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North West Company

From Academic Kids

The North West Company was a fur trading business headquartered in the city of Montreal in British North America. Although there are historical references to a North West Company as early as 1776, the first recorded involvement was a 16-share organization formed in 1779 that for the next four years was little more than a loose association of a few Montreal merchants who discussed how they might break the stranglehold the Hudson's Bay Company held on the North American fur trade. In 1783, the North West Company was officially created with its corporate offices on Vaudreuil Street in Montreal and led by businessman Benjamin Frobisher, Peter Pond, and Simon McTavish along with investor-partners that included Isaac Todd, Robert Grant, Nicholas Montour, Patrick Small, William Holmes and Frobisher's brothers, Thomas, and Joseph.

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Simon McTavish

In 1787 the North West Company merged with Gregory, McLeod and Co. following which Roderick Mackenzie joined the expanded organization as did his cousin Alexander Mackenzie who would oversee the exploration of the western territories by the part of the group dubbed as the wintering partners who did the actual trading for fur with the native trappers. Grand Portage on Lake Superior, became the key exchange point for the North West Company where its western members met the supply canoes that came out from Montreal. The business expanded to the country around Lake Athabasca that saw major explorations westward led by Simon Fraser, a relative of Simon McTavish, plus Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson. These men pushed into the wilderness territories of the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the Gulf of Georgia on the Pacific Coast.

The death of Bejamin Frobisher opened the door to a takeover of the North West Company by Simon McTavish who made a deal with Frobisher's surviving brothers. The firm of McTavish, Frobisher and Company was founded in November 1787 that effectively controlled eleven of the company’s twenty outstanding shares. In addition to Alexander Mackenzie this group included Americans, Peter Pond and Alexander Henry and Henry's associate in New York City, John Jacob Astor. While the organization and capitalization of the company came from Anglo-Quebecers, Simon McTavish married a French-Canadian girl and a great many French-Canadians played key roles in the operations both in the building and the management and shareholding of the various trading posts scattered throughout the country as well the voyageurs involved in the actual trading with the natives.

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Grand Portage trading post

Trade with China was a very lucrative part of the fur business during the end of the 18th century. The company expanded into the Northwest Territory where in 1795, Jacques Vieau established a trading post in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with outposts at Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Sheboygan. In order to better position themselves in the increasingly global market where politics played a major role, in 1796 the North West Company established of an agency in New York City. However, the North West Company was at a distinct disadvantage trying to compete for furs with the Hudson's Bay Company whose charter gave it a virtual monopoly in Canada. Attempts were made to have the British Parliament change things, in particular to at least obtain transit rights for the company to ship the goods needed for trading for furs to the West. These efforts included a personal petition by Simon McTavish to Prime Minister William Pitt but all requests were refused. A few years later, with still no resolution to the Hudson's Bay Company's stranglehold, McTavish and his group decided to gamble. They organized an overland expedition from Montreal to James Bay and a second expedition by sea. In September of 1803 the overland party met the company's ship at Charlton Island in what is now the Northwest Territories. There, they lay claim to the territory in the name of the North West Company. This bold move caught the Hudson's Bay Company off guard and retaliation came in the ensuing years rather than the reasonable compromise McTavish had hoped might be negotiated.

Simon McTavish brought several members of his family into the company but for McTavish, nepotism took a back seat to ability. His father-in-law Charles Chaboillez was the proprietor who oversaw the Lower Red River trading post. McTavish also hired his nephew William McGillivray to learn the business but the young man had to prove his worth by starting out near the bottom of the ladder. Over several years, McGillivray demonstrated considerable business acumen and in 1788 he acquired the share owned by Peter Pond when Pond chose to retire. Simon McTavish was an aggressive businessman who understood that powerful forces in the business world were always ready to pounce on any weakness. As such, his ambition and forceful positions brought disagreements between him and some of the shareholders, several of whom eventually left the firm in 1789 to form their own company known unofficially as the "XY Company" because of the mark they used on their bales of furs. In 1799 this rival group started to trade in some of the same areas as the of the North West Company. There was intense competition between the rivals and when Simon McTavish died on July 6, 1804, the new head of the company, William McGillivray, immediately set out to put an end to the five years of rivalry that had escalated to a point where the master of the North West Company post at Great Bear Lake had been shot by an XY Company employee during a quarrel. McGillivray was successful in putting together an agreement with the XY Company in November of that year wherein the North West Company transferred 25 per cent of its shares to the XY Company. Although Alexander Mackenzie was William McGillivray's close friend, he was excluded from the new joint partnership because of his reputation as a constant troublemaker.

Under William McGillivray more success came during the first decade of the 19th century as the North West Company expanded its operating territory. However, competition was intense and profit margins were squeezed. The North West Company branch in New York city had allowed the Canadians to get around the British East India Company's monopoly and ship furs to the Chinese market. Cargo ships owned by the North West Company, conveniently sailed under the American flag and to do so it meant continued collaboration with John Jacob Astor. However, Astor was as equally aggressive as Simon McTavish had been and an intense rivalry soon developed between him and William McGillivray over the oriental market and westerly expansion to unclaimed territory in what is now the Columbia River area in Oregon.

The Canadian fur trade began to change in 1806 after Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the blockade of the Baltic Sea as part of the ongoing struggle between France and Britain for world dominance. The British were dependent for almost all of its timber from the Baltic countries and from contracts with New Hampshire and Massachusetts companies. However, by then tensions had also begun to escalate again between Britain and America and in 1809 the American Government passed the Non-Intercourse Act that effectively brought about an almost complete cessation of trade between the two countries. Britain then found itself totally dependent on her Canadian colony for its timber needs, especially the great white pine used for ships masts. Almost overnight, timber and wood products replaced fur as Canada's number one export.

