Red River: Dig at the Forks
Unearthing Winnipeg's Human Heritage
During recent construction in downtown Winnipeg, archeologists found evidence
that the area was a traditional meeting and trading place for aboriginal groups
as long as 6,000 years ago. The location is called “The Forks” because it is where the Assiniboine
River flows into the Red River.
There has been periodic flooding here ever since the disappearance of a huge glacial lake
about 10,000 years ago. With each successive flood, a layer of silt and clay was deposited.
The result was a sequence of preserved floors, dotted with the remains of aboriginal camps.
Archaeologist, Sid Kroker, unearthed charred materials from two 6,000-year old fire places.
The trenches at The Forks also yielded history of the fur trade, the advent of the railway,
waves of immigration, and the Industrial Age.
Evidence shows that the earliest inhabitants were Native people from the northeastern Boreal
Forest. They camped at The Forks long before Europeans arrived. They built a trading economy,
networking with other groups from the Upper Assiniboine River and present-day North Dakota.
This exchange brought forest products to Southerners and prairie products to Northerners.
The two rivers were canoe routes for the traders.
Besides hunting bison and small mammals, Native peoples fished for catfish, drumfish and
suckers — all of which still populate the river. Natives also gathered shellfish, berries,
and nuts, and developed methods of food-processing and preservation of their food.
Highly nutritious pemmican, made of dried bison meat, fat, and berries, was a dietary staple,
along with fish. Animal hides were prepared for use as garments, bedding, and as lodge or
tipi coverings. Plants were used for dyes, medicines, and for the manufacture of birch-bark
baskets and nettle-fibre bags. Maple sugar, berries, nuts, and roots, such as the prairie
turnip, were abundant.
Much later, other groups occupied the site. A French trading post, Fort Rouge, existed there
from 1738 until 1749. North West Company traders made regular use of the area from the beginning
of the 19th century. By this time, Métis families settled at The Forks, establishing
farms along the banks of both rivers and becoming bison hunters employed by the North West
During the summer of 1810, Fort Gibraltar was built at The Forks for the North West Company.
A description of Fort Gibraltar, written by a workman tells us:
“… a wooden picketing, made of oak trees split in two, formed its enclose.
Within said enclosure were built the house of the partner, two houses for the men, two stores,
a blacksmith's shop, and a stable; there was also an ice-house with a watch-house over it;
these houses were good log houses, large and inhabited.”
In 1816, during one of the last bitter disputes between the North West Company and the Hudson
Bay Company, rival fur trading empires, Fort Gibraltar was looted and burned. Glass trade
beads and musket pellets have been unearthed from beneath the floor of the trading room.
One theory about these items is that they were swept through the cracks of the roughly-cut
In 1817, a new Fort Gibraltar was built. After the merger of the two fur-trading rivals,
the Fort was renamed Fort Garry and became the fur trade's main administrative centre. It
continued in operation until 1835, when Upper Fort Garry was built. Today, the Upper Fort
Garry North Gate still stands near Broadway and Main Street in Winnipeg as a monument to
the fur trade.
One of the most intriguing archeological finds was a footprint preserved in clay, dating
from just before a catastrophic flood in 1826. Floodwaters deposited a thick layer of sand
over the frozen soil to preserve a clay "snapshot" of a moccasined foot and a series of cattle
and horse prints.
Narrow buggy tracks were also found. The animal tracks and wheel ruts suggest that a cart
trail existed between Fort Gibraltar and the Red River Settlement before the 1826 flood.
Another theory is that the tracks and prints were made by settlers and traders leaving the
area as the flood waters rose. Whichever theory is true, Sid Kroker sensed the reality of
these remains so strongly while digging, that he expected someone to tap him on the shoulder
and say, "Get out of the road!" The discovery of these prints is unique in Canadian archaeology.
During the mid-1800s, an experimental farm was established at the settlement by the Hudson's
Bay Company. Barns and stables were built just north of the river junction. But the farm
was a dismal failure. By 1838, only eight hectares were cultivated. Most buildings were destroyed
by a powerful flood in 1852.
The years from 1870 to 1888 saw a major increase in immigration to the area and the development
In 1888, a charter was granted to the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad. The Hudson's
Bay Company sold 20 acres to the railway for $10,000 and construction began on a large repair
shop and a roundhouse. The repair shop still stands and has been recycled as the new home
of the Manitoba Children's Museum.
The railway has been the dominant industry at The Forks during the last century. The area
became a dumping ground for the by-products of railway activities - cinders from steam locomotives
and a cornucopia of interesting junk. The dumping of cinders as landfill provided a thick,
protective layer for the archeological remains.
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