Historic Background

Learn more about the fur trade, Fort William and the North West Company with the following articles.

Long before Europeans arrived in North America, trading networks among the continent’s Indigenous Peoples led to exchanges of material goods, cultures and languages. There is considerable archaeological evidence pointing to these trading systems, with goods of diverse origin like copper, shell, and obsidian being found throughout the interior of British North America.

The abundant fishery of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks led to initial trading contact between Indigenous Peoples and Europeans. During the 16th century, fishermen from Portugal, Spain, England and France would spend summers harvesting cod off the Atlantic coast of North America. Sometimes small, seasonal villages would be established to salt the catch prior to shipment to Europe. At these villages, small-scale trade was conducted, with the Europeans purchasing furs from the Indigenous Peoples in exchange for iron goods, beads, mirrors and other desired items. Even after trade began between Europeans and Indigenous Peoples, the old trading networks long established by Indigenous Peoples remained intact but with the addition of European goods brought to interior communities by coastal groups.

The quality and abundance of furs obtained in North America did not escape notice in Europe. Hats made from felted beaver fur had been very popular in Europe since the 17th century and the resultant trapping pressure had greatly reduced the number of European beavers. This led to interest in a large-scale North American fur trade. Early European and Indigenous traders were amused with the other’s craving of the goods they had to offer. In 1634, a French Jesuit missionary overhead an Innu man jokingly quip: “The Beaver does everything perfectly well, it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; in short, it makes everything… The English have no sense, they give us twenty knives like this for one Beaver skin.

Generally weighing between 40 and 75 pounds, Canada’s national animal is one of the largest rodents in the world. Some notable features of the beaver are the small muscles in its nostrils and ears which when constricted keep out water, and the fur-covered lips that can close in behind its front teeth allowing it to chew or cut branches underwater.

To a fur trader, the most important feature of a beaver was the thick covering of fur all over the body. The beaver has two types of fur serving two different functions: The outer, longer guard hairs receive oil from its glands turning them into a waterproof coat. Underneath this coat lies a shorter, thicker finer, insulating layer of wool – or under-fur – which keeps the cold out and the beavers’ body-warmth in.

It was the beaver’s wool that was most desired by fur traders and hatters, as it could be made into felt which was used to make a luxurious, durable, and fashionable hat. The fur traders judged the quality of beaver pelts according to the size and thickness of the beaver wool as well as the season it was hunted, classifying them by terms like “common beaver” (lower quality), or “prime beaver” (higher quality). Before a pelt could be assessed for quality, the animal had to be hunted or trapped by Indigenous people or company employees, skinned, fleshed, stretched, and dried before finally being traded, thus beginning the pelt’s long journey to the top of somebody’s head.

Later in the 17th century, French traders began to push westward from the St. Lawrence into the upper Great Lakes and beyond in search of new sources of beaver and other fur. The first permanent European structure at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River was built in 1679 by Daniel Greysolon, Sieur DuLhut (Duluth). ‘Fort Camanistigoyan’, and its nearby replacement which Zacharie Robutel de la Noue built in 1717, served as bases for the French as they moved inland in search of furs and the Northwest Passage to the Western Sea. Though these were the first permanent structures on the Kaministiquia River, Archaeological evidence shows that Indigenous Peoples had used the Kaministiquia upwards of two thousand years before Europeans first arrived in the area.

In the 1730’s, the French abandoned the Kaministiquia after discovering the shorter and somewhat less difficult Pigeon River route from Lake Superior to Rainy River and the west. Although the Fort Caministigoyan area continued to be “farmed” by the French for furs, the new depot for the North West trade became what was known by the French as Grand Portage, or Gichi-Onigaming by the Ojibway in what is now northern Minnesota.

