Manitoba History: Review: Florida Town, The North-West Company: Frontier Merchants
by G. Lewis
The North West Company: Frontier Merchants is a commissioned history. Earl Boon, a former vice-president of the company “conceived the idea for this book and made it happen” and the Company financed the project. The author, Florida Town, is a journalist with a number of books written for the school curriculum to her credit. The book traces an enterprise that began with a loose network of individuals who united as the North West Company (NWC). After just over forty remarkable years as an independent corporation it was absorbed into the fold of its arch rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company, re-emerging at the end of the twentieth century as The North West Company.
Historically, the Canadian fur trade followed one of two models. The Hudson’s Bay Company was incorporated in 1670 with a formal governing structure and exclusive trading rights over all the lands draining into Hudson’s Bay, the area known as Rupert’s Land. The HBC employed traders who worked on behalf of the Company. The Company, through its governing body in London, dictated the conditions for trading and protected its interests against competition.
The competition existed in the form of free traders. First there were traders from the established settlements in New France, particularly Montreal. They were joined after 1746 by Scots traders fleeing the defeat of the Battle of Culloden and later still by a mixed influx of immigrants. These individuals pushed beneath the bulge of Rupert’s Land farther and father into the interior of the continent. As they extended their reach, the traders began to form partnerships of sorts to overcome the challenges of geography, climate, politics, and the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The North West Company was formed in 1779 by groups of independent, aggressive fur traders and merchants intent on protecting their own interests in the face of the Hudson’s Bay Company juggernaut and the indifference or outright abandonment of the successive colonial governments of France and Britain.
From 1779 until its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the North West Company, with its distinctive flag and motto and through a pair of remarkable administrators, served as the corporate voice for the free traders, negotiating, organizing, and fighting on their behalf and distributing profits among the shareholders. The individuality of the traders fuelled the enterprise as explorers such as Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser made the interior accessible. Canadiens, aboriginals and Europeans were constantly innovating and adapting to each other and to the demands of the trade. A vibrant corporate culture emerged which had its expression in rituals such as the initiation of hivernants or wintering partners as Nor’Westers at the Height of Land, and in the great annual Rendezvous at Fort William. The unique legacy of the North West Company far outlived its corporate independence.
However, this is no romanticized saga. Town shows that the fur trade produced a peculiar cocktail of corporate manipulation, family ties, personal willfulness, political ineptitude, and frontier violence that led to one of the darkest periods of Canadian history. From 1811 when Lord Selkirk first brought his proposal to settle displaced Scots crofters in Rupert’s Land, to the merger of the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies in 1821, the fur trade was in the grip of turmoil. Although well-intentioned, Selkirk had already failed at several resettlement projects before he introduced the idea to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Nevertheless, Selkirk went forward with a more grandiose scheme. Using his own and his wife’s family’s position as stockholders in the Hudson’s Bay Company, Selkirk forced the Company to sell him a huge, loosely defined tract of land that he called the Selkirk Settlement. Important interests were threatened. The Nor’Westers feared the loss of access to crucial trading posts and provisions. The Métis feared for their homes and livelihoods. The sorry record of poor conditions for the settlers, the reason for the failure of earlier settlement attempts, repeated itself. This volatile situation was made worse by inept local leadership. Lives were lost, arrest warrants were issued back and forth, and property destroyed. Lord Selkirk went so far as to raise an army of his own and attempt to arrest William McGillivray, the governor of the North West Company. Armed hostility gave way to a period of litigation but peace was slow to return to the fur trade. A drain of working capital, loss of access to trade with Native peoples in the United States, and division and lack of confidence among NWC partners further undermined the Company. A merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed the best way to salvage the Nor’Westers’ interests. The NWC entered the union of 1821 from a position of relative strength and as equal partners although under the sole name of the Hudson’s Bay Company. By 1824, under the governorship of George Simpson, Nor’Wester’s shares and position were downgraded, leaving them with no effective position in the governance of the Company.
