vital to the Commerce of the Region as they were diverse. The post organized buffalo hunts and traded for country produce. It supplied huge quantities of pemmican, grease and dried meat to the boatmen and freighters and other fur trade posts.

Owing to its location at the junction of overland and water routes, the fort also evolved into a distribution center. Outfits-a post's yearly supply of trade goods-from Fort Gary were repacked and forwarded to more northerly posts. Similarly, returns-the furs destined for Europe-were received from other posts and repacked for shipping to York Factory and Fort Gary. Today Fort Carlton has been partially reconstructed to recreate this golden era of carts and pemmican.

A Brief History of Fort Carlton: 1810-1885


Prior to 1774 the Hudson's Bay Company did not send men into the interior to trade for furs. Rather, they "waited at the Bay"; that is, they waited at York Factory on the shores of Hudson Bay for the Indians to bring furs to them.

Competition from independent traders, and later, the North West Company, forced the Hudson's bay Company to push inland. They established their first inland post, Cumberland House, in 1774. In the following years, The Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company leap-frogged up the Saskatchewan River in the interior, often building posts close to each other to compete for furs.

In the autumn of 1795, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a post just below the junction of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. The post, called Carlton House, was abandoned in 1804 and re-established approximately 150 kilometres up from the junction on the South Saskatchewan River.

Then, in 1810, Carlton House was moved to the North Saskatchewan River beside a rival North West Company post called La Montee, or “the crossing place”.

Initially, the two posts were enclosed by a common stockade. Six years later, the North west company abandoned its post, but the Hudson’s Bay Company remained. Overtime, Carlton House became known as Fort Carlton.

The Location of the fort was to prove to be the prime factor in its success. It was situated on a well-traveled Indian trail between the North and South branched of the Saskatchewan River. The trail eventually formed part of the Carlton Trail stretching from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to Fort Edmonton. Another trail linked Fort Carlton to Green Lake and the English (Churchill) River system. This river system and the North Saskatchewan River formed the major water routes between the Rocky Mountains and Hudson Bay. It was over these trails and river that trade goods and furs were moved into and out of the interior of Rupert’s Land.

Early Years

Originally, Fort Carlton was established to trade for furs. Indians from the woodlands trapped small fur-bearing animals such as beaver and marten. The Indians of the plains, primarily Cree and Assiniboin, brought in muskrats, foxes and wolves. Buffalo robes and dressed leather made from deer, moose and elk hides were also bartered. Overtime, furs were replaced by country produce; pemmican, dried meat and grease were the prime trade items. This change from furs to country produce reflected the increasing importance of Fort Carlton as a provisioning post. Carlton was well situated for its provisioning role. Chief Factor John Peter Pruden determined that no other location would better suit this purpose. In an 1819 report to his superiors, he stated:

"There is no convenient place either above or below so as to induce us to shift our situation and to go too far below would be detrimental with regard to getting Meat as the Buffalo seldom go below this place, and would be more convenient for the Provisional Trade which is a Staple Commodity at this Post."

In addition to its prime location for transportation, Pruden was referring to Carlton’s situation in a transition zone between prairie and parkland. During the winter, buffalo, as prairies passed. During the winter, buffalo herds migrating from the prairies passed Carlton on their way to the parkland. Buffalo, as well as moose and elk were killed to supply meat to the post.

Some of the hunters hired for the kill were Indians, but most were men of mixed Indian and White ancestry who had been born in Rupert’s Land. Most of the Indians associated with Fort Carlton hunted or trapped independently, although some served as guides, guarded horses, delivered mail and goods, and performed duties at the post.

By 1821, when the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company merged, provisioning was Fort Carlton’s prime function. Posts further north and the men in the York boat bridges which carried trade goods up and down the North Saskatchewan River, depended on the fort to supply pemmican and other food supplies.

Life at the Post

During the fur trade era from 1810 to 1873, life at the post was controlled by the seasons. In late August or early September, the outfits of trade goods and supplies for the current trading season arrived-originally by boat from York Factory, but after 1869 by cart from Fort Gary. Indian and freeman hunters and trappers were outfitted for the season and preparations were made for winter.

When the rivers were frozen and there was enough snow for dog and horse sleds, a new season of activity began. Buffalo were hunted and the Clerks traded with the Indians for furs and country produce. The men from Green Lake and Ile-a-la-Crosse came by dog sled to meet the winter mail packer and pick up supplies. The fort residents were kept busy hauling wood and doing other chores essential to survival.

