For centuries, the Dene and Metis hunted and fished the land and tributaries flowing into the Slave River. The waterway was key to their movements, following the ancient rhythms of animals and seasons. Explorers and fur traders later used the Slave as a gateway from the Prairies when travelling north from Lake Athabasca.
The Town of Fort Smith largely owes its existence to the four sets of formidable rapids on the Slave River. These rapids had to be portaged around by the fur traders who settled in the North. Portaging was originally done in three stages on the east bank of the river, but was eventually pared to a single 16-mile portage on the west bank. For 200 years, all freight from the south travelled the Slave River on its way to the Arctic, until a highway to Hay River was built in 1949 and freight was transported to Great Slave Lake.
The Hudson Bay Company built a settlement, which would eventually become Fort Smith, at the foot of the rapids once the single, 16-mile portage was completed. The settlement was named for Donald Alexander Smith, Lord Strathcona, the resident governor of the Hudson Bay Company and an original member of the North West Council.
Within a few years, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police established its northern headquarters at Fort Smith. The Roman Catholic Church did the same for its Northern Diocese, building a mission in 1876 where the Oblate Brothers grew vegetables for missions along the Mackenzie River.
Today, many federal and territorial government offices, including the headquarters of Aurora College, remain in Fort Smith.
To hear more about the rich history and culture of Fort Smith, visit the museum or St. Joseph’s Cathedral.