"It is established as a rule that every partner must take 2 years out of 3, to winter in the Northwest, managing a Post. The managing Partners of the Montreal House are the only persons excused; any other, when they are no longer inclined to serve this duty must resign" (Lord Selkirk 1804)
The administration of the North West Co. and the wintering partner
To coordinate its business and administration, the NWC divided its vast areas of trade into regional departments or trade districts. The company was deeply concerned with the management and efficiency of each department and made frequent changes in policy and staff to ensure good returns. While all departments were involved in the collection of furs, their functions varied. Many were used to transport goods and furs, while others were the source of pemmican, maple syrup, canoes and wild rice.
To help manage the affairs of the NWC, the trading was administered by the gentlemen of the NWC, referred to as "bourgeois" by the voyageurs. Occupying the top of the "bourgeois" ladder were the Montreal Agents, who served as the company financiers, wholesalers and suppliers. Next on the ladder were the partners, the "owners" of the company who were paid by their shares in the trade. If they obtained capital in this manner, it was to remain in the hands of the Agents, and the partners were allowed interest for it. No one could become partner who had not served his time in the trade. Every partner had a vote in the annual meetings held at Grand Portage.
The NWC was composed of two groups of partners. In Montreal, the "merchant partners" looked after marketing the furs and importing the goods that fueled the trade. Each winter they supervised the paddlers and the packing of ironware, guns, powder, bags of shot, tabacco, linen, blankets who went with the canoes. At the other end of the system, the "wintering partners" were part owners in the concern and lived year round in the interior, supervising the trade in the districts assigned to them. As field managers, they sought Indian groups, developed new transport routes and even altered the prices offered for furs. It was the responsibility of the wintering partners to choose the post site, to select and requisition trade goods, to entice Indians to trade, and to get the men under his command to render a profitable return on their time. In large departments like Athabasca, some of their responsibilities were delegated to the clerks. During the years of intense competition with the HBC (1815-1821), the wintering partners of the NWC spent a lot of their time watching their rivals' activities. As a result of this competition, a wintering partner's duty was to send men "en dérouine", in other words, to trade within Indian camps and to keep a close watch on rival traders.
The annual Rendezvous at Grand Portage (later Fort William) brought the wintering partners, hardened by the frontier toil, into contact with the Montreal partners, seasoned by metropolitan business dealings. This was a strategic overland passage since the French Regime. With the expansion of the Montreal trade it became the pivotal gateway connecting transport routes on the interior to Montreal and vice versa. Through Grand Portage, the trade supplied all departments in the Northwest. At the annual meetings, all wintering partners were to deliver the furs collected during the trading season.
The life of these men was lonely, bleak and arduous. The near approach of starvation was frequent. Many diaries account that wintering men had to eat leather breeches, bear skins, and even beaver skins in order to stay alive. Sometimes, 2 or 3 days would pass between meals.
Despite these hardships, the wintering partners made their way far into the virgin territory beyond Lake Superior, establishing trading posts as far north as Lake Athabaska, westward to the Rocky Mountains, and eventually to the Pacific ocean. They contributed largely to the exploration and mapping of the country, and gathered geographic knowledge, astronomic measurements and ethnographic accounts of Native groups. The isolation of the forts and their importance as an entrepot or trading spot meant that experienced leadership was important. In fact, the success of the trade largely depended on the administrative abilities and personal qualities of the wintering partners.
In 1812, the wintering partners of the NWC numbered 38. These were: Aeneas Cameron, Alexander McDougall, Duncan Cameron, John Richardson, John Forsyth, John Inglis, Edward Ellice, John Ogilvy, John Mure, Alexander Mackenzie, Thomas Forsyth, John McDonald, John McDougall, Charles de Chaboillez, John D. Campbell, John Thomson, Pierre de Rocheblave, John McDonald, John Haladane, John Leith, James Hughes, Alexander Mackey, James Mackenzie, John McGillivray, Hugh McGillis, Simon Fraser, Alexander Henry, David Thompson, Daniel Mackenzie, William Mackay, Alexander Frader, John Sayer, Donald McTavish, John Willis, Kenneth Mackenzie, Archibald McLillann, and Ronald Cameron.
The Beaver Club
The Beaver Club was the social organization of the NWC partners at Montreal. It was formed in 1785 with a membership of 19 tried wintering partners, each of whom had spent at least one winter in the interior. Its first members included 8 French-Canadians, 6 Scots, 2 Americans and 3 Englishmen. No one could be admitted who had not passed the test of a winter in the Northwest beyond the Height of Land west of Grand Portage and received the unanimous vote of the members. Although Simon McTavish had never wintered beyond this point, he was made a member in 1792 in recognition of his role in the formation and the success of the NWC.
The table of the Beaver Club was always open to strangers of distinction and to partners of the interior. It entertained in a brilliant, expensive and noisy manner. Its motto, "Fortitude in Distress", appeared on the large gold medals which the members wore on special occasions. Medal holders were compelled to wear their decoration at all meetings. The club had no permanent quarters, but met at various taverns or elite locations in Montreal.
One of the main objects of the club was to bring together, at stated periods during the winter season, a set of men highly respectable in society who had spent their days in the interior. The club also intended to bring into society the traders who wanted to retire from the fur trade.
The regular meetings would begin in the first week of December and were held once a fortnight until the second week of April. Great dinners were held twice monthly, and no member who happened to be in Montreal at the time was allowed to be absent. The only excuse was poor health. At every dinner, the members would proudly pronounce five toasts:
To the fur trade and all its branches
To the Mother of all Saints
To the King
To Voyageurs, Wives and Children
To absent members
The dinners began at 4pm and lasted until the final guest was able to sit in his chair. At the meetings, the members often re-staged "le grand voyage", sitting on the floor, using whatever came to their hands as paddles, stroking and singing the songs of the voyageurs. Their imaginary canoes faces imaginary rapids and they had to traverse across the tables and chairs as they paddled on to their imaginary destinations. The members were hardy eaters and drinkers and the dinners often continued well into the next morning. At one dinner attended by Alexander Mackenzie and William McGillivray, guests were still singing and dancing at 4am. Close to 120 bottles of wine were either drunk, broken or spilled that evening. There were 20 people present.
Beaver Club meals began with pipers ushering in a flaming boar's head on a dais of red velvet. Before the grand entrance a piece of camphor was lit and placed in the mouth of the Boar's Head. The food served included:
-Braised venison and bread sauce
-"Chevreuil des Guides"
-Venison sausages with wild rice and quail
-Partridge "du Vieux Trappeur"
-"Sweet Peace" Applesauce
-Highland Scotch, Old Madeira, Mahogany liquor & High Wine
The Beaver Club remained active from 1785 to 1804. It was revived again in 1807 and immediately passed out of existence except for a brief return in 1827, when it held its last dinner at the old Masonic Hall in Montreal. The Club declined as Montreal lost its preeminence in the Northwest fur trade. Over its 40 years of existence, the Beaver Club hosted 32 dinners and voted the membership of over 100 fur traders.