With the melting snow and rising temperatures, the women would begin making pemmican and the men packing furs for the journey to York Factory or Fort Gary. Debts were settled and inventories taken. When the river was free from ice and the York’s boats arrived or the Red River cart bridges came in from Fort Edmonton, the officers loaded up their take of furs for the long trip to the European fur markets. After the brigades left, the books were closed for the season and only a small staff at the post.

The summer months were spent undertaking construction and repairs, gathering firewood, hunting, tending the gardens, cutting hay and waiting for the fall brigade to arrive from York Factory of Fort Gary for the cycle to begin again.

Golden Era of Carts and Pemmican: 1860-1873

In 1859, an event in the United States greatly affected Fort Carlton. The railroad reached St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, finding it cheaper to bring trade goods to Fort Gary through St. Paul rather than York Factory, changed its transportation system by utilizing overland trails and Red River carts. Long trains of squealing, lumbering ox carts hauled freight along the Carlton trail, transforming a faintly etched track into a deeply rutted road leading to Fort Carlton.

Warehouses bulged and a constant stream of cart trains came and went and Fort Carlton became the hub of activity for the region. The post became a central distribution center of the equipment, supplies and trade goods needed for the Hudson’s Bay Company Empire in the North West. As well, the provision of pemmican increased since now both freighters and boatmen depended on this nutritious food.

End of and Era: 1873-1885

While Fort Carlton flourished in the 1860s, crucial changes were taking place beyond its wall. In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold its claim to Rupert’s Land to Canada, which wanted to open the area to agricultural settlement. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, rival trading posts and communities were being established. A Presbyterian mission was founded near the Isbister settlement, 80 kilometres to the northeast. To the east, along the South Branch of the Saskatchewan River, the Metis established a permanent settlement, and another community developed near a rival trading complex at Duck Lake.

Although Fort Carlton became the headquarters for the newly re-organized Saskatchewan District in 1873, the golden years had begun to dull.

In 1874 the Northcote, the first of several steamboats to carry freight on the North Saskatchewan River, shifted attention away from Fort Carlton and the Carlton Trail.

The community around the Presbyterian mission flourished and became Prince Albert, the nucleus of white settlement in the area.

In 1876, with the buffalo fast disappearing, the Indians and the government signed Treaty Six near Fort Carlton. By the late 1870s Indians were no longer able to survive by their nomadic way of life, and Fort Carlton was unable to get enough pemmican to supply the needs of the transportation industry.

Finally, in 1882, the exciting era of the fur trade and Fort Carlton ended. The Headquarters for the Saskatchewan District were moved from Fort Carlton to Prince Albert and the old fur trade post was left in the hands of a skeleton staff. Buildings were reduced primarily to warehouse storage and a small sales shop.

Briefly, Fort Carlton came to life again in October 1884, but this time it was the North West Mounted Police who occupied most of the buildings. In response to growing unrest in the area, volunteers from Prince Albert joined the police at the post in mid March 1885.

On March 26, police and volunteers marched from Fort Carlton and clashed with a group of Metis and Indians near Duck Lake. The North West Rebellion had begun. The Carlton force was defeated and beat a hasty retreat back to the fort.

Following the battle, it became apparent that Fort Carlton could not be defended and the decision was made to evacuate the post. Orders were given to destroy whatever goods and supplies could not be taken to Prince Albert.

During the evacuation, sometime after midnight on March 28, some hay lying too close to a chimney caught fire. The post in flames was hurriedly abandoned.

However, Fort Carlton was not completely destroyed that night. According to a statement submitted to a claims commission the following year, armed Metis from the Batoche area looted the post and burned most of the buildings several days after it was evacuated. An Indian reportedly set fire to the remaining building some four weeks later.

And so, in 1885, the story came to an end. Yet the legacy of Fort Carlton lives on in the men, women and children bearing the names of ancestors who once lived and worked at the fort and through the preservation of this site and historic material, the story will never die.

Fort Carlton - Present

Visitor Centre - Today’s visitor centre is a reconstruction of the house built in 1879 for Chief Factor Lawrence Clark and his family. The Clarke’s only lived in it until 1882, when they were moved to new district headquarters in Prince Albert. From that time, until it burned in 1885, it housed the Indian agent and the clerk left in charge of Fort Carlton. Today, the reconstructed building provides a place for introductory displays and services for park visitors.

