A History of Buffalo Narrows

Historical Background

(Pre 1885)

Buffalo. Buffalo.

Recent research suggests that the area adjacent to Churchill River has been inhabited by the Cree people since the tenth century. The Chipewyan people lived in the barren lands at this time. The Hudson's Bay Company (H.B.C.) encouraged the Chipewyan people to move south into the forest area to trap beaver for trade. (Few beaver existed in the barren lands.) This southward movement took place between 1760 and 1790. The Chipewyan were first observed at Ile-a-la-Crosse in 1776. It was after the smallpox epidemic in 1781 which wiped out between fifty and ninety percent of the Cree and Chipewyan people that the Chipewyans began to move into the area immediately north of the Churchill River in a serious way. Between 1760 and 1790, the Chipewyans moved as far south as Ile-a-la-Crosse to trap in the winter, but most of these people usually returned to the barrens for the summer. It was not until some time after 1790 that the Chipewyan people began to settle permanently in the Buffalo Narrows region.

The Cree and the Chipewyans have long been acknowledged as traditional enemies. The fur trade seems to have sparked an increase in hostilities in the period from 1682 to 1715. The Hudson's Bay Company felt that this hostility hurt their trade, so they quickly put an end to it by establishing direct trade with the Chipewyans, thus eliminating the source of trouble. (The Cree as "middlemen" wanted to keep the Chipewyans away from the fur traders, so that they could buy Chipewyan furs cheaply and sell them to the fur trader at a profit.) This, and other efforts by the H.B.C., seemed to limit the amount of warfare between the two groups after 1715. It is interesting to note that this theory of how the Chipewyans came to reside in Buffalo Narrows region disputes the traditional idea that the area north of the Churchill River had always been occupied by the Chipewyans, until the Cree pushed them north in the eighteenth century. The arrival of the first Europeans in the Buffalo Narrows is difficult to document because of the fragmentary nature of the existing data for this time period. Records indicate that Peter Pond passed through the area in 1778 on his way north to the Athabasca region. In 1782, Pond wintered at Clear Lake. Thomas Frobisher is reported to have wintered on a peninsula near Buffalo Narrows in 1783, while in 1781, Alexander MacKenzie passed through the area on his way to the Athabasca region.

The first fur trade post in the area was Fort Lac des Boeufs (French for Beef Lake), established by the Northwest Company (N.W.C.) in 1790. In 1791, the H.B.C. built a post called Buffalo Lakes House to compete with the N.W.C. post. (The exact location of these posts is not known.) That same year, Philip Turnor passed through on one of his explorations. In 1802, David Thompson passed through the area. Between 1819 and 1882, Sir John Franklin passed through the region on a scientific mission, and in 1845, Abbe Thibault passed through on his way from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Portage La Loche.

Old Hudson's Bay Company Store.
The Hudson Bay Store Manager's dwelling at La Loche. Under the management of John Blackhall,this post was turned around from the 'hell-hole' of the fur trade, to a profitable post. (C.1941). (Photograph courtesy of J. Gordon Schillingford, Publisher.)

In 1888, the Hudson's Bay Company re-established its presence in the Buffalo Narrows area in response to competition from independent traders. It was not until 1942, that Buffalo Narrows received a full fledged post. The route to Lake Athabasca, via Buffalo Narrows and Methye Portage (Portage La Loche), was the main fur trade route north, until the 1870's or 1880's, when a new less expensive route from Lac La Biche to Athabasca via Fort McMurray was opened up. Portage La Loche was built on the east side of Lac La Loche (or Methye lake), the start of the mighty Churchill River system, it was only a few miles from the historic seventeen-mile long Methye Portage, which crossed the height of land from Lac La Loche to the Clearwater River.

Every year, the fur trade canoe brigades from Norway House met the brigades from the Athabasca and McKenzie river. Incoming loads of trade goods were transferred one way across the portage and outgoing bales of fur the other way. When the exchange was completed, there was the usual regale and after a week-long celebration, the voyagers left on their return journey. As early as 1874, the La Loche route, had been thought too expensive as men and horses had to be employed to transport goods over Methye Portage. At this time, Buffalo Narrows was not very important. It was simply a narrows between two large lakes on the fur trade route north. Thus, many of the early fur traders and explorers simply passed through on their expeditions.

Hudson's Bay Company Store Buffalo Narrows.
Hudson's Bay store at Buffalo Narrows (1942). (Photograph courtesy of Adele Grieve.)

After the Riel Rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885, many of the Metis people from the Batoche area fled north into the bush because they feared reprisals. It seems unlikely that any of these people came directly to Buffalo Narrows, as a permanent settlement at Buffalo Narrows did not exist. However, some of their descendants may have come to Buffalo Narrows via settlements such as Green Lake and Ile-a-la-Crosse in later years. Church Records show that during the 1880's, a cemetery was started in Buffalo Narrows. This cemetery, was probably used by the voyagers passing through and/or by the transient Indian groups who came to the Narrows to fish and hunt wood buffalo.

A group of Chipewyan people are reported to have lived in Buffalo Narrows for a time in the 1890's before settling at Buffalo River (Dillon), but it was not until 1895 that Buffalo Narrows welcomed its first permanent resident.

Old Hudson's Bay Company Store.
The old Hudson Bay Store at Portage La Loche, with the managers garden in the foreground. By this date 1955, a new store had been built. (Courtesy of J. Gordon Schillingford, Publisher.)
Agnes Preweda.
Agnes Preweda, wife of Steve Preweda, the Portage la Loche Hudson Bay Store Manager. The photograph was taken at Buffalo Narrows in 1955. (Courtesy J. Gordon Schillingford, Publisher.)

The town of Buffalo Narrows, took its name from the fact that the narrows between Chuchill Lake and Little Peter Pond Lake (Little Buffalo Lake), was the bottleneck into which the Indians could drive the wood buffalo and kill them. Buffalo skulls, found by local fishermen in their nets, tends to support this theory. The numerous stone (Cree) arrowheads and spear heads found along the channel are further evidence that hunting, and perhaps fishing, was carried on near the channel shore.

Arrowheads Buffalo Skull
Stone artifacts belonging to Thomas Chartier. (left) (Photo courtesy of Thomas Chartier.)

Part of a buffalo skull found at Dillon River by E. Desjarlais. (right) (Photo courtesy of Thomas Chartier.)
Map of Fur Trade Posts
The major fur trade posts in Northern Saskatchewan, 1775 - 1820.

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Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: July 11, 2024."

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