The company began as a partnership of fur-trade merchants in the 1770s. These traders were finding it expensive to compete against each other so they decided to pool their resources in 1783-84. Some of the leading partners were Simon McTavish, Joseph and Thomas Frobisher, James McGill, and Isaac Todd. Simon McTavish was the leading partner until his death in 1804, when he was followed by William McGillivray.
Because of the great distance between the western fur posts and Montreal, the NWC worked out a unique transportation system. Each summer canoes from the St Lawrence River carried supplies to the head of Lake Superior where they met the canoes laden with furs from the interior. Originally this rendezvous took place at Grand Portage. Later, the site moved to Fort William. After exchanging their goods, and having a grand celebration, the two sets of canoes returned back in the direction they had come for another season.
The NWC soon emerged as the dominant fur-trade enterprise in Montreal and the trade became a rivalry between the Nor'Westers and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), based to the north in Hudson Bay. This rivalry lasted many years and was very bitter. The two companies built posts next to each other and fought for furs and food supplies. Indians were bribed to bring in their trade and several people were killed during the conflict.
The need to find new supplies of furs led the traders deeper into the north and west. The Nor'Westers were noted especially for their skills as explorers. Men like Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson carried the fur trade all the way across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.