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Red River Trade

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1967, Volume 12, Number 2

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.

From The Nor'Wester, 28 July 1860:

We are this year witnessing a complete revolution in the trade of this settlement. Every week the steamboat arrives at Fort Garry with 20 or 30 tons of merchandize. To a foreigner transportation by means of steam appears natural and common-place enough; but viewed in the light of the past, and taken in connection with the peculiar condition of this country, the change is significant and important. Until recently, the method of importing goods to Red River was slow, unprofitable, and vexatious. The merchant drew at Fort Garry a bill of exchange on London, in the month of October or November. This he transmitted to a London agent (generally the Secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company), who fulfilled the orders by the month of June following, and despatched the goods to Hudson's Bay, in a sailing ship chartered by the Company. The vessel usually reached York Factory in the beginning of August, and in October the goods arrived at Red River in open boats which had previously been sent from the Settlement to receive them. Thus, under the most favorable circumstances, exactly a year elapsed from the time the money was transmitted until the goods reached their destination. But it not unfrequently happened that the early advent of winter blocked up the goods at York Factory, where they lay until the next summer, when the unfortunate merchant, in addition to the loss of nearly two years' returns on his capital, had also to pay for the winter's storage at York!

Now, let us turn from this antiquated and absurd system to that which is displacing it. The Red River merchant has but to send his list to St. Paul, and in six or seven weeks at farthest his goods are landed at his door. No matter how heavy or bulky, they are here almost before he has time to stow away remnants and dust his shelves. He gets served quickly and runs no risks, the demand for payment being made on delivery of the goods. All this proves that we are making steady and hopeful progress. Difficulties are being overcome and obstacles surmounted. Trade is fostered, competition is assuming a practical shape, and new life is infused into our commercial system.

For many years the St. Paul warehouses have been drawn upon by the people of this Settlement, but to nothing like the extent of the present summer. It is only twelve or fourteen years since the commencement of our intercourse; indeed, there was no such place as St. Paul till within that period. Every year our dealings increased, and our imports from England diminished. Only a small proportion of the goods consumed in this country now come by Hudson's Bay - of the rest, what is not purchased in the States, nevertheless comes to us through the States.

The Hudson's Bay Company have this year for the first time brought in supplies for the interior by Minnesota;) and it was really something new to see fourteen Saskatchewan boats at the Lower Fort awaiting the arrival of their outfits by a Minnesota steamer. Only fifteen boats will freight goods from York Factory for the Company this season, and the whole number going to that port from this Settlement is but twenty-eight, or about one-third less than usual. The people of Minnesota are realising the importance of their commercial intercourse with this country. They are making considerable efforts to secure it, and really we must acknowledge our great obligations to them for the changed aspect of our circumstances. St. Paul will be benefited, but so shall we and the whole Hudson's Bay Territory.

The question suggests itself now, - Are we to be satisfied with our new channel of intercourse? or Are we still to look for some other? Pleased as we are at the change for the better, we must nevertheless say that the St. Paul route is after all not our best permanent route. It meets a present want certainly. We are relieved from the very disagreeable necessity of doing business by York Factory; but, as The Company had used the St. Paul route in 1858 and 1859.

Red River Traders in St. Paul, 1860s.

British subjects, we can not regard a channel of intercourse which passes through the United States as at all natural. We ought to have our own outlet on British territory, and transmit all our business by Fort William, Rainy Lake, and the chain of waters in that line. That, unquestionably, is our best route. Let the road to Fort William be once opened up, and, irrespective of other considerations, the freighting of goods to this country could be done cheaper than ever it can be by St. Paul. It is the most direct to the seaboard, and is on British soil. - It would remain open and free even though difficulties should arise between England and the United States, which the St. Paul route would not be. The facilities afforded for the conveyance of troops through Minnesota would be counterbalanced if like advantages existed on our own territory. While, therefore, we are ready to acknowledge the superiority of the St. Paul to the Hudson's Bay route, we must hold that our best permanent channel of intercourse with "the world" will be via Fort William and Lake Superior. The expense requisite to render that road available would be a mere trifle compared with the immense advantages, Colonial and Imperial. The opening up of such a route should not be left entirely to private enterprise. It is a highway of national importance, and should not be left to the weak and distracted Transit Company of Canada, or even to the Government of Canada.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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