- Town Hall
The Tetlit Gwich’in are part of the larger Gwich’in Nation that includes aboriginal people living at the northwestern limits of the boreal forest. The Gwich’in language is part of the larger family of Athapaskan languages, which include Slavey, Dogrib, Han, Tutchone and Chipewyan. But, the Gwich’in language and way of life is very distinct.
When French missionaries arrived in the region they nicknamed the Gwich’in “Loucheux,” which means people with slanting eyes. Relations were uneasy between the Gwich’in of the area and the Inuit who travelled to the region to trade in the 1800s. It is said that two Hudson’s Bay Company men were responsible for a large Gwich’in massacre of Inuit 1852. The battle is said to have started after they shot the Inuit leader who had sent an arrow into the sand near them, culturally a sign of friendship. The tension remained for many years and led to an entire Gwich’in village being moved to Fort McPherson in 1852, increasing the population and strengthening aboriginal ties to the settlement.
John Bell, an explorer for the Hudson Bay Company, established the first trading post in 1849. It was situated along the Peel River, four miles up from where the community of Fort McPherson is today. But, flooding meant the post had to be moved to higher ground. This post was ultimately named after the high-ranking HBC company man Murdoch McPherson.
In 1866 the first Anglican missionary arrived. Robert McDonald married a local Gwich'in woman and made his home in the community for more than 50 years. He helped translate the bible into the Gwich'in language and a strong tradition of Christianity is practiced today in the community. The Anglicans started a school in 1900. A federal school began in 1946.
Fort McPherson was used as a link to the Yukon during the gold rush era and quickly became a wild frontier town. In 1894, a government law officer was appointed. Nine years later an RCMP post was established. It was from Fort McPherson in 1910 that the doomed Lost Patrol set out toward Dawson City to deliver mail and dispatches but never made it. All four members of the patrol are buried in the community at the Saint Mathew's Anglican Church Cemetery.
During the latter part of the 20th century flu epidemics had a significant affect on Fort McPherson’s population. The world outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918-1919 was brought north by the sternwheelers traveling the Mackenzie River. The 1959 construction of the Dempster Highway introduced a wage economy to residents. The highway was eventually completed in 1978, linking the community to southern Canada.