Like a fever in the blood, the rivalry between the North West Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company for control of the Canadian fur trade, the golden treasure of the kingdom of the North, had been rising in intensity for months. In early June 1816, the Hudson’s Bay leader, Robert Semple, razed Fort Gibraltar, recently captured from the rival ‘Nor’Westers.’ To the Meacutetis, the fiery Canadian woodsmen of mixed Indian, French and Highland Scots blood, this was the final blow. Appointing Cuthbert Grant, a Canadian veteran of the recent War of 1812, their captain general, the Métis daubed on war paint (red for blood and black for death) and rode off to make war on the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company.
In the early twilight hours of June 19, 1816, just a year and a day after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Meacutetis and their Indian relatives met up with a party of Hudson’s Bay men, led by Semple himself, in a copse of trees called the Seven Oaks, now in the heart of modern-day Winnipeg. After a hot exchange of words, Semple grabbed for the gun of a Meacutetis named Franccedilois Boucher. Protecting Boucher, Grant emptied his rifle into Semple’s thigh.
During a frenzied melee that only lasted for 15 minutes, the Hudson’s Bay traders were mowed down before the Nor’Westers’ accurate fire like winter wheat before a sharp scythe. Twenty of them lay dead with the imperious Semple, killed when one of the Meacutetis pushed the muzzle of his rifle into Semple’s chest and blasted him into eternity. The Meacutetis then stripped and mutilated the dead in an orgy of revenge.
Once again, the struggle for monopoly of the fur trade, as vital to the trappers of the North as it was to American mountain men like Jeb Smith, Kit Carson, Jim Bridget and Joe Meek further south in the United States, had led to murder on the green Canadian prairie. In a rage of blood lust, the hunger for beaver had claimed its latest victims.
The search for the precious beaver began with the discovery of Canada itself by French mariner Jacques Cartier in the summer of 1534. Coming upon a group of Micmac Indians on the shore of the Baie de Chaleur, a narrow inlet between the modern provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, Cartier recorded in his ship’s log that the Micmacs ‘made frequent signs to us to come on shore, holding up some furs on sticks.’ After Cartier fired off his ship’s cannons and muskets to show that he was someone to be reckoned with, the Indians literally traded the furs off their backs for French-made bibelots, or trinkets. Thus ended, to the satisfaction of both parties, Canada’s first recorded fur trade.
Soon, beaver fur was highly sought after in Europe. Beaver hats became the height of fashion. The humble, bucktoothed beaver was also the source of a medical cure-all called castoreum, a potent remedy for everything from adult headaches to children’s fevers. (Modern chemistry has shown castoreurn to be chemically related to that modern wonder drug aspirin.) Beaver was even used like fish, because of its scaly fishlike tail, as a substitute for meat in Catholic Europe.
Ironically, it was two Frenchmen who eventually would lure the English into the fur trade, and thus begin the struggle between France and England for possession of Canada that would not end until the victory of British General James Wolfe au Quebec City in 1759.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson (for whom the modern hotel chain is named) and Medard Chouart virtually saved the fragile economy of New France with their fur trade bonanza of 1659. But the incredibly small-minded governor, the Marquis d’Argenson, not only confiscated most of the duo’s hoard of beaver skins but also briefly jailed the enterprising Chouart for trading with the Indians. Thumbing their noses at the myopic d’Argenson, the two disgruntled trappers struck out across the forests to New England, where canny, far-sighted Yankee businessmen saw the fortune to be made in la pelletrie, the fur trade with the Indians of the woods and plains. By autumn 1665, Radisson and Chouart were in London, telling King Charles 11 their story of the riches that lay beyond the setting sun.
Three years later, on June 3, 1668, the two Frenchmen set out for Canada with two tiny English ships, Eaglet and Nonsuch, to search for beaver-given the resounding title Castor canadensis Kuhl by naturalists-in the first voyage of the Governors and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay, known less formally as the Hudson’s Bay Company. The fortunes of weather, however, decreed that the good ship Nonsuch would make the historic crossing alone. Four hundred miles off the west coast of Ireland, Eaglet was pounded by a tempest and forced to turn back.
