Dog Teams and the Fort at the Forks

H. A. Strong, Interior of Fort Garry, 1884. Lithograph

H.A. Strong, Interior of Fort Garry, c.1884. Lithograph. Library and Archives Canada. Photo: LAC no. e011408995

The colour lithograph Interior of Fort Garry; A vanished scene in the early History of our Country; Dedicated to the Pioneer Settlers of the Canadian North West, currently on display in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries, depicts an imagined rendering of early 19th-century life at the Hudson’s Bay Company's trading post Fort Garry, now the city of Winnipeg. In this work, artist H.A. Strong presents Indigenous and non-Indigenous subjects mingling in an open area defined by a half oval of efficiently ordered buildings. In the centre, the Hudson’s Bay Company flag flutters against a blue patch of sky. The lithograph was created in 1884 – one year before the North-West Rebellion of the Métis and Indigenous peoples under Louis Riel  – and it appears that the artist wished to either idealize the past or remind his viewers that there was a time when both groups peacefully coexisted.

Although seemingly innocent in its portrayal of the late 19th century, the lithograph is fascinating for its understated message regarding the complex makeup of the area and its peoples. The work is displayed as part of the Focus series Pulling Their Weight: Dog Teams in Indigenous and Canadian Art installation, which takes dog sledding in historical and contemporary images as its theme. The dog sled, also known as qamutik, sledge and cariole, has been central to communities in the past as a means of transporting goods and people across snowy, frozen expanses. Depictions of this subject in drawings, photographs and prints reveal the duties performed by these animals in Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, as well as the constitution of social life in northern climes.

In Interior of Fort Garry the dogs appear front and centre – alert, ears perked, ready to run, their sled loaded with furs. A Métis guide is seen holding the whip he would crack in the air to direct the dogs. Several dog sleds would often travel together. A human runner would lead the first team, beating down a path with snowshoes, with other teams following the track.

Once-known artist, Blanket for sled dog, no date, beige wool duffle cloth and embroidery on canvas backing

Once-known artist, Blanket for Sled Dog, no date, beige wool duffle cloth and embroidery on canvas backing. Canadian Museum of History, VI-N-32, IMG2013-0142-0026. Photo: Canadian Museum of History

When approaching a settlement, Métis guides would stop and decorate the dogs with bead- or silk-embroidered blankets, called "tuppies", a variation of the French tapis, or rug. The dogs could also be adorned with standing irons, ornamented rods with tassels or pom poms that fit into the harness at the back of the dog’s neck, as seen in William Day's print after a work by the Swiss-born painter Peter Rindisbacher. The tuppies and standing irons usually had bells attached and, with the dogs and Métis guides gaily decked out, teams would enter the settlement in grand style.

William Day, after Peter Rindisbacher, Hudson’s Bay Company governor travelling by dog cariole with a First Nations guide and a Métis musher, Red River, 1825, print

William Day, after Peter Rindisbacher, Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Travelling by Dog Cariole with a First Nations Guide and a Métis Musher, Red River, 1825. Library and Archives Canada/Collection Peter Rindisbacher/e002291786. Photo: LAC no. e002291786

The role of the dog teams and the transportation routes they followed were heavily influenced by the social, political, cultural and economic conditions of the area. Strong's image depicts a scene from an earlier, more parsimonious period in the Fort’s history. Located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, known locally as The Forks, the Fort was built in 1822 after the amalgamation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. Nearly destroyed in a disastrous flood four years later, it was rebuilt along with another, Lower Fort Garry or the Stone Fort, further upriver in the parish of St. Andrew.

The Forks had been an important gathering place for Indigenous groups for millennia. With the introduction of the fur trade, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples mixed and a new, unique group – the Métis – became established in the area. The Métis were composed of two linguistic groups: French and English and, like the French, English and Scottish settlers, they were divided along Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations. The area’s diverse community also included the Cree, Ojibwa and Dakota.

By contrast, at the Red River settlement, the Métis and other Indigenous groups occupied a low position in the social hierarchy, often working as labourers, guides and canoeists. The imposition of the British class system, which defined an individual's success by their social status and material wealth, favoured Hudson Bay's Company officers, as well as members of the business community who justified their affluence and rank against those who had not attained such advantages. Other pressures on the community included the increased influence of the Anglican Church on traditional lifestyles and values, and the heightened interest in the area of the Canadian and British governments. As well, the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the fur trade was deeply resented. In defiance, the Métis began trading furs to markets in the south, most notably at St Paul, Minnesota. In 1849, charges were brought against Pierre-Guillaume Sayer and three other Métis, who were put on trial for trafficking in North Dakota. They were acquitted and, as a result, an independent fur trade industry became established that successfully competed against the Hudson Bay's Company.

Humphrey Lloyd Hime, Dog Carioles; Part of the Expedition Returning to Crow Wing by the Winter Road, 1858, photograph

Humphrey Lloyd Hime, Dog Carioles; Part of the Expedition Returning to Crow Wing by the Winter Road, 1858. Library and Archives Canada/Fonds Humphrey Lloyd Hime/e004155604. Photo: LAC no. e004155604

The route that traders took to the south is indicated in two works: a photograph taken by Humphrey Lloyd Hime as part of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition in 1858 and a 1901 watercolour by William Armstrong, based on the photograph. Hime was the official photographer for the expedition, which was led by the explorer and geologist Henry Youle Hind. The team explored the region west of Lake Winnipeg and the Red River, collecting information on the geology, natural history, topography and meteorology of the area. Assessing the suitability of the land for settlement and establishing sovereignty in the West was a priority for both the British and Canadian governments.

The photograph's caption – Dog Carioles; Part of the Expedition Returning to Crow Wing by the Winter Road – indicates that the party was heading south, along the Crow Wing Trail. The trail became the Company’s favoured route for transporting furs in 1857, as it could take advantage of rail connections farther south. Earlier means of moving furs out of the area used York boats, which headed north via Lake Winnipeg to York Factory, at the mouth of the Hayes River on the western coast of Hudson Bay. The Hind expedition eventually picked up the train at La Crosse, Wisconsin, then headed back to Toronto.

William Armstrong, A View of the Post Dog Trains Leaving Fort Garry for St. Paul, 1901., watercolour

William Armstrong, A View of the Post Dog Trains Leaving Fort Garry for St. Paul, 1901. Library and Archives Canada/Fonds William Armstrong/e011161355. Photo: LAC no. e011161355

These two works present the changing and important service of dogs in the second half of the 19th century. Artist William Armstrong based his watercolour on Hime’s photograph and modified it in important ways. Armstrong knew Hime as a partner in the Toronto firm of Armstrong, Beere and Hime, and most likely learned photography from him and Daniel Beere. Like the photograph, Armstrong's A View of the Post Dog Trains Leaving Fort Garry for St. Paul (1901) depicts the teams ready to transport passengers and cargo. However, in the spirit of the Strong print of Fort Garry, the depiction is a fanciful and somewhat romantic view of the past. By 1901, few, if any, people would travel to St. Paul in a dog sled. The preferred mode would be by train. Nonetheless, by this point dog teams had gained notoriety for their work with the postal service. Perhaps Armstrong wished to acknowledge this role by augmenting the Hime image: the dogs are gaily decorated with tuppies and standing irons and would have made, like their predecessors, an impressive entrance into any city or settlement.


The Focus series Pulling Their Weight: Dog Teams in Indigenous and Canadian Art, an ongoing partnership between Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery of Canada, is on view in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries until August 2023. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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