The Stockade - The current stockade is a reconstruction of the one built in 1876. That year the north stockade wall was moved to enclose two new buildings. However, it was not deemed necessary to move the bastions or rebuild the catwalk along the new stockade wall. During the early years of the fur trade, stockades were built for protection. Fort Carlton’s was never needed. Not unlike other fur trade posts, success depended on good relations with the people trading into Fort Carlton…not on the strength of its stockade.

Building Within the Stockade - Four buildings have been reconstructed and the foundations of others have been capped.
Fort Carlton buildings Fort Carlton buildings

Fur and Provisions Store - Muskrats, fox, black bear, beaver pelts and buffalo robes were traded, priced, packed and repacked. When the rush was on to have all the furs baled by break-up, both the screw and lever fur presses were busy. Each fur bale was marked with a specific post’s identification number and company clerks recorded the content of each bale in a ledger.

Clerks Quarters - Clerks were the junior officers of the Hudson"s bay Company. They were literate men, many from the Orkney Islands, who started with the company under contract as Apprentice Clerks. Their initial salary was 100 per year plus quarters, but not bedding or room furnishing.

Men's or servant Quarters - The laborers engaged servants and temporary employees were housed in these quarters. Imagine the confusion of single men, the interpreter and his family, and the married servants and their families all crowding into the building's four or five rooms.

Fur and Provisions Store

Trading Shop - European trade goods-blankets, cloth, beads, ribbons, knives, pots, pans, kettles, gunpowder and numerous other items were displayed or stored in the trading shop. Clerks, often in bitter cold as no stoves were permitted for fear of igniting the gunpowder, recorded each transaction in the ledger. Trading Shop

Factor’s house (Pre-1879) - Although called the factor’s house, this building housed whatever officer was in charge of fort Carlton. Arthur Pruden and Lawrence Clarke were both chief traders when they lived here during the 1860s. Clarke was promoted to chief factor in 1875 and four years later moved into his new residence outside the stockade.

Non-commissioned Officers Quarters – North West Mounted Police The fire, which accidentally destroyed Fort Carlton in 1885, started in this north West Mounted Police building.

Officers Quarters & North West Mounted Police - An 1885 map indicates that the police occupied this building, but its date of construction in unknown.

Factor's House

Warehouse - Outfits were often held for a period of time before being forwarded. Sometimes, when the warehouse was too full, storage space had to be made available in other buildings.

Unidentified Building - Photographs taken in 1871 show two log buildings, but their use in the 1860s has not been determined.


All the buildings mentioned were built from logs, using the Red River Frame construction technique. Vertical squared logs, slotted on two sides and set approximately three-metre intervals, and supported on a stone foundation, provided the building's framework. The spaces between these uprights were filled by squared, horizontal logs to the required length, tongued on both ends, and then slid down the slots to be positioned on top of the other. The Space between logs was filled or chinked with a white clay mixture. “Water closets” were the exception. They were the only structures built using sawed boards.

Outside the Stockade - The stockade contained only a small part of the post. Buildings, services and other important features were located beyond its walls, sometimes many kilometres away. Large gardens could be found to the southwest where barley, oats, potatoes, peas, beans, carrots, parsnips, radishes, lettuce, wheat and cabbage were tended and harvested by the women and children of the post. A pond in the hills stored water, which was brought to the stockade through underground wooden pipes.

Tipi Encampment - During the trading season, Cree and Assiniboine Indian camps dotted the surrounding western plain, and when freighters and boatmen arrived at the same time, their tents would add to the scene.

Picnic Area - The maple trees, some of which remain in the picnic area today, were tapped to make a crude sugar. Other trees were used for firewood and construction.

Carlton Trail Walk - The deeply-etched ruts, which can still be seen in the hills, are cart trails leading to and from the stockade. In some instances, traders undertook road construction to improve these trails.

River Walk - The pathway, which leads to the North Saskatchewan River, was at one time the main route of boatmen and freighters. For years, the Hudson’s Bay Company used scows as a ferry service to cross the North Saskatchewan River. They, Like more recent ferries and the steamboats for the 1870s, had problems with the changing sand bars and the undercutting of the river banks.