Hudson Bay Company’s first trading post is where the Cree said it was

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This summer’s Archaeology Month demonstrated the power of First Nations storytelling and oral tradition as Waskaganish encouraged people to visit their region and the partially excavated remains of the Fort Charles archaeological site, home to the Hudson Bay Company’s first trading post.

The archaeological survey started in 2014 as part of a Hydro-Quebec riverbank redevelopment project in Waskaganish, which included the construction of a spur to protect canoes during storms, a towpath and the development of walking trails along the riverbank.

The project resulted from an agreement between Hydro-Quebec and the Cree in 2012, Lynn St-Laurent, HQ Strategic Communications Advisor, told the Nation.

As construction of the spur required heavy machinery to be hauled over an area the community had long suspected to be the original site of Fort Charles, the stakeholders agreed to document the site beforehand to avoid damaging any possible cultural heritage and history.

Archaeologist Christian Roy was recruited to oversee the excavations while the Cree Nation Government hired David Denton to recommend protective measures to prevent damage by machinery to the site.

“We have probably found the first building,” said Roy, adding that this still needed to be confirmed. “We need to find the walls but it’s too late in the year to achieve this so maybe this will happen next year.”

However, a range of artifacts, such as burnt wood and animal bones, indicate these were the principal living quarters. The almost 400-metre-long site contains other buildings, according to Roy, who was excited by many of the other artifacts discovered on the site.

“Wine bottles, pipes, gunflints, muskets, brass keys, rings, Jesuit rings, ceramic pots and glass beads,” Roy recounted excitedly. “Usually the cultural material we uncover in Quebec is French, but this time we have British artifacts making it harder for us to identify. We are not used to British artifacts, there are only three sites.”

In 1668, the Cree encountered the crew of the Nonsuch, the first Cree meeting with Europeans. The British explorers were intent on establishing trading settlements, claiming ownership of the land and bartering for furs, according to Toby Marantz and Daniel Francis in their book, Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay, 1600-1870.

The original relationship between First Nations and the European fur traders was an interdependent one. The Nonsuch shipmaster, Zachariah Gillam, created a League of Friendship with the James Bay Cree chief and in spring 1668 at least 300 First Nations came to trade muskets, hatchets, scrapers, needles and trinkets in return for their furs.

The Nonsuch returned to England in 1669 with the crew unable to cope with the Rupert River’s millions of mosquitoes. They returned the following year with Charles Bayley as the first governor of what would become Rupert’s Land. The Cree greeted them with fresh venison, wild fowl, sturgeon, whitefish and trout in return for steel knives and iron axes.

The range of artifacts discussed by Roy demonstrates the cultural impact some of these items had on First Nation clothing. The glass beads, now long associated as decorative items on clothing from moccasins to jackets where traditionally bone had been used, were a case in point.

“Originally they came from Italy and Czechoslovakia but later on they were also made in France, Holland and Britain,” said Roy. Such was the prevalence of glass beads in First Nations’ quillwork, that during the Victorian era, First Nations would export their decorative items to Britain.

Any history of Fort Charles however must be seen within the context of Anglo-French trade rivalry. Keeping soldiers’ gunpowder dry by using water-resistant fur was Prince Rupert’s motivation to establish what would become the Hudson Bay Company in 1687 along with Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers in a bid to prise the North American fur trade from the French.

By 1672, the Jesuit missionary Charles Albanel arrived with the French explorer Louis Jolliet and were impressed by Charles Bayley’s administration of the Hudson Bay Company, particularly his reputation among the First Nations for fair trading.

Radisson and Groseilliers defected to the French traders led by Albanel in 1674 around the time the English started to develop east and west James Bay. The French started to enter Cree territory from Lac Saint-Jean and Mistassini, creating their first trading post at Nemaska in 1684. The following year they captured Fort Charles, renaming it Fort Saint-Jacques.

While the excavation of Fort Charles allows Waskaganish to bring both its history and the early history of Canada to life, Roy agrees that the longevity and accuracy of the First Nations’ oral tradition has helped bring this all about. Despite its part in the original 2014 archaeological survey and the subsequent findings, Hydro-Québec affirmed that it has no plans for undertaking similar activities in the area.

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