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Rivalry in the Fur Trade, An Excerpt from Simpson's Athabasca Journal

Introduction by A. E. Brown

Manitoba Pageant, April 1958, Volume 3, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

For forty years, between 1780 and 1820, the struggle between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company for supremacy in the fur trade dominated the history of the West. It was a fiercely contested fight for trade. Everyone has heard of the events involved when it flared into conspicuous violence with the expulsion of the Selkirk Settlers in 1815 and the Massacre of Seven Oaks in June of the following year; but there were many "incidents" in this long drawn out state of "war" for trade which are not so well known. This excerpt from George Simpson's Athabasca Journal of 1820-21 gives us a clear idea of conditions under which the traders lived, and worked, and sometimes fought.

The Hudson's Bay Company post, Fort Wedderburn, where Simpson was stationed when he wrote this account had been established in 1815 on an Island in Lake Athabasca near the Nor'westers' post Fort Chippewyan. In 1819 it had been rebuilt at a point which they hoped would not be so dominated by the men of Fort Chippewyan for Alexander McDonald had written that "their buildings now flank us on both sides, and with the desperadoes they have, our lives are in the greatest danger."

The North West Company countered this move by building a Watch House near the new fort where they could observe every move their rivals made. In an immense, unpeopled expanse of continent it seems fantastic to think that the warring parties kept so close to each other that living conditions were not unlike those of unfriendly neighbors crowded into adjacent city lots and glaring at each other over their back fence; but such was the case, as the following quotation from Simpson's journal serves to illustrate.

"Thursday, October 19th, 1820 - The English Chief (an Indian) and his sons gone to their wintering ground; gave them a salute of Fire arms at parting: the N.W. sent a canoe after them, and I regret we are so weakly manned that we cannot spare one to winter with them. The N.W. Coys Watch House is about twelve yards distant from our corner Bastion and projects about five yards beyond the front of our Fort towards the Lake, so that from their back windows they command a full view of all our proceedings which is extremely unpleasant. In order to remove this eye sore I requested Mr. Oxley to superintend the erection of a few Stockades to run in a line from the corner of our Bastion towards the face of the bank: While preparing the timber and digging a trench for the Stockades, Mr. S. McGillivray attended by several of his people under arms came out and ordered him in a peremptory tone not to erect the Stockades, Mr. Oxley told him he did so by my orders and that he should proceed; he however came into my room where I was occupied writing and informed me of the circumstance; I now saw it was necessary to carry my point without ceremony as forebearance in this instance might be construed into submission and encourage them to renew their arbitrary and atrocious proceedings, I therefore called the Gentlemen together, also three or four most confidential men and after explaining the business requested they would support me in case of need; they were instantly in readiness; I then proceeded to the spot accompanied by Mr. Oxley and directed the workmen to go on with their business: on my arrival Simon McGillivray, Soucisse, Wilburner, and several others came out, each armed with a dirk and brace of large pistols, not fastened as usual in their belts, but held openly to view in their hands. I shall here repeat the conversation that took place verbatim, in case it may be of importance at any future period. When standing close to McGillivray on the bank of the Trench I re-marked, `My name is Simpson, I presume yours is McGillivray,' he replied: 'it is.' - I then said, 'I intend erecting these Stockades from the corner of the Bastion in a direct line to that stump' (pointing to the stump of a Tree, about five feet within another stump which is understood to be the boundary of the two establishments) 'pray Sir, what are your objections'? He answered: 'I understood from Mr. Oxley that he intended to run them beyond the boundary line which I shall not permit.' I rejoined: 'we have no intention to encroach on what is understood to be the line of demarkation, nor shall we tamely submit to any encroachment on our rights, we are inclined to be quiet orderly neighbors if permitted to be so, but are determined to maintain our privileges with firmness, and shall promptly resent any injury or insult that may be offered.' He sullenly replied: 'time will show.' In the interim my Tarrier (sic) Dog Boxer (a very playful fellow) was amusing himself with a stick close to Soucisses feet, and while the Bully was regarding him with an ill natured look, as if about to give him a kick, I with a smile addressed the dog, 'come here Boxer, you do not seem to be aware that you are committing a trespass.' McGillivray with a good deal of asperity observed: 'We have no intention to molest your dog Sir,' to which I replied: 'nor shall you his Master with impunity.' Here ended the conversation; McGillivray and his bullies retired somewhat crest fallen, and in the course of two hours afterwards, the fence was completed and an annoyance removed which has been a source of great vexation to the inmates of Fort Wedderburne since it has been established."

In less than a year after this account was written the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies amalgamated and their long rivalry gave way to monoply in trade. During the forty years which followed George Simpson (later to become Sir George) ruled a vast fur trade empire for the new Hudson's Bay Company.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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