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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter III
Rival Fur Companies—Selkirk Purchase— Names of Chief Factors—Chief Traders


The history of the ten years from 1811 to 1821 is concerned with the bitter and bloody rivalry of the two big fur companies,— The North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. The struggle commenced on the Red River with the establishment of the Selkirk settlement and spread to Athabasca, the richest fur region in the whole North-West. Lord Selkirk had become the controlling shareholder in the Hudson's Bay Co., and launched his Red River colonization scheme in opposition to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, John Inglis, Edward Ellice and other Nor'Westers who held Hudson's Bay Company stock. Mackenzie advised the Nor'West partners to buy the controlling interests in the Hudson's Bay Company but Simon McGillivray thought it was easier to fight their opponents or divide the territory, and proposed that the Hudson's Bay Company should restrict their operations to the Hudson's Bay area and allow the North West Company the freedom of the Athabaska and Saskatchewan and Red River districts. Selkirk, however, had obtained high legal opinion on the legality of the Hudson's Bay Charter and believed that the Company had exclusive rights, territorial and otherwise, throughout the Hudson's Bay area and the entire North-West. He therefore saw no reason for sharing with others what he thought belonged exclusively to himself.

Had the Nor-Westers taken the advice of Mackenzie the conflict of violence and plunder would have been avoided and the course of events materially changed. The first conflict arose out of Selkirk's attempt to oust the North West Company from the immense land grant he had secured from the Hudson's Bay Company along the Red River, 116,000 square miles comprising Manitoba and a large portion of what is now the State of Minnesota. It soon became a life and death struggle for the control of the fur trade of the entire North-West. Acting on the advice of experienced Canadians in the western fur trade, like Colin Robertson and John Clarke, Selkirk decided to adopt new methods and employ Canadians instead of Orkney men in the service of the Company. Both Robertson and Clarke were old Nor'Westers. Robertson had been at Fort Augustus with Macdonald of Garth in the early days, but quarrelling with that haughty bourgeois he stepped out of the North West Fort and readily obtained employment at the Hudson's Bay Company Post, a gunshot away. He was just the man for Selkirk,—brave, resourceful, an experienced trader and traveller, and burning with hatred against his former employers. Clarke was known as "Fighting John Clarke." He left the service of the North West Company in 1810 and joined the Astor Expedition to the mouth of the Columbia. After the purchase of that enterprise by the Nor'Westers he then took service with the Hudson's Bay Company. For the first time in the history of the fur trade, the Nor'Westers were to be opposed by men as skilled in dealing with the natives, as daring and resourceful in means of attack and defense, in a vast region where neither form of government nor law or order had been established. "The Lords of the Lakes and Forests" were to be challenged for the supremacy of the North-West.

When Selkirk purchased his 116,000 square miles, he deemed himself as much the owner of the soil in fee simple, as the homesteader of today who obtains his patent from the Crown, and as legally empowered to resist and oust all trespassers. "With respect to our rights of landed property, that is universally considered as clear and quite unquestionable," he wrote to Miles McDonnell, June 30th, 1813. He was determined that the North West Company should not obtain any prescriptive right by unmolested occupation. "The North West Company must be compelled to quit my lands, especially my posts at the Forks," he wrote on March 31st, 1816. "You must give them solemn warning that the land belongs to the Hudson's Bay Company. They should be treated as poachers. We are so fully advised of the unimpeachable validity of these rights of property, there can be no scruple in enforcing them when you have the physical means." The Nor'Westeis, who regarded themselves as the lineal descendants of the French in the Interior, were ready to answer the challenge of physical means. They had occupied the country before the Hudson's Bay traders and claimed it by title of prior occupation. Now they were eager to doubly confirm that title by conquest.

