North West Company

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NORTH WEST COMPANY. The North West Company, a major fur-trading firm organized in the winter of 1783–1784, was never an incorporated company, as were its chief rivals, the Hudson's Bay Company and the American Fur Company. It resembled a modern holding company, the constituent parts of which were chiefly Montreal firms and partnerships engaged in the fur trade. It came into existence during the American Revolution and ended by coalescing with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. In the interimit had reorganized in 1783; added the firm of Gregory, McLeod, and Company, its chief rival, in 1787; split into two factions in the later 1790s; reunited in 1804; joined forces with the American Fur Company temporarily in 1811; been ejected from effective work on the soil of the United States in 1816; and established its posts over much of Canada and the northern United States. Its main line of communication was the difficult canoe route from Montreal, up the Ottawa River, and through Lakes Huron and Superior to its chief inland depot: Grand Portage before 1804 and Fort William thereafter. Beyond Lake Superior, the route to the Pacific was the international boundary waters to Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, the Winnipeg River, Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan River, the Peace River, and the Fraser River. Many lines branched from this main one: south into the Wisconsin, Dakota, Minnesota, and Oregon countries and north to Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River area.

The company made unsuccessful attempts to gain access to the interior through Hudson Bay, whose basin was the exclusive trading area of the Hudson's Bay Company. Intense competition between the two companies grew to fever pitch after Thomas Douglas, earl of Selkirk, established his colony in the Red River Valley in 1811, and it led to warfare. Thereafter, but only at the cost of sinking its individuality under the charter rights and acquiring the name of the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company got its cheaper transportation route. When this union occurred in 1821, the Scottish, Yankee, English, and French-Canadian employees of the North West Company had behind them nearly fifty years of valorous exploration and trailblazing; they had forced the Hudson's Bay Company to build forts in the interior, and they had developed the voyageur to the acme of his unique serviceability.


Brown, Jennifer S. H. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Keith, Lloyd, ed. North of Athabasca: Slave Lake and Mackenzie River Documents of the North West Company, 1800–1821. Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Grace LeeNute/a. e.

See alsoAstoria ; Fur Companies ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Grand Portage ; Indian Trade and Traders ; Pacific Fur Company .

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North West Company

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