Great Hall Portraits

Fort William Historical Park has a significant collection of artwork pertaining to the early 19th century and the Canadian fur trade era. Much of this artwork captures the images of the founders of the North West Company and is proudly displayed on the walls of the Great Hall. The portraits are numbered according to their arrangement in the hall, starting with the portrait of Lord Nelson to the left of the western fireplace, and moving clockwise around the room.

  • 1. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)Portrait of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson

Admiral of the British fleet in the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and a national hero, winning crucial victories in the battles of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805).  By 1800 his scandalous association with Lady Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador at Naples, was much talked of.  Nelson had lost an eye and an arm in the course of his military career (in the portrait his sleeve is pinned to his coat).  He died in 1805 on his flagship HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The McGillivrays and other prominent Montrealers had a monument to Nelson erected in Montreal in his honour (the Nelson Column) which is the oldest monument in Montreal, and pre-dates the monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square, London, England.  William McGillivray had commissioned artist William Berczy in Montreal to paint a life-sized portrait of Nelson before his death in 1805.  This was followed by a commission for the Battle of Trafalgar in 1806.  The two works hung in the Great Hall from 1807-1821.


  • 2. William McGillivray (1764?-1825)Portrait of William McGillivray

Born in Scotland and educated at the expense of his uncle Simon McTavish, William McGillivray came to Canada in the summer of 1783, entering the service of the North West Company as a clerk.  He became a partner in 1790, and joined the agency firm of McTavish, Frobisher & Co. at the retirement of Joseph Frobisher in 1798.  At the death of Simon McTavish in 1804, William became the chief director of the NWCo, and in 1806 the firm became known as McTavish, McGillivrays & Co.  He remained the principle director until the merger with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821.  William usually travelled to Fort William each summer to chair the annual meetings with the wintering partners, using the south-east apartment in the Great Hall as his summer quarters.  For the Rendezvous of 1816, however, he was otherwise occupied with his duties in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec, so his brother Simon came to Fort William in his stead.


  • 3. Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805)Painting of Battle of Trafalger

In one of the decisive battles of the Napoleonic wars, the combined French and Spanish naval forces were defeated by Nelson's forces off the coast of Spain.  The battle established Britain's supremacy on the high seas (which was to last more than a century), and ended French hopes of invading Britain.






  •  4. John McDonald (of Garth) (1771?-1866)Painting of John McDonald of Garth

Born in Scotland, McDonald came to Canada in 1791 and was apprenticed to the NWCo.  He was responsible for establishing Fort Augustus (1795) and Rocky Mountain House (1799), and was made a full partner around 1800.  In 1799 he married Nancy Small, mixed-blood daughter of fur trader Patrick Small.  He was known as a pugnacious trader, always carrying with him a pair of pistols and a sword.  During rotation in 1803-04 he visited relatives in London where he sat for the portrait.  In 1812 the NWCo sent McDonald on the Isaac Todd to take Astoria from the Pacific Fur Company, although when he got there in 1813 it was already in the hands of the Nor'Westers.  McDonald returned to Fort William overland for the 1814 Rendezvous, and retired the same year.  Like many other retiring Nor'Westers he acquired land in order to build a country estate.  He had built a mansion near Cornwall, Upper Canada, called Garth, and moved there with his wife Nancy and 5 children in the fall of 1816.  In 1823 he left Nancy and Garth and married a white woman, Amelia McGillis (niece of Hugh McGillis), and made a new home for her at Williamstown.  Nancy remained at Garth until her death, as well as Nor'Wester J.D. Campbell who had married their daughter Eliza.  J.D. Campbell and his descendents remained at Garth (renamed Inverarden in the 1870's) until 1965.

See: "Inverarden: a Nor'Wester's Country Estate" by Ian Bowering in Canadian Collector, May/June 1982.