The first act in the exercise of this overlordship of Selkirk's, was contained in the Order of January 8th, 1814. It reminds us of one of the food orders of the Food Board in the late war. Governor Miles McDonnell, in the name of Lord Selkirk, forbade the export of fur or provisions from the District of Assiniboia by water or land for a period of twelve months. Such a drastic policy of restriction struck a hard blow at the trade of the Nor'Westers. The North West Company brigades depended in a great measure upon the buffalo meat of the Red River for their food supply. To add to the dilemma the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States cut off the North West Company supplies from Montreal. The brigades and posts were dependent therefore solely upon the Red River and the Saskatchewan districts. Most of the supplies at this time originated in the Red River District. The native population lived by buffalo hunting. Selkirk's order, therefore, involved serious consequences for the people and the company.

Governor McDonnell followed up his Order by the seizure of 600 bags of pemmican of the North West Company at Fort Souris. This was the first writ of attachment ever issued in the North-West. John Spencer, a member of Selkirk's Council of Assiniboia, was the Sheriff. While Spencer was at Souris, John Warren, with a party of armed Hudson's Bay Company followers, scoured the country around Pembina for the Plain Rangers, and seized their pemmican stores. This looks, like an arbitrary and ungrateful act towards those who had befriended the colonists during the first years of their sojourn at Red River. McDonnell did his work with vim and vengeance.

One can easily imagine the indignation of the Nor'Westers at the big meeting at Fort William that summer. "It is the first time the Nor'Westers have permitted themselves to be insulted," said William McGillivray, and insult to the proud "Lords of the Lakes and Forests" was more galling than financial loss. From that day there was civil war in the North-West. The one bright spot in the (lark tragedy of plunder, violence and bloodshed, was the staunch impartiality of the Indians from the Red River to the Athabasca. And this is true of the Indians all through North-West history. They have never risen against the white man as such for invading their territories. They have been cajoled and deluded into rebellion, but always by designing factions. This was true in 1816, in 1870 and in 1885. Nothing could induce old Chief Peguis of the Saulteaux to join either the Hudson's Bay Company or the North West Company. He has beaten President Wilson as a model of "strict neutrality."

Governor McDonnell followed up his food order with a still more exasperating order, viz., notice to the North West Company to quit. This notice was issued to the North West Company partners in charge of Posts in the District of Assiniboia. It was dated October 21st, 1814 and ordered the North West Company to quit their posts and premises within six months. The details of the events that quickly followed in Red River are not part of our story. We are not concerned with the arrest of Governor McDonnell by Duncan Cameron, the North West Company agent at Fort Gibraltar, the arrest of Cameron in retaliation by Cohn Robertson, the tragedy of Sevenoaks, the capture of Fort William by Selkirk and his visit to the colony. Any reference to these events is made for the purpose of relating them to the events to which they gave rise in the distant Athabasca District. Governor McDonnell was arrested June, 1815 and sent to Canada. The Selkirk colonists in alarm fled down the river to Lake Winnipeg, hoping to obtain succour from the Hudson's Bay Company brigade due from York Factory. help came, however, from quite a different quarter. Cohn Robertson and John Clarke, who had been in Canada recruiting men for the Hudson's Bay service, arrived from the East with a large number of Canadian traders and voyageurs bound for the Athabaska, where they were determined to establish a line of Hudson's Bay posts and fight fire with fire. Robertson rallied the disconsolate colonists and led them back to their homes on the Red River. Clarke went on to the Athabaska, vowing to send every "Nor'Wester out a prisoner to the Bay". Hardened and resourceful old veteran though he was, many troublous days were to pass before his boast was realised. He came to dire disaster. The expedition was divided into three brigades. One was stationed at Lake Athabasca, one went down the Slave River to Slave Lake, and the third under Clarke himself, went up the Peace River. So confident was he of capturing the North West Company Forts that he thought it unnecessary to take in a full winter's supply of food. The wily Nor'Westers proved more than a match for him. He stormed Fort. Vermilion without success and McIntosh, the agent in charge, chased him back to Athabaska. At Fort Chipewyan he was opposed by Archibald McGillivray and Samuel Black, who succeeded in keeping the Indians from trading with him and finally, after inviting him to dine with them one evening, they clapped him into prison. Many of his men died of starvation, others were coaxed or flogged into service with the North West Company. Of the gallant and dashing crew that followed "Fighting John" to the North, only a pitiable remnant ever reached Fort William again.

