What is a "fur trader"?

The term "fur trader" is often used indiscriminately to describe anyone interested in the traffic of furs. The conventional picture has been that of a man in buckskin shirt and raccoon cap, dispensing alcohol and trinkets to gullible savages, in turn for furs worth 10 times their value. As this section will show, the fur trader is more complex than this simple caricature.

By the 1770s, the fur trade in Canada developed into 2 very broad spheres of interests. On one side, there were the Montreal "pedlars" who were trading through independent partnerships and living in the country. On the other side, blessed with a royal charter and generations of shareholders close to Parliament, the London-based Hudson's Bay Company. The two groups rapidly developed a strong rivalry of interests as well as clashes of identity. The Montreal merchants claimed that the fur trade was a right belonging to all British subjects and it is in this quest for rights that they established their fundamental difference from the English. Instead of relying on poorly paid servants trying to persuade Indians to bring furs to trading posts, the Montreal "pedlars" took their goods to the Indians themselves. In the process, the NWC became a meeting ground for Montreal merchants of Scottish, English and American origin. Also combined in this cultural mix were a variety of French-Canadians, a black man named Pierre Bonga who worked as an interpreter, several Métis, and a large number of Native groups.

The French in the North West Co.

Until the early 18th century, most of the French fur traders were organized as independent partnerships. As the Montreal-based trade expanded further into the continental interior in the 1740s, increasing amounts of capital were needed and a number of larger organizations were formed. Most of these were financed by wealthy French bourgeois from Montreal, some of whom organized small companies to lease trading posts and hire workers to voyage west each spring with trade goods and bring back furs. As such, attempts were made to impede on the HBC trading territory. By the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, the French fur trade had expanded through the southern part of the Canadian Shield, into the upper Mississippi Valley, to the Prairies and along the foothills of the Rockies. After the British conquest of New France, most French-Canadian merchants and fur traders were replaced by English and Scottish businessmen, who simply reactivated the Montreal-based fur trade in the interior and once again established trade relations with Native groups expected to trade with the HBC.

In spite of the wintering partners' preference for English, the NWC operated from day to day in French. McDonald of Garth, appraising an associate, called him " a very good fellow, but no trader: he never could learn to speak French". Daniel Harmon, a fur trader for 19 years with the NWC, even confessed to himself during one of his many voyages: "Now I am as it were alone, their being not a person here able to speak a word of English". Interestingly, 8 of the original Beaver Club members in 1785 were French while only 3 were Englishmen (all Frobisher brothers), 2 were Americans (Peter Pond and Alexander Henry) and 6 were Scotsmen. Also, as a result of the many inland voyages conducted by French explorers and coureurs des bois since the 1600s (at least 30 American states and 6 Canadian provinces were first "discovered" by Fenchmen), and of the large and constant presence of French-Canadian boatmen working for fur trade companies, French remained the language of the trade in pelts until the 1840s. Indeed, English-speaking settlers and travelers often found to their dismay that their language was unknown west of lake Superior and that non-Native, Native and Métis trappers and settlers greeted them in French.

It is also interesting to note that French names dominated the NWC fur trade landscape. Place names such as Sault Ste. Marie, Lac la Croix, Lac la Ronge, Fort du Tremble, Fort Vermillion, Fort Bourbon, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, Lac des Serpents, Ile-à-la Crosse, Fort Dauphin, Fort Qu'Appelle, Prairie du Chien, Fort Espérance, Lac la Pluie, Lac des Cariboux, Roche Rouge, Grand Décharge, Lac Travers, Portage de la Montagne, Portage des Noyés and Portage d'Embarras are good examples of this. Also, to the many falls and rapids, the earlier voyageurs gave French names such as Les Chats, La Chaudière, Les Allumettes, and Lac Calumet, just to name a few.

The French-Canadians of the NWC constituted mostly voyageurs, thus members of a working class segregated from the officer class. There are, however, a few notable exceptions of French-Canadian clerks, partners and traders. In spite of this, the French remained a minority in a business dominated by English-speakers. Here are biographical notes on several French-Canadian partners and traders.