  • 5. Isaac Todd (1742-1819)Painting of Isaac Todd

Todd came to Canada from Ireland shortly after the conquest, and entered numerous partnerships in the early fur trading ventures out of Montreal, including partnership with James McGill and the Frobishers.  These early partnerships presaged the formation of the NWCo.  Later his partnership in Todd & McGill concentrated on the Southwest trade (i.e. Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.), but he re-entered the northwest trade for a short time as a shareholder in the NWCo's 1792 agreement.  In 1813 he retired from the fur business.  He went to England in 1816, where he died in 1819.




  • 6. James McGill (1744-1813)Painting of James McGill

James McGill came to the British colonies from Scotland sometime after 1756, and by 1766 was wintering in the Indian countries engaged in the fur trade.  Around 1794 he moved to Montreal and became involved in the Canadian fur trade.  He formed a partnership with Isaac Todd, called Todd, McGill & Co., which held shares in the NWCo from 1792-1795, but was for the most part involved in the Southwest trade.  McGill was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada.  He died in 1813, leaving an endowment and a large Montreal property for the founding of a college - later to be known as McGill University.  His son Peter McGill was later involved in the creation of the Bank of Montreal.




  • 7. Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820)Painting of Alexander McKenzie

Born in Scotland, Alexander arrived in New York in 1774.  At the time of the American Revolution Alexander was sent to Canada and attended school in Montreal.  In 1779 he entered the service of fur traders Finlay, Gregory & Co. as a clerk - the firm was later absorbed into the NWCo in 1787 at which time he became a wintering partner.  In 1789 he travelled from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska to the Arctic Ocean; in 1793 he followed this with his historic journey to the Pacific.  In 1799 he severed his connection with the NWCo and went to England, due to disagreements with McTavish and McGillivray.  He published his Voyages in London in 1801, and was made a knight in 1802.  The same year he returned to Canada and entered the XY Company, which had been created by fur traders Forsyth, Richardson, and Ogilvy (and others) in 1798.  When Mackenzie joined, the agency firm was renamed Sir Alexander Mackenzie & Co.  The XY Company merged with the NWCo in 1804, at which time Mackenzie formed the agency firm Sir Alexander Mackenzie & Co. in the new agreement to look after his interests.  One agent of this firm made the trip to Fort William annually for the summer meetings.  In 1808 he returned to Scotland, where he spent his remaining years.


  • 8. David Thompson's MapThe David Thompson Map of Canada

Originally a clerk with the HBCo, David Thompson joined the NWCo in 1797.  As a surveyor with the company his first job was to establish the location of the 49th parallel around Lake Superior and west as far as the Assiniboine River.  Later he spent time in the Rocky Mountains, and in 1811 he explored the Columbia River from its source in the Rockies to the Pacific, succeeding where Simon Fraser has failed.  He began his map in 1812, going into semi-retirement, and presented it to the NWCo in 1814.  In July of 1816 he is somewhere near Montreal, and in the fall of 1816 Thompson bought Angus Bethune's father's house in Williamstown U.C., where the family settled for a short time.  He had married Charlotte Small (daughter of fur trade Patrick Small) in 1799, and by 1816 had had 7 children (5 living and 6 more were to follow).  The map in the Great Hall is a later version of the map presented to the NWCo.  In area it covers about 2 million square miles, from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean.



  • 9. Simon McTavish  "The Marquis" (1750-1804)Portrait of Simon McTavish

Born in Scotland, Simon McTavish emigrated to America before 1772, and engaged in the fur trade from Albany (NY).  In 1775 he transferred his base of operations to Montreal.  He traded at Grand Portage, and was one of the prime movers in bringing about the 1783 agreement forming the North West Company.  His partnership with Joseph Frobisher, called McTavish, Frobisher & Co. became the virtual directorate of the NWCo.  In 1793 he married Marguerite, sister of fur trader Charles Chaboillez, and by her had 4 children - none of them living beyond the age of 25.  The profits of the fur trade made him perhaps the richest man in Montreal, and in 1803 he began the building of a mansion on the side of Mount Royal, which was still incomplete at the time of his death in 1804.  For many years afterwards it was considered haunted.


