The Tinsmith's Shop

The majority of tinsmiths hired by the North West Company came from Montreal or its suburbs, particularly the fauxbourg St. Laurent. Most of these men were French Canadian.

In Europe, with its well-established guild system, an apprentice would serve seven years under a master craftsman before he completed his apprenticeship and became a journeyman. In North America where the guilds never gained control of the trades, the length of the apprenticeship varied greatly, often determined by the demand for the trade. The greater the demand, the shorter the apprenticeship. This apprenticeship could be perhaps for four or five years.

It was becoming more common by 1816 for apprentices to receive some form of schooling during their apprenticeship. French Canadian parents asked for schooling in 5% of apprenticeship contracts, British Canadian parents asked for schooling in 64%. Those apprentices that received schooling attended night school until they had leaned the ‘rule of three' (reading, writing and ciphering). A number of the tradesmen at Fort William were literate.

Typically, a tradesman hired by the North West Company was a journeyman who had just completed his apprenticeship, and wanted to earn sufficient funds to establish himself as a self-employed artisan.

The contracts signed by the tradesmen at Fort William were usually for three years. Occasionally there were contracts signed for as long as four years, or as short as one season. One of the tinsmiths working at Fort William in 1816 signed a three-year contract for 1000 livres per annum, with an advance of 15 dollars. This tinsmith, Joseph Robert started his work in the fur trade with the XY Company. He joined the North West Company in 1804 when the XY and North West Companies merged; and was still working at Fort William after the merger of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies in 1821. As Robert's career illustrates, a few tradesmen spent their entire working life in the fur trade.

The social position of the tinsmith was above that of the voyageur and other labourers, but below the Bourgeois, or gentlemen. The tinsmiths like the other tradesmen at Fort William reported to Mr. James Taitt, the senior clerk and superintendent of the fort.