1783-84 The North West Company

For the twenty years following the 1763 surrender of French Territory in North America the fur trade in the Saint Lawrence valley and around the Great Lakes was in turmoil. From their base in Montreal Scottish businessmen, using French manpower, had taken over the trade. This trade was divided and intensely fought over by many small companies and partnerships that were continually grouping and regrouping.

Over the winter of 1783-84 nine of these small companies merged – under the direction of Simon McTavish, one of the most powerful of the Scottish businessmen – to form the North West Company. Their principal rival was the equally powerful Gregory, MacLeod and Company.

After the 1776 American War of Independence it became increasingly difficult for Montreal-based fur traders to conduct business south of the Great Lake. They turned their attention to the northwest and by the late summer of 1786 had penetrated into what is today the Northwest Territories. It was in that year that Cuthbert Grant, for the North West Company and Laurent Leroux of Gregory, Macleod and Company, built rival fur trading posts on the south shore Great Slave Lake (map).

In 1787 these rival companies merged and the new, stronger North West Company went on to establish Fort Providence (now Old Fort Providence) in 1789 near the mouth of Yellowknife Bay; Fort of the Forks (now Fort Simpson) at the junction of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers in 1804; Fort Liard in 1807 and Fort Norman in 1810.

Very early in the 19th century the Hudson’s Bay Company became the North West Company’s main competition in the Northwest Territories. During the first two decades of the 19th century these companies often built trading posts adjacent to each other and the competition for furs would, from time to time, erupt into violence.

By the late 1810s this rivalry became so intense that the British government stepped in and in 1821forced the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company to merge. The new company retained the name Hudson’s Bay Company but for the most part it was made up of people previously employed by the old North West Company.