Bill Waiser

Samuel Hearne

The Founding of Cumberland House

In 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company established its first inland post, Cumberland House, on the lower Saskatchewan River. It was a momentous step for a company that, up until then, had hugged the shores of Hudson and James bays. The western Canadian fur trade was never the same.

For a century, the rather unimaginative HBC practice of encouraging interior Indians to come to the Bay to trade had resulted in steady returns for its English shareholders.

But that changed in the 1760s, when Montreal-based traders moved up the Saskatchewan River to trade directly with Indian bands. No longer did the Cree and Assiniboine need to travel with fur-laden canoes to the Bay. They now enjoyed the convenience of getting their trade goods from these “door-to-door” pedlars.

The HBC grudgingly concluded that Canadian competition had to be answered by its own settlement on the Saskatchewan River – or it faced probable ruin.

The credit for founding Cumberland House is accorded to company servant Samuel Hearne. That is a generous interpretation.

Fresh from his impressive trip across the barren lands from Fort Churchill to Lake Athabasca, Hearne was asked in August 1773 to head the expedition to establish the company’s first inland post.

But he could not convince any Indians to help undertake the task because of exceedingly low water levels and the lateness of the season.

And when Hearne and a handful of HBC servants finally did set off early the following summer, they travelled as passengers in Indian canoes – but only because they had paid for their transportation with presents. Even then, they could not travel together, but left for the lower Saskatchewan River with separate trading parties on different days. Several expedition members ended up being taken to different interior locations because Cree bands wanted any new HBC post to be sited in their home territory.

The HBC contemplated two possible locations for its inland initiative, both in present-day Manitoba: Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, and Basquia near The Pas.

But after consulting with local Indian leaders, Hearne settled on a bay on Pine Island (Cumberland) Lake, just north of the Saskatchewan River delta (in presentday Saskatchewan). Although not a traditional gathering centre, the site was at the nexus of several major Indian trade routes – northeast to the HBC posts on the west side of the bay, northwest to the Churchill River and Athabasca country and west along the Saskatchewan towards the Rocky Mountains. In other words, the location of the HBC’s first inland post in Western Canada was determined by existing Indian social geography.

Hearne began supervising the building of Cumberland House on Sept. 3, 1774. The simple log structure may not have been much, but as Hearne noted, it marked the beginning of a new commercial struggle with its Montreal-based competitors. But until HBC servants learned to build and use canoes, the goods, furs and company personnel going to and from Cumberland House were transported by Indians. Hearne glumly estimated, for example, that it cost more in presents to transport trade goods inland than they were actually worth. Cumberland House was beset with problems. One was the incredible mosquito population during summer, which made working outside miserable, if not impossible at times. Another was the frequent flooding.

Then, there was the scarcity of food. Because of Cumberland House’s precarious game supply, traders were at the mercy of Indian hunters who expected special presents in exchange for supplying meat. If traders refused to co-operate, they faced the prospect of starvation.

No sooner had Cumberland House been established in 1774 than it was challenged by a series of competing posts that pushed the fur trade up the Saskatchewan River.

By the early nineteenth century, Cumberland House had become an inland supply depot and a Metis community. Today, the HBC’s first inland post enjoys the distinction of being Saskatchewan’s oldest continuously occupied settlement.

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

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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