On a warm day late last summer I went to explore Jasper House National Historic Site. The dry air smelled like a wood stove and the usually crisp Rocky Mountains that surround the town of Jasper were softened. We were in Jasper National Park in the province of Alberta, but the smoke from forest fires raging in the neighbouring province of British Columbia traveled hundreds of kilometers north and east through the mountain passes and blanketed the park.
From the town of Jasper we drove north across the Athabasca River then crossed the Snaring River and drove along the bank of the Athabasca River further northeast to the point where we would walk to the site. It is not marked from the road and since there isn’t a path someone with local knowledge is needed to reach the site by foot. Established as a provisioning depot for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Jasper House operated on this site from around 1830 to 1884 as an important stopover for fur traders who traversed the Athabasca and Yellowhead mountain passes. It was suggested to me that Jasper House is arguably the most significant archaeological site within Jasper National Park. No wonder it has the highest level of protection under Parks Canada’s land use zoning system (Zone 1).
Jasper House National Historic Site is situated on the bank of the Athabasca River just below Jasper Lake. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1926 at which point building depressions, chimney mounds and other structural features could still be seen on the site. The National Historic Site is actually the second Jasper House. The first one, located on Brule Lake to the north-east, was run by Jasper Hawse from 1817 to 1820 and the depot became known as Jasper’s House. The name has stuck and lives on in the name of the current town and the national park that encompasses it. The full reason for its relocation is unknown, but may relate to difficulty in navigating the lake when the water level was low – and the excellent fishing in the surrounding smaller bodies of water. There was also likely a pre-existing network of trails at the new site, where the valley’s of the Snake Indian and Rocky Rivers join the wider Athabasca River. The area around Jasper House could have also provided foraging grounds for the large herds of horses needed for expeditions across the mountains.
Archaeological survey, assessment and excavation were undertaken at Jasper House National Historic Site in the summer of 1984. Conducted by the Archaeological Research Unit of Parks Canada, the investigation aimed to determine the nature and state of preservation of the structural remains and features. Historic records and artistic sketches indicate that the first structures were build around 1830 and that there were likely three permanent log buildings on the site for much of its tenure. However, it seems that the site was partially abandoned by the 1870’s and fully so by 1884.
The archaeological report states:
“The results of the research in 1984 demonstrated that the archaeological record of the Jasper House Site can shed light on the corporate expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company through the Athabasca River Valley in the 19th Century, Native population dynamics of west-central Alberta and east-central British Columbia in the mid to later 19th Century, and the history of Metis settlement in the region of Jasper National Park.” (Pickard 1985, 53-54)
There is much more to unpack in that statement than is possible in a simple blog post and I will leave it for the interested reader to investigate the social and cultural dynamics of this point in Canadian history for themselves. There is no doubt, however, that the establishment of Jasper House impacted the future of the local landscape and its people.
Pickford, R. (1985). The Site of Jasper House: An Archaeological Assessment (Microfiche Report Series 268). Environment Canada – Parks.
When you walk over the site to day there is frankly not but to see other than slight depressions and mounds where the structures once stood. By using the archaeological report and surrounding mountains as a guide you can identify the layout of the site and visualise what it must have been like 150 years ago. The area is still clear of trees and provides easy access to the water’s edge. It is easy to see why it was an attractive location for a Hudson’s Bay depot or a homestead, and why it remains important to the descendants of those who lived there and those who use(d) the wider area – for instance the indigenous groups whose traditional territories overlap this site.
Before we left we made sure to sign into the guest book that is kept well protected in a small elevated wooden locker. As a tourist the most accessible way to view the site is from the other side of the Athabasca River. From a pull-in off the Yellowhead Hwy you can walk to the edge of the river and look across to the site of Jasper House from an elevated platform. Interpretive signs give visitors an overview of the history of the site and its significance to Jasper National Park and Canada. From this viewpoint it is easy to imagine a small cluster of buildings with smoke rising from the chimney’s and horses being loaded up for a long journey west through the mountain passes.