The Souris Mouth Posts




About three miles north of the little village of Treesbank the Souris River empties into the Assiniboine. The site today is virtually uninhabited and this area that was once the hub of commerce and communication, in both the days of the fur trade and the early pioneer times, shows little evidence of it's busy past. In pioneer times it was home to one of the first Land Titles Offices in the area, one of the first post offices, a school, and the town of Millford, just upstream, was a thriving boom town. Earlier, around 1800, it was home to trading posts that represented the interests of the major trading companies; The Hudson Bay Company, The Northwest Company, the XY Company, and the independents.

When the first traders set up posts near the mouth of the Souris River, just before 1800, they were surprised that some neighboring natives could recite Catholic prayers. This was a tribute to the persuasive powers of a priest brought to the region by Sieur de La Verendrye some five decades earlier. LaVerendrye did not establish any posts in the region, but he did do enough exploring (or consultation with the native inhabitants) to map the area roughly. Prud'Homme in "Review Canadienne II" (1900) says that La Verendrye named the Souris the "St Pierre" after himself, but the map he had drawn shows a river coming from the north with that name.

Before the traders, and before LaVerendrye, the area was home to the Stone Indians (Ossinepoilles / Assiniboines), They acquired their name from the practice of using hot stones to cook meat. A hole in ground lined was lined with buffalo hide. Water was poured in, meat was added and then they put in heated stones. This method served them well until kettles we introduced. While the traders of the Northwest Company referred to the major tributary of the Red River as the "Upper Red", it was soon generally known as the Assiniboine, and the territory surrounding it was "Assiniboia". The origin of the name of the Souris is not so clear. It was alternately the Mouse, the Sandfly or the Sandy on early maps.

At one time, at the beginning of the 19th century, as many as five competing trading posts were operating in the Souris Mouth area. They were often similar in pattern. They had to be strategically created for defense against, yet for trade with, the Indians. They were near the old Indian trails, on knolls or elevations.

The H.B.C. post Brandon House was a good example. It was accessible to river, and had a good view of both banks and surrounding country, but it was approached with difficulty from land because it was surrounded by muskeg.
A stockade was built, possibly of 8 - 10 ft. poles. These are often only visible today as shallow trenches. Gateways (usually two) are visible as breaks in the trench. The buildings would usually include a two story structure like a hotel that served as a store. It was located just inside gate and had two parts - one with a counter open to Indians - the other for stores and arms Several dwellings provided residences for the "Winterers" (more important factors or managers)



This photo was taken from the north. The first Brandon House was located in the small clearing just right of centre, about 100 metres north of the river. The YY and Northwest Co. posts were south of the river.    



The Souris enters the Assiniboine





Approaching the brandon House site from the river, in 2017.




A slight depression, formerly a basement, is one of the few remaining signs  of human habitation is of 2017.


Pine Fort

Before the Souris Mouth forts were established the only post in the region was Pine Fort, built in 1785. It was on the north bank of the Assiniboine about one mile west of the mouth of Pine Creek (also Wattap Creek) Tyrell examined the site in 1890 and found it half washed away. More recent archeological work in the 1970's helped to establish the importance of the site. An American fur trader, Peter Pond, wrote in 1890:

    "Upon the branches of the Missury live the Maudiens, (Mandans) who bring to our factory at Fort Epinette on the Assiniboine River Indian corn for sale. Our people go to them with loaded horses in 12 days." (Assiniboine Basin)

When Alexander Henry stopped in 1805 the post was long abandoned. His observation was that the "scarcity of wood, provisions and other circumstances." had made it necessary to build up river. Competition had begun to force trading companies to develop more accessible forts. In the early days of the fur trade, the HBC managers, with their virtual monopoly, could afford to let the trade come to them. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, it became necessary to reach out to their Indian suppliers. Pine was abandoned in 1794, in favor of the Souris Mouth location. It experienced a brief rebirth and was rebuilt with materials from XY Fort (near Souris Mouth) in 1807. But it operated for only a short period before it again was shut down.

