"An adequate history of the fur trade in America remains to be written, and the complexity of its problem is such as almost to defy unified treatment. When such a history is written, it will be largely a story of conflicts, conflicts ranging from the rivalry of petty traders in the wilderness to military and diplomatic struggles for control of vast areas of the continent" (Wayne Stevens 1928)."

Throughout its history, the NWC was embroiled in several political struggles involving the United States and the Hudson's Bay Company. The following is a brief overview of two major issues with which the Nor'westers were forced to deal with if they wished to maintain their expansion in the Canadian Northwest. The two topics discussed here are:

A) The "Columbia Enterprise" and the Oregon country
B) The Red River colony and the Hudson's Bay Company

The "Columbia Enterprise" and the Oregon country

The Pacific coast was not unknown at the time Alexander Mackenzie conducted his voyages overland to reach Nootka Sound in 1793. In 1786, British Captain Nathaniel Portlock arrived at Cook inlet and found to his dismay that the Russians had already secured possession of the place before his expedition could do so. The Russians had indeed carved out an extensive island empire anchored on the eastern shores of Siberia. Russian ships sailed from Siberia across Alaska to trade with Indians for the highly valued otter pelts. Spain was also present in the area as missionaries from Mexico had established a chain of missions reaching San Francisco Bay. By the time Mackenzie set out from Fort Fork on Peace River, the Nootka Sound crisis had erupted between Spain and Britain. The British had intervened in an area where the Spanish had expected only the Russians to be encroaching. Captain Martinez's ill-fated seizure of Capt. Colnett's vessels in 1789 brought a British threat of armed retaliation if the Spanish failed to grant Britain equal access to the trade of the northwest coast. The Spanish were thus obliged to share the area with the Russians and the British. In time, they gradually retreated to the south. By 1793, the Northwest coast lay under the Russian and British flags, with Spain and the USA not far behind.

When the war of American Independence ended a vast region south of the Great Lakes, including Minnesota and Detroit, was ceded to the United States. Many Canadian traders such as James McGill and Isaac Todd were deeply involved in the so-called "Southwest trade" and, because of their investments, they were not in a hurry to leave. Some decided to stay while others shifted their interests to the Northwest, which remained in British hands. It is only with Jay's Treaty in 1794 that the British agreed to relinquish the border posts and hand over the "Old Northwest". Canadians were permitted to trade in American territory as long as they obtained a license and paid the appropriate import duties on their goods. But, very quickly, Montreal traders were no longer welcome south of the border. In 1798, Grand Portage became an American post and the NWC was forced to relocate its main headquarters at Fort Kaministiquia (called Fort William in 1807), a few miles to the north and across the international border along Lake Superior.

Farther to the west, Canadian traders still dominated the trade on the Missouri River. As word spread that Mackenzie had reached the Pacific, the US expansion to the west would not halt. In 1803, the Americans purchased Louisiana and began looking out to the west. William Clarke and Meriwether Lewis were mandated to explore the Missouri as well as any other rivers that would connect to the Pacific: the Columbia, Oregon, and Colorado. Slowly, American settlers and explorers began to appear along the upper Missouri and reached as far as the Rockies. As in the east, many Canadian traders began to retreat from a territory that had been used to calling their own.

There was one region, however, that remained an open question for a long time: the Columbia, where American laws did not apply and where fur traders sought to monopolize the trade. In 1792, the British formally took possession of both banks of the Columbia River, although no settlements were formed. It is on this act that Great Britain would later argue its claim to the Oregon. However, while Captain George Vancouver had judged it to be a bay of the ocean, American Robert Gray went well up stream later in that year and recognized it as a river. Gray named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. Slowly, the Americans started building a sea-borne commerce that linked Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.

In reaction to a growing American interest in the area, the NWC elaborated its "Columbia Enterprise" by dispatching several expeditions to reassert the British claim to the area. In 1800, Duncan McGillivray and David Thompson attempted to cross the Rockies to reach the Columbia but failed. In 1806, Thompson was again directed to find a route via the Columbia to the Pacific but was recalled to Montreal. In 1808, Simon Fraser descended the river which now bears his name only to find it impracticable. The NWC was determined to get to the mouth of the Columbia first.

