American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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North West Company

Following Britain's conquest of Canada, French traders from Montreal were supplanted in the fur trade by independent Scotsmen. Many of these new Scottish merchants allied themselves with the French already in the country but also competed against one another. Under the leadership of Simon McTavish and the brothers Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, a few of the leading Montreal merchants united in 1779, forming a new power in the fur trade that in 1783 became officially known as the North West Company. This new company suffered much internal strife, yet it competed successfully with and was the chief rival of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1779 to 1821.

The company was headquartered on Vaudreuil Street in Montreal. Stockholders were the Montreal trading companies and the "wintering partners," the men who did the actual trading for furs with the Native Americans. The company also employed French-Canadian voyageurs familiar with the Indian trade. The Northwesters, as men of the company were called, tended to be more active and aggressive agents in expanding the Indian trade than their Hudson's Bay Company rivals. From their main supply depot at the Grand Portage, which linked Lake Superior and Montreal to the system of lakes and rivers and interior trading posts of the pays d'en haut (most of Ontario, the area west of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes and beyond to the Canadian prairies), Northwest Company men extended the Indian trade into new lands between the Hudson's Bay territories and Louisiana as well as westward. During the late 1700s the Grand Portage became a summer rendezvous site for Indian families, French voyageurs, Scottish clerks, pays d'en haut wintering partners, and Montreal and London agents.

The more intrepid character of the North West Company was embodied in one of the company's partners, Alexander Mackenzie, who began a series of explorations of the Northwest, which carried him to the Arctic (1789) and Pacific (1792–1793) Oceans. Another Northwester, geographer David Thompson, extended trade westward to the Missouri River and the Mandan Indians, and later to the Columbia River.

The bold enterprise of the North West Company stirred the older Hudson's Bay Company into action. Competition intensified between the two British companies as both suffered from a depressed fur market in Europe caused by the Napoleonic Wars and the overharvesting of animals. Rivalry escalated to bloodshed as the Hudson's Bay Company took bold steps to harass the North West Company. In 1811, a large tract of land in the Red River Valley was granted to Lord Selkirk (a major Hudson's Bay Company shareholder) for settlement. The colony's location would essentially cut off the North West Company from lands farther to the west and divide the territory to the east. In 1814, restrictions on the pemmican trade were enacted, which also alienated the Métis population who were the producers of pemmican, as well as occupants of the Red River area. The struggle reached a bloody pitch when war between the two companies peaked at the Battle of Seven Oaks (1816), resulting in Lord Selkirk's arresting several North West Company proprietors and seizing company property. With fears of a failing company and pressure from the British government to stop hostilities and ensure imperial stability, North West Company shareholders agreed to merge with their hated rival. In July of 1821, an agreement was signed with the Hudson's Bay Company, whereby it absorbed the North West Company.

The greater portion of labor for the trade came from the tribes who traded the pelts, hides, and pemmican to North West Company agents for manufactured goods. To strengthen trade connections, the North West Company (more than the Hudson's Bay Company with its stricter ideals of race and class) encouraged adopting Indian ceremonies and customs, the strongest connection being marriage á la façon du pays (after the custom of the country). The North West Company appreciated the advantage that marriages of its men to Indian women brought and allowed all ranks to marry. These unions strengthened trade relations and created reciprocal social and economic bonds for Indians that drew traders into tribal kinship circles. The result of such unions accelerated changes in many quarters of the Indian world including their economic, social, ceremonial, demographic, and political worlds as well as inter- and intratribal power. Perhaps the greatest evidence of change these unions created were mixed-blood offspring.

In its four decades of existence, the North West Company altered significantly the dimensions of the Indian trade, imperial claims to the West, and the lives of numerous western tribes.

S. Matthew DeSpain


Further Reading
Carlos, Ann M. 1986. The North American Fur Trade: A Study in the Life-Cycle of a Duopoly. New York: Garland Publishing.; Davidson, Gordon C. 1967. The North West Company. New York: Russell & Russell.
 

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