Four Decades of Fur Trading: The North West Company

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Quickly, close your eyes and think of fur trading in Canada. Think of a company. Chances are, the company you thought of was the Hudson’s Bay Company. The oldest corporation in the world, and a vital part of our history as Canadians.

There was another company though, one that gave the Hudson’s Bay Company a run for its money. That company was the North West Company and from 1779 to 1821, raising tensions and even leading to armed conflict between the companies.

In this episode, we are going to look at this company that existed briefly but had a deep impact on the Canadian West.

While there is mentioning of the North West Company going back as far as 1770, the standard creation year for the company is 1779. It was in this year that the 16-share organization was formed. The early years of the company were small in terms of growth, with the company usually made up of a loose association of Montreal merchants. They were worrying about the growing power of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its ability to monopolize the fur trade. To compete, they met through the winter of 1783-84 and created the company on a long-term basis. The company was led by Ben and Joseph Frobisher, and Simon McTavish.

Before we go further, let’s talk about these men. Ben Frobisher was born in 1742 in Halifax, West Yorkshire and would immigrate to Canada in 1763 with his brothers. The three brothers would begin working in the fur trade and travel along the Saskatchewan River to Fort Bourbon on Lake Winnipeg. Ben and Joseph would help to set up the company, but Ben would not live after the founding of the company. He would die on April 14, 1787, just as the company he helped to found was gaining power.

As for Joseph, he would go on to great success after founding the company. He would become a justice of the peace in 1788 and be elected to the First Parliament of Lower Canada for Montreal East in 1792. In 1798, he retired from the company. Joseph had married in 1779, and with his wife Charlotte, he would have 15 children, but only three lived into adulthood. There was also a unique connection to world history with one of their children. The couple’s daughter Rachel Frobisher would have a daughter named Mary, who would marry Robert FitzRoy, the man who captained The Beagle, the ship Charles Darwin sailed on during his famous voyage. Joseph Frobisher would die on Sept. 12, 1810.

 Simon McTavish would have a deeper impact on the company he helped to found. Born in the Scottish Highlands in 1751, McTavish would find his way to Canada and begin to prosper as a fur trader. He had spent some time as an apprentice with a Scots merchant at New York before seeing the opportunities that the fur trade could provide. In 1769, at the young age of 18, he was already working for himself. Three years later, he went into partnership with William Edgar in Detroit. In 1773, he would start working with a new partner, James Bannerman, and they would extend their fur trading operations to Grand Portage on Lake Superior. Knowing that the furs were better in the colder climate north west of the Great Lakes, he went on an expedition in 1775-76 with George McBeath. The American Continental Army occupied Montreal that winter, which prevented traders from getting their goods to Grand Portage in the summer of 1776. This allowed McTavish, with no competition, to obtain furs valued at 15,000 Pounds and take them to England to sell. After the Americans withdrew from Quebec, and once the Revolutionary War was over, he put together a group of investors and trappers to form the Northwest Company. With the Frobisher brothers, he owned 37.5 per cent of the company’s shares. Under his leadership, the North West Company was able to expand from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains. He would remain in charge of the company until his death in 1804.

Back to the North West Company.

In 1787, things were going well enough for the company that they were able to merge with a rival organization called Gregory, McLeod and Company. This brought in several able partners with a wealth of experience, including a man by the name of Alexander Mackenzie. Bringing in Mackenzie was a huge win for the relatively new organization. As an explorer, his exploits were legendary and only rivalled by those of David Thompson, more on him later. At the time, Mackenzie was working as an apprentice through the company but in the coming years he would cement his legacy. In 1788, he would travel to Lake Athabasca and found Fort Chipewyan before traveling along the longest river in Canada to the Arctic Ocean. He had hoped to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean along the river. Since the river went to the Arctic Ocean, he named it Disappointment River, later renamed Mackenzie River. In 1793, he would become the first known explorer to travel across North America north of Mexico from east to west.

