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Saturday Special from the Vaults: A History of Cumberland House

I’ve done quite a bit of writing for various historical sites around the province. Here’s something I wrote for Cumberland House a few years ago. I’ve never been there to see how it was use!

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering…yes, the science column will return. It’s been on hiatus while I experimented with being an editor for Fine Lifestyles magazines again (it didn’t work out—I couldn’t support their editorial policies) and wrapped up my term as writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library (it ended last Wednesday). My main focus now is on writing Masks, my next novel (coming out under the pseudonym E.C. Blake) but I’m definitely going to resume the column: look for it to be back Monday.

Now, a journey into the past: the photos (copied from are of the old powder house and the boilers of the steamboat Northcote, the only things remaining of the old Hudson’s Bay Company post.


A Brief History of Cumberland House

By Edward Willett

Powder House at Cumberland House, SaskatchewanCumberland House, founded in 1774, is the oldest permanent settlement in Canada west of Ontario. Established by the Hudson’s Bay Company on Pine Island in the Saskatchewan River delta region as its first inland fur trading post, it went on to become an important distribution depot for all kinds of goods, and was a transportation centre during the years when steamboats traveled the Saskatchewan River. After the steamboat era ended in 1925, the early post buildings were gradually abandoned. However, the Hudson’s Bay Company remained, serving the settlement which had grown up around the post.

Today, remnants of the post dating back to the 1890s—a thick-walled powder house and parts of the Northcote sternwheeler—are preserved at Cumberland House Provincial Historic Park.

The move inland

In 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a serious and growing problem. For a hundred years the Company’s fur-trading posts had all been on or near the shores of Hudson’s Bay itself. Each summer Indians would travel hundreds of kilometres by canoe to exchange furs for guns, knives, kettles, blankets and other goods. But by 1774, fewer and fewer furs were arriving at the Company’s Hudson’s Bay posts each year. Independent fur traders, mostly from Montreal, had moved into the area after the English defeat of the French in New France. Instead of waiting for the Indians to bring furs to them, these traders, or “pedlars,” were using their large French-made canoes to take trade goods directly to the Indians, either at their camps or at trading posts erected along important water highways.

In the face of this competition, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had many able explorers on its payroll but lacked both canoes and canoemen, realized it had to either change its way of doing business or face extinction. And so it ordered one of its servants, Samuel Hearne, to establish the Company’s first inland post “on or near Basquia” (now known as The Pas).

The Company sets up shop

Hearne, who had just returned from an arduous trip to the Coppermine River by way of the Arctic Ocean, had difficulty persuading men to accompany him, but on June 23, 1774, he finally set off inland from York Factory with 10 men in five small Indian-owned and manned canoes.

Hearne’s party arrived in the Saskatchewan River region in early August. After exploring the region, Hearne rejected “Basquia” as a possible site; instead, he returned to Pine Island Lake (today known as Cumberland Lake), which, he noted, the Indians thought “most practical, it lying in the middle between three tribes.” (Another influence may have been the fact that a pedlar, Thomas Frobisher, had built a house on the lake the year before.)

Hearne chose as the site of the new post the eastern end of Pine Island, which runs from Cumberland Lake into the Saskatchewan River and is bordered on the northwest by the Tearing River. That put it at the junction of three canoe routes, one leading west and southwest to the Saskatchewan River, one leading to the Churchill River and on to Lake Athabasca and further northwest; and one leading northeast to Grass River and York Factory. In fact, a canoe starting at Cumberland House could travel, without a portage of more than a day, to the Arctic Ocean, Hudson’s Bay, the Gulf of Mexico or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In just four days, Hearne and his men erected a log tent, caulked with moss and roofed with thatched grass, to serve as their winter lodging. To the east they erected a temporary storehouse, 8.5 by 4.25 metres.

Small groups of Indians began arriving at Cumberland House to trade moose meat, fish and geese—but not very many furs. To his dismay, Hearne discovered that the pedlars were bringing 60 large canoes, each capable of carrying almost two tonnes of trade goods, into the North West that season. Cumberland House would be surrounded by rival traders well-stocked with liquor and a wide assortment of goods. Hearne’s own selection of trade goods was limited; the small Indian canoes he had used only had a cargo capacity of 120 kilograms or so. The Indians wisely chose to save their best furs to trade with the pedlars, not Hearne.

A hard winter

Hearne’s men suffered through their first winter at Cumberland House. Unlike the pedlars, most of them were unaccustomed to wilderness living. They sought the help of the local Indians, hiring men to hunt and fish and women to dry provisions, mend snowshoes and perform other duties.