The affray at Sevenoaks in June, 1816, in which Governor Semple lost his life in the capture of Fort Douglas by the Nor'Westers under A. N. Macleod and Cuthbert Grant, followed by the capture of the North West Company stronghold at Fort William a few weeks later by Lord Selkirk, fanned the hostility of the rival companies into a white heat. Both sides now began to play for the climax of the tragedy.

The events of this year made a profound impression in Canada and the Old Country. A Royal Proclamation was issued by the Prince Regent in Quebec in 1817 commanding all persons in the Indian territories to desist from any hostile aggression and requiring all officers and men formerly in his Majesty's service to leave the service of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company within twenty-four hours after receiving knowledge of the Proclamation. The Proclamation further specially directed that no blockades should be made to prevent or interrupt the free passage of traders and their merchandise, furs and provisions throughout the North West Territories and that all persons should be free to pursue their accustomed trade without molestation. Both parties decided to ignore the Proclamation. Governor Williams, who had succeeded Semple as Governor of Assiniboia, declared the Proclamation was "all damned nonsense" and that he "would drive every Nor'Wester out of the country or die in the attempt". Up in the Athabaska District Archibald Norman Macleod was equally defiant. His orders to his bullies were: "Go to it, my lads. There is no law in the Indian Territory".

The Hudson's Bay Company outfitted Cohn Robertson and John Clarke a second time for the Athabaska. The expedition left Montreal in April, 1819, and reached Fort Chipewyan in October with 130 armed men. It was to be a supreme effort and cost the company twenty thousand pounds. On his way up Robertson found that the Nor'Westers had so intimidated the Indians that they would have nothing to do with the Hudson's Bay Company men. "Well may the Nor'Westers boast of their success in the North," writes Robertson, "not an Indian dare speak to the Hudson's Bay Company". Robertson established himself in the old Hudson's Bay Company quarters and in a few days forty of the tents of the Indians came over from the Nor'Westers. But the latter were not to be easily beaten. Some of the most experienced and daring of the Grand Partners were at Fort Chipewyan that winter—Simon McGillivray, Benjamin Frobisher, A. N. Macleod, Angus Shaw, William McIntosh, John Duncan Campbell, Geo. McTavish and Samuel Black (Clarke's tormentor of three years before). "Black, the Nor'Wester, is now in his glory, leading his bullies," writes Robertson. "Every evening they come over to our Fort in a body, calling on our men to come out and fight pitched battles". Within ten days after his arrival, Robertson was captured and imprisoned. As the Nor'\Vest bullies carried him away, Robertson shouted derisively, "We will capture them as we captured them at Fort Williams, with the sun shining on our faces." This was the first intimation to the natives of Athabaska that the North West Company had suffered the loss of their great stronghold, Fort William. The equal strength of the opposing parties may be surmised from the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company men did not attempt to rescue Robertson. Notwithstanding that he was kept in a small room under guard day and night, he outwitted his captors and was successful in sending messages to his men regularly throughout the winter by means of cipher despatches secreted in whiskey kegs which the North West Company allowed him to receive from time to time. In the spring, the Nor'Westers resolved to send Robertson out a prisoner to Fort William with the brigade. With the same brigade came McTavish, McGillivray, Shaw, McIntosh and Frobisher. On the way down Robertson escaped from them at Cumberland House. Couriers had brought the news of his capture to Governor Williams at Red River. The old warrior was now to prove his disdain of the Royal Proclamation by more than words. He organized a company of DeMeuron soldiers, who had been brought to the Red River two years before by Lord Selkirk. These were the men who captured Fort William and were going to fulfil Robertson's threat "We will capture them as we captured them at Fort William'. He set out for the Saskatchewan and took up his position where that river debouches into Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids. Here he met John Clarke from the Athabaska with two canoes on June 16th. Front he learned the Nor'Westers were not far away. He had two 4-pounder brass cannon and a number of barges. He placed the barges across the river, mounted his guns and waited for his prey. On the 18th Frobisher and Campbell arrived in two light canoes. On the 23rd the remainder of the North West Company partners arrived at Grand Portage and were easily captured with all the clerks and voyageurs. Upon Shaw remonstrating with Williams against this illegal stoppage on the King's highway and the scandalous defiance it caused of the Proclamation issued by the Prince Regent, Williams replied in heated words "I do not care a curse for the Prince Regent's Proclamation. Lord Bathurst and Sir John Sherbrooke, by whom it was framed, are damned rascals. I act upon the Charter of the Hudson's Bay Company and as Governor and magistrate in this territory I have sufficient authority and will do as I think proper." Upon a further remonstrance Williams stated in a rage: "As for Lord Bathurst, he is bribed by Nor'West gold; and Sir John Sherbrooke, the judges, juries and Crown officers of Canada are a set of damned rascals, and for our part we shall act independently of the rascally Government of Canada."

