Thursday, 26 July 2012


A 1982 lecture by  Field Archaeologist David W. Arthurs of the North Central Region Historical Planning and Research Branch of the then Ministry of Culture and Recreation -

"A Tale of Two Posts - Wapiscogamy House and Red Rock House, and the Early and Late Hudson's Bay Company Fur Trade in Northern Ontario"

I'd like to talk tonight about the fur trade in two areas of northern Ontario - one the Moose-Missinaibi River System in north eastern Ontario, and the other the north shore of lake Superior. The two posts that I'll be referring to - Wapiscogamy and Red Rock House - are widely separated in time and space, but there are several recurrent themes that bind them together, and I'd like to attempt to compare and contrast them. The Missinaibi posts represent the very inception of the Hudson's Bay Company's attempts at establishing an inland trade network, while the north shore posts represents the waning years of the fur trade in the late 19th century. What I'll be presenting tonight is based on both archaeological survey and excavation, and several hundred hours of work in the HBC Archives in Winnipeg, and is the first time much of anything has been done on either post.


In the summer of 1976 I conducted an inventory survey of a 500 km stretch of the Moose Missinaibi River system, between Missinaibi Lake and moose River Crossing, about 150 km inland from James Bay. A great deal of our time was spent working at Brunswick Lake, and at the mouth of the Pivabiska River at the site of Wapiscogamy House.

Missinaibi Lake, at the head of the system, on the height of land dividing the Superior watershed from James Bay drainage, is extremely rich archaeologically, with a broad range of prehistoric and historic native cultures represented. These are the famous rock paintings of Fairy Point. (No photos accompanied this document in our archives, sorry)

The river corridor below the lake, however, is surprisingly meagre in prehistoric sites. The majority of sites we located during our survey were historic period sites related to the fur trade, including the sites of four major posts for the Missinaibi was a popular transportation route between James bay and Lake Superior during the Fur Trade, as it is today for recreational canoeists.

The most important post on the system, and one of the key HBC posts in North America, was Moose Fort, later Moose Factory, at the mouth of the river on James Bay. Erected in 1673, it played a major role in the Canadian Fur Trade.

For nearly a century the HBC had successfully encouraged native peoples to bring their furs down to the Bay to trade, and had taken little effort to explore the vast hinterland to the south.  However, by the late 1700's the French, and their successors the Canadian Pedlacs (?) on Lake Superior were beginning to have a serious impact on the Bayside trade, notably by attracting the Indians to their establishments at the mouth of the Michipicoten River. It was far simpler for native people hunting in the fur lands north of Superior to go there than to make the arduous trip down to the Bay to trade. After several years of debate, the HBC abandoned its Bayside policy, and made attempts to penetrate inland. This was no easy task. The first inland port, at the Albany Forks, failed, and it was several years before another attempt was made.

In October of 1776, a small group left Moose Fort and paddled up the Moose River, with the intentions of establishing a small outpost to serve as a halfway town for the provisioning of an inland post closer to the height of land. The journals of this expedition make for exciting reading - but also point out that the Honourable Company had no idea of how to approach settlement in the interior. It was December before they reached their destination - their canoe ripped to shreds by the forming ice, they had to layover at the mouth of the Soweska River while it set enough to drag their gear up on a sled.  The location finally settled on for the construction of the outpost was a spot one-half mile up from the mouth of the Wapiscogamy (now Pivabiska) Creek, on the main river channel, 300 km. south of the Bay.

The settlement of the interior posed considerable problems - especially in transportation of goods and furs between the height of land and the Bay. In the lowland section the river is broad and shallow with low rapids and only gravel bars to impede progress, in the upland section however, it is narrow and swift, with many difficult rapids.


The major barrier to navigation is Thunderhouse Falls - a complex of rapids and waterfalls where the river cascades off the edge of the Shield onto the James Bay Lowlands - it is a strikingly beautiful area, but the only way around it is via a gruelling 12 km. portage.