Their own days were mostly spent cutting and hauling firewood, clearing snow, fishing, fixing nets, and cutting and squaring timber for proper houses to be built in the spring. They had very little time for the trading expeditions they needed to undertake to collect furs, and as the winter dragged on long hours, hard work and scant provisions took its toll on morale. The small number of furs collected must have made the hardships seem futile

Nevertheless, Hearne and his men survived, and Cumberland House was established—and although it must have seemed doubtful at the time, so was the foundation of a solid inland fur trade by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Competition and expansion

In May, 1775, Hearne returned to York Factory to take up a new post as Governor at Churchill. His replacement was veteran trader Matthew Cocking, who had a good idea of what an inland post required and asked for, and got, sufficient supplies. (Cocking wasn’t particularly thrilled with his new post, though, since he had a hernia that must have made the journey very uncomfortable.)

Cocking knew the countryside better than Hearne, and had the added advantage of being able to speak Cree. In his first winter at Cumberland House he netted 10 times the number of furs Hearne had collected. Things were looking up for the Company.

In April, 1778, William Tomison took charge. He both ran Cumberland House and organized the fur trade all along the Saskatchewan River. Called by one contemporary a “great, stubborn, honest and cross-grained” man, he was well-known to the Indians and, like Cocking, could speak Cree.

In 1778, Tomison’s men built Hudson House, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s second inland post, further up the Saskatchewan River. Other posts soon followed, as Hudson’s Bay and North West Company traders leapfrogged up the river in an attempt to gain an advantage. (The North West Company was founded in 1779 when a group of pedlars joined forces.)

In 1781, smallpox reached Cumberland House. The disease killed half the local Indian population. Tomison had the sick brought into the stockade and tended; those who were strong caught fish and cut wood. Although the Englishmen nursed the sick and buried the dead, none of them became ill.

Early in the 1790s, the Company rebuilt the Cumberland House post on the present-day site. The North West Company erected a post right next to it in 1793.

More than just furs moved through Cumberland House, which became an important distribution depot for all sorts of goods. Pemmican, dried meat, grease and other buffalo products were collected at the prairie posts further west and forwarded to Cumberland House. When the brigades hauling furs from the Athabasca and Churchill regions passed through Cumberland Lake en route to York Factory and Montreal, they were given buffalo provisions for their long voyage. On the return journey, canoes and boats heavily laded with trade goods were supplied with pemmican for the trip inland.

A stopping-off place

Cumberland House also became an important stopping-off place for many of the explorers and surveyors of the Canadian west.

Philip Turnor was appointed by the Company to pinpoint the longitude and latitude of the inland posts and to survey and map the best routes to the Athabasca. He wasn’t impressed with Cumberland House when he stopped there in July of 1779, writing that “the post could be called nothing but a warehouse from whence goods could be carried by flat-bottomed boats.”

David Thompson spent 13 years exploring and surveying the Nelson, Churchill and Saskatchewan Rivers. He stopped at Cumberland House for dried provisions in 1786. Three years later he commented on the enormous sturgeon caught there, weighing anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds, “the oil collected being sufficient for two lamps the year round.”

The most famous explorer to stop at Cumberland House was Sir John Franklin, who had been appointed to lead an expedition overland from Hudson’s Bay to the northern shores of the continent. He reached Cumberland House in October, 1819, and remained until January 19, 1820. He described Cumberland House as consisting of “log houses, built without much attention to comfort, surrounded by lofty stockades, and flanked by bastions. There was parchment covering the windows, imperfectly made by Indian women from deer skin.”

Just three years later, Samuel Black, on his way to the Rocky Mountains, described Cumberland House as “a large tolerably well-built house with glass windows and a gallery in front,” so some improvements had been made, although he still felt the post was a gloomy place.

Trade and community activity

Cumberland House became the Hudson’s Bay Company’s inland headquarters in 1818, when William Williamson was named the Company’s Governor-in-chief. However, when the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company joined together in 1821 to form a reorganized Hudson’s Bay Company, Norway House at the northeast end of Lake Winnipeg became the new inland headquarters. Cumberland House was reduced in status, but maintained its role as a distribution depot.

That role was enhanced by the introduction of York boats in the mid-1820s to help solve the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chronic shortage of canoes. Equipped with oars and a sail, one flat-bottomed York boat manned by nine men could carry the same amount of cargo as 20 men in small canoes.

