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'Parchment' background created by Jason Gatliff for Historical Enterprises, publishers of  On The Trail and the website.

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Nor' West Company

About the Historical North West Company

In may own living-history activities, I emulate a North West Company wintering partner between the years 1790 and 1800.  My own Nor' West Company is largely patterned after field operations of the historical concern.  Most of the material on this page was excerpted from the excellent In Pursuit of Adventure  website published by McGill University.


After the conquest of New France by the English in 1763, merchants and fur traders of Scottish and English descent started trading in Montreal, Detroit, and in the Great Lakes area. As a result, intense competition developed among rivals.  Although many traders ruined one another through violent rivalry, some quickly realized the benefits of cooperation.  Temporary partnerships to finance trade and travel expeditions arose such as those organized by Todd, McGill and Co. and the Frobishers in 1769. In 1774-5.  Several large expeditions into the Saskatchewan region brought a realization on the part of organizing partners that if they were to compete effectively against the well-financed HBC, it would be useless to compete among themselves.

In 1779 nine distinct firms became parties to an agreement for 1 year, by virtue of which the trade was rendered common property.  This first "North West Company" agreement of 1779 was divided into 16 shares, and included the following 9 firms: 

  • Todd and McGill (2 shares)

  • Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher (2 shares)

  • McTavish and Co. (2 shares)

  • McGill and Paterson (2 shares)

  • Holmes and Grant (2 shares), Wadden and Co. (2 shares)

  • McBeath and Co. (2 shares); Ross and Co. (1 share)

  • Oakes and Co. (1 share).

In that year trader John Askin, who was at Michilimackinac, referred to the agreement as "the great Company". The name North West Company had also come into use at this time.

Following the American victory over the British, the  traders were obliged to recognize the United States of America and feared of what would happen to their trading posts south of the border.  In October 1783 a third agreement of 5 years was obtained, officially naming the North West Company.   Under the administration of Simon McTavish the NWC was joined by rival firms such as Gregory, McLeod and Company in 1787. This partnership was the most important one reached yet, as it brought in new members on a 20-share basis and was made to last 5 years.  In 1795 the NWC was reorganized with Simon McTavish again placed in charge along with his nephew, William McGillivray. 

In 1804 the Northwest Company merged with their largest rival, the New North West Company (also known as the XY Company).  Prior to the amalgamation the NWC had always done business with temporary partnerships but the agreement reached during the merger was for the company to run for 18 years, thus eliminating this handicap. 

The Nor'westers were aggressive traders, and had been encroaching on the areas in the north controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company even before the North West Company had officially formed. There was always some rivalry but things didn't get serious until 1810, when Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, gained a controlling interest in "the Bay" .  Douglas decided to put a stop to the Nor'westers by starting the Red River Colony in Nor'wester territory and events soon turned bloody.  This caused serious political problems in England, eventually causing the government to force the two companies to merge in 1821. The new company retained the name of the "Hudson's Bay Company", but comprised mostly North West Company personnel.




Structure of the historical North West Company

The Montreal fur traders of the 18th century were not all men of means, and the manufacturers and wholesalers in England who supplied them were in a position to advance goods on long credit.   In Montreal, the firms of merchants ordered and imported the trade goods. The Montreal merchants acted as "agents" and had the power to hire employees and purchase liquor, provisions, and other required commodities. These men were further given full powers of attorney for the NWC and also in the names of individual shareholders.

Below the Montreal Agents the partners were considered proprietors of the company and their salary was based on their shares in the concern.  Trade goods were advanced to the partners on credit and the partners carried on the actual trading in the interior.  The "wintering partners" were part owners in the concern and lived year round in the interior, supervising the trade in the districts assigned to them. In large departments like Athabasca some of their responsibilities were delegated to the clerks. 

Clerks were were apprenticed to the trade for 5 or 7 years and hoped to become a share-holding partner in time. Clerks received fixed salaries and were also provided food and clothing. Like partners, clerks administered some posts and were expected to keep annual journals and diaries.  They also provided accounts of the expenditure of goods, balance of provisions and the debts due by Indians and voyageurs. In Montreal clerks were the ones who supervised the preparation of the trade goods for shipment inland.

During most of its existence transportation costs represented almost half of the total expenses.  The rich and profitable Athabasca country was 3000 miles from Montreal but a regular freight canoe could average only 1000 miles a month.  As a result, it was impossible to make such a trip each summer and still have time to barter for furs and return to Montreal. Thus arose an efficient transport system combining the sturdy Algonkian canoe, the robust French-Canadian voyageurs, and the complex networks of rivers and lakes of Canada. 

The logistics led to the development of a two-stage transportation network involving two sets of canoes and crews. A large depot was established at Grand Portage (later moved to Fort William, now Thunder Bay, Ontario). Two canoe brigades set off from opposing directions, one bringing in trade goods from Lachine and the other carrying furs from the interior. In mid-May, they met at Grand Portage where they exchanged canoes. A month was used for "turn-around", to repackage the goods and arrange consignments for various posts along the way. By the end of July, the two sets of canoes were on their way back again. In this way, furs reached the east and trade goods reached the west within the 5 month frost-free span.

