Fort William and The North West Company

Portrait of McGillivray in clan tartanFort William and the North West Company form part of a colourful chapter in Canadian history. Formed officially in 1784, the NWC was comprised of a loose coalition of independent traders based in Montreal. It was not long before these resolute businessmen challenged the long-established Hudson's Bay Company for domination of the fur trade in North America. The exploration and economic base of Canada in the late 1700s and early 1800s was stimulated by the resource and determination of the agents and partners who operated the North West Company. The names of David Thompson, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser of the NWC, hold significant places in Canadian history for the exploration and development of Canada.


The Beginnings of a Fur Trade

Tortoise Shell Wampum BeltBefore the coming of Europeans, trading networks among the original inhabitants of the continent led to exchanges of material goods, cultures and languages. The evidence pointing to these trading networks is considerable. Flint from a few quarries is found throughout the continent. Copper from the Coppermine River and Lake Superior regions is found throughout the Arctic and Hudson's Bay region; shell beads or wampum from the East Coast have been found as far west as the prairies, along with Abalone shells that have been traded inland from the West Coast. At the Heron Bay site on the North Shore of Lake Superior, goods of diverse origin indicate widespread trade. Obsidian from Wyoming, shells from Manitoba and pottery from the southeastern Great Lakes region have all been found at this site. Even after contact between Europeans and Natives on the East Coast led to trade, the Native trading networks remained intact with interior tribes purchasing European goods from coastal tribes. For example, the Cree of the Hudson's Bay region were able to trade profitably with tribes in the interior of North America by using European goods to purchase furs which they would then trade with the Hudson's Bay company for more goods.

Despite persistent speculation that the Irish priest St. Brendan might have reached North America before any other European, the earliest European/Native contact supported by written, oral and archaeological evidence occurred in about 1,000 A.D. between the Norse, or Vikings, and the Beothuks of Newfoundland. The Viking Sagas, an epic poem detailing the voyages of the Norsemen, and archeological evidence tell of a short-lived settlement on "Vinland" as the Vikings called it. This first contact was anything but friendly and the persistent and bloody fighting led the Norsemen to abandon their settlement.

The abundant fishery of Newfoundland's Grand Banks led to the initial trading contact between Natives and Europeans. During the sixteenth century, fishermen from Portugal, Spain, England and France would spend summers harvesting cod off the coast of North America. Sometimes small, seasonal villages would be established in order to dry and salt the catch for shipment back to Europe. From these villages, small-scale trade was conducted, with the European men purchasing furs from the Natives in exchange for iron goods, beads, mirrors and other European goods desired by the Natives.

The quality and abundance of furs obtained in North America did not escape notice in Europe. The felt top hat made from beaver fur was very popular in Europe and the resultant trapping pressure had greatly reduced the numbers of European beaver. This led to interest in a large-scale North American fur trade. Both parties in the early fur trade approached the exchange as independents who were amused with the other's craving of the goods they had to offer. A Montagnais man found the English desire for beaver pelts perplexing and amusing:

The Beaver does everything perfectly well, it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; and in short, it makes everything...The English have no sense; they give us twenty knives like this for one Beaver skin.

Class Structure of the North West Company circa 1816

Man in kilt playing BagpipesThe North West Company was organized along class lines, making a distinction between labourers and gentlemen. The labourers carried out most of the physical work, while the gentlemen managed the affairs of the company. In fur trade terms, the labourers paddled and portaged canoes, built and maintained trading posts, and produced items for the trade. The gentlemen were the fur traders and bookkeepers of the concern.

Also in fur trade terms, the labourers were called engagés, a term that makes reference to the contracts or "engagements" signed by all company engagé. The gentlemen were often called the bourgeois, the name given them by their mostly French Canadian engagés. The distinction between a gentleman and a labourer was based on money and education.


Hat Making

Grey Beaver Felt Top HatOn average, the North West Company handled about 100 000 lbs. of beaver annually. This makes up roughly half the total weight of pelts acquired in a trading year. Why was this bark chewing member of Order Rodentia so highly sought after by 19th century fur traders? Why not a greater interest in luxury furs such as arctic fox or mink? The answer is - hats, hats, hats!


From Grand Portage to Fort William

Until the end of the 1700s, the Nor'Westers continued to use the old French route to the west through Grand Portage and the Pigeon River. Grand Portage evolved into a major depot for transhipping goods and furs and became a rendezvous place for Montreal merchants and wintering trading partners.