Designated in 2005 as a Provincial Historic Resource, the historical significance of the Hudson’s Bay Company Factor’s House in Fort Vermilion lies in it being the only structural evidence remaining of the presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Fort Vermilion. It is significant as well in that, having served as the residence of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s factors just after the turn of the twentieth century, it represents the dominance of the HBC in all aspects of life in this spread out community, which was the largest between Edmonton and the Yukon. It is also significant in that, in its size and with its many facilities, it was the first dwelling of its kind to be constructed in Alberta northwest of the Edmonton district.
In 1788, traders for the North West Company established a trading post on the flats of the Peace River at a point near the mouth of the Boyer River. It was called Fort Vermilion, apparently after red ochre deposits in the area. At the time, lands north and west of this point were occupied mostly by members of the Beaver First Nation, who were the initial intended clients of the Company. Once this post was established however, trading was also undertaken with members of the Slavey First Nation, who lived further north and west and also with recently migrated Cree who were now occupying the lands throughout the region. In time, a number of freemen, mostly Metis, came to settle on the river flats outside the Fort and engaged in trading as well.
With the incursion of the Hudson’s Bay into the Peace Region in 1815, a rival HBC post called Colville House was established upriver from Fort Vermilion. After a bitter fur trade war, the two companies amalgamated under the single name of Hudson’s Bay Company, and Colville House was closed down. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, trade continued at Fort Vermilion, and, after the Irene Farm and Training School was established near the Fort in 1879, further settlement in the area increased. Soon, the HBC itself was maintaining a farm, milling its own grain, and selling the produce, primarily to people further up the Peace River, around Fort Chipewyan and even at HBC posts down the MacKenzie River. This activity picked up after 1899, when the Klondike gold rush and the signing of Treaty 8 brought a cash economy and more people to the north.
By the end of the nineteenth century, there were more people living around Fort Vermilion than any other community in Canada northwest of the Edmonton district, save for Dawson City. Most of these people were Metis engaged in trapping and small-scale farming. The First Nations of the area preferred to live in the woodlands away from the Fort. The economy of the district continued to centre around the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and, even though the fur trade had declined in recent times, business at the HBC farm and grist mill continued to grow. In addition to other small farms in the area, there were now several large ones, such as those of Fred and later Sheridan Lawrence, and that of St. Henri’s Roman Catholic Mission. In 1907, part of Fred Lawrence’s farm would be made over into a federal agricultural research station. All of these farms invariably sold most of their produce to the HBC, especially once the HBC had set up a modern steamroller flour mill, with an auxiliary sawmill and planer, in 1902 for $45,000. By this time, a hundred pound sack of flour produced at Fort Vermilion was selling for 6 dollars, as compared to 10 dollars for those imported from Edmonton.
In 1905, the commercial activity of the HBC around Fort Vermilion was augmented by its launching of a large new steam boat on the Peace River called the SS Peace River. At the same time, the HBC decided to provide the overall director of its operations in the area, Factor Frank Wilson, with a new residence on the banks of the river next to the Fort and farming operation. This was a two-and-one-half storey wood frame dwelling, made from wood cut locally and planed at the HBC sawmill. When completed, it immediately stood out as the most fashionable residence in the northwest with four bedrooms, a den, a dining room separate from the living room, a pantry separate from the kitchen, a sitting room, a sewing area, and even an indoor bathroom. This residence, which no doubt was the venue of much business activity on behalf of the HBC, would be a showcase home and a social centre in Fort Vermilion for years to come. Though it ceased to serve the managers of the HBC store during the 1930’s, it continued to be used as a private residence, in time blending with the other large wood frame dwellings nearby.
Note: the above material was prepared by a former staff historian.
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Hudson’s Bay Company Factor’s House in Fort Vermilion. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Hudson’s Bay Company Factor’s House.