By 1810 another crisis hit the fur industry brought on by the over harvesting of animals, the beaver in particular. The destruction of the North West Company post at Sault Sainte Marie by the Americans during the War of 1812 was a serious blow during an already difficult time. All these events only intensified competition and when Thomas Douglas convinced his fellow shareholders in the Hudson's Bay Company to grant him the Selkirk Concession it marked another in a series of events that would lead to the demise of the North West Company. The Pemmican Proclamation, the ensuing Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, and its violence, resulted in Lord Selkirk arresting William McGillivray and several North West Company proprietors, seizing their outpost property in Fort William and charging them with being responsible for the deaths of twenty-one people at Seven Oaks. Although this matter was resolved by the authorities in Montreal, over the next few years some of the wealthiest and most capable partners began to leave the company, fearful of its future viability. The form of nepotism within the company too had changed from the strict values of Simon McTavish to something that now was harming the business both in its costs and morale of others.

By 1820, the company was issuing a form of coinage, each representing the value of one beaver pelt. However, the continued existence of the North West Company was in great doubt and shareholders had no choice but to agree to a merger with their hated rival after Henry Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, ordered the companies to cease hostilities. In July of 1821, under more pressure from the government in Britain who passed new regulations governing the fur trade in British North America, a merger agreement was signed with the Hudson's Bay Company that saw the North West Company disappear after more than forty years in operation. At the time of the merger the amalgamated company consisted of 97 trading posts belonging to the North West Company and 76 that belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company. George Simpson (1787-1860), the Hudson's Bay Company Governor-in-Chief of Rupert's Land who became the Canadian head of the northern division of the greatly enlarged business, made his headquarters in the Montreal suburb of Lachine.

For further information on the North West Company, author Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, who served as a consultant to the government of Ontario for the restoration of the North West Company trading post in Fort William, Ontario. She wrote several books on the company and its members. Her book for young adults titled "The Nor'westers" won the 1954 Governor General's Awards. She followed this up with a 1957 book for an adult readership titled "The North West Company" plus her 1962 biography of William McGillivray titled "McGillivray, Lord of the North West."

Beyond the non-operating investors, in 1799 some post proprietors, clerks, interpreters, explorers and other persons of the nearly 2,500 employed by the North West Company were:

Athabaska:

  • John Finlay (proprietor), Simon Fraser, James MacKenzie, Duncan Livingston, John Stewart, James Porter, John Thompson, James MacDougall, G. F. Wintzel, John Heinbrucks;

Upper English River:

  • Angus Shaw (proprietor), Donald MacTavish (proprietor), Alexander MacKay, Antoine Tourangeau, Joseph Cartier, Simon Reaume;

Lower English River:

  • Alexander Fraser (proprietor), John MacGillivray, Robert Henry, Louis Versailles, Charles Messier, Pierre Hurteau;

Fort Dauphin:

  • A. N. McLeod (proprietor), Hugh McGillis, Michel Allary, Alexander Farguson, Edward Harrison, Joseph Grenon, Francois Nolin, Nicholas Montour;

Upper Fort des Prairies and Rocky Mountains:

  • Daniel Mackenzie (proprietor), John MacDonald (proprietor), James Hughes, Louis Chatellain, James King, Francois Decoigne, Pierre Charette, Pierre Jerome, Baptiste Bruno, David Thompson, J. Duncan Campbell, Alexander Stewart, Jacques Raphael, Francois Deschamps;

Lower Fort des Prairies:

  • Pierre Belleau, Baptiste Roy, J. B. Filande, Baptiste Larose;

Upper Red River:

  • John Macdonell (proprietor), George MacKay, J. Macdonell, Jr., Joseph Auger, Pierre Falcon, Francois Mallette, William Munro, Andre Poitvin;

Lower Red River:

  • Charles Chaboillez (proprietor), Alexander Henry, J. B. Desmarais, Francois Coleret, Antoine Dejarlet, Louis Giboche;

Lac Winipic:

  • William MacKay (proprietor), John Cameron, Donald MacIntosh, Benjamin Frobisher, Jacques Dupont, Joseph Laurent, Gabriel Attina, Francois Amoit;

Nipigon:

  • Duncan Cameron (proprietor), Ronald Cameron, Dugald Cameron, Jacques Adhemar, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, Allen MacFarlane, Jean-Baptiste Pominville, Frederick Shults;

Pic:

  • J. B. Perrault, Augustin Roy;

Michipicoten and the Bay:

  • Lemaire St-Germain, Baptiste St-Germain, Leon Chnier

Sault and Sloop "Otter":

  • John Burns, John Bennet;

South of Lake Superior:

  • Michel Cadotte (partner), Simeon Charrette, Charles Gauthier, Pierre Baillarge;

Fonds du Lac:

  • John Sayer (proprietor), J. B. Cadotte, Charles Bousquet, Jean Coton, Ignace Chenier, Joseph Reaume, Eustache Roussin, Vincent Roy;

Lac La Pluie:

  • Peter Grant (proprietor), Arch. MacLellan, Charles Latour, Michel Machard;

Grand Portage:

  • Doctor Munro, Charles Hesse, Zacharie Clouthier, Antoine Colin, Jacques Vandreil, Francois Boileau, Mr. Bruce.
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