Charles Chaboillez (1772-1812) : He was the son of Charles Jean Baptiste de Chaboillez and was educated at the Collège de Montréal. He entered the service of the NWC in 1793 when his daughter Marie Marguerite married Simon McTavish. For many years he was in the Red River and Assiniboine district. From 1807 to 1809 he was at the Pic, on Lake Superior. He retired from the fur trade in 1809 and he was elected a member of the Beaver Club. In the same year, he brought back with him four Métis children who were baptized at Terrebonne. In 1811, he married Jessy Dunbar Selby Bruyères, daughter of Capt. John Bruce, adjutant of the 10th veteran batallion. He was buried at Terrebonne, Québec, where he still has descendants.

François-Amable Trottier, dit Desrivières (1764-1830) : Also known as Francis, he was a Montreal businessman and office holder born in a family that was involved actively in the fur trade. His father Amable had been a fur trader as well as his brother Hippolyte, who was voted a member of the Beaver Club for recognition of his work. When François was 12 years old, his widowed mother Charlotte married James McGill, and François entered McGill's firm. As with McGill, William McGillivray and others, Desrivières came to own extensive property on Mount Royal in Montreal. After the dissolution of McGill's firm in 1810, Desrivières and his partners founded Desrivières, Blackwood and Co. to continue the affairs of his stepfather McGill, such as the fur trade in the Southwest. Opposed to McGill's wishes that Montreal should have an English-language university, Desrivières became involved in a series of lawsuits in which he unsuccessfully claimed for himself the property and money left by his stepfather for the foundation of a university. His son was baptized James McGill Guy Desrivières, but he never used his first two names.

Jacques Giasson (1747-1808) : He was a fur trader born in Montreal. Following his father who had been a trader at Green Bay during the French regime, he was engaged in the Southwest trade all his life. He was elected a member of the Beaver Club in 1791. In 1807, the season began with the election of five members who proposed that the name of the club be changed to Voyageur's Club. It was suggested that the question be put to the vote. Jacques Giasson, who had been a Club member of 16 years, defiantly announced that if the original name were retained, he would leave. In the vote, 6 were for the new name and 6 for the old one and so the issue was decided with a flip of a coin. It came to heads and the old name was preserved. Giasson never returned to the club and died in 1808.

Joseph Maurice Lamothe (1781-1827) : He was a fur trader, militia officer and Indian Department official. His maternal uncle was the fur trader Maurice-Régis Blondeau and it was through his connections that in 1801, he obtained a posting as a clerk to Pierre Rastel de Rocheblave in the XY Company. Initially stationed at Grand Portage, Lamothe traveled as far west as the Peace River country. In 1803, a NWC trader assaulted Lamothe, who shot and killed his attacker. Worried about this affair for years, Lamothe was never charged. He worked for the Indian Department as an agent and served during the war of 1812 as a commander of an Indian contingent under the orders of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry. He received a personal commendation for his part in the war. Named Captain, Lamothe worked in the Ottawa valley for the Indian Department. He was elected a member of the Beaver Club in 1815. He died in 1827 and his widow was granted a pension similar to those provided to widows of regular army officers.

François-Antoine LaRocque (1760?-1815) : He was a fur trader who entered the service of the XY Company in 1801 and was stationed on the Churchill River, at Fort des Prairies. He was a clerk on the Red River when the NWC merged with the XY Company. In 1804 he traveled to the Mandan territory. He retired from the fur trade in 1815 and was elected a member of the Beaver Club in the same year. He spent his last days in poverty, living in the convent of the Grey Nuns at Sainte-Hyacinthe, Québec.

Joseph LaRocque (1787?-1866) : Brother of François-Antoine, he was a fur trader who entered the service of the XY Company in 1801. In 1804, he became a clerk of the NWC on the Churchill River. Later, Joseph was transferred to the Pacific coast and was with John George McTavish, a friend of Simon McTavish, when the NWC received the American surrender of Astoria. Joseph remained on the Pacific coast for a few years, and returned to Fort William in 1817. Between 1817 and 1820, he was made a partner in the NWC and at the time of the union of 1821 he became chief trader in the HBC. In 1830, he resigned from the fur trade and moved to France, where he lived for the next 15 years. He returned to Montreal in 1857, and died in 1866.

