Monday, August 7, 2017

Fort Normandeau

Trip Date: August 2017

The Red Deer River is a prominent natural feature on the landscape of central Alberta. It was used for centuries by First Nation People who came to hunt the bountiful wildlife that were found along its banks. Plains Cree referred to the river as 'Waskasoo Seepee' or 'Elk River' due to the large herds that would gather there. Early European fur traders mistook the Elk as Scottish Red Deer and misinterpreted the name as 'Red Deer River'. Even though it was incorrect the name stuck to the growing community and that name still lives on today.

Welcome to Fort Normandeau
The front gates of Fort Normandeau
The easiest place to cross the Red Deer River was a natural shallow section a short distance west of modern-day Red Deer. Pre-contact First Nation groups used this shallow section of river for generations in order to move about the land hunting wild game. As the earliest Europeans began exploring the western frontier the same crossing point continued to be well-used. In 1882 the first permanent settlement was created and became known as Red Deer Crossing or simply The Crossing. The Calgary-Edmonton Trail passed through The Crossing and was a popular spot to stop during the long journey.

The grounds of Fort Normandeau
The Fort Normandeau Interpretive Centre
This sculpture is titled "Ghosts of the Prairies" and was created by Douglas Taylor in 2015. The informative plaque nearby reads: "The abstracted Plains Bison symbolizes why humans have come to this ford on the Red Deer River for eons. The bison's annual migrations brought First Nations peoples, followed by Metis and then the first European settlers to this site. The layered and textured steel slabs that form the front end of the animal transform into entwined textured steel rods representing leafy branches. The artist's intent is to recognize the bison for the integral role it played on the prairies and surrounding parkland that regrettably has all but disappeared in the wind today.
In 1884 a stopping house (also known as a hotel) was built at The Crossing by Robert McClellan. During the North-West Rebellion, in 1885, the hotel was commandeered by troops under the command of Lieutenant J.E. Bedard Normandeau in order to build a military stronghold. The original log building was renovated and reinforced to create Fort Normandeau. Lieutenant Normandeau and his men were tasked with protecting the surrounding community and the Calgary-Edmonton Trail in the event of an attack. Tensions were high as several bloody battles spilled over from the District of Saskatchewan into what is present-day Alberta.

Outside the reconstructed fort
A tower and a cannon
The main building inside the fort
"The detachment of the 65th Rifles took Robert McClellan's 'hotel', built in 1884, and fortified it. They cut loopholes in the walls, built a palisade of 10-foot logs set in a 2-foot trench, erected a protective wall of planks and clay outside the walls of the stopping house and lined the palisade with planks and clay."
                   -Raymond Gaetz, The Story of Fort Normandeau
Behind the main building is a garden and chickens
This stone cairn marks the site of the first trading post between Calgary and Edmonton and the old Red Deer River Crossing. Erected by the Old Timers Association in memory of the pioneers of the Red Deer District - 1951
Tensions at The Crossing were high. Rumors of looting and raids by unruly First Nation groups spread like wildfire and many settlers fled to Calgary to avoid the conflict. Relationships between First Nation, Metis, and white settlers were strained and due to the language barrier many were confused as to why their neighbours were suddenly afraid of them.

Inside the main building of Fort Normandeau
After the rebellion ended Fort Normandeau was used as a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) headquarters from 1886 to 1893 before eventually moving to Red Deer permanently. When the NWMP vacated, the fort was left abandoned and the main building was moved and used on a farm until 1937. In 1974 the Central Alberta Pioneers and the Old Timers Association moved the fort close to its original location where it was reconstructed and opened for visitors.

Across the river from Fort Normandeau was the site of the Red Deer Indian Industrial School built by the Dominion government in 1893. The school was operated by the Methodist Church until it closed in 1919. Although the school is long gone this exhibit on the grounds of Fort Normandeau pays tribute to those who were enrolled in the residential school system and brings to light the atrocities they faced.
The Red Deer River
Fort Normandeau's story may lack the drama of historic battles between First Nation groups and settlers, but the fear of attack was very real. It's hard to say, but maybe the presence of a fortified structure complete with armed troops was enough to discourage local uprisings.

To learn more about other Alberta historic forts please refer to these posts about Fort Whoop-Up and Fort Calgary.

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