In the mean time, John Jacob Astor, a New York businessman originally from Germany, had become a leading fur magnate with his trading operations since 1784 based in the east. Seeing that Lewis and Clarke had extended the US territorial claim to the Pacific through rich fur country, he decided to set up a trade center at the mouth of the Columbia to draw in furs and ship them to China. His grand visions saw American possession of the entire Pacific coast between the Spanish and the Russians. Following the merger of the XY Company with the NWC, the rise of Astor's larger intentions of trade to the Pacific greatly occupied the Montreal traders, as they did not wish to see their "Columbia Enterprise" preempted. In 1809, they even rejected Astor's offer that the Canadians purchase one-third of the stock in the Pacific plan.

In 1810 Astor set up the American Fur Company and, to cover its venture to the mouth of the Columbia, organized the Pacific Fur Company. Two expeditions, one by sea around Cape Horn and one overland by the Lewis and Clarke route, were planned. The Tonquin, a 300 ton sailing ship transported a party of voyageurs, clerks, and partners. Most of these men were Canadians and former Nor'westers whom Astor has recruited in Montreal. The Tonquin dropped anchor on the mouth of the Columbia in March 1811. The members of the expedition quickly built a few buildings and called the settlement Astoria. In July, the log buildings were not completed when Nor'wester David Thompson rounded Tongue Point in his canoe, flying the Union Jack and hoping he has won the race. Interestingly, Thompson would symbolically claim the area for Great Britain. He writes:

"I erected a small Pole with a half sheet of paper well tied about it, with these words on it: Know hereby that this Country is claimed by Great Britain as part of its Territories and the NW Company of Montreal from Canada, finding the Factory for this People inconvenient for them, do hereby intend to erect a Factory in this Place for the Commerce of the Country around D. Thompson. Junction of the Shawpatin River with the Columbia, July 8, 1811."

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Canada, largely on account of Britain's Non-Intercourse Act designed to prevent neutral countries from trading with her French Napoleonic opponent. In 1813, a party of Nor'westers arrived in Astoria with the news that war had erupted between the two countries and that the British were sending a warship to capture Astoria. The Americans were offered to surrender and struck a deal by selling the settlement to the Nor'westers for 58 000$. Astoria was renamed Fort George. The following month, a British ship arrived there and took formal possession of the area. For a brief moment, Canadian fur traders controlled a vast territory west of the Rockies and north of the Columbia. However, after the war, the settlement was given back to the US as both countries signed a status quo agreement, returning to the boundary before the war. Although the NWC complained that the settlement had been purchased, it was ruled that Astoria was taken by the British and thus was returned to the Americans. After the war, an American ship returned to conduct a brief flag raising ceremony just to serve notice that Washington had not lost interest.

In 1818 Britain and the US attempted once again to settle the Columbia issue. It was proposed that the 49th parallel be a suitable boundary between American possessions and British lands west of the Rockies. It was argued that this would be ideal because the same parallel had already been established as the boundary in the east. No agreement was reached and both countries continued to claim the area. By the early 1820s, many American settlers in the area demanded that the entire Pacific coast become part of the United States. Their slogan "54-forty or fight", claiming the Pacific north west to that latitude, might have won them their goal had not the monopoly-holding Hudson's Bay Company possessed influential friends in British Parliament. Compromise settled the balance of the boundary by the 49th parallel to the Pacific and the English company moved its Pacific headquarters to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, thus founding the colony that would later be called British Columbia. In 1827, the two countries signed an agreement of joint occupancy of the Columbia. The vague nature of the agreement as well as the simultaneous expansion of rival settlement frontiers would later lead to a threat of war. In 1833, the American Fur Co. abandoned its posts along the border in exchange for an annual cash payment from the HBC. In 1846, the border to the Pacific Ocean was agreed upon and the British definitely lost the Columbia River as well as the Oregon to United States control.

The Red River colony and the Hudson's Bay Company Between 1774 and 1821, traders from the HBC and Montreal built rival posts throughout the Canadian northwest. It was during this period that the competition for furs and the building of rival trading posts reached their peak. Following 1804, the NWC and the HBC locked in an increasingly ruinous competition. Both companies reduced the number of posts operating in the Northwest and explored ways in which they could encroach upon rival ones. After 1813, the two companies again increased their number of posts and this expansion could not be sustained. It led to the merger of 1821, which was the start of an era of monopoly in the Canadian fur trade.

