Red Deer’s Roots: Alberta’s Historical Site Fort Normandeau

Fort Normandeau

“The detachment of the 65th Rifles took Robert McClellan’s ‘hotel’, built in 1884, and fortified it. They cut loopholes in the walls, built a palisade of 10-foot logs set in a 2-foot trench, erected a protective wall of planks and clay outside the walls of the stopping house and lined the palisade with planks and clay.”

          ~Raymond Gaetz, The Story of Fort Normandeau

Fort Normandeau
Welcome to Fort Normandeau. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

The Red Deer River is a prominent natural feature on the landscape of central Alberta. It was used for centuries by the First Nation People who came to hunt the bountiful wildlife that were found along its banks. Plains Cree referred to the river as ‘Waskasoo Seepee‘ or ‘Elk River‘ due to the large herds of elk that would gather there. Early European fur traders mistook the Elk as Scottish Red Deer and misinterpreted the name as ‘Red Deer River‘. Even though it was incorrect, the name stuck to the growing community and that name still lives on today.

Fort Normandeau
The historic-looking front gates to the fort and surrounding park. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Fort Normandeau
Fort Normandeau Interpretive Centre. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

The easiest place to cross the Red Deer River was a natural shallow section a short distance west of modern-day Red Deer. Pre-contact First Nation groups used this shallow section of river for generations in order to move about the land hunting wild game. As the earliest Europeans began exploring the western frontier, the same crossing point continued to be well-used. In 1882, the first permanent settlement was created and became known as the Red Deer Crossing or simply The Crossing. The Calgary-Edmonton Trail passed through The Crossing and was a popular spot to stop during the long journey; think of it like the modern-day Gasoline Alley.

Fort Normandeau
The fort was recreated to look as it did when it was first built. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

In 1884, a stopping house (also known as a hotel) was built at The Crossing by Robert McClellan. During the North-West Rebellion in 1885, the hotel was commandeered by troops under the command of Lieutenant J.E. Bedard Normandeau in order to create a military stronghold. The original log building was renovated and reinforced to create Fort Normandeau. Lieutenant Normandeau and his men were tasked with protecting the surrounding community and the Calgary-Edmonton Trail in the event of an attack. Tensions were high as several bloody battles spilled over from the District of Saskatchewan into what is present-day Alberta. Rumours of looting and violent raids spread like wildfire and many settlers fled south to the Calgary to avoid the conflict. Relationships between the First Nation, Métis, and the white settlers were strained, and due to the language barrier many were confused as to why their neighbours were suddenly afraid of them.

Fort Normandeau
A tower and cannon inside the fort. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Fort Normandeau
Behind the main building is a garden and captive chickens. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

After the rebellion ended, Fort Normandeau was used as a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) headquarters from 1886 to 1893 before eventually moving to Red Deer permanently. When the NWMP vacated, the fort was left abandoned and the main building was moved and used on a farm until 1937. In 1974, the Central Alberta Pioneers and the Old Timers Association returned the fort close to its original location where it was reconstructed and opened for visitors.

Fort Normandeau
This stone cairn marks the site of the first trading post between Calgary and Edmonton and the old Red Deer River Crossing. Erected by the Old Timers Association in memory of the pioneers of the Red Deer District – 1951. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Fort Normandeau’s story may lack the drama of historic battles between First Nation groups and European settlers, but the fear of attack was very real. It’s hard to say for certain, but maybe the presence of a fortified structure complete with armed troops was enough to discourage local uprisings.

Fort Normandeau
The Red Deer River

Today you can visit Fort Normandeau during the summer months and discover this exciting piece of Alberta’s history. If you liked what you’ve just read please see my previous post, From Police Outpost to Modern City, about the birthplace of Calgary and Written In Stone, about Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park with it’s historic NWMP Post.

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About Tyler Dixon 117 Articles
Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness- based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.