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North West Company Collection (C104)

Excerpt from a memorandum by Simon Fraser (1776-1862) and John McDonald of Garth (1771-1866) (detail), 1859. Gift of Dr. W. D. Lighthall, North West Company Collection C104, M18638 © McCord Museum

Partners, one last time

"We are the last of the old N. W. Partners - we have known one another for many years. Which of the two survives the other we know not. We are both aged, we have lived in mutual esteem, fellowship, we have done our duty in the stations allotted us without fear, or reproach. We have braved many dangers - we have run many risks - we cannot accuse one another of any thing mean and dirty through life - nor done any [disgraceful] actions - nor wrong to others."

In 1859, in the twilight of their years, Simon Fraser and John McDonald of Garth, the last living partners of the North West Company, met one last time. In one of the books of account from McDonald's farm, on the back of a list of merchandise, they recorded their strong shared conviction of having been good people.

This short text perfectly reflects the spirit usually associated with this company, considered a major force in the fur trade: it is full of pride, a sense of adventure and an ethic of rugged perseverance. At the same time, it expresses a sense of melancholy and sensitivity that can seem uncharacteristic for such audacious merchants and explorers. This manuscript is thus a precious record of the enduring ties between the two associates, even long after the company's dissolution.

John McDonald (1771-1866) was known as an energetic, tenacious, adventurous trader. He was one of the only partners in the North West Company to try negotiating an agreement with the Red River Colony in Selkirk County in 1814, before the conflict degenerated into open hostilities. Simon Fraser (1776-1862) was one of the leading early 19th century explorers in Canada. He mapped a significant area of modern-day British Columbia, where both a river and a university now bear his name.

Sources
Lamb, W.K. (1979-2019). Simon Fraser. In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_simon_9E.html

Livermore, C.M. and N. Anick. (1976-2019). John McDonald. In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=4580

This project was realized as part of the National Heritage Digitization Strategy of Canada thanks to the generous support of a private donor.


C104 North West Company Collection. - February 15, 1796-August 1, 1859. - 6 cm of textual records.

Administrative History

Founded in 1779, the North West Company (NWC) dominated the fur trade sector from the late 18th to the early 19th century in Canada. Its explorations of North America led to the mapping of many areas that were previously unknown to French and British colonists. After the British Conquest, Montreal's French-speaking merchants were largely replaced by Anglo-Americans, Englishmen and Scotsmen. Many independent merchants viewed it as an opportunity to enter the fur trade. In 1779, the NWC was created by a group of Montreal merchants, mostly of Scottish origin, who wanted to reduce competition amongst themselves and pool their resources to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in the fur trade. It was originally divided into 16 shares, owned by 9 different firms: McTavish & Co., Wadden & Co., Ross & Co., Oakes & Co., Benjamin & Joseph Frobisher, Todd & McGill, McGill & Paterson, McBeath & Co. and Holmes & Grant. This agreement was renewed periodically between 1780 and 1783.

The tenuous partnership lasted until 1783, when some of the NWC shareholders entered into a more formal contract. The signatories were Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, Simon McTavish, Robert Grant, Nicholas Montour, Patrick Small, William Holmes, Peter Pond and George McBeath. Montreal's Beaver Club was also founded at around this time by several members (1785). However, the 1783 reorganization led to increased competition with another Montreal firm, Gregory, McLeod & Co., which was supported by John Ross, one of the original NWC partners. Following Ross' death under suspicious circumstances involving Peter Pond, an explorer and NWC partner, the rival companies merged in 1787.

From 1787 to 1804, the NWC extended its influence beyond the very profitable region of Lake Athabasca, where it was already well established. Explorers associated with the NWC, such as Alexander Mackenzie, crossed the Rockies to expand the known trade routes. They established several trading posts throughout the Northwest area of the continent. This expansion was partially motivated by the signing of Jay's Treaty in 1794. This agreement to settle the boundary between British and US territory blocked Canadian access to Grand Portage on Lake Superior, as the area became part of the United States.

At the same time, the NWC faced increasing competition in the Northwest from two new companies, the XY Company (Forsyth, Richardson & Co.) and Parker, Gerrard and Ogilvy. In 1800, both of the NWC's rivals merged under the name of the XY Company. This period was also marked by internal tension between the NWC's Montreal partners and "winterers" (partners who would winter over in the Northwest), with some of the latter joining the competition. After the 1804 death of Simon McTavish, who was a leader in the company's first years of existence and the head of the Montreal partners, the NWC took over the XY, reducing some of the tension that was hurting its business.