To stay ahead in the market, the NWC quickly sought a trading offensive of travelling to Indian country before the Natives could transport their furs to the posts of the London-based HBC. For a long time, Cree and Assiniboine middlemen had been obliged to make an annual or biannual journey of hundreds of kilometers to and from the bayside posts and to accept the English traders' valuations of their furs if they wished to keep having access to guns and kettles. With the arrival of the NWC, the Indians frequented the HBC posts less and drove harder bargains in each company's posts. As competition increased, the Nor'westers built "flying posts" that brought them closer to Native groups, allowing them to visit Indians in their hunting grounds during the winter. This "en dérouine" trading was intended to reduce the trader's risk of losing the winter hunt to a rival in the spring.

This forced the HBC to rethink its strategy of limiting its trading post locations to a handful of strategic tidewater locations. Also, in 1811, the HBC granted 116,000 acres for the purpose of settlement in the Red River and Assiniboine valleys. This grant was made to Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, who intended to develop a colony of Scottish immigrants. The settlement was called Assiniboia and was 5 times the size of Scotland. It even included parts of modern-day North Dakota and Minnesota.

Later in that year, Selkirk sent out a party of settlers under newly appointed Assiniboia governor Miles Macdonell by way of Hudson Bay. Two groups of settlers arrived at Red River in 1812 and began establishing themselves. Despite his honest motives, Selkirk failed to consider the interests of the NWC, who resolved to break up the settlement. Indeed, the colony laid a hostile move right across the major rivers connecting the fur country to the plains where food supplies such as pemmican were obtained through trade. Alexander Mackenzie denounced this settlement project as a "mad scheme" as it were to ruin the fur trade of the NWC. In turn, the Nor'westers opened a systematic plan to waste the settlement with petty irritations and what were called "terrorist" actions.

In January 1814, the governor of Red River, Colin Robertson, issued a proclamation to forbid the export of pemmican from Assiniboia without a license granted by him. In July 1814, he followed up his so-called "Pemmican Proclamation" by expropriating stocks of pemmican from trading posts in the territory and blockading rivers to stop the traditional NWC brigades as they approached Lake Winnipeg. He further forbade the export of meat, grain, or vegetables procured and raised within the colony. In his view, the settlers alone were to enjoy these products. He also forbade the hunting of bison by the mounted Métis.

The NWC traders violently rejected these orders and triggered the alarm among the Métis. Indeed, determined to protect their interests, the Nor'westers persuaded the Métis to join their cause by stimulating already developing nationalist feelings amongst them. The Métis and NWC partners attempted to empty the Red River colony with harassment talks of poor prospects, violence and arson. Twice, they forced many settlers from their homes. In March 1816, in retaliation, the NWC's Fort Gibraltar at the mouth of the Assiniboine River was captured and pillaged.The violence culminated at Seven Oaks with the death of 21 HBC men, including Robert Semple, the local governor, following a small battle with a group of Métis. When news reached Selkirk of this battle, he seized the NWC headquarters at Fort William on Lake Superior. Under the provisions of the Canadian Jurisdiction Act, traders used laws as a weapon of war by having each other arrested. Some appointed themselves as magistrates and arrived in the interior with warrants for the arrest of anyone who got in their way. At Fort William, Selkirk seems to have found evidence that the NWC had stolen furs from the HBC and that the NWC had rewarded the Métis for Seven Oaks. But, the Montreal company was not to be dislodged this easily and had Selkirk arrested. In all, Selkirk laid 150 charges against the NWC and, in return, the Nor'westers laid 29 suits against him. The trials were a mockery as prisoners skipped bail or escaped from prison, cases were deferred and many proceedings were cancelled. Despite the failure of the settlement project and the return of Selkirk to England, some settlers remained in the area and became the first body of colonists in Manitoba history.

Copyright © McGill University, 2001

The Montreal Gazette
Aug 10, 1813

The Montreal Gazette
Oct 7, 1816

The Montreal Gazette
Aug 19, 1816

The Montreal Gazette
April 8, 1818