So, now that the North West Company had earned itself a big steal with the merger with their rival, they were ready to keep expanding and go against the behemoth on the continent, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Following the death of Benjamin Frobisher in 1787, Simon McTavish made a deal with Joseph Frobisher to create a firm called McTavish, Frobisher and Company. This firm controlled 11 of the 20 shares of North West Company’s shares. The company was growing extremely large with 2,000 agents, factors, clerks, guides, interpreters and voyageurs. Further reorganizations of the partnership would occur in 1795 and 1802 to ensure new shares for more wintering partners.

Now, the company quickly began working on vertical integrations to help corner their area of the fur market. They were able to complete this in 1792 when John Fraser and Simon McTavish formed a London house to supply trade goods and market their furs. At the same time, the company continued to expand its operations to the far north, outside of the reach of the Hudson’s Bay Company. One of the company’s most northern fort was at Great Bear Lake, which is located on the Arctic Circle. The company also began to try and sell furs directly to China. In order to avoid the monopoly held by the British East India Company, American ships were used. Unfortunately, profits were small, and the idea was abandoned after a few years. The North West Company also expanded into what would one day be Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. In 1796, to get more involved in the growing global market of the world, they established an agency, albeit briefly, in New York City. More on this later.

No matter how much the company worked to expand, they would continue to run up next to the metaphoric walls of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a monopoly on all fur trading in Rupert’s Land. For perspective, Rupert’s Land had been controlled by the HBC since 1670 thanks to a Royal Charter from the British government. The area covered all of what would be Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, the southern portion of Alberta, southern Nunavut, and the northern parts of Ontario and Quebec. The North West Company attempted to get the British Parliament to change this arrangement and allow the monopoly to end but they failed. One of the company’s biggest hopes was that they could at least obtain transit rights to ship goods to the west that were needed for trading for furs. Simon McTavish made a personal visit to Prime Minister William Pitt but was unsuccessful in changing his mind.

The company decided after a few years of trying to end the monopoly to make a gamble on a venture. An overland expedition was organized in 1803 to travel from Montreal to James Bay, while a second expedition would make the same trip over the ocean. In September of that year, they met at Charlton Island and lay claim to the region in the name of the company. By doing so, they were able to capitalize on the rich furs in the area and cut heavily into the profits of the Hudson’s Bay Company thanks to this northwestward expansion. This move caught the Hudson’s Bay Company off guard completely and it would begin a bitter fight with HBC attacking the North West Company in many ways. Through all of this, McTavish hoped some truce could be negotiated.

While the Hudson’s Bay Company insisted that the Indigenous come to their forts to trade, the traders with the North West Company would journey to the Indigenous themselves. This allowed the North West Company to get far more furs than the Hudson’s Bay Company, and by 1795, the HBC was only getting 20 per cent of the furs that their rivals were getting. The company had to build more forts inland to compete with the new rival company. Typically the patterns as that the North West Company would build a fort, and then the Hudson’s Bay Company would build a fort adjacent to that fort. Many forts would be built during this period including Fort Edmonton

Through the tactics of the NWC, they were able to out-perform the Hudson’s Bay Company over several years. In one year, the company brought in 160,000 beaver pelts, 17,000 muskrat, 5,500 fox and 2,100 bear skins. This was four times what the Hudson’s Bay Company accomplished. Those who had shares in the company were able to pick up 3,000 Pounds per share. At one point, the company captured 78 per cent of the Canadian fur trade, something that would lead to serious problems with the Hudson’s Bay Company down the road.

With its expansion across the continent, it became the first North American-founded company to operate on such a scale, while also violating the Royal Charter that was issued to the Hudson’s Bay Company a century previous.

While all of this was going on with the Hudson’s Bay Company, there was a bitter feud brewing in the upper echelon of the North West Company. The problems arose when McTavish brought in several members of his family into the company regardless of their ability as fur traders or businessmen. This included having his brother-in-law overseeing a Lower Red River trading post, while his nephews of William and Duncan McGillivray began to learn the business. William was being groomed by his uncle to take over as the director of the company, which was mostly happening by 1806.