For the Indians and Métis who hunted and fished in the area, Cumberland House still served as a district trading post. Company men continued to rely on Indian and Métis hunters and fishermen to supply part of their food supply, as well as hides and skins for clothing. A number of local men and women also worked at the post in various capacities.

By 1830, agriculture was becoming more and more important to the permanent settlement that had grown up around the post. One writer noted, “The introduction of domestic cattle from the colony of Red River gives a new feature of civilization to the place, and neat kitchen gardens furnish an ample supply of vegetables.”

In 1840, Henry Budd, a Swampy Cree who later became Canada’s first ordained native minister, established an Anglican mission and school. Following the Red River insurrection in 1870, a number of Métis left Manitoba to seek a new life in the Cumberland district. To administer to these newcomers, the Roman Catholic Church established a mission in Cumberland House in the early 1870s.

The community now consisted of a stockaded fur trade post with log buildings and a large warehouse, scattered Métis and Indian homes, and the Anglican and Catholic missions.

Boilers of the sternwheeler Northcote at Cumberland House, SaskatchewanRise and fall of the steamboats

In the spring of 1874 a new era dawned at Cumberland House with the arrival from Grand Rapids of the Northcote, the first sternwheeler steamboat on the Saskatchewan River.

The Northcote, about 46 metres long, nine metres wide, and drawing only a metre, was soon joined by others, including the Lily (used mainly for the South Saskatchewan River), the Northwest, the Manitoba, and the Marquis (which could navigate rapids). All were flat-bottomed and had Mississippi-trained captains. The Northcote could carry about 50 head of cattle, 3,000 sacks of flour, and general goods.

Cumberland House began a new life as a transportation centre. The Northcote and other steamboats dropped off supplies at Cumberland House, which were then carried by York boat and canoe to northern settlements and posts. From Cumberland House, the sternwheelers traveled to Fort-a-la-Corne, Prince Albert, Fort Carlton, Fort Pitt and other posts and settlements farther up the Saskatchewan River.

However, the Saskatchewan River, plagued by low water and numerous sandbars, made steamboat navigation treacherous. As a result, the sternwheeler era was short-lived. In 1886, the Northcote was permanently beached at Cumberland House, where her remains can be seen to this day, and by 1888, the Northwest was the only sternwheeler still in operation.

To revive shipping, a new group of steamboats took the sternwheelers’ place. These boats were smaller, and none attempted to travel the full length of the river. When the railway reached Flin Flon in 1925, the steamboat era ended, and so did Cumberland House’s role as a distribution and transportation centre. The Hudson’s Bay Company switched to more of a retail operation to serve the community of Cumberland House.


The Northcote at the Battle of Batoche

The Northcote is famous not only for being the first steamer to arrive at Cumberland House, but for being involved in the only naval engagement ever fought in Saskatchewan.

On May 9, 1885, the first day of the battle for Batoche, 35 members of the “C” Co. Infantry School of the Midland Provisional Battalion boarded the Northcote at Gabriel’s Crossing south of Batoche, in an attempt to outflank the Métis positions and enable a two-pronged attack. The Métis responded by lowering the ferry cable at Batoche, which sheared off the steamer’s funnels and masts.

Without funnels, the Northcote’s boilers couldn’t get enough airflow to maintain steam pressure. The Northcote’s paddlewheel stopped turning, and she drifted downriver.  Once he regained control, the Northcote’s American captain of the steamship refused to return to Batoche, instead traveling on to Hudson’s Bay Landing for repairs.



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    • Dennis Strom on May 10, 2022 at 6:41 pm
    • Reply

    Has your Forest History Society done any articles relating to Shaw Bros railroad logging operations at Prairie River or the use of Phoenix Log Haulers near Prince Albert and Hudson Bat SK>

      • on June 13, 2022 at 12:06 pm
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      Just saw this note, and would have to say . . . I have no idea. I’ve never heard of a Forest History Society!

      • Dennis Strom on May 24, 2023 at 8:11 pm
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      The rail did not reach Flin Flon until 1929.

    • John Daisley on October 12, 2021 at 10:28 am
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    I found your article on Cumberland House to very interesting. I have used a few excerpts in an article I am writing for Ducks Unlimited. I have credited you and The Vaults.

    I am president of the Forest History Society of Saskatchewan. We are a three year old organization with about 70 members to date. We publish a magazine each spring called Echoes in the Forest – Saskatchewan Forest Tales containing various articles about our forests, the people and machinery.

    If you are interested in contributing an article and/or joining our organization, I would be very happy to correspond further.

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