Bill Waiser

Snakes at Fort Livingstone

A Capital Idea

It is one of the most difficult national historic sites to find today in Saskatchewan. And even then, there is little to remind visitors that it was once the site of the first capital of the North-West Territories – except for the snakes.

The government of the North-West Territories was once based outside the region, in Winnipeg. That changed in 1875 with the passage of the North-West Territories Act and the decision to have a resident government and lieutenant-governor.

But where would the new territorial capital be located? The most obvious choice was either Prince Albert or Edmonton.

The Alexander Mackenzie government first leaned toward Fort Ellice, a Hudson’s Bay Company post near the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle rivers.

But then, it settled upon Fort Livingstone, at the junction of Swan River and Snake Creek (north of present-day Kamsack, just inside the Saskatchewan border). It was also to serve as the first western headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police.

The selection of Livingstone – named for the famous British African explorer – is one of the great mysteries of western Canadian history. The site, located on a small ridge in a heavily timbered area, had few redeeming features, except that it was near Fort Pelly, a Hudson’s Bay Company post, and three Indian reserves (Keeseekoose, the Key and Cote) that were part of Treaty 4. It was also on the route of the dominion telegraph line that had been established between Winnipeg and Edmonton by the end of 1876. The transcontinental railway was supposed to follow.

Sam Steele, perhaps one of the most famous Mounties of his generation, mockingly described Livingstone as “an extraordinary spot.”

Col. George French, the first commissioner of the force, reported that a group of local Metis “laughed outright when I asked opinions as to its suitability.”

An unexpected bonus was a nearby garter snake hibernaculum. The snakes made drilling on the barracks square an adventure for the garrison; they also migrated indoors, sometimes crawling into beds.

But the Mounties got their revenge. A snake-killing competition was held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday in May 1875. The winning team was credited with over 1,100 dead.

David Laird, a former Prince Edward Island journalist and Liberal federal cabinet minister, was sworn into office as lieutenant-governor at Fort Livingstone on Nov. 27, 1876. At his side that day, serving as his secretary, was Amedee-Emmanuel Forget, who would become Saskatchewan’s first lieutenant-governor in 1905.

The first and only session of the North-West Council to be held at Livingstone was convened March 8, 1877, when Laird read the speech from the throne to his three appointed councillors and anyone else who could be rounded up for the occasion.

By this point, most of the mounted police were gone, having gladly fled westward to their new headquarters at Fort Battleford.

The end of the two-week legislative session provoked another exodus from Fort Livingstone. Laird faithfully remained behind with the snakes until that August, when he joined the police at the new territorial capital at Battleford.

Fort Livingstone had been long abandoned when the ruins were destroyed by a prairie fire in 1884.

Except for the occasional visitor, the snakes now have the place to themselves.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Bill Waiser