Following the British Conquest of New France in 1760, merchants and traders from Great Britain and her American colonies came to Canada and assumed control of the French fur trade. Within a decade, ‘pedlars’ based out of the British Montréal trade were penetrating west of Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. As a result of the challenges arising from the American Revolution, lack of ability to consistently procure government trading licenses, and increased competition amongst themselves, some of the Montréal pedlars decided in 1779 to create the first permanent agreement under the name the North West Company. Though the North West Company never received a charter like its well-known rival the Hudson’s Bay Company, it operated instead under a series of agreements between firms of merchants in Montréal and traders in the field.

The peace treaty of 1783, which ended the War of American Independence, made Pigeon River the border between the United States and British North America. Although Grand Portage was now within U.S. territory, it remained the Lake Superior depot or headquarters for the Montréal fur trade for another twenty years. In 1800, the threatened imposition of customs duties on all British goods moving across the Grand Portage finally forced the traders to transfer their operations to British soil.

By 1801, the North West Company and rival New North West Company (also known as the XY company) were each constructing separate establishments on the north bank of the Kaministiquia River, not far from the sites of the old French forts. In 1803, the North West Company held its first annual meeting at its new fort which it called “Kaministiquia”. Following the amalgamation agreement of 1804, the acreage of “Kamanitiquia” (as it was spelled in the documents of that year) was extended to include the short-lived XY post. In 1807, the inland headquarters of the North West Company was renamed Fort William in honour of William McGillivray, chief director of the North West Company.

As the centre of the North West Company’s vast trading network, Fort William hosted the annual Rendezvous: the coming together of perhaps two thousand persons from across the continent.

Such a meeting place was necessary since the enormous distances between Montréal and the Company’s far-flung posts made it impossible for canoes to make the round trip in one ice-free season. An ingenious transportation system had been developed whereby each spring large birchbark canoes from Montréal carrying trade goods set off for Fort William to exchange cargoes with fur-laden canoes from the North and West. Since inland rivers and lakes required smaller craft than the Great Lakes and Ottawa River system, the logical place of rendezvous was the point where vessels from east and west converged. After the loss of Grand Portage, this rendezvous place became the Kaministiquia River’s juncture with Lake Superior – the locale of Fort William.

The rendezvous was a time of great activity. Tons of furs arriving from the western interior were sorted, cleaned, and repacked for shipment to Montréal and eventually 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’s bakery and kitchen scurried to prepare the bread, butter and rum that made up the régal, a reward for the arriving paddle-weary voyageurs. Company partners huddled in the Council House to discuss business between lavish meals in the Great Hall. 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 wintering voyageurs enjoyed the civilization afforded by Fort William in stark contrast to their difficult winter residence while the Montréal voyageurs were interested to see how their western counterparts survived their winter sojourn. There were surely many tales told and songs sung in the animated camps around the Fort.

Meanwhile, the bourgeois – the North West Company executives – transformed the Great Hall into a vibrant banquet and dance hall with bagpipes, fiddles, flutes, and fifes. Gentlemen were treated to fine meals and imported libations from the Fort kitchen.

Beyond its importance as a rendezvous hub, Fort William’s many roles in the operations of the North West Company included the following:

  • the place for the annual meeting of Company’s Montréal agents and wintering partners;
  • the Company’s inland business office;
  •  a warehousing depot for trade goods, provisions and furs;
  • the transshipment point between Lake Superior and the waterways of the interior;
  • a service centre for manufacturing and repairing certain trade items and containers for shipping, storage and cooking;
  • a centre for building and repairing the means of transportation used in the fur trade including schooners, bateaux, and canoes;
  • an agricultural base to supplement the provisions of company personnel;
  • the quarters for lodging, provisioning and equipping North West Company personnel;
  • the hub for Company’s social activities and festivities;
  • a fur trade post for the local fur trade;
  • the centre for the trade of the Fort William Department which included the region around Lake Superior and west as far as Lac la Pluie (Rainy Lake).

Each summer, the Rendezvous reflected the complex interdependent relationships of the various Peoples upon whom the fur trade revolved, the Scots, the French-Canadians, and Indigenous Peoples. These groups roughly paralleled the basic social divisions within the fur trade: the merchant-traders, the voyageur-­labourers, and the hunter-trappers. This correlation was not precise, though. Some Scots were labourers; some Indigenous people were voyageurs; some French-Canadians were traders. Many other nationalities and racial groups also had limited representation in the fur trade.

