Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site of Canada

History of Cape Merry

Shore line at Cape Merry
Shore line at Cape Merry
© Parks Canada/ PWFCollection/ L. Huculak

Cape Merry has a wealth of history and natural beauty. It was once called Knight's Round Point, as befits the land bounded by the Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. James Knight sailed into the mouth of the Churchill River to begin construction of a fur trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1717. The cape was later renamed to honour Captain John Merry, who was the Deputy Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1712-18. In 1686 John Abraham was the first Hudson's Bay Company employee to come to this area. He recommended that a trading post be established on the Churchill River. A wooden post was built on the western shore, 8 km upriver in 1689, but it burned to the ground the same year. Henry Kelsey was involved with the construction of that post and made two journeys of discovery inland: north beyond Churchill and south as far as the prairies. James Knight arrived in 1717 and supervised construction of Fort Churchill upon the remains of the first post.

Cape Merry battery
Cape Merry battery
© Parks Canada / PWFCollection

A cannon battery, which is a stone wall to protect the cannon from enemy fire, was constructed to guard the river and the river mouth, and to prevent enemy occupation at Cape Merry, by providing crossfire. You can still see the site of the first battery and the remains of a powder magazine, which still has the original limestone mortar.

The Hudson's Bay Company's Committee in London was not pleased with either the location or the construction. The battery was located directly across from the fort's eastern flank (wall). The cannon could be used by the enemy, to fire upon the fort. Built into the middle of the battery, the powder magazine was in a dangerous position, any stray sparks could ignite the black powder. The flag pole on the top of the magazine made an excellent target for an enemy ship. In 1747 Joseph Robson, a stone mason and surveyor for the Company, was instructed to relocate the battery to a second site. It still stands today, having been rebuilt in 1959-60 using stone blocks found at the site along with modern cement. A lone cannon stands as a reminder of its original intent. This cannon is one of the original 42 cannon from Prince of Wales Fort.

The men who built the cannon battery enjoyed working at Cape Merry. They crossed the river when the ice melted and worked there until autumn freeze up. Away from the watchful eye of the governor, they had leisure time to spend hunting and harvesting the bountiful 'country provisions'. The men adapted to the area taking advantage of the spring and autumn migration of snow and Canadian geese. Summer provided arctic char and whitefish, and in autumn they harvested numerous kinds of berries.

commemorative cairn at Cape Merry
Commemorative cairn at Cape Merry
© Parks Canada/ PWFCollection

Jens Munck came to Hudson Bay to try to find the elusive Northwest Passage. A cairn at Cape Merry commemorates Fort Churchill and Jens Munck and his crew, the first Europeans to leave evidence of their presence. Jens Munck's crew included a Lutheran minister who performed the first Lutheran service to be delivered in western Canada. In 1731, the Hudson's Bay Company built a stone fort at the mouth of the Churchill River to defend its entire territory. Governor Isham was instructed to build a cannon battery at Cape Merry in 1744 to complement the defence of Prince of Wales Fort.