Laurent Leroux (1759-1854) : Son of a Paris-born merchant, Laurent was hired as a clerk at Michilimackinac in 1776. In 1784, he became a clerk in the firm of Gregory, MacLeod and Co.. In the fall of 1786, he was the first non-Native person to stand on the shores of Great Slave Lake, where he built Fort Resolution. At the request of Alexander Mackenzie, with whom he traveled, he established Fort Providence in 1789. He "married" an Ojibwa woman and had 4 children with her. In 1792, he retired from the west and married Marie-Esther Loisel in l'Assomption, Québec. In the 1790s, he organized the production of the "ceintures fléchées" worn by voyageurs. He also purchased several expensive properties. In 1817, he was one of the rare French-Canadian founders of the Bank on Montreal. Before his death in 1856, Leroux would also serve as a militia captain and major, school treasurer and deputy of Lower-Canada. The Francophone socio-cultural center of Yellowknife (the capital of the Northwest Territories, Canada) bears his name today.

Jacques Porlier (1767-1838) : He was a fur trader born in Montreal in 1767. In about 1791, he went to Green Bay and engaged himself in the fur trade. Although he was mostly attached to the Southwest trade, he enjoyed good relations with Montreal-based traders. He was elected a member of the Beaver Club in 1801. He died at Green Bay in 1838.

Pierre de Rastel de Rocheblave (1764-1840) : Son of a French officer, de Rocheblave became a partner in the XY Company in 1798. On the union of the NWC with the XY Company in 1804, he became a wintering partner in the NWC and was placed in charge of the Assiniboine district. In 1807, he was elected a member of the Beaver Club. From that year until 1810 he was in the Athabasca department; from 1810 to 1812 he was in charge of the Pic, on Lake Superior; and in 1814 he was appointed agent of the NWC in regard to the Southwest trade. In 1816 he became a partner in McTavish, McGillivrays and Co. and from 1816 to 1821 he was one of the agents of the NWC at the annual meetings at Fort William. In 1821, he retired from the fur trade, but on failure of McTavish, McGillivrays and Co. he was placed in temporary charge of the Montreal office until the HBC took charge of it. From 1824 to 1827 he represented Montreal West in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. In 1832 he was appointed a member of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada and in 1838, he was part of the Special Council. He died in Montreal in 1840.

Dominique Rousseau (1755-1825) : He was a silversmith and businessmen from Montreal. In 1802, he tried to establish himself at Grand Portage with Paul Hervieux and 10 other men for the purpose of trading furs. He had already employed several voyageurs in the past years for the purpose of independent trade. But the NWC considered his expedition dangerous and attacked it. This dispute, which went on for some time, was due to the fact that the NWC wanted to prevent Rousseau from trading in areas it exploited. The NWC also forbade its engagés, under pain of punishment, to trade with Rousseau and Hervieux. In 1806, Rousseau tried a new tactic against the NWC, whose partners, especially William McGillivray, were quite at odds with him. In addition to the 47 winterers established south of Michilimackinac, he sent an expedition to the Northwest led by François Hénault dit Delorme, one of his voyageurs. However, the NWC heard of the venture and sent a few men to keep an eye on them and to cut down trees to block their passage. This dispute was settled in court with agreements that would establish a near-monopoly of Rousseau at Michikimackinac. Through his assaults on the NWC, he attempted to obtain a part of the lucrative fur market. He received great support from a number of French-speaking traders, which indicates there was some sort of cohesion in the French portion of the Northwest trade.

Venant Saint-Germain (1751-1821) He was a fur trader born at Deux-Montagnes, Québec, and who was trading at Grand Portage as early as 1777. In 1784, he was second in command under Edward Umfreville in the journey of exploration from Lake Nipigon to Lake Winnipeg. In 1790, he was elected a member of the Beaver Club but never was a partner in the NWC, being rather a free trader trading with the permission of the NWC.

The Métis and the North West Co.

