The Great Rendezvous & Fort William 1803 - 1821

The annual Great Rendezvous at Fort William epitomized the success of the North West Company. In their pursuit of fur, the Nor'Westers established an ambitious transportation network spanning the entire country. Located on Lake Superior, Fort William became the key midway transhipment point for voyageurs ("winterers") paddling from the west carrying precious furs and voyageurs ("pork eaters") coming from the east bearing valuable trade goods and supplies. This allowed for an exchange of important materials--all within a single season.

Voyageurs carrying birch bark canoe out of waterThis was how the Nor'Westers began to dominate the North American fur trade. Every year, this success was celebrated at the NWC's annual meeting known as The Great Rendezvous. This was a grand affair. Fort William, usually quiet during the winter, became the centre of frenzied activity as hundreds of Natives, voyageurs, clerks, partners and agents arrived.

Tons of furs arriving from the western interior were sorted, cleaned and re-packed for shipment to Montreal and later Europe. Trade goods and supplies from the east were also sorted for distribution to the various "departments" in the western interior.

Meanwhile, cooks and assistants in the Fort bakery and kitchen scurried to prepare the bread, butter, cheese and rum that made up the "regale"--a reward for the paddle-weary voyageurs coming in. Company partners huddled in the Council House to discuss business. Trades personnel scrambled to complete the repair and production of trade goods. There was a feeling of excitement in the air as Fort William sprang to life.

Yet it wasn't all work. Come evening, the feverish matters of everyday business were set aside as everyone celebrated their good fortune in the fur trade. The northmen voyageurs, (known as "les hommes du nord") after difficult months in the western interior, clearly enjoyed the "civilization" afforded by Fort William. And the "porkeater" voyageurs from the east were interested to see how their western counterparts survived their winter sojourn. There were many tales told and songs sung in the animated camps around the Fort.

Meanwhile, the Company executives (known as the "bourgeois") transformed the Great Hall into a vibrant banquet and dance hall with bagpipes, fiddles and fifes. Gentlemen were treated to fine meals and imported libations from the Fort kitchen. Native women living nearby were often invited to these decorous affairs for some lively dancing with the elite of the North West Company.

Today, the Great Rendezvous comes alive once again. In July, hundreds of period re-enactors from across Canada and the United States gather at Fort William Historical Park to re-live the lively fur trade spirit, much like their predecessors of centuries past.