The Festival du Voyageur has for decades been the biggest winter extravaganza in Winnipeg and Western Canada. Among the showpieces of the annual event held in February (this year’s festival ends on February 23) is a replica of Fort Gibraltar, which is representative of the festival’s celebration of Canada’s fur trade era and the unique French presence in Manitoba.
Today’s version of the fort in St. Boniface’s Whittier Park recently received a $30,000 grant to be used to renovate the replica of the North West Company’s (Nor’Westers) Fort Gibraltar. The money from the Community Incentive Grant will be used to rebuild Fort Gibraltar’s walls and three of its cabins. It’s an important investment, as the fort is a year-round facility that is visited by tourists and is used for weddings, conferences and other events.
What many may not realize is that the original Fort Gibraltar was actually located across the Red River in what is now The Forks National Historic Site.
The original fort was described by Jean Baptiste Roi, a workman who helped in its construction: “I know the Forks of Red River and a fort built there before its destruction, by a man by the name of (John) Wills; he was a partner of the North West Company at the time the said fort was built. It was a wooden picketing, made of oak trees split in two, which formed its enclosure. Within the said enclosure were built the house of the partner, two houses for the men, a store, two hangards or stores, a blacksmith’s shop and a stable; there was an icehouse with a watch-house (guerite) over it; these houses were good log houses, large and inhabited.”
Roi said Fort Gibraltar was located 15 paces from the shore of the Red.
John Tanner, who was present at Red River when the first Selkirk Settlers arrived, said Wills “built a strong fort on Red River, near the mouth of the Assiniboine.”
Another workman on the fort was Jean Baptiste Mennie, who said that he was employed “a whole year building it ... There were in the fort one house, sixty-four feet long, one of thirty feet, a kitchen of fifteen feet, another house twenty-eight feet, a store twenty-two feet, and other buildings.”
When the fort was actually built has been a matter of historical speculation — one date given is 1806, while another is 1809. But the year 1810 is favoured by historians and supported by information provided by Tanner and the journal of Alexander Henry, an employee of the North West Company in the Red River/Pembina district.
A petition from the North West Company to W.B. Coltman, a commissioner sent to investigate the troubles between the Nor’Westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), dated August 22, 1817, reads: “Whereas, the North West Company have for many years been in possession of certain tracts of land at Forks of Red River ... and have for the period of seven years last past been usually in the habit of cutting grass for their Horses at the Forks aforesaid ... The said North West Company have been and continued during the said period of seven years in undisturbed possess and use of said meadow.”
John Wills, the founder of Fort Gibraltar, died at the fort on January 6, 1815, and was succeeded by John Duncan Cameron. Cameron and Miles Macdonell, the man sent by Lord Selkirk to oversee the establishment of the Red River Settlement, would soon be in open conflict, as the Nor’Westers opposed the establishment of a colony in the region. Macdonell intensified the conflict between the two fur trading companies by issuing the infamous Pemmican Proclamation on January 8, 1814, which called upon the Nor’Westers to vacate their posts in the region of the Selkirk land grant — referred to as Assiniboia — and prohibited the export of pemmican or other food from the district. The proclamation was enforced by the seizure of large quantities of pemmican from the Nor’Westers and Métis.
The end of Fort Gibraltar can be traced to retaliation against the Métis and Nor’Westers by the HBC. Colin Robertson, a former employee of the Nor’Westers who transferred his allegiance to the HBC, rallied the flagging spirits of the settlers who were under constant harassment. One of his first actions in 1815 was to capture Fort Gibraltar, which he emptied of all its provisions, guns and ammunition.
Robert Semple, the HBC Governor at Red River, ordered the destruction of Fort Gibraltar so “that it should not serve as an asylum to an armed banditti (sic) of incendiaries and robbers coming a second time for the avowed purpose of attacking the Settlement — The pickets, and other serviceable wood, was rafted down to the Settlement, for the purpose of strengthening Fort Douglas” (the HBC fort in Point Douglas).
The destruction of Fort Gibraltar was an affront to the Nor’Westers and their Métis employees.
A relatively brief battle was fought between HBC employees and settlers with the Métis and Nor’Westers led by Cuthbert Grant at Sevens Oaks on June 19, 1816. Semple was killed, as were 20 of his party, while the Métis suffered the loss of one man.
Macdonell, leading a party of 21 troops hired by Lord Selkirk, recaptured Fort Douglas. The arrival of Lord Selkirk and more de Wattville and de Meurons regimental troops made the colony safe for the settlers.
But a judgement in 1817 issued by commissioner Coltman allowed the Nor’Westers to resume their occupancy of the site of the former Fort Gibraltar. The fort was rebuilt.
The merger of the HBC and North West Company in 1821 marked the end of the name Fort Gibraltar. On May 20, 1822, the HBC officially changed the name of the post at The Forks to Fort Garry.
Both Fort Douglas and Fort Garry were severely damaged in the flood of 1826, the most massive in the historical record. HBC Chief Factor Alexander Christie took charge of flood-damaged Fort Garry in 1835. He ordered the fort to be rebuilt, but at a site further to the west on higher ground. Since a fort had been built down river that became known as Lower Fort Garry (the Stone Fort), the rebuilt fort in what is now Winnipeg was called Upper Fort Garry. All that remains today of this later fort is the stone gate off Main Street, which is the centrepiece of a new park and interpretive centre.
The replica Fort Gibraltar across the Red from the original fort of the same name was started in 1977 with the construction of a log cabin that eventually became known as Maison Chaboillez. More buildings were erected over the years, and in 1985 a palisade was completed, giving the site the appearance of a true fur trade era fort. Funds were received in 2013 from the federal and provincial governments to repair the fort’s walls and cabins. The recent grant of $30,000 is also being used to further enhance the walls as well as three cabins.
Actually, all funds used to maintain Fort Gibraltar are well-spent, as the 10-day Festival du Voyageur alone annually pumps $12 million into the local economy.