The early decades of the 19th century were a time of intense rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. During the last two decades of the 18th century these companies had established a number of small fur trading posts on or close to Great Slave Lake. During the first two decades of the 19th century this rivalry spurred the construction of many more trading posts north down the entire length of the Mackenzie Valley.
In 1821 these companies merged and the new northern fur trade monopoly – continuing under the name Hudson’s Bay Company – then began a period of consolidating its operations. Small trading posts were merged into larger, more efficient posts, many becoming the communities we see today in the Northwest Territories.
This was a difficult time for the Dene. The transition from a subsistence economy to one based on trapping was not an easy one. Many Dene refused to participate. They saw a traditional life style – well adapted to a harsh northern environment – as superior to dependence on the Hudson’s Bay Company and its trading posts.
Within the various Dene groups there arose men who, with the support of the Hudson’s Bay Company, became important as negotiators between their people and the fur traders. These were the powerful “trading chiefs” whose names – such as Akaitcho, often referred to as a ‘Copper Indian’ or Yellowknife Dene, and Edzo, a Dogrib Dene – are still known today.
By the middle of the 19th century trapping had become the accepted way-of-life for most Dene of the Northwest Territories. In 1840, with the establishment of Peel River House (later Fort McPherson) near the southern edge of the Mackenzie Delta, the Inuvialuit of the Arctic coast began to trap and trade their furs for manufactured goods.The dramatic expansion of the fur trade during the first half of the 19th century also brought an increased knowledge of the geography of the Northwest Territories. Areas previously known only to Aboriginal people were being explored and mapped.