From the earliest days of New France, the fur trade was the economic lifeblood of Canada. With the fall of New France in 1763, French fur traders were supplanted by British and Anglo-American businessmen who moved to Montréal to establish a number of small trading companies. They were soon doing a thriving business with First Nations in the upper Great Lakes and adjacent regions to the west. In an attempt to control competition and raise capital, on 24 April 1779, some of these companies joined together to form the North West Company.

Metis, North West Company, Fur Trade
A Métis Man and His Wives, 1828, by Peter Rindisbacher. The first Métis were the offspring of "country marriages” between North West Company voyageurs and traders and Aboriginal women in western Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/Acc. No. 1973-84- 1)

The company of 1779 was a loose, 16-share coalition. It was reorganized on a more secure footing in 1783, led by the Frobisher brothers - Joseph and Benjamin - and Simon McTavish. In 1787, the important firm of Gregory, McLeod and Company joined the coalition, and by 1795 the North West Company controlled nearly 80 per cent of the northern fur trade.

The North West Company had rivals, chief of which was the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). A London-based, limited-stock company established in 1670, the HBC had its main trading station at York Factory, on the western coast of Hudson Bay. This salt-water port in the middle of the continent gave the Hudson's Bay Company a major advantage over the Montréal-based North West Company, which suffered from long interior supply lines. Initially, however, this advantage was more than offset by the passive attitude and trading practices of the HBC. In the words of one critic, Joseph Robson, the Hudson's Bay Company "have for eighty years slept at the edge of a frozen sea; they have shewn no curiosity to penetrate farther themselves, and have exerted all their art and power to crush that spirit in others.”

A smaller but more aggressive rival was the XY Company. It was formed during the late 1790s from dissident factions of the North West Company (NWCo) and a few independent Montréal trading firms. By this time, the undisputed leader of the North West Company was Simon McTavish. His death in 1804 paved the way for corporate reconciliation, and in that year the NWCo was reorganized and the XY Company absorbed.

From its earliest days, the North West Company had been presented with a serious geographical challenge. Most trade goods were manufactured in Britain, and it was comparatively inexpensive to transport them by ship to Montréal. The difficulty lay in the long and arduous overland journey from Montréal to the Northwest.

In order to make the journey within a single season, the Company employed a two-stage transportation system. Each spring, huge birchbark canoes carried trade goods from Montréal to Fort William, at the western end of Lake Superior. Here they were met by other canoe brigades coming down from the Northwest. Cargoes were exchanged, furs moving east and trade goods farther west. The men and their laden canoes then returned from whence they came.

The voyageurs paddling the canoes were almost all French Canadians, hired from the farms and villages of the St. Lawrence valley. Paddlers on the Montréal- to-Fort William route were hired for the season and went home in the winter. They were called, rather dismissively, "pork-eaters” (mangeurs de lard), after a principal component of their traditional diet. By contrast, les hommes du nord or "northmen,” worked in the Northwest and were hired on multi- year contracts. Many never returned home and remained in the Northwest as "freemen” (gens libres) after they had served out their contracts.

The unit of trade for the NWCo was the "made beaver” (MB), equal to a prime beaver pelt or its equivalent (for instance, two small pelts). Prices varied, but those listed below were fairly typical for the late 1700s.

1 MB = .5 kilogram of glass beads

1 MB = .75 kilogram of gun powder

1 MB = 8 knives

1 MB = 1 pair of trousers

1 MB = 2 hatchets

1 MB = 1 blanket

1 MB = 20 fish hooks

1 MB = 12 dozen buttons

11 MB = 1 musket

The early fur trade was characterized by a constantly expanding frontier, as traders sought to extend their reach ever further north and west, where the beaver were still plentiful and the customers "unspoiled.” In the 40-year history of the North West Company, the fur trade came to encompass nearly the whole of northern North America. As it did so, the problems of transportation and supply became increasingly acute. The solution, the Company decided, was to find a commercial outlet to the Pacific.

Voyageurs, Northwest Company, Fur Trade
Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871, by Frances Anne Hopkins (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/Acc. No. 1989-401-3)

The Pacific Coast of North America had been thoroughly charted by Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy during his third Pacific voyage (1776-1779). The problem was finding a practical route there, across the North American continent. Once found, it was hoped that it would be possible to supply western trading posts from deep-water Pacific ports.

The first to try, in 1789, was Alexander Mackenzie. Beginning at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, he set out to explore the river that now bears his name. Unfortunately, it led him all the way to the Arctic Ocean. He tried again in 1793, following a complicated route through wild terrain over the Rocky Mountains. He finally reached the Pacific Ocean at Bella Coola, but the path he found was too high and treacherous for commercial use.

In 1808, Simon Fraser took up the task. During the winter of 1805-1806, the Americans Lewis and Clark had travelled overland through American territory to the mouth of the Columbia River, on the Pacific Coast. Here, evidently, was a broad and navigable river capable of sustaining commercial traffic. Fraser's goal was to find its northern headwaters. He failed, and instead descended the wild Fraser River, later named for him. It was another tremendous feat of exploration, but a commercial failure.

Three years later, David Thompson finally explored the Columbia River to its mouth. Unfortunately, by the time he reached the ocean, the Americans had already established a post at Fort Astoria, supplied by sea. The only commercially viable route through the Rockies lay in American territory, and the Company's search for a Pacific outlet ended in failure.

Although initially the Hudson's Bay Company had provided little real competition, the situation began to change as the eighteenth century wore on. In the 1780s and 1790s, the Hudson's Bay Company opened a series of interior posts and gradually acquired the wilderness skills necessary to challenge the North West Company on its own ground.

Competition between the two companies reached a new level of intensity in 1812. In that year, Lord Selkirk and the Hudson's Bay Company settled a group of dispossessed Scottish farmers at Red River, in what is now Manitoba. The new colony was bitterly resented by First Nations and the Métis, whose home this was, while the North West Company depended on the pemmican they provided to provision its northern posts. The result was the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, in which 21 settlers were killed by Métis hunters working for the North West Company. In retaliation, Lord Selkirk captured Fort William and arrested several partners. Smouldering violence and mounting legal fees weakened and alarmed both companies.

In 1821, after years of bitter feuding, an exhausted and impoverished North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company. Each had tried to buy out the other, but the Hudson's Bay Company prevailed, with its deeper pockets and British political connections.

"Such was the North West Company in its powerful and prosperous days, when it held a kind of feudal sway over a vast domain of lake and forest. . . . the lords of the lakes and forest have passed away; and the hospitable magnates of Montréal where are they?” - Washington Irving, 1835