From the Journals of the North West Company it is apparent that the prisoners were roughly handled and treated with a rough handed retribution whetted with revenge. Frobisher became violently insane from a blow on the head. With Campbell and McTavish he was sent down to York Factory. Here they met John Franklin with letters of introduction to both the North West and the Hudson's Bay Factors of the Athabaska. One can imagine the chagrin and despair of the proud lords of the North West Company to be so found, prisoners in the hands of their enemies. Shaw and McTavish were sent to England on Franklin's ship as steerage passengers. Campbell escaped overland to Canada and Frobisher was held a close prisoner. The treatment he received was harsh and barbarous, even for the North-West at that time. With his faithful servants, Turcotte and Lepine he escaped on Sept. 30th. After a tedious journey and terrible sufferings he almost reached the first North West Company Post on the Saskatchewan. He became so ill he could not walk. His faithful comrades carried him until they were forced to give up. At his earnest request they left him and hastened to the post to secure help. It was seven days before they returned to find him, lying by the embers of the fire they had kindled for him,—dead.

These events made the men on both sides sorely disgusted with such a ruinous policy and though Robertson was captured the following year at Grand Rapids by Campbell of the North West Company (the same Campbell captured by Williams and the DeMeurons and taken a prisoner to Montreal), the strife was virtually at an end. On his way to Montreal Robertson escaped from the North West Company Brigade and made his way to the United States. He heard the North West Company partners were proposing a union with the Hudson's Bay Company, and that some of the partners were on the way to London. He forthwith resolved to go to London and advise the General Court that union was unnecessary and that the North West Company had been overcome. Union, however, was the only policy possible if the fur trade was to be carried on at all, and less violent counsel than that of the unconquerable Robertson prevailed.

The death of Lord Selkirk and that of Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1820 removed the animating spirits in the respective rival companies and opened the way for amalgamation. A meeting of the partners was held at Fort William in July, 1820, at which union was discussed. Delegates were sent to England to confer with the London principals of the North West Company. When they reached London they found that union had already been effected. Edward Ellice produced the deed poll signed by Governor Berens on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company and by William McGillivray, Simon McGillivray and Edward Ellice for the North West Company. The deed poll had been executed March 26, 1821. This agreement formed the basis of the amalgamation until a new deed poll was executed June 6, 1834.

The union was really a merger of the North West Company into the Hudson's Bay Company. The coalition continued the old name of "Gentlemen Adventurers trading into Hudson's Bay". The jurisdiction of the company was extended to include all the territory hitherto disputed by the North West Company. This jurisdiction was sanctioned by an Act of the British Parliament (1 & 2 Geo. IV, Ch. 66). This Act after relating the evil consequences of competition, the animosities, feuds, injury to Indians, breaches of the peace, the violence and losses of life, extended the jurisdiction of the Courts of Upper and Lower Canada to the control and punishment of persons guilty of crimes and offenses within Rupert's Land and the North Western Territory, and so removed all doubts respecting a similar Act passed in 1803. The Act gave power to the Crown to grant a license to the Hudson's Bay Company for the exclusive privilege of trading for a period of not longer than twenty-one years. For the first period the license was rent free, but thereafter a rent was to be reserved and form part of the land revenues of the Crown. Power was also given to the Crown to constitute courts and issue commissions authorizing justices of the peace to hold Courts of Record within the North-West for any but capital offenses and any civil actions where the amount in issue was under 200 pounds. No such courts were ever established, and the only courts that grew up in the country were those formed by the Council of Assiniboia and the Grand Council of Rupert's Land. The Act also enjoined strict regulation and control of the liquor traffic among the Indians and in this respect, it may be said to the credit of the Hudson's Bay Company, that they honourably observed this part of their contract.

