Nor' West Company
About the Historical North West
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
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
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 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
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
under the direction of a clerk (commis). The majority of voyageurs
were French-Canadian, though there were also some English, German, and Iroquois
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
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
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,
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
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.