"Frenchman Butte" It's all in the Name

"Frenchman Butte" It's all in the Name

By Wayne Brown

I've wandered the North Saskatchewan River valley for over 40 years searching out details of our rich early history and I've been able to piece together the story of how Frenchman Butte acquired its name. The particulars of this tale have been gleaned from a variety of historic records, maps, and by interviewing a number of elderly individuals who were able to contribute some of the information.

Sometime around 1806, the business of trading along the North Saskatchewan River was a dangerous proposition because of the volatility of the plains Indians during that period of time. With the introduction of both the gun and the horse into their societies, many of the southern First Nations tribes were embroiled in an ongoing war; rampaging back and forth, often venturing north into Cree territory along the North Saskatchewan. Despite being in competition with each other, the Hudson's Bay Company, along with the North West Company, resorted to combining their resources into building one integrated trading fort, Fort Vermillion / Paint Creek House, on the north side of the river at today's Lee Park. This was an effort by the two companies to continue doing business by providing each other mutual protection from the marauding war parties.

in the late spring of that year, an unidentified French Metis free-trader set up his camp next to the Carlton Trail on a prominence known as Red Deer Hill; later to become known as 

Frenchman Butte. He and his Cree common-law "country wife", chose their camp well, locating it on a bend in the trail that curved around the south-west corner of the hill. They chose this location for the advantage of being able to observe travellers coming from either direction toward them, and to catch the mosquito deterring late spring breezes. It's believed that on this day, a Blackfoot raiding party from the plains happened upon the couple's camp. The initial parlay was probably difficult because both the trader his woman were incapable of speaking the Blackfoot language. The warriors, upon discovering this hatched a plan amongst themselves, to take advantage of their vulnerability and consequently they murdered both of them, on the spot. The killers then scooped up the trader's bundles of fur and rode off to the west, heading to Fort Vermilion/Paint Creek House.

It may have been Patrick Small, a senior "wintering partner" of the Northwest Company who received the party at Paint Creek House. The raiding party, intent on trading the stolen furs for liquor and trinkets, produced the bundles for inspection. As Small examined the furs, he recognized the style of binding on the bundles, and thought to himself, "Oh-oh, these belong to that Frenchman trader and I'll bet he's had it." The dealing concluded, the satisfied natives left, riding south again across the ford in the river. After giving the visiting party time to cover some distance, Patrick mounted a horse and back-tracked them along the Carlton Trail, eventually finding the ransacked camp, along with the two lifeless bodies. He buried the couple in shallow graves not far from their camp; I believe, close to where the Big Hill School was later located, and from that day on, this hill has been known as Frenchman Butte.

Fort Vermillion and Paint Creek House lay neglected, within a steel fenced compound just across the bridge on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River at Lee Park. Patrick Small would join the Hudson Bay Company and eventually build Fort Pitt in 1829. The identity of, "the Frenchman", or his woman is currently unknown; as is the exact location of the couple's camp, and their graves. To establish these last details would go a long way to concluding this tale of our exciting Western Canadian heritage.

From an article by Wayne Brown, source uncertain.