Historical newspapers seem to love talking about charismatic bull bison, characterising them as curmudgeonly grumps and giving them cool names. I uncovered this great account of an older bull at Elk Island National Park in 1908 in the Edmonton Bulletin. I get exhilarated just reading about this epic bison battle, nearly 110 years later:
“The king of the largest herd in the park is Pink Eye, a mammoth bull, who is known to be 29 years old, and who may be several years older. He is a monarch without doubt. He rules his herd with a rod of iron. He is an autocrat. . . . Pink Eye is loved because he gives voice to a profoundly continuous roar, and because he has the weight to retain his hold upon the throne. His sway is not undisputed. There are ambitious young bulls who resent Pink Eye’s authority, but their insolent and defiant questioning of the monarch’s rule [illegible] opportunity for revision when the king locks with them. No bull in all the 400 is a match for Pink Eye, even though his left horn is but a stub, crumpled by many fierce conflicts. His immense weight and tremendous strength and his sagacity makes him unconquerable. But though he could rule the whole herd he is content to lord it over but 60.”
“Pink Eye has been called upon to defend his throne against only one serious revolutionary movement of a pretender since the herd entered the park. In this fierce battle he was returned victorious – not unscarred, but with a deeper rumble to his bellow, and a more dangerous gleam in his eye.
It was a fierce battle. The scene of it was on the top of a knoll, which capped a rise overlooking the lake. The bull who essayed to oust Pink Eye from command of the herd was a giant himself, but young and inexperienced, unversed in the plan of battle. The keepers say the fire of the approaching battle had been smouldering for some days. Pink Eye was loathe to engage in it, but when the point was reached where his dignity could suffer no further insult and permit him retaining his prestige, he gave battle.
Like a general he selected a strategical position. He worked his way to the knoll, and there, with head lowered, and bellowing defiance, he withstood the charges of his enemy, until the young bull, worn out by repeated charges up the hill, and meeting head on each time a force which sent him back like a stone from a sling, became utterly exhausted, and, unable to meet the terrific onslaught of Pink Eye, made at the psychological moment, he was carried down the hill and completely vanquished. The keepers saw the battle. They were unwilling to interfere, even had intervention been possible, for until one bull gains supremacy over all others with ambitions, there is trouble in the herd. There has to be a battle, and the sooner it is over the better. To-day Pink Eye is supreme.”
There are many places that bear Reverend Robert Rundle’s name in Western Canada. There’s Mount Rundle in Banff National Park, Robert Rundle Elementary School in the city of St. Albert, Rundle Park in the city of Edmonton, and many more. Rundle was a well-known Weslyan Protestant missionary who ministered to the Cree, Blackfoot, and others in what is now Alberta. He travelled thousands of kilometres by horse and by boat, and while he didn’t always get along with his interpreters or contemporaries, he did have an impact on the West. At one time, however, Rundle was nearly killed because he kept kittens in his coat pockets.
The kittens are not a metaphor.
According to his own writings, on his journey West by York Boat in 1846, he picked up a cat at Fort Edmonton. As it later turned out, this cat was pregnant.
“Mind horrified this evening in consequence of my little cat having had kittens! May the Lord pardon me if I did wrong in taking her,” Rundle wrote.
Chief Factor John Rowand, who was also on this journey, was unimpressed and refused to take responsibility for the cat so Rundle carried her on horseback after they left the canoes. Another one of Rundle’s travelling companions, the artist Paul Kane, described what happened next:
“[Rundle] had with him a favourite cat which he had brought with him in the canoes from Edmonton, being afraid to leave her behind him, as there was some danger of her being eaten during his absence. This cat was the object of a good deal of amusement among the party, of great curiosity amongst the Indians, and of a good deal of anxiety and trouble to its kind master.
Mr. Rowand, myself, and Mr. Rundell [sic], having determined to proceed to Edmonton on horseback . . . we procured horses and a guide and, on the morning of the 12th September, we arose early for our start. The Indians had collected in numbers round the fort to see us off, and shake hands with us, a practice which they seem to have taken a particular fancy for. No sooner had we mounted our rather skittish animals than the Indians crowded around, and Mr. Rundell, who was rather a favourite amongst them, came in for a large share of their attentions, which seemed to be rather annoying to his horse. His cat he had tied to the pummel of his saddle by a string, about four feet long, round her neck, and had her safely, as he thought, concealed in the breast of his capote. She, however, did not relish the plunging of the horse, and made a spring out, utterly astonishing the Indians, who could not conceive where she had come from. The string brought her up against the horse’s legs, which she immediately attacked. The horse now became furious, kicking violently, and at last threw Mr. Rundell over his head, but fortunately without much injury. All present were convulsed with laughter, to which the Indians added screeching and yelling as an accompaniment, rendering the whole scene indescribably ludicrous. Puss’s life was saved by the string breaking; but we left her behind for the men to bring in the boats, evidently to the regret of her master, notwithstanding the hearty laugh which we had had at his expense.”
John Rowand described later that even after Rundle had been thrown from his horse, he was most concerned about his cat: “When my friend was thrown God knows how far, he never thought of his danger, only calling out, I hope my poor cat is not killed.”
It’s these little details about historical figures that I love to hear about. It gives them a humanity and motivations that I can understand and empathize with. Charged with a sacred mission and travelling half a world away to a region where few spoke his language and few cared about his religion, Rundle was determined enough of a cat lover to bring along a stray cuddly feline – almost to his undoing.
Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?
Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”
Edit: Further information can be found in this St. Albert Gazette article. Apparently Mr. Day (also called “Buffalo” Bill Day) raised these moose and used the buggy to deliver mail to the City of St. Albert.
The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project). Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!