Canoes were the main mode of transport in the early years, but as cargoes increased, batteaux and york Boats similar to these were employed between stations at the ends of the major portages, and a sophisticated inland transportation network was established.

Wapiscogamy House was only intended as a halfway house, and from it, a post was established at Missinaibi Lake in 1777. It was far too far from Moose to be adequately provisioned or protected, and it came to a sudden end, when it was razed to the ground by Indians sent to attack by the opposition traders at Michipicoten, and the post personnel barely escaped with their lives.

A second post, established at Brunswick Lake in 1788 was more successful. New Brunswick House Post was in operation for nearly a century, and became the major inland post on the Missinaibi system, comparable in its time with Fort William, the Northwest Company's inland headquarters at Thunder Bay. During our survey we collected over 1500 artifacts from the site - they give a good representation of the types of goods present on late 18th and 19th century major fur trade posts.

They include:
  • building hardware
  • fire arms and ammunition
  • trap fragments
  • files
  • a boot cleat
  • brass bottles - one snipped up for use in secondary manufacturing
  • white clay pipes - the majority of which were undecorated
  • ceramics - most of which have blue underglaze transfer print decorations and maker's marks like Copeland and Spode
  • glassware
  • the plow share from an iron plow - found among the furrows in the fields behind the post
  • trade goods
  • beads
  • silver ornaments
  • mouth harps
  • lead seals that secured the bales in which they shipped into the interior
But, back to Wapiscogamy House itself - a few years before our survey, a site had been found at the mouth of Pivabiska Creek. It was identified by the researchers as the site of Wapiscogamy House.

It was very small, consisting only of a rock pile (the remains of a bee-hive oven), foundations of a small building, and a trench-like depression across the back of the point. We were not convinced that this was the site of Wapiscogamy, as historical records consistently stated that it was one-half mile up river from the mouth of the Pivabiska.

We continued the search, and at a slight bend in the river, found another site - which consisted o0f a large, deep cellar, foundation trenches, low mounds of earth and rubble, and a variety of other features.

Test pits in the foundation trenches yielded fragments of clay bricks, many with a white lime plaster adhering to them - and in the cellar the burned remains of timbers secured with large spikes.

At one end of the foundations a cluster of stones marked the base of a fireplace, and a second was found along one side wall. It appeared that we had a much more substantial building than the one at the mouth of the creek.

In an effort to recover dateable artifacts and to better understand its structure, we opened 2, 1 metre units in the flat clear area in front of the cellar.

Unfortunately there were few artifacts - however, those we did recover - like this barrel hoop, were in a burnt out layer, suggesting the building may have been destroyed by fire.

The artefact's from the site included:
  • brick fragments
  • pipe stems
  • glass fragments
  • carpenter's gauge
  • l-shaped staples
  • cut and wrought spikes
Most of these we are able to identify specifically with descriptions of the construction of Wapiscogamy House in the historical documents.

The nails and spikes were the most helpful in dating the site as most of them are wrought or cut with wrought heads and chisel points, suggesting a date for the site between 1770 and 1810.

The map of the site compares favourably with details of the post construction gleaned from the post documents in the HBC Archives. The post was upgraded in the 1780's from an outpost to a post status, and had several buildings, including a barn, forge, men's cabins, and a fortified trading house, with flankers on 3 corners. The whole complex was enclosed in stockades and was a fortified and relatively easily defensible position.

Wapiscogamy House closed in the early 1800's when transportation routes had been perfected to the extent that a halfway house between New Brunswick House and Moose was no longer required. The emphasis in the 19th century seems to have shifted more and more southward toward Lake Superior. New Brunswick House itself was closed in 1879, and operations re-established at the post on Missinaibi Lake. It was abandoned early in this century, when the HBC gave up its water transportation network in favour of shipping goods to and from Montreal by rail.

So that's the history and archaeology of Wapiscogamy House, the first inland port on the Missinaibi.

Next up will be Red Rock House

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