North West Company

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North West Company, fur-trading organization in North America in the late 18th and early 19th cent.; it was composed of Montreal trading firms and fur traders.


After the conquest of Canada by the British, which was formalized by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French traders from Montreal and the coureurs de bois were gradually supplanted, more or less, in the fur trade by Scotsmen. Many of these new traders allied themselves with the French already in the country, and vigorous partnerships sprang up. The Montreal men contested control of the trade in the North with the Hudson's Bay Company, and they extended trade to the West rapidly and efficiently. There were, however, too many conflicting interests in the fields, and the competition not only took all profit out of the trade but also led to bloodshed.

The Montreal merchants who supplied the traders and the traders themselves sought to do away with some of the evils by forming in 1779 a company of sorts; this was later renewed, then abandoned. A new effort was made when a number of Montreal merchants under the leadership of Simon McTavish made an agreement in the winter of 1783–84 that created a company called the North West Company. There was some dissension, and the firm of Gregory and McLeod put up strong opposition. It was not until 1787 that a stable combination was reached. The stockholders were the trading companies of Montreal (which had many interests besides the fur trade and retained their separate existence) and the "wintering partners," the men who did all the actual trading for fur with the Native Americans.

Competition with the Hudson's Bay Company

The traders were, for the most part, active and aggressive, and they made much more headway than the Hudson's Bay Company men. The Northwesters, as they were called, broke new territory for the trade in the West and did not hesitate to try to take the trade even in the vicinity of Hudson Bay. The older company was stirred into some action, and there was an increasingly sharp rivalry. This was not serious, however, until after the Hudson's Bay Company became dominated by Lord Selkirk.

The younger company, meanwhile, was split by dissension, brought on chiefly by the hostility between two important figures in the company, McTavish and Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Mackenzie became (1802) the chief figure in a rival company created c.1798 and usually called the XY Company. This opposition disappeared after the death of McTavish in 1804; Mackenzie's men were reunited with the Northwesters.

To the North West Company is due some of the glory of Mackenzie's earlier voyages to the Arctic (1789) and Pacific (1792–93) oceans. The geographer David Thompson was in the company's employ when he did most of his valuable work, and other explorers, such as Alexander Henry, the younger, were Northwesters.

The company pushed its business into the territory of the United States and met with little opposition except from John Jacob Astor. The Southwest Company, established in 1811, was practically, although not actually, a combination of Astor and North West Company interests; this association was disrupted by the War of 1812. On the Pacific Northwest coast, which was largely explored by Northwesters, Astor was also a rival, but the American post, Astoria (see Astoria2), was sold to the North West Company during the War of 1812 by Astor employees sympathetic to the British; however, it helped establish a U.S. claim to the Pacific Northwest.


After 1810 the rivalry between the North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company grew in intensity and became a problem for the British government. The conflict over the Red River Settlement led to virtual warfare between the companies, and the final solution was the union of the two companies in 1821. The name of the older company was kept and there was no longer a North West Company. In the united company, however, the personnel was predominantly of the Northwestern stamp, and the spirit of the company was that of the vigorous North West Company.


See G. C. Davidson, The North West Company (1918, repr. 1967); H. A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada (1930, repr. 1962); W. S. Wallace, ed., Documents Relating to the North West Company (1934, repr. 1968); M. E. W. Campbell, The North West Company (1957); G. Franchère, Adventure at Astoria, 1810–1814 (tr. 1967).

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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 .