The Métis population as it is known today originated from marriages between French voyageurs and partners of the NWC with Cree, Chipewyan and Ojibway women. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French voyageurs were the first to settle with their Native families, later followed by the employees of the NWC. The fur trade lured many non-Indians to the west, where they established unions "à la façon du pays" (in the customs of the country) without formal religious or legal ceremony. Unlike the HBC, which forbade close relations between traders and Indians, the NWC did not impose prohibitions on associating with Native women. In many cases, the children of such unions were incorporated within the company.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a large "mixed-blood" population lived around the Great Lakes. Many communities of log cabins emerged at locations such as Sault-Ste-Marie. Already in 1812-14, there were about 1000 Métis in the area. Some inhabitants were farmers while others served as voyageurs or hunters for fur traders. Depleted fur stocks and increased settlement from the east forced the Métis to drift westward to the Plains, where the birth of a distinctive Métis culture occurred. In the early 19th century, growing numbers of these people had relocated in the valleys of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in what is now Manitoba. As provisioners to the NWC, the Métis engaged in trapping, trading and canoeing. They also organized the commercial bison hunt. Many hunted buffalo and provided trading companies with pemmican. Most were indeed excellent bison hunters, an activity that became part of their annual cycle. A distinctive way of life was thus developing in the narrow, riverfront farms that stretched back from the Red River. Mixed unions of European men and Native women were common from the earliest colonization of Canada through the fur-trading period. Neither in New France nor in the Great Lakes area, however, did their children consider themselves separate from their parents' ethnicity. They usually grew up as Indians. It was only in the 1800s that these people of mixed ancestry began to consider themselves a separate ethnic group, different from both the Indians, the French, the English and the Scots. Geographic and social isolation, shared lifestyle and history as well as bitter rivalry between the HBC and NWC promoted an emerging group identity.

The Métis identity was first expressed when the HBC granted Lord Selkirk land along the Red River for an agricultural colony. The NWC claimed that this settlement lay directly on its main trade route from Montreal. The NWC warned the Métis that that settlers would usurp their land and put an end to their livelihood. Leaders of the new colony seemed to confirm these intentions when they prohibited the running of buffalo on horseback and forbade the sale of pemmican to the NWC. This struck at the very heart of Métis culture and economy. And so, although there were Métis and Scots who supported the new settlers and helped them build their homes, many other Métis opposed the new settlement because they feared it might damage their cultural ways. NWC partners, who stimulated nationalistic feelings and claims to the land among the Métis, encouraged this discontent.

The Métis organized under Nor'wester Cuthbert Grant, the son of Montreal Scotsman and a Native woman. Métis from outlying areas such as Cumberland House and Fort Qu'Appelle came to assist the Red River Métis and some skirmishes took place between them and settlers. In the spring of 1816, after a winter of starvation, Grant assembled 60 Métis buffalo hunters and attacked an HBC brigade transporting pemmican, and later captured and ransacked Brandon House, an HBC post. At Seven Oaks, the Métis were challenged by 22 HBC men. The inevitable clash, known as the Battle of Seven Oaks, left 21 HBC men and a lone Métis named "Batoche" dead. It is in these years that people began to use the word "Métis" to designate themselves. Their first flag also appeared at this time and displayed a red background and a blue infinity sign. Today's Métis flag is blue and bears a white infinity sign, a symbol that inspires the idea that the Métis people will live forever. In 1821, the merger of the HBC with the NWC closed several posts and forced many traders and Métis to move to the Red River Settlement. By 1869, its population consisted of 5700 francophone Métis, 4000 anglophone Métis and 1600 non-Natives. Below are biographical notes on a few Métis who were well involved in the NWC fur trade.

François Beaulieu (1771-1872): He was the son of a Dene woman and fur trader François Beaulieu, who accompanied Alexander Mackenzie on his voyage to the Pacific in 1793. For many years, he served at Fort Wedderburne, an HBC post facing the NWC's Fort Chipewyan. He became the fort's main hunter and served as an important guide for Franklin's explorations of the Arctic. He witnessed the arrival of the first missionaries in the west and the expansion of the settlement frontier. When he died at the age of 101 in 1872, he was a chief among Yellowknife Indians and spoke French, English, Dogrib and Yellowknife. His son Pierre also died at an old age, after having served as a voyageur, trapper and guide. François Beaulieu is one of the first French-Dene Métis whose name has been preserved by history.