Acting under the authority of this Act of Parliament, His Majesty granted an exclusive license dated June 6, 1821, in which the Company was required to give security in the sum of five thousand pounds for the due execution of the terms of the grant.

"The deed poll made provision for the apportionment of the annual profits and loss of the fur trade. The first charge on the proceeds was a 5% interest payment on the capital, made annually to the proprietors. Of the net profits and losses 60% was reserved to the proprietors, the balance went to the wintering partners. The share for the Gentlemen in the Interior was subdivided into 85 equal parts, of which two went to each chief facto" and one to each chief trader. Under the deed poll of 1821 the partners were granted one year in every seven as furlough. On retirement the chief factor and chief traders became entitled to full profits according to their rank for one year and half profit for a period of six years."— (Publications of the Canadian Archives, No. 9, Vol. 1, p. 624.)

By the second deed poll the same rate of remuneration was continued to the wintering partners. This deed poll continued in operation until 1871, shortly after the transfer of the Hudson's Bay territory to the Dominion of Canada. By the terms of the deed poll of 1821 the following wintering partners were chosen from both sides:

"Chief Factors—Thomas Vincent, John Thompson, John Macdonald, James Bird, James Leith, John Haldane, Cohn Robertson, Alexander Stewart, James Sutherland, John George McTavish, John Clarke, George Keith, John Dugald Cameron, John Charles, John Stuart, Alexander Kennedy, Edward Smith, John McLoughlin, John Davis, James Keith, Joseph Beioley, Angus Bethune, Donald MacKenzie, Alexander Christie, John McBean."

"Chief Traders—William McKintosh, Jacob Corrigal, Thomas McMurray, Donald Mackintosh, John Peter Pruden, Allan Macdonnell, James Clouston, Daniel William Harmon, Roderic MacKenzie, John Spencer, Hugh Faries, John Lee Lewis, Andrew Stewart, James McMillan, Angus Cameron, John Warren Dease, William Brown, Simon McGillivray, William Connolly, Robert McVicar, Peter Warren Dease, John McLeod, John Rowand, Joseph Felix La Rocque, Alexander McDonald, Alexander Roderick McLeod, Joseph McGillivray, Roderick Mackenzie."

"Under the Deed Poll of 1821 the following Chief Traders were promoted to Chief Factors-1822 William McKintosh; 1825, William Connolly and John Rowand; 1827, James McMillan; 1828, Allan Macdonnell, John Lee Lewis and Peter Warren Dease; 1830, Roderick Mackenzie; 1832, Duncan Finlayson. The following were promoted from clerkships to the rank of Chief Traders: 1821, Peter Skene Ogden and Samuel Black; 1822, Alexander Fisher; 1827, Cuthbert Cumming; 1828, Francis Heron, John Sievewright, Robert S. Miles, Duncan Finlayson, Cohn Campbell, Alexander McTavish, Archibald McDonald; 1829, Robert Cowie, John Edward Harriott, Donald Ross; 1830, Aernilius Simpson and John Work; 1831, William Todd; 1.833, James Hargreav"e and Nicol Finlayson."

"During the period 1834-1843 the following promotions were made Chief Factors-1834, Peter Sicene Ogden; 1836, John Peter Pruden and Alexander R. Macleod; 1.838, Hugh Faries, Angus Cameron and Samuel Black; 1840, Donald Ross and James Douglas; 1842, Archibald McDonald.