The XY and La Souris Forts

Internal strife in the Northwest Company caused the breakaway of a group who called themselves the XY Company, so named for the large XY they marked on their bales of fur to distinguish them from the produce of the North West Co. They located on the south bank across from Assiniboine House. In 1805 the breakaway XY co reunited with the NW Co.. Both Fort XY and Fort Assiniboine closed and a new fort was built in same quarter section on the south bank.

The rivalry between the competing fur traders was carried on in a somewhat gentlemanly fashion for many years. Harmon recounts the story of his visit to the Souris Mouth area in 1805 that Mr. Chaboillez, the manager of the Northwest fort invited people of the other two forts to a ball. Drinking went on into the night and was followed up with breakfast in the morning. The trade had it's ups and downs, but when game was abundant there was food for all and trade enough to support the various factions. Other forces were coming into play however. Lord Selkirk's Red River Settlement was not well received by the Northwest Company and many of the Metis who made their livings trading and hunting. As competition became more fierce hostilities broke out.
In 1816 a group of Metis, who were in league with the Northwesters (some would say manipulated by them), and who were on their way to what eventually became known as the massacre at Seven Oaks, looted and burned the buildings at Brandon House. This was in response to an HBC edict banning trade in pemmican which was in turn a measure to ensure adequate supply for the Red River colonists. It was rebuilt in summer and fall but was again attacked. A decision was made to rebuild on the south side of the river. Peter Fidler who was in charge at the time reports that in 1818 it was comprised of smith and cooper's shops, a trading room, provisions stores, stables , and houses. It was abandoned in 1821 in favour of the original site, which was, in turn, again abandoned in 1824. In 1828 the third Brandon House was built overlooking Glen Souris.



Identifying the Sites

Roy Brown's 1974 book, "The Fort Brandon Story" examines earlier research and conludes that Brandon House #1 was on the north west side of the river across from Mair's Creek.








Life in the Forts


The inhabitants of the forts varied with seasons. The more or less permanent guards stayed year round with their wives adnd children. Various hunters and peddlers were less permanent residents. The traders set out from Michilmacimac or Fort William in early spring. The boats were rowed by "comers and goers" also called "the pork eaters". It was a two month trip. They brought rolls of Brazil tobacco, kegs of powder, cloth, wine, vermilion, beads, and axes. All value was computed in reference to beaver pelts. For example one horse would equal sixty skins, a gun might be fifteen skins.

Living conditions varied according to the availability of game. In 1797 John MacDonell reported a land of plenty. Buffalo were plentiful, as were moose, deer and fowl. But In 1806 Alexander Henry reported a shortage of supplies and that Fort La Souris was in "miserable condition: they have neither flesh nor fish-nothing but some old musty bear meat."

The People

No account of the times would be complete without at least a brief look at some of the central characters. The Hudson Bay Company, in particular, has kept records of its commerce in the area but for more personal accounts we must rely on diaries, letters and journals. In fact several of the key figures in the exploration and exploitation of the area kept detailed journals.

At Brandon House in 1815 the bourgeois in charge was a surveyor by trade named Peter Fidler. Peter had, by that time, had a wide variety of experience across the west. Thanks to him we have some detailed accounts of life in that time and place. His reports on the daily life of the fort he managed and visited help give us a picture. He also left us with a rather good map of the region, though why it was drawn upside down we don't know.

As was the custom, he married an Indian wife. In other ways he was quite the eccentric. He is remembered for his rather unique will. He stipulated that, after other dispositions the remaining money was to be put in "public funds and the interest annually to be added to the capital" until 1969 (200 years after his birth and that the proceeds be given to the male heir in direct descent from his son Peter. He miscalculated, however, as there was no money left to invest. He was both eccentric and a bit optimistic.