Michel Bourassa: Along with several other Métis, he took part in the Battle of Seven Oaks. After an altercation between a French Canadian by the name of François-Firmin Boucher and the HBC governor Robert Semple, Bourassa was involved in the exchange of volleys between 22 HBC men opposed to over 60 Métis, Canadians and NWC employees.

Pierre Falcon (1793-1875?): He was the son of Pierre Falcon, a NWC clerk, and a Native women from Missouri. Like his father, he would become employed by the NWC. He continued to work in the fur trade until 1825, when he established himself at Prairie-du-Cheval-Blanc. He married Marie Grant in 1812, with whom he has 3 children. Despite his lack of formal education, he became Justice of Peace. He was present at the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, an event which inspired him to write a song published in 1863. This song and others remain popular among the Métis today.

Cuthbert Grant (1796?-1854): Métis son of a Scottish trader and NWC shareholder, Cuthbert Grant was born in the Northwest but educated in Montreal. He returned to the interior in 1815 and was one of the main Métis leaders at Seven Oaks. Arrested by Selkirk in 1817, he escaped from prison and was later employed by the HBC. In 1828, he was given the title "Warden of the Plains". He is the founder of Grantown (Manitoba), a Métis settlement situated to the west of the original Red River colony.

The Scots in the North West Co. fur trade

"By far the majority of Mercantile people in Montreal are Scots; at least 4/5 of the trade is carried on by them" (Lord Selkirk). "Those from the Highlands of Scotland who had been leaders in their own country, were well fitted for such a task (wintering partner). Self- dependent, inured to Spartan condition, accustomed to scattered communities, their character was suited to their new surroundings, and the clan system, whatever many have been its faults, certainly produced men who knew how to rule in their own small circle" (Alexander Mackenzie).

In 1763 the French ceded their North American possessions to the British. After this, there was an important migration of well to do Scots from Scotland and the American colonies to the newly formed province of Québec. The Scots were to dominate the Montreal fur trade, in the sense that they provided most of the capital and the management. Indeed, the names of the NWC partners read like a Scottish military roll call: along with the McTavishs and McGillivrays, there were Mackenzies, McDonalds, Frasers, Grants and McGills. Of the 128 main merchants and partners in the NWC between 1760 and 1800, 77 were of Scottish descent. Most of these men were sons or close relatives of Highland tacksmen who had entered the British army as officers serving in North America or who had immigrated to America because of the British imposed disruptions to the clan system.

Clannishness was both and advantage and a disadvantage to the NWC, which was increasingly dominated by Simon McTavish and his nephew William McGillivray. After 1800, 14 members of these two families were involved in the NWC as directors or partners. Even Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, Angus Shaw and Charles de Chaboillez were linked to McTavish by marriage. So many of these men were related to each other that it seemed like McTavish was presiding over a family affair. In fact, the Nor'westers were notorious for recruiting their own relatives and it was well known that kinship connections were key to advancement.

Several researchers have attempted to identify the factors influencing the rapid rise of the Scottish Nor'westers to business prominence. A shared ethnic identity, military experience, and the adoption of effective trading practices from the French are all sources of the effective corporate behaviors demonstrated by Scottish expatriates who comprised the bulk of the NWC's directorship. As well, the social structure of the Highland Scottish clans may have served as a useful model for assessing NWC structures. Contrary to the HBC, the NWC employee brought his prior personal and familial relationships into the company, and these associations influenced the personnel and hierarchies within the company.

However, studies point out that the clan system may have not been the only influence behind this and that, in fact, the clan system was dismantled by the British in 1746 and many clan chiefs expressed loyalty to the crown of England, thus betraying their clan members. As a result of this betrayal, clansmen pursued other avenues for social mobility and financial security, bypassing traditional family loyalties for the purpose of participating in non clan- based patronage systems established under the British government.

The Mohawk valley in New York state became the locus of a significant influence over the development of the NWC's staff and structure. It was here that Scottish immigrants involved themselves in the economic, social, and political networks established by Scotsman William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New York between 1755 and 1774. Johnson was always on the lookout for candidates for Indian Department posts, possessing the appropriate military, linguistic and political abilities. Scottish soldiers, officers and immigrants were good candidates, as they were hard-working and used to the hardships of living in marginal areas. Also, Scots were products of a social and political environment where patronage relationships governed most aspects of life. Johnson's patronage relations with Scottish expatriates and "membership" in his "family" seem to have greatly contributed to the eventual establishment of the NWC.