  • 10. Benjamin Frobisher (1742?-1787)Painting of Benjamin Frobisher

Benjamin Frobisher emigrated from England to Canada and entered the fur trade as early as 1765.  He and his brother Joseph had shared together in the NWCo agreement of 1780.  He looked after the Montreal end of the business until his death in 1787.




  • 11. Joseph Frobisher (1740-1810)Painting of Joseph Frobisher

Joseph was the eldest of the three Frobisher brothers who came to Canada after the conquest (Joseph, Benjamin, and Thomas).  The firm of Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher came to hold an important place in the early days of the NWCo.  In 1787 after his brother's death, Joseph joined Simon McTavish in forming McTavish, Frobisher & Co., entailing a re-organization of the NWCo.  Frobisher became a dominant figure at Grand Portage acting as a sort of deputy to McTavish, who was the indisputable commander of the enterprise.  He profited from the trade until his retirement in 1798.  Like many other fur merchants, he was a member of the Beaver Club of Montreal, and was elected to the House of Assembly.



  • 12. Simon McGillivray (1784-1840)Painting of Simon McGillivray

Like his brother William, Simon was educated at his uncle Simon's expense, but lameness prevented him from entering the fur trade.  In 1805 he became a partner in the London firm of McTavish, Fraser & Co., which sold NWCo furs, purchased trade goods, and also lobbied British parliament on behalf of Canadian fur trade interests.  In 1811 Simon became a partner in the Montreal firm of McTavish, McGillivrays & Co. - the controlling firm of the NWCo.  In 1816 he travelled from London to Fort William to chair the annual meetings - this while William was occupied at session of the Legislative Council in Quebec City.  He played a leading part in bringing about the merger of 1821, and accompanied HBC deputy governor Nicholas Garry in 1821 on his survey of NWCo holdings.  Later, Simon was to be found in Mexico from 1830-35, serving on the board of directors of the United Mexican Silver Mining Company, after which he returned to London.  He was part-owner of the Morning Chronicle, which published in serial from the writings of Charles Dickens.  From 1822-1840 he was grand master of the second Provincial Grand Lodge of Upper Canada (hence the Masonic regalia).  He died in London in 1840.  He was called "The Fox" because he was shrewd in business.


  • 13. Beaver Hunting in CanadaEngraving of Beaver Hunting showing Native hunters using rifles to shoot beavers in multi story lodges, almost a cartoon

This engraving of beaver hunting in Canada, probably published in England in the 18th century, is an example of the kind of images conjured up by Europeans imagining the fur trade in Canada.  Europeans often portrayed Natives as "Noble Savages" in settings not unlike representations of the Garden of Eden.  A near duplicate of the engraving (though the reverse image) is found in 11 Gazzettier American, 1763.  This artist shows an incredible beaver lodge, natives and vegetation that appear more suited to the South Pacific, and an emphasis on the musket as the primary instrument used in hunting beaver - all inaccurate due to a combination of ignorance and aesthetics.




  • 14. Death of General WolfeEngraving of the Death of General Wolfe

The most famous portrayal of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was painted by American artist Benjamin West eleven years after the event.  This engraving depicts the death of General James Wolfe, commander of the British invasion force sent against Quebec in 1759.  Wolfe landed his forces on the west-side of Quebec in September of that year; the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as it is called, lasted less than thirty minutes.  Wolfe was shot down and died on the battlefield.  Contrary to the artist's depiction, only about 4 men were with him when he died.  The French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, was mortally wounded in the battle and died the next day.  The British were victorious on the field, and the English took Quebec.  One year later the French surrendered Montreal and Canada passed to British hands.  Wolfe was admired by the Highlanders, because though he was with the Duke of Cumberland in putting down the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, he had shown a restraint and mercy not seen in the other Government officers in the "executions" that followed the battle of Culloden.


  • 15. King George III (1738-1820; reign 1760-1820)Painting of King George III

When the Thirteen Colonies declared war on Britain, George III was the reigning monarch, and so has the dubious distinction of "losing" Britain's American colonies.  He was the third Hanoverian king of Great Britain, the first to have been born there.  In 1811 the Regency Act was passed by British parliament, declaring George III insane.  His son, the Prince Regent, thereafter acted in his stead; this period is therefore called the Regency period.  The disease plaguing the king is now known to have been porphyria, a hereditary disease that can mimic insanity.





