1866 Free Traders
The term “free-trader”, as used in its northern historical context, means an individual fur trader, or group of independent traders, operating in opposition to the trading monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the North West Company in 1821 it became the only fur trading company operating in what is today the Northwest Territories. Early on free-traders had infiltrated many of the more southerly areas in which the Hudson’s Bay Company operated but it wasn’t until 1866 that the first of the free-traders penetrated the far northwest.
This threat to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading monopoly came from free-traders who, in the 1850s and early 1860s, had steadily been moving north in British Columbia towards the headwaters of the Peace River. In 1864 these “American free-traders”, as the Hudson’s Bay Company called them, established a post on the Peace River near Fort Vermilion (Alberta). Dene from the Great Slave Lake area began using a traditional trail along the Hay River to take furs to this post instead of trading them to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Resolution (map).
In 1866 these ‘Americans’ established the first free-trader post north of 60 degrees latitude. They set up at the confluence of the Salt and Slave rivers, a short distance downstream from Fort Smith, and again took trade away from Fort Resolution. The Hudson’s Bay Company reacted to this threat by offering higher prices for furs from the Great Slave Lake area and thus, the first incursion of free-traders into the Northwest Territories, quickly came to an end.
While the free-traders of the 1860s failed to have much of an effect on the domination of the Hudson’s Bay Company it was twenty years later, when steam-driven paddle wheelers began running on the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie rivers, that free-traders from Edmonton were able to flood into the north. Competition from new trading companies, in particular the Hislop and Nagle Trading Company, changed the face of the fur trade in the north.