"Chief Traders—Richard Hardisty, John McLeod, Jr., Murdoch McPherson and John Tod; 1835, James Douglas, Thomas Fraser, George Glad- man and Richard Grant; 1838, Donald Manson and William Noui'se; 1840, Thomas Simpson, William H. McNeil, Peter C. Pambrun and George Barnston; 1841, John Bell, Thomas Corcoran, Alexander Simpson and John McLean; 1842, William G. Rae, John Swanston, Francis Ermatinger and Charles Ross; 1843, John M. Yale."
Nicolas Garry, one of the Governing Committee in London was sent out to reorganize the affairs of the amalgamating companies and (us- tribute the oflices. A meeting for this purpose was held at Fort William in 1821. Here the partners signed the Deed Poll. This meeting was a memorable one and carries the mind forward to a similar meeting when on June 23, 1870, the wintering partners of the Hudson's Bay Company gathered at Norway House to sign the deed of surrender of the vast empire over which they had governed for two hundred years with a true imperial sway. One can only imagine with what surpressed passion and with what memories, bitter opponents like Cohn Robertson and John Clarke met Wililam McIntosh and Simon McGillivray around the peace table that day at Fort William. When the North West Company delegates met Edward Ellice in London and read the Deed Poll for the first time, they bitterly exclaimed, "This is not amalgation, but is submersion". To a man, however, they were good losers and loyally supported the union to the last. In the distribution of officers it is said the North West Company partners got the best districts and the best positions. Our readers will no doubt think this is fair, because on the whole the North West Company partners had the most experience in the Indian territories and probably were the most capable to carry on successful trading with the natives. Garry apparently conducted affairs with an eye single to the future success of the Hudson's Bay Company.

On his own responsibility Garry assigned the posts as follows:

(1) Athabaska Department, comprising Fort Chipewyan and posts on the Lake, Slave Lake and River, Peace River and New Caledonia— James Leith, Chief Factor; Chief of Department, Edward Smith, Chief Factor; William Mackintosh, Joseph McGillivray, Peter W. Dease, Hugh Faries, A. H. McLeod, Chief Traders.
(2) Saskatchewan, James Sutherland, Chief Factor; John Rowand, Chief Trader.
(3) New Caledonia, John Stewart, Chief Factor.
(4) Cumberland House, William Kennedy, Chief Factor.
(5) Columbia, John Haldane, J. D. Cameron, Chief Factors; James Macmillan, Chief Trader.
(6) English River, James Keith, Chief Factor; J. F. La Roque, Chief Trader.
(7) York Fort, J. Al. McTavish, Chief Factor.
(8) Moose Factory, Angus Bethune, Chief Factor.
(9) Lesser Slave Lake, William Connolly, Chief Trader.
(10) Red River, James Bird, Chief Factor.
(11) Upper Red River, John McDonald, Chief Trader.
(12) Fort Dauphin, Allan Macdonnell, Chief Trader.
(13) Lake Winflil)ic, J. W. Dease, Chief Trader.
(14) Lake Nipigon, Roderic McKenzie, Chief Trader.
(15) Pie, Alexander McTavish, Clerk.
(16) Michicopoton, Donald McIntosh, Chief Trader.
(17) Fort William, Alexander Stewart, Chief Trader.
(18) Lake Huron, John McBean, Chief Factor.
(19) River Winnipic, Thomas McMurray, Chief Trader.
(20) Temiskarning, Angus Cameron, Chief Trader.
(21) Churchill, John Charles, Chief Factor; John Lee Lewis, Chief Trader; A. Macdonnell, Clerk.— (Garry's Journal.)

On the completion of these negotiations, Director Garry proceeded westward accompanied by Simon McGillivray, stopping at Rainy Lake, Winnipeg River, Red River and various points along the route, both exhorting the Indians that they should henceforth obey the Hudson's Bay Company. As a symbol of the union a new fort was built at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and named Fort Garry. Forts Douglas and Gibraltar were dismantled and passed into memory with the struggles of the past.


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