Eye-witness accounts of Fort William in the early 1800’s usually mention an Anishinaabe encampment east of the palisade. Indigenous habitations are also shown on early paintings; one of 1805 shows clusters of dome-shaped wigwams, or waaginogaanan, huddled at the south-eastern corner of the Fort. An 1808 painting shows both domed waaginogaanan and conical wigwams. These habitations with their portable wiigwaasabak (birch bark panels or rolls) and apakweshkway (cattail mats) reflect the mobility of people dependent on fishing, hunting, gathering and the natural environment which sustained them.

The fur trade would not have been possible without the Indigenous Peoples, whose technology provided the birch bark canoe (jiimaan), the moccasin, the snowshoe (aagim), and more; and whose skills included trapping, hunting, harvesting, fishing and guiding. It was European trade goods, however, that motivated the Indigenous Peoples to provide their labour.

Although the local trade was insignificant compared to other posts, the Indigenous presence at Fort William was considerable. Indigenous labourers were employed at Fort William in the canoe shed, fur stores, kitchen and farm, and also helped with activities like hunting, trapping and fishing. Significant amounts of gaaski-giigoonh (smoked fish) had to be prepared for the winter and manoomin (wild rice) was virtually a staple crop, though sometimes crops of mandaamin (corn) were also raised. Maple sap (wiishkobaaboo) was also collected wherever possible and boiled down to make maple sugar (ziinzibaakwad). The Anishinaabe were also recognized for their extensive use of wild plants, for food, medical purposes, and material use.

The very successes of North West Company contributed to its eventual downfall. As canoe routes from Montréal extended further into the continent, transportation costs rose higher. The Columbia adventure and the resulting trade with China added a further drain on the Company’s resources. In the meantime, the Hudson’s Bay Company stepped up its competition from its advantageous position on Hudson Bay.


The North West Company, perhaps, could have overcome these obstacles had not two momentous events in Canadian history intervened to hasten its decline: the War of 1812 and the establishment of the Red River settlement.


The War of 1812

Considerable disruption to the North West Company’s transportation system came with the War of 1812. The North West Company played a role in the critical victory at the very outset of the war where the British military, British Indian Department, North West Company engagés, and hundreds of Indigenous allies captured the strategically important U.S. fort of Michilimackinac at the Straits of Mackinaw between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. In spite of this important victory which initially protected the Western Great Lakes fur trade, U.S. forces destroyed the Company’s installation at Sault Ste. Marie in 1814, including its locks, sawmill, as well as some of its ships on the Great Lakes. Although no attack was made on Fort William itself, American Captain Arthur Sinclair wrote to a friend after his attack on Sault Ste. Marie, “I should have branched off upon the advantage that it offered, and ruined the British North West Company.  I am well assured that I could have taken Fort William and property contained there to the amount of two millions of dollars, which would have had a better effect on the Indians than the capture of Mackinack.” The North West Company also suffered from a scarcity of goods and provisions because of restrictions to trade and interference with shipping, both inland and at sea. Despite these drawbacks, hostilities ended with the Montréal fur traders seemingly victorious. With their help, control over the Upper Lakes and the upper Mississippi had been secured by the British. Yet the Treaty of Ghent which concluded the war, and succeeding boundary agreements negated their military conquests and thus hastened the decline of the fur trade.