"Voyageur", the French word for traveler, refers to the contracted employees who worked as canoe paddlers, bundle carriers, and general laborers for fur trading firms.  Voyageurs were also known as "engagés", a loose French expression translated as "employees". The voyageurs were under the direction of a clerk (commis).  The majority of voyageurs were French-Canadian, though there were also some English, German, and Iroquois voyageurs.

There were two general categories of voyageurs.  The "comers and goers", or "pork eaters" paddled from Montreal to Grand Portage for the annual rendezvous and back. The term "pork-eater" or "mangeur de lard" comes from the fact that French-Canadians were accustomed to eat pork meat boiled in a soup.  The "North men" or "hivernants" were voyageurs who wintered in the interior and brought down furs to Grand Portage (or Fort William) to meet the summer brigades coming from Montreal. 

Within the two categories of voyageurs, there were four sub-types:

-the avant or bowman: the man located in the front (or bow) of the canoe who acted as the guide;

-the gouvernail or steersman: the man who would sit or stand at the stern (rear) and steer the craft by order of the bowman;

-the milieu or middleman: the men lacking experience began as paddlers in the middle. After becoming knowledgeable with the art of canoeing, they would become steersmen. Because of the skill and experience required, the bowsmen and steersmen were paid twice the rate of middlemen;

-the express; the highest honor of a voyageur was to paddle an express canoe, carrying important people or messages, at twice the usual speed of about 45 paddles a minute.

Because the voyageur system was developed under the French regime and as most of the men hired by the NWC were French-Canadians, the "voyageur" termed remained and most of the men were recruited in French-Canadian villages and towns.


Interactions with Native American and First Nations People:

The fur trade was much more complicated than a simple exchange of furs for trade goods.  It included a variety of transactions and cultural exchanges. In the context of the trading post and village, Native men and women had important but distinct roles for traders.

Native men were the main trappers and hunters on which the NWC depended on for a constant return of furs and provisions. The men were also the major participants in trade ceremonies and were recipients of credit from traders.  Native men further served as guides, hunters, scouts, and interpreters.

The women processed, cleaned and prepared the furs.  This gave them some authority in deciding what would happen to the furs as well as the opportunity to trade them.  Another major role of women in the trade was as suppliers of food, which was exchanged in barter transactions. As the fur trade pushed further inland traders needed provisions that were lightweight, non-perishable and easy to produce. Canoes were made by the men and traded by women. In one instant, an Ojibwa woman at Fond du Lac traded a small canoe in return for two capots, a two-and-a-half-point blanket, and two pots of mixed rum. Supplies for maintaining canoes (gum, birch bark, spruce roots used for tying panels of bark) were also provided by women.

Many Native women married fur traders "à la façon du pays" (in the manner of the country). It is a fact that traders took one or two Native wives to satisfy their sexual needs and because they performed a series of tasks essential to the trade.  Women and girls were often sometimes captured during intertribal raids and exchanged as commodities to European traders.  Marriages with Native women served as a vital link between Native communities and trading posts

The Indians always insisted on receiving a fair treatment and on not being cheated by the traders, yet cheating was so common that it was part of the trade.  However, the Indians were not defenseless. They were as expert as haggling as the whites and could simply refuse to trade their furs if they could not strike a deal. This threat was given special force when rival traders were in business nearby.  Indians were also known to practice petty larceny. They were trusted with goods in the fall on the understanding that they would repay their debt in the spring when they had trapped furs. Yet, Indians sometimes refused to pay up, pleading poverty or sickness. If a trader pressed the issue, the Indian could simply leave for another post where he might start with a clean slate. In theory credit was supposed to control the Indians by keeping them in dept with the company. In practice, the Indians did not always recognize these obligations.

Despite intermarriage and the mutual interactions of trade, relations between traders and Indians were often strained by mutual misunderstandings and suspicion.  The suggestion that Indians became dependent on traders neglects to point out that the traders were far more dependent on the Indians.  Although changes did occur with the emphasis on fur hunting and the availability of trade goods the appearance of fur traders did not radically alter subsistence patterns.  Even as they traded for these items Indians retained a sense of their interests as well as a large degree of self-sufficiency. As late as the 1830s, traders complained that once the Indians had "obtained their necessities for a few peltries", they "would not hunt afterwards". Essentially, Indians traded pelts to acquire a limited number of goods. When these requirements were satisfied, they often ceased to hunt.
While traders were absorbed by their business, the Indians went about their own lives in many ways unaffected by the presence of newcomers to their lands. The two groups met briefly at the posts to exchange goods, each receiving from the other goods and products it could not produce for itself. They then parted, the Indians returning to a world the trader never fully understood.  A world with its own traditions and patterns of trade, its own religious beliefs and social relations, its own wars and politics. The NWC obviously affected events in the Native world by introducing new goods into it and disrupting balances of power. But, for the most part, the Nor'westers were peripheral to the real concerns of Native people.

For a much more thorough overview of the North West Company and the northwestern fur-trade, please click here to visit In Pursuit of Adventure by McGill Univervisty.


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