From 1804 to 1811, NWC partners Simon Fraser and David Thompson continued exploring Western Canada, once again expanding the company's area of operations and enabling it to stay ahead of the HBC. However, the long rivalry between the two fur trading giants drove the HBC to grant land to Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, in 1811. Douglas established the Red River Colony right in the middle of the NWC's transportation and supply network, leading to disputes between the company's members and colonists. On June 19, 1816, the Battle of Seven Oaks between the two factions left 21 dead. A month later, the Earl of Selkirk and his men captured Fort William, the main NWC trading post.

These events, the associated legal problems and the increasingly higher cost of engaging in the fur trade from sea to sea exacerbated old tensions between the Montreal partners and winterers. In 1820, the two companies sent representatives to London to negotiate with the British government. The winterers, who wished to reach an agreement with the HBC, were excluded from these discussions. The Montrealers, negotiating from a position weakened by internal and external tensions, gave in to the demands of the HBC. The two companies merged in July 1821, restoring the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly of the fur trade and marking the end of the North West Company. Although it was supposed to share the profits equally and be run by a joint board, the new entity was quickly dominated by HBC partners and former NWC members became simple shareholders.

Sources
Archives of Manitoba. (n.d.). North West Company. Retrieved from: http://pam.minisisinc.com/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/PAM_AUTHORITY/AUTH_DESC_DET_REP/SISN%201022?sessionsearch

Brown, J. (2007-2015). North West Company. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/north-west-company

Scope and Content

This collection focusses on the activities of the North West Company, primarily legal and accounting operations associated with the fur trade in Montreal and at its trading posts, such as Fort William and Fort Michilimackinac. It documents the admission of new partners, various legal actions concerning employees, the hiring of voyageurs, and merchandise transported by the company. Involving individuals such as John McDonald, Allan McDonell, Robert Henry and William McKay, these activities span the period 1796 to 1820. In addition, the collection chronicles the relationships among the Company's partners in 1796 and 1859, notably between Simon Fraser, Simon McTavish and John McDonald, as well as the company's institutional culture. It contains, for example, account statements, employee contracts, bills of lading, depositions and deeds of admission. Finally, several published documents illustrate how the company was perceived in the early 19th century.

Source of title: Based on the contents of the collection.

Immediate source of acquisition: The documents in this collection are from various sources. The majority were assembled by David Ross McCord and John McIntyre (known as Governor McIntyre, he was a clerk and chief factor at Fort William from 1855 to 1877). Some were donated to the McCord Museum by various donors throughout the 20th century, such as Dr. William Douw Lighthall, Mrs. Joachim Carton and Seymour Schulich.

Arrangement: The archives are placed in folders, organized chronologically.

Personal documents produced by David Thompson and Simon McTavish (NWC partners) were removed from the collection in 2001 to create the David Thompson (P306) and Simon McTavish (P102) fonds.

Account statements dated after the NWC-HBC merger were removed and added to the Hudson's Bay Company Collection (P099) in 2019. A copy of Canadian Magazine (M10895), devoted to the 17th century fur trade, was transferred to the thematic collection of pamphlets (PHA) in 2019.

Language: The documents are in French and English.

Availability of other formats: This collection is also available in PDF form. It was digitized in 2019 as part of the "Forging Fur-ways: the North West Company Fur Trade Collection" project, in partnership with the McGill University Library's Rare Books and Special Collections Division , funded by the National Heritage Digitization Strategy and Library and Archives Canada.

Finding aids: There is a file containing documentation on the North West Company and a detailed inventory of the items.

Associated material:
The main groups of documents created by the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company are preserved in the Archives of Manitoba.

Several other institutions hold groups of documents produced by the North West Company:

BAnQ: Collection Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (P255)

LAC: North West Company Fonds (R7904-0-1-E)
McGill University: Coppenrath Collection of Voyageur Contracts (MSG 1108)

Trent University Archives: North West Company fur traders licences Fonds (89-1069)

Related groups of records: The McCord Museum holds several groups of documents associated with the North West Company and its partners: the Maurice-Régis Blondeau (P098), McGillivray Family (P100), Simon McTavish (P102), William McKay (P178), Beaver Club (P305), David Thompson (P306), John McDonald of Garth (P655), and John Ogilvy (P730) fonds and the Hudson's Bay Company Collection (C099).