The ambition of McTavish, and his decisions to appoint family members to key positions, caused a divide in the company that led those who disagreed with McTavish to form the XY Company, named after the mark, used on the bales of furs. In 1799, Alexander Mackenzie, by then considered a hero explorer, left the North West Company to join XY and became the effective head of the firm.

For the next four years, the two companies were deep rivals, while the North West Company was in a bitter feud with HBC. When McTavish died in 1804, William McGillivray took over and his first task was ending the four years of rivalry that existed between XY and North West. This rivalry had, by this point, become extremely heated. At one point, the master of the North West Company post at Great Bear Lake had been shot by an XY employee during an argument. This would lead to the Canada Jurisdiction Act which extended the law of Quebec into western Canada.

The XY Company built several posts close to both posts of the North West Company, as well as Hudson’s Bay Company, cutting into profits of both companies.

Nonetheless, McGillvray was successful with crafting a new agreement in 1804 that gave the North West Company 75 per cent of the shares in the merger, while the XY Company partners would get 25 per cent. Due to his jumping ship to the rival company, Mackenzie was excluded from the partnership.

With the rivalry between XY and North West finished, the company began to expand under McGillivray and to profit during the first part of the 1800s. The competition with Hudson’s Bay continued to be fierce, limiting profits for the company.

In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a blockade of the Baltic Sea to bring Britain to its knees. Almost all the timber Britain used came from Baltic countries and the United States, but tensions were growing between the United States and Britain, which would culminate in war half a decade later. In 1809, the American government passed the Non-Intercourse Act, which stopped nearly all trade with Britain. As a result, Britain became reliant on Canada for its timber. As a result, timber and wood became the number one export of Canada, replacing furs and decreasing their value, hurting the bottom line of the North West Company.

Problems continued to plague the North West Company when in 1810, the beaver fur industry began to collapse because of the over-harvesting of animals.

In 1811, The Fifth Earl of Selkirk, Thomas Douglas convinced shareholders in the of the Hudson’s Bay Company to grant him the Selkirk Concession. It was his hope that this would become the District of Assiniboia and he planned to create an agricultural colony there. The area covered southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and portions of Ontario, South Dakota and Saskatchewan. This would begin to lead further to the demise of the company.

With the branch in New York City, the company began working closely with John Jacob Astor since the North West Company used American ships to get past British monopolies. This collaboration began to cause problems since Astor was a lot like McTavish and this created a rivalry between McGillivray and Astor over the westerly expansion into the Columbia River basin. Astor owned the Pacific Fur Company and with that company he established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, beating the North West Company to get to the area. The sea otter population soon collapsed and with the British looking likely to seize the fort during the War of 1812, Astor sold it to the North West Company in 1813. The fort would be returned to the United States in 1817 and renamed Fort George by the company and it would continue to operate until it was replaced by Fort Vancouver several years later. Following the surrender of Fort Astoria, Duncan McDougall, was given a one one-hundredth of a share in the company.

The War of 1812, the North West Company fort at Sault Ste. Marie was destroyed by the Americans, creating another serious problem for the company. Following the war, the United States would not let Canadian traders freely cross the northern border, which reduced border trade in furs.

In 1814, the Pemmican Proclamation was issued to stop the Metis people of the Red River District in the area that Thomas Douglas had received from the Hudson’s Bay Company from exporting pemmican. This was done to guarantee supplies for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The North West Company saw this to monopolize the commodity. This would lead us to the Pemmican War.

Despite being a war that would last until 1821, modern Canadians know very little about it. The war was fought between the North West Company and the Metis, and the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Selkirk settlers. This war would be a series of skirmishes as Red River pemmican was vital to the North West Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company imported most of its provisions from England itself. You may also be wondering what Pemmican is. It is dried buffalo meat, pounded into a powder and mixed with buffalo fat in leather bags. The North West Company would trade with several outposts in the Red River District for this substance. Needless to say, the Red River pemmican was vital to the North West Company and without it, the company could not feed its employees. William McGillivray, chief partner in the North West Company, said in court that the company could not function without it.