One of Johnson's first acquaintances was Norman McLeod. He was to perform valuable business services for Johnson, who offered McLeod land in return. In 1776, McLeod established himself as a trader in Detroit and later became a partner in the firm Gregory, McLeod and Company, absorbed by the NWC in 1787. Another Scottish acquaintance of Johnson was Lieutenant Hugh Fraser, who provided Johnson with disbanded soldiers as tenants. Johnson also helped Fraser and his father-in-law, John McTavish, obtain military bounty lands in New York, where they settled with members of their families. One of their kinsmen was John McTavish's son, Simon, who worked in Johnson's household as a clerk and who later became the most powerful director of the NWC. Johnson provided Simon McTavish with direct training and experience in the business of fur trading and exposure to life on the frontier. Also, the Scottish businessmen involved in the fur trade at the time in places such as Michilimackinac, Detroit and Albany were compelled to operate in accordance with Indian Department regulations and policies established by Johnson. Such entrepreneurs included Norman McLeod, James Phyn, Alexander Ellice, James McGill and John Richardson.

The Scottish tenants and business partners of William Johnson were able to establish important personal and professional contacts through their relationship with him. Many of these people eventually fled for Canada during the Revolution and developed a nucleus of merchants and traders. They also became related to each other by marriage or friendship. The economic and political activities governed by Johnson served to instruct and inspire a number of key individuals who were later involved in the Montreal fur trade. The Johnson estate brought together a group of people who developed community consciousness and consanguinal loyalties, which would eventually help promote a certain sense of family among the directors and partners of the NWC. Here are biographical notes on some of the many Scots involved in the Montreal-based fur trade.

John Forsyth (1762-1837): He was a merchant who was well associated with the notable Ellice and Richardson families, who were well involved in business and the fur trade. Forsyth immigrated to Canada in 1779 and became the head of the firm Forsyth, Richardson and Co., which was behind the formation of the XY Company. He acquired an interest in the NWC in 1804 and continued to be active in the fur trade until the late 1810s. In 1827, he was appointed a member of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada and he occupied a position in the council until his death. He was elected member of the Beaver Club in 1807.

Simon Fraser (1776-1862): He was born in 1776 in Vermont from parents who had emigrated from Scotland in 1773. In 1784, Simon and his mother fled to Canada. Under his uncle's care, he attended school for two years before joining two of his cousins, Peter and Donald Grant, in the fur trade. In 1792, he became an apprentice clerk in the NWC and was sent in Athabasca in 1793. As a partner, Fraser was selected to oversee the extension of the company's activities to the land west of the Rocky Mountains from 1805-1808. His mandate was to cross the Rockies and establish trading relations with the Indians in the interior of what is now British Columbia, but which Fraser called New Caledonia (New Scotland). Here he established Fort McLeod in 1805, Fort St. James and Fort Fraser in 1806, and Fort George in 1807. Fraser also obtained the task of exploring a river believed to be the Columbia to its mouth. This river turned out not to be the Columbia, but rather the Fraser River, named by David Thompson. In May 1808, Fraser and 23 men set out from Fort George to follow the river to the Pacific. Their journey of 520 miles and 36 days culminated in Fraser's discovery of the mouth of the river at Musqueam. Following his explorations, Fraser returned to the Athabaska department of the NWC. In 1818, after the unsuccessful Red River trials, he moved to St. Andrews West and, in 1820, he married Catherine MacDonell with whom he had 9 children. After taking a loyal part in the Rebellions of 1837-38 at the age of 62, he became disabled and died at the age 86.