General note: The McCord Museum's Photography and Paintings, Prints and Drawings collections also include a number of iconographic archives associated with members of the North West Company and the fur trade.


The collection is divided into the following series and files:

  • C104/A Constitution. - July 5, 1796-July 25, 1816. - 5 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: This series documents the admission of new partners into the North West Company in 1796, 1810 and 1816. It records the integration of William McKay, Daniel Mackenzie, Robert Henry and Allan McDonell in the company at the Grand Portage and Fort William trading posts. The deeds of admission include the partnership terms, the complete list of North West Company shareholders as of the date of these deeds, and the signatures of the partners or their representatives. The series contains several deeds of admission and copies of one of these deeds.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Physical condition/Conservation: One deed of admission and a copy of it on tracing paper are torn and fragile. They have been placed within inert plastic sleeves. Another deed of admission has been restored, flattened and mounted in a mat.

    Language: The documents are in English.

  • C104/B Legal Affairs. - May 7, 1798-June 4, 1802. - 5 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: This series focusses on the legal actions taken by North West Company members against employees who failed to fulfil their contracts. It includes an interrogation and depositions that were conducted in Montreal in 1798. The series also contains a power of attorney, drawn up in Île-à-la-Crosse in 1802, authorizing William McKay to act on behalf of Alexander McKay for the adoption of new partnership terms.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Language: The documents are in English and French, but primarily in English.

    • C104/B,1 The case of John Ogilvy v. Joseph Châle
    • C104/B,2 The case of Samuel Gerrard v. Basil Dubois
    • C104/B,3 Power of attorney

  • C104/C Accounting. - August 16, 1799-November 30, 1820. - 11 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: This series focusses on the North West Company's accounting activities in Montreal between 1799 and 1820. It documents the partners' profits, the transportation of merchandise involved in fur trading, and the payment of services rendered to the company.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Physical condition/Conservation: Two bills of lading have been placed within inert plastic sleeves.

    Language: The documents are in English and French, but primarily in English.

    • C104/C,1 Partners' account statements
    • C104/C,2 Bills of lading
    • C104/C,3 Promissory notes
    • C104/C,4 Order form

  • C104/D Management of Human Resources. - March 12, 1800-July 28, 1804. - 3 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: This series focusses on the hiring of the French-Canadian fur traders François Sansmarseille, Augustin Roy and Jean Réaume by the North West Company in Montreal and Kaministiquia in 1800 and 1804. The series contains employee contracts. These contracts document the employer's name, duration of travel, itinerary, expected remuneration, employee responsibilities and equipment provided.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Physical condition/Conservation: One of the contracts has been restored with Japanese paper. Another was placed within an inert plastic sleeve.

    Language: The documents are in French.

  • C104/E Correspondence. - February 15, 1796-January 7, 1811. - 2 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: The series documents communications between Simon Fraser and Simon McTavish in 1796 in Montreal. It also includes Neil McLean's 1811 correspondence with the chiefs in the St. Régis Mohawk community (Akwesasne), with regard to transferring the lease of a property to the firm of Sawyers, Ward & Clark.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Language: The documents are in English.

  • C104/F Commemoration. - August 1, 1859. - 1 textual record.
  • Digitized document
  • Scope and Content: This series focusses on a meeting between the last two surviving North West Company partners, Simon Fraser and John McDonald, on August 1, 1859. It contains a memorandum written by McDonald and signed by the two men, which illustrates the institutional culture of the company's administrators.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Accompanying material: The memorandum is accompanied by a typed transcription and a note from the donor, a descendant of one of the creators. These documents are glued onto a piece of cardboard.

    Language: The documents are in English.

  • C104/G Publications about the North West Company. - 1811-1818. - 2 textual documents.
  • Digitized documents
  • Scope and Content: This series contains a monograph and an article from a periodical that document the history and public image of the North West Company in 1811 and 1818. The monograph, published in London in 1811 and entitled On the Origin and Progress of the North-West Company of Canada [...], discusses the efforts of the North West Company and its supporters to justify its economic model to the British government. The article, entitled Lord Selkirk and the North West Company, was published in 1818 in an unknown Canadian periodical. It recounts the legal disputes between the company and Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk.

    Source of title: Based on the contents of the series.

    Language: The documents are in English.

 

Author: Philippe-Olivier Boulay-Scott
Revisers: Eugénie Marcil, Mathieu Lapointe
Last Update: July 23, 2019