In the new colony created by Selkirk, provisions were scarce and it was decided that provisions like pemmican could not leave the district. As a result, Governor Macdonell issued the Pemmican Proclamation on Jan. 8, 1814.

The North West Company decided to ignore the proclamation and Governor Macdonell was obliged to enforce it as a result.

Macdonell responded through blockades, which only raised tensions and resistance from the North West Company.

Métis leader and clerk with the North West Company, Cuthbert Grant, established a Métis camp only a few kilometres from the HBC headquarters at Point Douglas. He established the camp there to cover the departure of 42 colonists travelling for Canada in NWC canoes. Eventually, Grant and his men would begin to harass Selkirk’s settlers to the area and occasionally gunfire would ring out between the two sides.

In June of 1815, Macdonell would surrender to North West Company representatives, who sent him to Montreal to be tried for illegally confiscating pemmican. Not surprisingly, he never faced the charges in court.

The war would reach its climax on June 19, 1816, with the Battle of Seven Oaks. This was not an epic battle of thousands of men, but rather 65 men on the North West side and 28 on the Hudson’s Bay side. By the end of the battle, the North West Company would be victorious with only one casualty, compared to 21 for Hudson’s Bay.

On Aug. 12, 1816, Selkirk and 90 soldiers arrived and captured North West Company’s headquarters at Fort William. The men there were arrested on charges of murder and tried in York in 1818 where they were acquitted.

The damage had been done within the North West Company though and many of its wealthiest partners began to leave the company worried about its future.

In 1820, the company began to issue coinage, with one copper token equaling the value of one beaver pelt. Things continued to decline unfortunately and in 1821, it was decided that the company would merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company. This merger was given without much choice since Henry Bathurst, the Secretary of War and the Colonies, ordered the companies to stop all hostilities. In July 1821, the merger was signed, and the North West Company name would no longer be used after 40 years of existence.

At the time of its merger, the company had 97 forts, compared to 76 owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Within a few years, under the leadership of George Simpson, there would be a reduction in forts to reduce redundancy. The two companies each had assets valued at 200,000 Pounds, or 18.4 million Pounds today. The new company, operating under the old name of Hudson’s Bay Company, would become the most powerful fur trading entity in the world.

Thus, ended the North West Company.

But we aren’t going to end our story there. There were many famous individuals who worked for the North West Company during its existence, so let’s look at some of those individuals. In addition, we will look at the forts and what they would one day become.

John Finlay was a fur trader and explorer who is most known for establishing the first fur trading post in British Columbia. He would join Alexander Mackenzie on his trip across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in 1792-93 and in 1794 he was placed in charge of the Athabasca Department of the company. He would establish Rocky Mountain Fort, which would become Fort St. John, which is today the oldest continuously inhabited European founded settlement in British Columbia. He would retire from the company in 1804.

Simon Fraser was one of Canada’s greatest explorers and fur traders. He would chart much of British Columbia and by 1805 he oversaw all operations of the North West Company to the west of the Rockies. He would explore what is today called the Fraser River and it is because of him, partly, that Canada’s boundary with the United States has been established on the 49th parallel. His exploits were well-known enough that he was offered a knighthood but turned it down.

John Stuart was a fur trader who would become a partner with the North West Company and Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He would explore British Columbia with Simon Fraser from 1805 to 1808, and Stuart River and Stuart Lake are both named for him.

James McDougall was an explorer who was third-in-command on the team of Simon Fraser, serving as clerk to John Stuart. He would eventually become the first European to find and travel the Nechako River. He would also construct Fort St. James at Stuart Lake, which would become the headquarters of the New Caledonia department of the North West Company.

