In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints ... and gods.

STEVEN PINKER, How the Mind Works

Friday, June 4, 2010

Stalking 'ghosts' of a violent past in Saskatchewan's Fort Pitt

When Wayne Brown scans the landscape, he's adding a generous overlay of history to a familiar terrain. We're touring the area where Fort Pitt once stood, about 60 km northeast of Lloydminster. An early Hudson's Bay post and base for a North-West Mounted Police detachment, Fort Pitt is now a catchbasin of memories from events that fired up the country 125 years ago.

"This portion of the province, adjacent to the North Saskatchewan River, is so rich in history it absolutely reeks," Brown says.

In his mind's eye, the amateur historian and writer is back in 1885, musing on the part the region played in the Northwest Resistance.

Not far from here, nine people, including two Roman Catholic priests, were murdered at Frog Lake in April of that year, and all hell broke loose in this part of west-central Saskatchewan.
Soon afterwards, Cree warriors laid siege to Fort Pitt, forcing the defending North-West Mounted Police to escape down the ice-filled river to Fort Battleford.

"They only had a short time to make their escape, which they did toward dark. They pulled a scow down to the river, got it afloat and piled in and made the harrowing journey all the way to Battleford," Brown says. Rising from the river valley, the flat land where the fort stood blends in with the broad expanse of prairie that climbs away to the horizon. While there are interpretive panels where buildings once stood, you'll need some imagination to help stir visions of the past if you visit here.

Fort Pitt is rich in heritage. The first fort was built in 1829, and hosted many of the early explorers who were passing through, Brown says.

A second fort was built after the original one burned down. Even before the Northwest Resistance, the remote enclave had witnessed violence.

"There was even a real Wild West gunfight between two American gold-seekers in March 1859," Brown says. "One guy died of his wounds; the other was slightly wounded."

The second fort was really a conglomeration of buildings -- a fort in name only, possessing no palisades and a zero inventory of big guns, he says. Nevertheless, it was headquarters for a detachment of NWMP commanded by Insp. Francis Dickens, son of Charles Dickens.

"Dickens had less than a sterling reputation as a leader, and it wasn't long after he escaped with his men to Battleford that he would quit the force he'd served in for a dozen years. But the fort was totally non-defendable, and you can't blame Dickens for abandoning it during the rebellion."

While there is little evidence of the fort's presence, it's still a fascinating place to visit, Brown adds.

"Go there on a calm autumn evening and the whole place is alive with ghosts. I'm not kidding: You can feel the presence of them in the dusty fall air." It is truly an eerie feeling, but not without good reason, he says, strolling through the old fort graveyard recently rejuvenated by Saskatchewan's parks department. Nor is that the only reminder of the tenuous nature of life during that era.

"Somewhere, not far from the fort, there's a mass grave of probably hundreds of First Nations people who died in the smallpox epidemics and who knows who else."


The Vancouver Sun