Lord Selkirk and the Red River Settlement

West of Fort William, further disruption came with the founding of the Red River Settlement on lands granted to Lord Selkirk in 1811 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk – a Scottish philanthropist who had gained controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company – wanted to establish a colony for Scottish crofters (farmers) who had been dispossessed of their lands. The ‘Red River’ settlement straddled the North West Company’s supply route and also impinged on the buffalo hunt, buffalo being the source of the pemmican which provisioned the North West Company’s canoe brigades. To the Nor’Westers, the creation of Assiniboia (as the colony was called) represented an attempt by the Hudson’s Bay Company to destroy the North West Company’s lifeline and ultimately the Company itself. The vigorous opposition of the Nor’Westers and local Métis buffalo hunters to the Settlement was aggravated by the embargo placed by the governor of Assiniboia on the export of North West Company pemmican. Hostilities between the contending factions mounted, culminating in a clash between settlers and Métis buffalo hunters (with a connection to the North West Company) on June 19, 1816, in which twenty-one settlers were killed.


Disaster then befell Fort William itself, when in retaliation for the Massacre of Seven Oaks, Lord Selkirk seized Fort William in August 1816 with the aid of disbanded Swiss mercenaries recruited to settle in the Red River. The Company partners at the Fort were arrested and sent down to Montréal for trial on charges of “conspiracy, treason, and being accessory to murder”. For the next ten months Selkirk’s forces occupied Fort William, paralyzing the North West Company’s trade. These events and the costly litigation which followed contributed to the Company’s downfall by speeding it into bankruptcy.


The Amalgamation of 1821

The North West Company submitted to final defeat before the Hudson’s Bay Company in the amalgamation of 1821. As William McGillivray lamented:

Thus the Fur Trade is for ever lost to Canada! The Treaty of Ghent [ending the ward of 1812] destroyed the Southern Trade-still the Capital exertions of a few individuals supported the Northern Trade under many disadvantages, against a Chartered Company, who brought their Goods to the Indian Country at less than one half the Expense that ours cost us-but it would have been worse than folly to have continued the contest further.


Although the North West Company had lost its name in the amalgamation, its legacy would be continued in “The Bay”, now revitalized by the inclusion of Nor’Westers and their trading methodology. The legacy of the North West Company would be continued, as well, in a much broader sense. In the assessment of Canadian fur trade economist Harold A. Innis, the Company had laid down the foundations for the future Dominion of Canada.

With the 1821 amalgamation, Fort William no longer served as the bridge between East and West. Furs and trade goods were now routed through Hudson’s Bay and the area’s link with Eastern Canada was all but severed. As a Hudson’s Bay Company post, the Fort declined in importance. As Henry Connolly, the son of a North West Company clerk, wrote while visiting Fort William in the 1830’s, “… we arrived at Fort William, where we camped and visited some of the buildings which were great ornaments to the place at one time, but most of them were in a most forlorn state, and only fit now for the hooting owls at night taking the place of the dances and revelry of the good old times gone by.” The post finally closed in 1881, two years before the first trickle of Western grain arrived by rail. In 1902, the post’s last structure – the Stone Store of the North West Company – was levelled to make way for the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s freight yard.


The period from 1821 to 1881 at Fort William was a link between the Nor’Westers of old and the new industrial age when the rendezvous site of the North West Company once more became a major transshipment point between East and West. The principal difference was one of technology, with grain elevators and freight sheds replacing the birch bark canoes, bateaux, and schooners of an earlier age. 

Are you interested in learning more about the history of Fort William and the North American fur trade? This list is a useful, though not comprehensive, resource for anyone requiring detailed information.


  • Morrison, Jean. Superior Rendezvous Place: Fort William in the Canadian Fur Trade. Dundurn Press, 2001.
  • McGillivray, Simon. The North West Company in Rebellion: Simon McGillivray’s Notebook, 1815. Edited and Introduced by Jean Morrison. The Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Inc., 1988.
  • Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories. Edited Carolyn Podruchny and Laura Peers. UBC Press, 2010.
  • Podruchny, Carolyn. Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
  • Bumstead, J.M. Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada. Great Plains Publications, 1999.
  • Laxer, Daniel Robert. Listening to the Fur Trade. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.
  • Harmon, Daniel Williams. Journal, 1800-1819. TouchWood Editions, 2006.
  • Brown, Jennifer S.H. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. UBC Press, 1980.