| William Tomison and fellow Hudson’s Bay Company employees began building Edmonton House in 1795 near “the Forks,”– where the Sturgeon River flows into the North Saskatchewan, just north of modern day Fort Saskatchewan. Records indicate the decision to build a trading post at this spot was reached because beaver were so plentiful “that the women and children kill them with sticks and hatchets.” In those fur trading days, few other commodities were more cherished than beaver pelts. |
Yet, in at least one respect, it was also an unlikely place to build. As Allen Ronaghen reflects in Alberta History, “Tomison looked around at the sea of grass which stretched off in all directions and wondered where he would find timber for buildings.” He found it several miles upstream in an area spared by prairie fires.
His work crew floated logs down the river and construction of the first Fort Edmonton, also called Edmonton House, began in October 1795. Four men began collecting stones for chimneys and four began digging a saw pit on the south side of the river.
Tomison and the Orkneymen of the Hudson’s Bay Company were joined at the Forks by the French-Canadians and Scots of the North West Company, the XY Company and Grants Company. There are no known pictorial records of the settlement, but as Allen Ronaghen observes, “it must have appeared more astonishing to the Indians of that day than Edmonton does today.”
For William Tomison, the construction of the first Fort Edmonton was just another achievement in a long record of service as a trader, builder and adventurer with the Hudson’s Bay Company. His story began in 1739, when he was born in South Parish, South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
His parents were poor and the prevailing economic conditions made it impossible for him to receive a formal education. At the age of 20, he decided to seek his fortune in the “great lone lands of the west,” and so, for ten pounds a year, became a labourer for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Seven years later, in response to the threat from poaching, the company sent Tomison deep into the hinterlands to winter with Indians who frequented the Hudson’s Bay trading post of York Factory. The experience changed the course of his life and, for much of the next 31 years, he lived away from civilization.
In 1776, he was posted to Cumberland House, a post on Cumberland Lake, northwest of Winnipeg. He was promoted to inland master there two years later. Thirty years of intense competition with the North Westers followed, and Tomison was characterized as “the dominating influence in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service at York Fort and on the Saskatchewan.”
In his excellent book “Fort de Prairies,” Brock Silversides describes how Tomison played a leading role in the HBC’s new expansionist approach, and was responsible in turn for building Hudson House, Manchester House and Buckingham House. “He could have risen much higher in the company, but Tomison had a brittle, impatient, unyielding, parsimonious, humourless personality, and held grudges.”
John McDonald of the North West Company told the story about the time he and Tomison had a disagreement over the use of a well dug by Tomison at Buckingham House, a post on the Saskatchewan, east of today’s Elk Point. According to McDonald’s account, Tomison was extremely unwilling to let the Nor’ Westers draw water because in consequence of the long continued drought, the supply would not be sufficient for the needs of both parties.
Finally McDonald told Tomison that unless he acceded to his request one of them “must pay a visit to the bottom of the well.” This resulted in the Tomison’s reluctant agreement that the North West Company would have its due share of the water for ever afterwards.
Edmonton House, built in 1795, was Tomison’s headquarters until 1799. Ernest Marwick, writing in the Alberta Historical Review, notes that “the country here was wild and full of lawless traders.”
On April 15th of that year, Tomison was stabbed in the back of the knee by a disgruntled Native man. The knife severed a tendon and left Tomison incapacitated. He returned to Europe for a few months. He then returned to Cumberland House until his retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1803.
He couldn’t stay away though, and in 1806 was back working for the company as an inland trader. He retired to the Orkney Islands in 1811. He never married and never had any children. Determined to provide the children of South Ronaldsay with an opportunity he never had, Tomison donated generously to the school and set about erecting a proper facility.
Two weeks before his death on March 26th, 1829, Tomison willed the parish six thousand pounds – more than half his personal estate – for a charity school. On June 18th, 1851, the foundation stone of Tomison’s Academy was laid.
Two hundred years after he completed the construction of Edmonton House, the City of Edmonton paid tribute to William Tomison with its 1996 Recognition Award from the Edmonton Historical Board.
Information for this article sourced with the kind assistance of the archival staff at the City of Edmonton Archives.