When I worked in the 1846-era at Fort Edmonton Park, there were quite a few questions I would get asked more or less dozens of times a day. One, if the visitors didn’t get the introductory tour from the train platform, was a variation on the theme of: “Where did the soldiers sleep?” This question would prompt us costumed interpreters to patiently explain that this wasn’t a military fort, but a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and generally having soldiers on site threatening to shoot your customers (the local Cree and other First Nations from further afield) was bad for business. However, just as often we got this question: “Is this the original fort?”
It’s a fair question. The wood of the fort looks quite old. The park also has numerous other original historical buildings on site which have been moved there over the past decades. Unfortunately, the answer is no, it a reconstruction of Fort Edmonton as it stood in 1846.
“Where is/was the original fort?” is often the follow up question.
The answer? It’s complicated.
Fort Edmonton was nominally founded in 1795, but no fort by that name stood for more than a decade or so in the same location until the fifth and final fort was constructed in 1840. They were built either too far away for local customers to conveniently visit (e.g., the location that was way down near modern Fort Saskatchewan) or in a location prone to flooding (a really relevant topic this year) like the two times it was placed near the Rossdale Flats. They were also never meant to be permanent structures and were not designed to stand the test of time.
You can still see faint evidence of the fourth fort now: right next to the old fort cemetery, on the North side of the Walterdale Bridge, where they have graves, a figure of eight or stylized tipi statue, and interpretive signs. I have been told that the fort stood on the big flat square that is now the intersection of 95 Ave and 105 street NW. I would highly recommend visiting the site – uh, the graveyard, not the intersection, that’s suicide, please don’t stop in the middle of the road to admire the asphalt – because according to our records and archaeological digs, numerous individuals from the early history of the Fort are buried there… including a woman I portrayed for one season, Nancy Harriott, daughter of Chief Factor John Rowand. That intersection has a lot of history underneath it.
Anyway, that still hasn’t answered your original question: where is the original fort, the one represented at Fort Edmonton? The fifth and final one? Well, they had trouble with flooding in earlier iterations, so they moved the location of the fort up the hill… to a very familiar hill, in fact, if you live in Edmonton today. Let’s go to Google Maps:
This is a map showing the grounds of the Legislature building in Edmonton, which houses the provincial government of Alberta. In behind the Legislature is a set of stairs: go down them. At the bottom, you’ll find a lovely flat area where they do lawn bowling today: a square of cleared land. (Zoom in on this map; the salmon-pink “A” pin points the way.) That green square is where the original fort stood.
If you visit the site, you will see little obelisks set up where some of the old bastions used to be. Hence, too, “Fortway drive”, the name of the road that runs parallel to the river below that site. There’s also the photographic record, because Edmontonians and tourists to the city loved seeing the contrast between old (the fort) and new (the construction of the high level bridge and the Legislature) on postcards of the era. The Legislature shared the grounds with the fort for nearly a decade in the early twentieth century.
Old Hudson Bay Post and Parliament Bldg., Edmonton, Alta. Edmonton: Pub. for Leonards Cigar Store, Pantages Theatre Bldg., Edmonton, Alta, [after 1913]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Why was it torn down, if it is such an important part of Edmonton’s history? Well, by the first decade of the twentieth century, it wasn’t in the best of shape. The fur trade had been in decline in the area since the 1860s and 1870s – curse Prince Albert and his trend-setting silk top hats! – and the fort’s buildings had been mostly abandoned for several decades after being used as a warehouse for the HBC. Photographs of the era show the buildings to be listing rather severely to one side, necessitating crossbeams to be added to prop them up. The company no longer owned the land, and in all honesty, the buildings were probably spoiling the view of the grounds from the legislature building. It was rotting and full of vermin. So they took it down.
(As an interpreter who shall remain nameless told me in my first year at the fort: “then they put the rot and the vermin in the new Legislature building instead! Haha?” I loved that joke, but I was always afraid to tell it too often lest an actual politician, such as an MLA, was in the audience.)
There are several unverified theories as to what happened to the actual wood of the Fort Edmonton buildings. People did object to the demolition of the structure, and so the city(?) promised to save the wood and reconstruct the fort at a later date. Apparently the wood was stored down by the river for a long while before going missing. Perhaps it rotted away. Others say that the Boy Scouts burned it in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as the city did apparently donate a bunch of old, dry wood for their bonfires. One man claims that his barn is made up in part of the wood from the fort, and the wood is certainly old enough, but there’s no obvious “made in Fort Edmonton” stamp on it, so who can tell at such a late date? A mystery for the ages.
And anyway, you don’t really want the park’s fort built of the same wood as before. I mean, if it was in rough shape in 1915, how much worse would it have been in the late 1960s when the fort was reconstructed, let alone today in 2013? No visitor would be allowed inside the fort because of safety concerns.
But fear not! You can still see some original pieces of Fort Edmonton at the park. Go into Rowand House, behind the stairs on the main floor. Ask an interpreter about the big metal box you see there. (It may be the subject of a future blog post.) I have also heard rumours that the top of the fort’s flag pole may also be original to the old fort, but this historical tidbit has yet to be verified.
Oh, and one more thing: the reconstruction of the fort at the park, while made to the exact measurements of the Palliser plan from 1846, is different in a handful of ways, but most significantly is this: it is a mirror image of the original fort. Why? The old one was on the North side of the North Saskatchewan River. The park stands on the South side. The gates had to face in the correct direction: the river.
Brock Silversides. Fort de Prairies. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd, 2005. Aside from a detailed history of the forts in the Edmonton area, drawing liberally from primary sources, it also reprints what may be all known depictions of Fort Edmonton since the early 1800s. If you would like to consult one of the photographs or maps that I mention, it is in all likelihood reproduced in this book.
A photograph (which also appears in Silversides’ book) of the old fort being demolished in 1915.