  • 16. Alexander Henry, The Elder (1739-1824)Painting of Alexander Henry the Elder

Born in New Jersey, Henry was one of the first Anglo-Americans to arrive in Montreal after the conquest to obtain a trading licence, and traded at Michilimakinac.  In 1775 he travelled northwest of Lake Superior and competed with the Hudson's Bay Company.  In the years that followed he also traded at Sault Ste. Marie, Michipicoten, Detroit and Michilimakinac.  In 1785 he and 18 other traders who had been active in the northwest founded the Beaver Club of Montreal.  It was Henry who introduced American merchant John Jacob Astor to the Canadian fur trade, and he and Astor assisted the NWCo in shipping furs to China in the 1790's.  He held interest in the NWCo from 1792-96, after which he continued to buy furs from traders and export them to England.



  • 17. Charles Chaboillez (1772-1812)Painting of Charles Chaboillez

Charles Chaboillez was born in Montreal, and entered the service of the NWCo about 1793, when his sister married Simon McTavish.  He became a partner before 1799.  Chaboillez worked for many years in the Red River and Assiniboine districts, and also at the Pic on Lake Superior.  He retired in 1809, bringing back with him four mixed-blood children, and joined the Beaver Club of Montreal.






  • 18. Archibald Norman McLeod (?-1837)Painting of Archibald Norman McLeod

McLeod joined the NWCo sometime before 1796 and was made a partner before 1799.  He was in the Athabaska country from 1802-1808, and in 1808 he joined the agency firm McTavish, McGillivrays & Co.  He was a captain in the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs 1812/13, a magistrate in the Indian Countries under the Canada Jurisdiction Act, and a member of the Beaver Club of Montreal.  He retired from the Indian countries in 1809, and was at Fort William in 1816 for the annual meeting.  He played a prominent role in the Selkirk troubles (1816-1818) and upon the merger in 1821 he retired from the fur trade and went to Scotland.  The portrait is attributed to William Berczy.



  • 19. Simon Fraser (1776-1862)Painting of Simon Fraser

Simon Fraser was born in the British colony of New York the year that the American Declaration of Independence was signed.  His father, a Loyalist, was arrested by the Americans and died in prison.  Simon's mother fled to Upper Canada, settling in Glengarry County.  In 1792 Fraser began his career with the NWCo, and was made a partner in 1801.  He spent much of his time in the region of the Rocky Mountains, and like Mackenzie before him, sought to find an economical route to the Pacific.  In particular he was looking for the source of the Columbia River.  In 1808 Fraser and his men made the journey down the treacherous Fraser River (named so 3 years later), but the nearly impassable route was not feasible for use in the fur trade.  Although Fraser failed to find a navigable route, he succeeded in extending the NWCo trade into the western slope of the Rockies, called New Caledonia.  From 1810-1814 he was a proprietor in the Athabaska district, and was at the Red River in the spring of 1816.   He attended the Rendezvous of 1816, and although he hoped to retire that year, he was persuaded to return to the Athabaska.  He retired in 1816, and went to live in Glengarry County.


  • 20. William McGillivray & Family (c.1806) (in S.E. Apartment)Painting of William McGillivray and Family

The family portrait by artist William Berczy depicts William with his second wife Magdalen (d.1810, sister of John McDonald of Garth) whom he married in 1810, and their infant daughter Anna Marie, born in 1805.  They also had another daughter born later, named Magdalen Julia.  As a winterer, William had married his first wife Susan, a Cree woman, sometime around 1786.  They had at least three children: Simon & Joseph (b. 1791, twins) and Elizabeth (b. 1794).  In 1816 both Simon and Joseph are listed as wintering clerks in the NWCo.  William later had his face and other features of the portrait repainted.









Note:  The biographical information presented here was collected largely from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Great Hall Building Kit, and Wallace's Documents Relating to the North West Company