Courtesy T. Andrews/GNWT

Courtesy T. Andrews/GNWT

Old Fort Reliance

Statement of Significance

Built in 1833 as winter quarters for George Back’s Arctic Land Expedition, Old Fort Reliance is located at the far eastern end of Great Slave Lake, adjacent to the mouth of the Lockhart River. It consisted of a main house and smaller houses heated with chimneys constructed of stone and clay. An observatory for scientific work was also built. Today all that remains are the chimneys, storage pits, and the outlines of the log buildings in the earth. The East Arm of Great Slave Lake is a land of spectacular beauty. Though Dene Sułiné have lived and hunted here for thousands of years, over the last two centuries the area, as the entry to the Barrenlands, has drawn explorers from other parts of the globe.

Old Fort Reliance is one of the best preserved sites of early exploration in the western Subarctic. Old Fort Reliance was originally erected in 1833 as winter headquarters for the Arctic Land Expedition, led by George Back, R.N. His party travelled by way of the Back River (formerly the Thlew-ee-choh-desseth or Great Fish River) to the Arctic Coast in an effort to locate the missing John Ross expedition and conduct scientific studies. When news reached him in spring 1834 of Ross’s safe return to England, Back refocused his on exploring the Thlew-ee-choh and the seacoast at the river’s mouth. After exploring the river and the coast in 1834, back returned to overwinter at Fort Reliance, finally leaving for England in spring 1835 when the post was abandoned.

In 1855 the fort was rebuilt on a smaller scale by Chief Factor James Anderson of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Again it was intended as winter quarters for an overland journey, down the Back River to the Arctic Coast in search of Sir John Franklin and his crew who had disappeared in quest of the elusive Northwest Passage. However, as his party was not successful in locating evidence of Franklin’s whereabouts, Fort Reliance was abandoned the same summer it was rebuilt. The final episode of construction at the fort was by an American hunter, named Buffalo Jones who raised a log cabin in 1897, incorporating one of the chimneys into the structure.

In 1986, staff from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and Parks Canada, studied the site carried out a restoration programme to stabilize and preserve the falling chimneys.

Key elements that define the heritage character of Old Fort Reliance include:

  • The Dene Sułiné have lived and hunted around Old Fort Reliance for thousands of years
  • The chimneys and fireplaces remain standing and are a very rare source of constructional details of chimneys and fireplaces built by Europeans in the subarctic throughout the 19th century
  • Initially constructed by Sir George Back in 1833 during his search for the missing John Ross expedition
  • Rebuilt by James Anderson in 1855 during his search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition
  • Rebuilt in 1897 by Buffalo Jones where he kept five captive musk ox
  • Its role as an exploration gateway to the Barrenlands and central Arctic Coast
  • One of the best preserved sites of exploration in the western Subarctic