John Johnston was a highly successful fur trader for the North West Company at Sault Ste. Marie, who was also a leader in the Michigan Territory of the United States. During the War of 1812, he would assist the British and following the war his income was crippled due to the prohibition of fur traders crossing the border freely. His biggest accomplishment was likely that he served as commissioner in 1821 during negotiations between the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay, helping to achieve the merger.

Next to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and in my opinion, he is next to no one when it comes to exploring, is David Thompson. My favourite Canadian historical figure, he would travel 90,000 kilometres across the continent, mapping 4.9 million kilometres. Today, he is often called the greatest land geographer that has ever lived. In 1797, he would defect from his employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company to join the North West Company.

He would walk 130 kilometres in the snow to the nearest North West Company fort, where he was immediately hired on as a surveyor for the company. This was not taken well by the Hudson’s Bay Company, where it was customary to provide one-year notice. For Thompson, what mattered to him was that the North West Company was supporting of his work as a surveyor.

The NWC was very supportive of his interest in surveying and mapping the interior of the continent and what would become Canada. His first task with the company was to survey part of the Canada-US boundary along the water routes of Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. In the coming years he would explore much of the Canadian west and establish a post at what would be Lac La Biche. He would become a full partner with the company in 1804 and in 1806 he was sent back into the interior of the continent due to concerns about the Lewis and Clark expedition looking for a route to the Pacific. This would lead him on his Columbia River travels, where he would establish various posts throughout what would be Montana, Idaho, Washington and Western Canada. He would become the first European to navigate the full length of the Columbia River. He would retire with a full pension from the North West Company and he would complete his great map that covered a wide area from Lake Superior to the Pacific. This map was so accurate that it was still being used by the Canadian government 100 years later.

Sadly, most of his money would be lost in 1825 when the North West Company agent, McGillivrays, Thain and Company went bankrupt. Most of his remaining wealth was invested in land, and he was mostly unsuccessful in making money off the land he owned. To find income elsewhere, he would invest in a potash production company and two general stores, but these all failed as well.  

On Feb. 10, 1857, he died in poverty and obscurity. Charlotte, his lifelong companion, died three months later.

Through the 40 years of the company’s existence, several forts would be established that would become important communities across Canada. These are just a few of those.

Cold Lake was the location of a post for the North West Company, which would one day become the community in north-east Alberta that is home to one of the most important Canadian Forces bases in the country.

Fort Chipewyan is one of the oldest European establishments in Alberta after it was established by Peter Pond of the North West Company in 1788. The community was once the home of a library with over 2,000 books after it was established in 1790. It would become one of the most famous libraries in Rupert’s Land. Sir John Franklin of the Franklin expedition would set out for an overland Arctic journey from Fort Chipewyan. Today, it is the home to 852 people.

Fort Fraser was established in 1806 by Simon Fraser at the base of Fraser Mountain near Vanderhoof, British Columbia. Today, it is the home of 500 people and one of the oldest agricultural fairs in the province.

Fort Gibraltar was established by Alexander Macdonell in 1809 at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. After the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, it would be renamed Fort Garry, which would become the City of Winnipeg, the capital city of Manitoba.

Fort Nelson was established in 1805 and named for Horatio Nelson. It would move several times and during the Second World War would serve as an air base for the United States Air Force. It would also be where the construction of the Alaska Highway would begin.

Fort St. James was established by Simon Fraser in 1806 and would become an important Hudson’s Bay Company fort in 1821. Today has a population of 1,691 people.

Fort William was established in 1803, which would become part of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. The fort would be abandoned for a time before the pursuit of resources would open it again. Over time, it would become the community of Thunder Bay, home to 100,000 people.

Green Lake was established in what would be northern Saskatchewan in 1793 and would become a hamlet of 418 today.

Fort Vermilion was established by the North West Company in 1788, and would become the home to 727 people, including a former premier of Alberta.

Rocky Mountain House was established in 1799 by the North West Company, while the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fort nearby. The fort would operate until 1875 when it was closed, but the community would remain and is now home to 6,635 people.

Information for this article comes from Wikipedia,, HBCHeritage.

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