The explorer David Thompson called Assiniboine House home for just over two months. This was just shortly after he quit the employ of the Hudson Bay Co, when they insisted he stop his exploration and map activities and concentrate on the fur trade. The rival Northwest Co, was only too happy to enlist his services. He set out from Assiniboine House on Tue. Nov. 28 1797 on a journey south. On Dec. 7 he stayed at Ash House near Hartney. He traveled to the Missouri River. On the way back he stopped at Souris (Plum Creek). He arrived back at Assiniboine House on Feb. Feb. 3 1798. He also explored the sand hills that winter.

Thompson was a bit of a bit of an exception to the pattern his contemporaries had established. Being a devoutly religious man who neither drank nor cursed, he spoke out against the trading of alcohol to the Indians and seemed to be a defender of Indian culture in general. And although he did follow the custom of taking a native wife, unlike many others he regarded it as a permanent arrangement. His fourteen year old bride probably had no cause to expect such a commitment. They did indeed stay together 'til death.." and raised thirteen children together.



The region as Hind saw it in 1858.



A cairn erected at the site of Brandon House #3

The region in the early 1800's - showing Thompson's route.



For several years Alexander Henry (The Younger) , another explorer who was to go on to bigger and better things, was stationed at the Northwest Fort at Pembina, where in addition to supervising operations there he experimented with gardening and kept a pet bear. On July 7, 1806 he set out from Pembina on a journey to the Mandan Villages in the Missouri River territory. He stopped at Pine Fort on July 12. He passed through the sand hills, to Brandon House (the opposing company), and they ferried him across to La Souris House. After two days rest he set out again on July 14 with seven men and eight horses.

He passed from Brandon House, over the Moosehead Hills (Brandon Hills) noted Lake Clementi and the view to the north where he could make out the spot where the Rapid River (Little Saskatchewan) entered the Assiniboine.

He stopped at Ash House near Hartney before going south to Mandan country. He returned to La Souris on August 9 by way of the Turtle Mountains. He crossed the Souris at a place he called the Grand Passage - between Margaret and Nesbitt a few miles above the input from the Rib-Bone lakes.

His journals contain a matter-of-fact daily account of his life and travels. They reveal a man who had little respect for his native contemporaries. Although he did acknowledge that the liquor trade was destroying them, he pressed on with business as usual.

Agriculture

From the start the fur traders tried to supplement their provisions with some form of agriculture. Peter Fidler reported that there were three acres under cultivation at Brandon House . There were good crops from 1812 - 1816 but then a drought set in. The barley was destroyed by grasshoppers in 1818.

He speaks of cucumbers, melons and onions. They had a plow. Potatoes had been introduced as early as 1780. Cabbages and turnip were main crops until 1803. Wheat was grown, and oats were tried.

Alexander Henry reported that "at Portage la Prairie we have an excellent garden... potatoes, carrots, corn, onions, parsnips, beets. turnips, etc.... Cabbages and melons do not turn out so well as at Panbina River."

Wild rice was harvested in small lakes east of Brandon House. The rivers were full of fish. In the spring sturgeon would go upstream from Lake Winnipeg as high as the Shell River. The Indians would build fences in the rivers to keep them from returning. In 1811 seed potatoes, horses, and perhaps seed grain were available at Brandon House.

A New Era

The period from 1830 to 1870 was a period of transition. It was a very slow transition by modern standards. The fur trade was becoming less profitable, but agriculture was not yet ready to become feasible.

By 1850 independent traders in collusion with American fur buyers were destroying the HBC monopoly. The Red River Colony also resisted efforts to enforce the monopoly. The forts at Souris Mouth had all been abandoned by 1832. Fort Ellice, many miles upstream on the Assiniboine became the focal point for the HBC, while the forts of independents and Americans were located in the Hartney - Lauder area.

At the same time, railroads were being built westward in the US, threatening the traditional river / Great Lakes trade route. North-South trade routes were established and flourished. The HBC was losing control.