Alexander Mackenzie (1763-1820): He was an explorer and a fur trader. He and his family emigrated from Scotland to New York in 1774. He moved to Canada at the outbreak of the American Revolution and in 1779, he joined the firm of Gregory, McLeod and Co. as a clerk. He became a partner in the NWC when it absorbed this firm in 1787. From 1788 to 1796 he commanded Fort Chipewyan in present-day Alberta for the NWC. Based on information provided by Peter Pond, Mackenzie, Laurent Leroux, a guide known as English Chief, his 2 wives, 5 voyageurs, 2 of their wives, and 2 young Indians set out on 3 June 1789 to follow a large river flowing west from Great Slave lake in search of a Northwest passage to the Pacific. Instead of reaching the ocean, they arrived at the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic. Mackenzie continued to work for two years in the fur trade and returned to England for additional training in cartography and navigation skills. Mackenzie came back to Canada in 1792 with improved skills and instruments. He decided to push west to newly constructed Fort Fork, near the junction of the Smoky and Peace rivers, where he spent the winter preparing for his second voyage. In May 1793, Mackenzie departed on a difficult passage by canoe and foot through the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie and his crew arrived on the Pacific Ocean near Bella Coola, British Columbia, in July 1793. Despite his efforts, the route he recorded did little to contribute to the NWC as it was too difficult to be practical as a trading route. Mackenzie returned to Montreal and acted as an agent for the NWC until 1799. In that year, he severed his connections with Simon McTavish and went to England, where he published his travel accounts and was knighted. In 1803, he returned to Canada and became a leading partner in the XY Company. He again became a partner in the NWC when it merged with the rival XY Company in 1804. After serving as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada from 1804 to 1808, Mackenzie married in 1812 and purchased an estate in Scotland. He died in Britain in 1820.

James McGill. (1744-1814): He was a fur trader and merchant whose first winter in Indian country was in 1766. He was at Michilimackinac in 1767 supervising the dispatch of canoes and starting to trade on his own account. He moved to Montreal in 1774 and entered the fur trade with Isaac "By Jove" Todd, an Irishman who had established himself in Montreal. In 1776, Todd and McGill organized the firm Todd, McGill and Co., importing goods directly from London. Through McGill, London firms supplied such men as John Askin at Detroit and Andrew Todd at Michilimakinac. In 1776, McGill married Charlotte Guillimin, widow of Joseph-Amable Trottier dit Desrivières and mother of fur trader François-Amable Trottier dit Desrivières. Although McGill and Todd were part of the first NWC agreement of 1779, they withdrew from the Northwest trade 5 years later to concentrate on the Mississippi and Lake Michigan area. Voted member of the Beaver Club in 1785, McGill was a co-partner in the NWC in 1792-93. After this, he remained in the NWC only as a "silent partner" who supported the trade and pioneered export to Britain. With Todd's retirement in 1797, his firm's name was changed to James and Andrew McGill and Co. In 1810, the firm was dissolved and the firm of his step-son François-Amable Desrivières continued its activities. Active in politics and commandant of the 1st Battalion of Montreal's militia during the War of 1812, McGill left the property on which McGill University now stands in Montreal as well as £10 000 to the Royal Institution so that it may found a university of which, he stipulated, at least one college should bear his name. The first McGill College opened its doors in 1829.

William McGillivray (1764?-1825): He came to Canada from Scotland in 1784 and entered the service of the NWC as a clerk. His brothers Simon and Duncan also became involved in the fur trade. In 1785-6, he was sent in the Red River department, and in 1786-7 he was in charge of the post at Lac Des Serpents, where he was responsible for bringing about the union of the NWC with Gregory, McLeod and Co. in 1787. He became a partner in the NWC in 1790 by buying out Peter Pond's share. He joined the firm McTavish, Frobisher and Co. in 1793. During this time, he married "à la façon du pays" a Métis woman called Susan, with whom he had 4 children. In 1800, he married Magdalen McDonald in London, who gave him 6 children. He became chief director of the NWC on the death of his Uncle Simon McTavish in 1804. He was a good companion of Alexander Mackenzie and an active member of the Beaver Club. In 1807, the new depot of the NWC, Fort William, was named after him. He directed the policy of the NWC in regard to the Selkirk settlement and in 1816 he was arrested by Selkirk at Fort William and sent down to Montreal for trial. With his brother Simon, he helped to negotiate the union of the NWC and the HBC in 1821 and, after the union, he became a member of the joint board for consulting and advising on the management of the fur-trade. He died in London at the age of 61.

