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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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The North West Company

Portrait: Simon McTavish, a partner in the NWC

As the fur trade expanded deeper into the Canadian Northwest, independent traders such as Peter Pond and the Frobisher brothers found it increasingly difficult to finance and supply their operations. It became apparent that a co-operative venture might make trade more efficient by reducing expenses associated with competition. The result of their negotiations was the North West Company (NWC), a shifting partnership of Montreal merchants and inland traders. Formed initially in 1779, it went through several reorganizations before emerging as the dominant player in Montreal-based trade.

Men recruited from Scotland and England, who were often related to one another, led the NWC. They served as apprentice clerks in the fur country, learning the trade from the bottom up, and then graduated to full partnerships in the company. These were the so-called "Nor'westers". Some supervised the trade in the West, while others were responsible for the Montreal end of the business, exporting furs and importing the trade goods and supplies. The lower ranks of the company were filled by French-Canadian voyageurs, the work force of the fur trade. They paddled the canoes, hauled cargo across the portages and built the trading posts. The voyageurs' knowledge of wilderness travel, their experience with the Native people of Canada, and their great stamina made them invaluable to the Nor'westers.

Image: A fur trade scene

The thirst for furs led the Nor'westers to the country around Athabasca Lake, and their arrival there was followed by a series of explorations by Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson that carried NWC trade across the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the Pacific Coast. For a time it seemed that the NWC would prevail against its greatest rival, the Hudson's Bay Company, for dominance in the fur trade.

One of the biggest problems faced by the NWC was distance. It was impossible to travel from Montreal all the way to the fur country and back in a single season. To solve this problem the company created a two-stage transportation system. In the interior each spring, the wintering partners gathered up the furs they had traded and as soon as the ice had melted they paddled eastward down rivers and across lakes. From Montreal the supply canoes made their way westward up the St. Lawrence River and across the Great Lakes. The two brigades met at Fort William, a large wooden trading post at the western end of Lake Superior, in what is now called Thunder Bay. For several days each summer the fort was alive with a noisy throng of traders and trappers exchanging furs, trade goods and news of the year's events. Once business was complete they held a festive banquet and dance to mark the end of another trading season, before turning around and heading back in the directions from which they had come.

For half a century the NWC battled the Hudson's Bay Company for supremacy in the fur trade. The rivalry was bitter, and sometimes violent. Competition came to a head at the Red River Colony in southern Manitoba in 1816 when 22 people died in a clash set off by fur-trade animosities. Finally the British government stepped in to restore peace in the Northwest. Under pressure, the two companies amalgamated in 1821. A re-organized Hudson's Bay Company absorbed its rival and the North West Company passed into history.

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