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.

To meet the growing demand for fur, the Nor'Westers were moving deeper and deeper into the interior regions of Canada. Voyageur canoe brigades could not penetrate the western interior, pick up furs from isolated posts and return to Montreal before winter freeze-up, so a midway transhipment point was established. Initially, the Nor'Westers used Grand Portage as their 'rendezvous' point near Pigeon River in what is now Minnesota. However, the establishment of the American border in 1783 and subsequent threat of customs duties forced the Nor'Westers to find another inland base in British-held territory. They resurrected the old French route at the Kaministiquia River in 1801 and held their first rendezvous at Fort Kaministiquia in 1803.

In 1807, the name of the fort was changed to Fort William, after William McGillivray, Chief Director of the North West Company from 1804-1821.Fort William would become the key cog in the Nor'Wester network thanks to the many roles it fulfilled under North West Company. These included the following:

  • the Company's inland office & site for the annual meeting;

  • warehousing depot for trade goods, provisions and furs;

  • transhipment point between Lake Superior and the interior waterways;

  • service centre for manufacturing and repairing certain trade items and containers for shipping, storage and cooking;

  • centre for building and repairing fur trade transportation vehicles including schooners, bateaux (row boats) and canoes;

  • agricultural base to supplement provisions of company personnel;

  • quarters for lodging, provisioning and equipping North West Company personnel;

  • hub for social activities and festivities for gentlemen and other personnel;

  • fur trade post for local Indian trade;

  • centre for the trade of the Fort William Department which included the region around Lake Superior and west as far as Rainy Lake (Lac la Pluie.)

Upon the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, Fort William declined in importance. The Hudson's Bay region north of Fort William became the prime hub for shipping furs and thus Fort William devolved into a fishing depot.  The HBC closed the Fort in 1881. The last original structure to be torn down was the Stone Store in 1902 to make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway.