North West Company History

The Northwest Company LogoThe story of the North West Company and of its rendezvous place at Fort William covers but a brief span of history. Yet in this period the trading and exploring activities of the Nor'Westers ensured that the northwest part of North America would be preserved for Canada. It was also in this era that the evolution of Canadian society was strongly influenced through the interaction of Native, French Canadian, and British peoples in the fur trade.

Following the British conquest of 1760, merchants and traders from Great Britain and her American colonies came to Canada, mostly to Montreal, and assumed control of the French fur trade. Before long they were penetrating beyond the limits of the earlier French trade by trading with Natives who traditionally carried their furs to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). In response to the "pedlars" from Montreal, the Hudson Bay Company moved inland to protect their monopoly in 1778.

The Quebec Act of 1774 expanded Quebec's borders causing a second wave of merchants to descend on Montreal. Among them was Simon McTavish who abandoned his interests in the Colonies in favour of opportunities offered by the Montreal fur trade. This force behind the early triumphs of the North West Company was a Highlands-born merchant from Albany. The Company soon acquired a predominantly Highlands flavour as McTavish and his Scottish associates brought their clansmen out to join the trade.

The American Revolution (1776 - 1783) and the treaties that followed would change the Montreal traders' focus to northwest of the Great Lakes. Here they would begin cementing alliances with the Natives through presents and marriage. They also adopted the French trade routes and transportation system of the birch bark canoe to trade inland.

The growth of the Montreal based fur-trade was limited not only by the Hudson Bay Company but by other independent traders. Simon McTavish united competing interests in Montreal with the object of opposing the Hudson Bay Company in the Interior. The North West Company had its origins in loose combinations of merchants before 1780 with the first permanent agreement under that name occurring in the winter of 1783-84. Unlike the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company never received a charter, but operated instead under a series of agreements between firms of merchants in Montreal and traders in the field.  This partnership took the name of the North West Company (NWC) in 1783, and McTavish became its principle director until his death in 1804.

Among the young Scots seeking "opportunities" in the fur trade were Simon's nephews, William, Duncan, and Simon McGillvray of Invernesshire, with William serving as the first non-French salaried trader or clerk in the interior, later succeeding his uncle as head of the Company.

From 1804 then until its own absorption by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, the North West Company exercised a virtual monopoly of all trade into the northwest directed from Montreal. As the company's inland headquarters, Fort William became the pivotal point in a vast fur trading empire stretching from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. The NWC merged with the HBC in 1821 but changed their name back to the North West Company in the 1990's. Today they are one of the oldest retailers in North America with 181 retail outlet stores located in British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territory, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nunavut, Quebec and Alaska.