The most significant post-merger event took place in 1870 with the sale of Rupert’s Land to the government of Canada. The Bay kept its interest in the fur trade, but real estate became an important enterprise. There was another shift in the early 1900s when the Bay’s historic involvement with the provision and sale of furs and trading goods broadened extensively into the general retail trade. After World War I, the Hudson’s Bay Company pursued three distinct corporate strands: fur, land and retail trade. Of these, for a time, fur lost its position of primacy and stood in danger of being lost altogether. A strange reversal came with the Hollywood influenced fashion demand for lighter coloured furs which were better suited to the costume and lighting demands of the traditional black and white films of the inter-war period. The supply and demand for dark beaver fur had been on the wane for some time and The Bay turned its attention northward, trapping lighter coloured northern animals such as Arctic fox to fill the demand. This reorientation of the fur trade brought about a revival of the Bay’s traditional northern involvement at a time when northern Canada was on the brink of a development boom. The discovery of oil and gas in the North and the development of defence systems for transportation and communication precipitated by World War II and the Cold War changed the face of the North. Traditional Native populations became more settled, southerners precipitated a population boom in the North and the demand for consumer goods grew. From the springboard of the rejuvenated fur trade the Hudson’s Bay Company revived its position in the North as a modern organization.
The book covers over 300 years of the fur trade from the chartering of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 to the present day. In all that time, the North West Company occupies a mere forty years of independent existence but its culture did not become extinct with the merger of 1821 and there was no break with the past. Florida Town has the formidable task of tracing the elusive threads of the North West Company’s contributions to the activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company over 150 years during which it had no separate identity, and establishing a link with The North West Company of today. To this end she skillfully uses the themes of the entrepreneurship and the frontier as the continuum. The discussion of the evolution of the commercial interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company in response to changes in the fur trade and the strategies to keep the Company relevant in the twentieth century are linked to the heritage of ingenuity, courage and independence which the Nor’Westers brought to the Hudson’s Bay Company. This heritage is evident in the re-emergence of The North West Company as an independent corporation again in 1987 and as a major interest in the new North.
The author has done well in selecting details throughout the three hundred year history of the fur trade that provide continuity for her theme. This is apparent in the latter chapters of the book which detail the twentieth-century endeavours of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a pioneer in the modernization of northern Canada. Chapters Seven to Nine convey much more excitement that the previous sections devoted to the historical narrative and we are reminded of some of the remarkable milestones of northern development. The Epilogue, by Edward S. Kennedy, President and Chief Executive Officer of The North West Company, provides a mission statement of sorts based on the new realities of Northern society. Given the political changes that have recently taken place in the North, this latter part of The North West Company is important reading.
The book is not intended to be either exhaustive or scholarly. The bibliography, which is limited to secondary sources, is provided as “Further Reading” rather than as the research basis for the book. Town does not indicate whether she used any archival resources although the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives is a rich and accessible resource and she does not cite any newspaper references which would have provided a very useful perspective on the corporate events leading to the sale of the Northern Stores Division and the establishment of The North West Company in 1987. The format suggests that the author’s audience is in the secondary schools. Most of the illustrations are familiar and tend to reinforce the textbook nature of this project although the general reader will certainly find The North West Company a valuable introduction to the history of the fur trade and the development of the modern North.
The author is constrained by the fact that this is a commissioned history. Clearly the support of The North West Company officials would have been invaluable in telling the story of the most recent history where records have not been created or are not yet public. However, this close collaboration also reflects the lack of critical analysis of the events leading up to the sale of the Northern Stores. Media reports at the time covered a complex period of corporate mergers, sales, uncertainty and intrigue preceding the ceremony of the return of the Hudson’s Bay Company flag by the Chairman of the Board of The North West Company in 1987.
The only other work tracing the history of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies is Peter C. Newman’s monumental three volumes, Company of Adventurers, Caesars of the Wilderness and Merchant Princes. The North West Company is a different project altogether and the two cannot be fairly compared. Both are invaluable in making a significant element of Canadian heritage relevant and approachable for contemporary audiences.
Page revised: 14 October 2012Back to top of page