Was agriculture viable on these prairies? The HBC wasn't interested in an objective answer, but many years earlier the people in charge of the forts had already determined much earlier that "anything will grow here." But could it be grown in quantities, and efficiently enough to still be a cash crop once you factor in transportation to the market - meaning the cities of Upper and Lower Canada?

The Canadian government commissioned Professor Henry Youle Hind, a Toronto geologist to explore the region in light of that question. During the summer of 1859 he and his party of 13 men explored southwestern Manitoba. They camped at the mouth of the Souris and took the first photographs of that river. They were particularly impressed by the grasshoppers which Hind insisted took only ten minutes to destroy three pairs of woolen trousers, but they also noticed the numbers of fish rising to catch grasshoppers. They were watchful of the Sioux whom Hind called the "tigers of the plains", and they noted the beauty of the Brandon Hills. They noted the lack of timber, but found what they were looking for - fertile land.

By this time the invention of machine pressed cloth felt was beginning to kill the beaver trade. Glossy top hats replaced "beavers" as fashionable headgear in Western Europe. Lower demand for beaver, coupled with the fact that they were increasingly hard (time-consuming, expensive) to find, spelled the beginning of the end for the fur trade. Not everyone accepted the changes. When told of settlement plans and railway proposals the Governor of HBC said, "Take away the fertile lands where our buffalo feed! Let in all kinds of people to squat and settle and frighten away the fur-bearing animals they don't kill and hunt. Impossible!" P27. At about the same time an editorial in a British paper called the whole idea of settlement of the west a fraud and called Canada "over-rated" as a colony. It speculated that "eventually will have to go into liquidation." p29

But the impossible happened. In 1869 HBC sold most of Rupert's Land to Dominion of Canada. In 1870 Manitoba joined as the fifth province. Before long settlers lured by cheap land - "without the tedious and exhausting labour of years required in woodland farming...." were finding their way westward.

For $10 you got a quarter section provided certain improvements were made within a three year period. You could also apply for a preemption on an additional quarter. It was too good a deal for an adventuresome person to pass up.

The Manitoba Boom of the 1870's and 80's affected the Souris Mouth particularly in the years from 1879 to 1882.

In 1879 the first European settlers to the westman area were favouring the region to the north of the Assiniboine. The wooded valley of the Little Saskatchewan River was attractive. The towns of Minnedosa and Rapid City were established, and there was considerable expectation the the rail link to the west would pass through the region. The Grand Valley / Currie's Landing settlements were established

By 1880 settlement had started in the Souris Mouth area, where Millford became the first established village south of the Assiniboine.

As settlement proceeded along the Souris Valley and to the south, the Souris Mouth area was a well traveled corridor and a centre of commerce for the region. Souris City, located about half way between Millford and the Souris Bend, became the second trade centre in the area.

By 1882 the first wave of settlement had occupied most of the prime farm land. What followed was a sort of settling-in period as people became accustomed to the new way of life and patterns of commerce and transportation sorted themselves out.

In a few short years, the area went from being largely uninhabited to being well populated.



Bibliography

Brown, Mrs. A.E. , The Fur Trade Posts of the Souris-Mouth Area, The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Papers Series III
Brown, Roy, The Brandon Hill Connection, Tourism Unlimited, Brandon Mb
Brown, Roy, The Fort Brandon Story, Tourism Unlimited, 158 8th St. Brandon Mb
Clarke, Lawrence, B. Souris Valley Plains : A History , Souris Plaindealer, Souris Mb.
Mackie, H., Pine Fort : A Preliminary Report , Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, 1972
McMorran, Souris River Posts, Souris Plaindealer, 1950
Kavanagh, Martin, The Assiniboine Basin, The Gresham Press, Old Woking, Surrey, England
Welsted, John, Everitt, John, And Stadel, Christoph : The Geography of Manitoba : Its Land and People. University of Manitoba Press