Simon McTavish (1750?-1804): He was a dominant fur trader in the NWC who left an estate of £125,000. Born in Scotland, McTavish emigrated to New York and traded at Detroit and Michilimackinac before moving his operations to Montreal at the end of the American Revolution. In 1787, with the death of Benjamin Frobisher, he joined with Joseph Frobisher to form McTavish, Frobisher and Co., a firm that virtually became the directorate of the NWC. He became the director of the NWC and perhaps the richest man in Montreal at the time. With capital accumulated in the fur trade, McTavish purchased the seigneury of Terrebonne. At the present-day historical site of île-des-Moulin (in Terrebonne, Québec), McTavish built a bakery, a sawmill and a barrel factory to supply fur traders in the West. In 1803, he commenced the building of a mansion in Montreal, a residence that was not completed when he died in July 1804. His wife Marie Marguerite was the daughter of fur trader Charles de Chaboillez. After her husband's death, she moved to England. The house McTavish originally occupied in Montreal still stands at 411-425 St-Jean-Baptiste Street, in Old Montreal. It is located in what used to be the 18th century fur traders' neighborhood in Montreal, next to the warehouse of the NWC, still standing on the corner of St-Thérèse and Vaudreuil streets. John Richardson and Simon Fraser also had a home in the area. But, as with the nearby warehouse of Forsyth, Richardson and Co., the past locations of these houses are remembered by memorial plaques on a more modern building. Known as "The Marquis" for his elegant style, McTavish dominated the affairs of the NWC since he became one of the original partners in the concern.

John Ogilvy (1769-1819): He was born in Scotland and came to Canada where he became a partner in the firm of Parker, Gerrard and Ogilvy. His firm traded extensively at Michilimackinac and later joined Forsyth, Richardson and Co. to form the XY Company as one of its main directors. In 1804 he signed the agreement under which the XY Company and the NWC united. Toward the end of his career he was appointed a commissioner, under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, for determining the boundaries of British North America and died while performing this task.

John Richardson (1754-1831): In 1774, he became an apprentice in the firm of Phyn, Ellice and Co. in Schenectady, New York. In 1780, he established a shop in Charleston South Caroline in partnership with Porteous and Phyn, Ellice and Co.. During that time, John Forsyth had immigrated to Canada from Scotland to work in the offices of Robert Ellice and Co., the Montreal representatives of Phyn, Ellice and Co. of London. In 1787, Richardson was sent to Montreal to assist Forsyth. Three years later, with the death of Robert Ellice, John Forsyth, Thomas Forsyth and John Richardson formed the partnership of Forsyth, Richardson & Co. with interests in the Southwest fur trade. In 1792, he was elected to the first House of Assembly under the constitution and in November, his firm was accepted into the NWC partnership with 2 shares. In 1795, he withdrew from the NWC and his firm became the central figure behind the formation of the XY Company. Although the XY would later be amalgamated with the NWC in 1804, Forsyth, Richardson and Co. entered into a partnership of the Michlimakinac Company. In 1807, Richardson was voted member of the Beaver Club. He was also one of many founders of the Bank of Montreal in 1817 and two years later; he was named chairman of the Company of Proprietors of the Lachine Canal. After his long career, he died at the age of 77. His firm was dissolved in 1847.

Angus Shaw (1765?-1832): He was a fur trader who entered the service of the NWC as a clerk prior to 1787. In 1789, he was at Fort L'Orignal and in 1790, he was at Moose Hill Lake. After spending a winter at Fort George, he became a partner in the NWC in 1795 and was elected member of the Beaver Club in 1797. In 1802, he was appointed agent in charge of the King's Posts in Lower-Canada. In 1808, he became a member of McTavish, McGillivrays and Co. and was one of the agents of the NWC at Fort William in 1810-11. Although Selkirk arrested him, Shaw continued to be active in the trade by staying with his firm after the merger of 1821, when he became an HBC agent in Montreal. He had a child with a Native woman and later married a sister of William McGillivray. He died in New Jersey in 1832.

Copyright © McGill University, 2001

Metal plate showing portraits of W. McGillivray, Lord Selkirk, Washington Irving, Simon McTavish and Alexander Henry
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord


Charles Jean Baptiste Chaboillez, 1736-1808
Painting by Donald Richings Hill, early 20th century
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord

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