North-West and X Y
Companies unite—Recalls the Homeric period—
Feuds forgotten—Men perform prodigies—The new
fort re-christened—Vessel from Michilimackinac—-The
old canal—Wills builds Fort Gibraltar—A lordly
sway—The "Beaver Club"— Sumptuous
table—Exclusive society—"Fortitude in Distress —
Political leaders in Lower Canada.
To the termination of the
great conflict between the North-West and the X
Y Companies we have already referred. The death
of Simon McTavish removed a difficulty and
served to unite the traders. The experience and
standing of the old Company and the zeal and
vigour of the new combined to inspire new hope.
Great plans were matured
for meeting the opposition of the Hudson's Bay
Company and extending the trade of the Company.
The explorations of David Thompson and Simon
Fraser, which, as we have seen, produced such
great results in New Caledonia, while planned
before, were now carried forward with renewed
vigour, the enterprise of the Nor'-Westers being
the direct result of the union. The heroic deeds
of these explorers recall to us the adventurous
times of the Homeric period, when men performed
prodigies and risked their lives for glory. The
explanation of this hearty co-operation was that
the old and new Companies were very closely
allied. Brothers and cousins had been in
opposite camps, not because they disliked each
other, but because their leaders could not
agree. Now the feuds were forgotten, and, with
the enthusiasm of their Celtic natures, they
would attempt great things.
The "New Fort," as it had
been called, at the mouth of the Kaministiquia,
was now re-christened, and the honoured name of
the chieftain McGillivray was given to this
great depot— Fort William.
It became a great trading
centre, and the additions required to
accommodate the increased volume of business and
the greater number of employes, were cheerfully
made by the united Company.
Standing within the great
solitudes of Thunder Bay, Fort William became as
celebrated in the annals of the North-West
Company, as York or Albany had been in the
history of the Hudson's Bay Company.
A vessel came up from Lake
Erie, bringing supplies, and, calling at
Michilimackinac, reached the Sault Ste. Marie.
Boats which had come down the canal, built to
avoid the St. Mary Rapids, here met this vessel.
From the St. Mary River up to Fort William a
schooner carried cargoes, and increased the
profits of the trade, while it protected many
from the dangers of the route. The whole trade
was systematized, and the trading houses,
duplicated as they had been at many points, were
combined, and the expenses thus greatly reduced.
As soon as the Company
could fully lay its plans, it determined to take
hold in earnest of the Red River district.
Accordingly we see that, under instructions from
John McDonald, of Garth, a bourgeois named John
Wills, who, we find, had been one of the
partners of the X Y Company, erected at the
junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, on
the point of land, a fort called Fort Gibraltar.
Wills was a year in building it, having under
him twenty men. The stockade of this fort was
made of "oak trees split in two." The wooden
picketing was from twelve to fifteen feet high.
The following is a list of buildings enclosed in
it, with some of their dimensions. There were
eight houses in all; the residence of the
bourgeois, sixty-four feet in length; two houses
for the servants, respectively thirty-six and
twenty-eight feet long; one store thirty-two
feet long; a blacksmith's shop, stable, kitchen,
and an ice-house. On the top of the ice-house a
watch-tower (guérite) was built. John Wills
continued to live in this fort up to the time of
his death a few years later. Such was the first
building, so far as we know, erected on the site
of the City of the Plains, and which was
followed first by Fort Douglas and then by Fort
Garry, the chief fort in the interior of
It was to this period in
the history of the United Company that
Washington Irving referred when he said: "The
partners held a lordly sway over the wintry
lakes and boundless forests of the Canadas
almost equal to that of the East India Company
over the voluptuous climes and magnificent
realms of the Orient."
Some years before this, a
very select organization had been formed among
the fur traders in Montreal. It was known as the
"Beaver Club." The conditions of the membership
were very strict. They were that the candidate
should have spent a period of service in the
"upper country," and have obtained the unanimous
vote of the members. The gatherings of the Club
were very notable. At their meetings they
assembled to recall the prowess of the old days,
the dangers of the rapids, the miraculous
deliverances accomplished by their canoe men,
the disastrous accidents they had witnessed.
Their days of feasting were
long remembered by the inhabitants of Montreal
after the club had passed away. The sumptuous
table of the Club was always open to those of
rank or distinction who might visit Montreal,
and the approval of the, Club gave the entry to
the most exclusive society of Montreal.
Still may be met with in
Montreal pieces of silverware and glassware
which were formerly the property of the "Beaver
Club," and even large gold medals bearing the
motto, "Fortitude in Distress," used by the
members of the Club on their days of
It was at this period that
the power of the fur trading magnates seemed to
culminate, and their natural leadership of the
French Canadians being recognized in the fur
trade, many of the partners became political
leaders in the affairs of Lower Canada. The very
success of the new Company, however, stirred up,
as we shall see, opposition movements of a much
more serious kind than they had ever had to meet
before. Sir Alexander Mackenzie's book in 1801
had awakened much interest in Britain and now
stimulated the movement by Lord Selkirk which
led to the absorption of the North-West Company.
The social and commercial standing of the
partners started a movement in the United States
which aimed at wresting from British hands the
territory of New Caledonia, which the energy of
the North-West Company of explorers had taken
possession of for the British crown.
It will, however, be to the
glory of the North-West Company that these
powerful opposition movements were mostly
rendered efficient by the employment of men whom
the Nor'-Westers had trained; and the methods of
trade, borrowed from them by these opponents,
were those continued in the after conduct of the
fur trade that grew up in Rupert's Land and the
Indian territories beyond.