In August 1669, Nonsuch would also return to harbor in England, after having spent a year in the ice-gripped waters of Hudson’s Bay. Although the cargo of goods carried aboard to trade with the Indians had been modest (only some 650 pounds), the shipload of furs the Nonsuch brought home in its hold doubled the value of the trade goods.
The trip clearly had been a success. Within a year, the Company of Adventurers was formally chartered by King Charles, and his warrior cousin Prince Rupert, a hell-for-leather royalist horse captain in the English Civil War, was made governor in 1670. The Hudson’s Bay Company had indeed arrived, and with its arrival had ignited 90 years of conflict between France and England. This violent contest would draw the Hudson’s Bay adventurers into two of the most crucial, yet least known, battles ever fought in North America.
In June 1686, three years before the war officially broke out, the French commander, the Chevalier de Troyes, began a long march from Montreal to conquer the forts of the Hudson’s Bay Company–800 miles away in the frigid North. After an epic march of 87 spirit-breaking days, de Troyes’ little army of 100 men, stiffened by a detachment of Marines, descended on the first of the company’s posts to come within striking range, the Moose Factory, so-called because the company factor, or agent, made his residence there. At dawn, the French raiders, led by the fearless Le Moyne brothers, Pierre d’Iberville and Jacques de Sainte-HéIeacutene, attacked the surprised company men. Sword in one hand and musket in the other, d’Iberville bravely held off the furious attack of the fort’s 16 defenders until his comrades could force open the gate and seize the factory.
Elated by his lightning success, de Troyes then set his sights on Rupert House, named in honor of the company’s first governor, some 70 miles up the eastern coast of James Bay. In the silent wilderness the Frenchmen scored another stunning coup. At Rupert House they found a ladder conveniently left propped up on the side of the fort, and they rudely woke up the slumbering English with hand grenades lobbed down the chimney. Soon Rupert House was in the hands of the French, along with the company’s supply ship, Craven.
De Troyes completed the French roll of triumph with the bloodless capture of the strongest of the James Bay outposts, Albany Fort. After a bombardment from siege guns brought from Rupert House, the fort’s defenders saluted their besiegers with loud cries of the French battle shout ‘vive le roi,’ then they threw open the gates.
In the summer of 1697, when France and England were still gripped in King William’s War (as the conflict was formally known), d’Iberville returned. Arriving off the mouth of the Nelson River, a tributary of Hudson’s Bay, on September 3 aboard the 44-gun Pelican of the French navy, he confronted three British ships, Dering, Hudson’s Bay and Royal Navy frigate Hampshire.
By land, d’Iberville was threatened by the guns of York Factory, the company’s strongest fort. By sea, he faced the combined firepower of three English warships. Wasting no time on indecision, d’Iberville did what he was most conditioned to do-he attacked.
For four hours the sea battle raged across the ice-cold bay. The Hampshire fired a murderous broadside of disabling chain shot that sheared through Pelican’s rigging, making it virtually impossible for the ship’s crew to clamber aloft to control the all-important sails. Dering blew off the ornate, hand-carved prow of the French ship, while Dering and Hudson’s Bay peppered the wounded Pelican with a hailstorm of man-shredding grapeshot and musket balls.In a lull in the action, as the captains of Pelican andHampshire maneuvered to find the best position to continue the action (a tactic called’seeking the weather gauge’), the English captain and d’Iberville saluted each other’s valor with a toast of vintage wine. It was the last glass of wine ever to touch the Englishman’s lips. Moments later, d’Iberville came up alongside of Hampshire and gutted the Britisher below the waterline with a killing volley.
The ship sank to the bottom with all hands, including the chivalrous British captain. The loss of Hampshire, the only real ship of war among the three, broke the back of British resistance. Hudson’s Bay, in the timeless tradition of 18th-century warfare, fired off one more volley to defend its honor and then surrendered by striking her colors. Dering, taking cover in a sudden squall, fled up the Nelson River.
Soon, mauled by the savage duel, Pelican herself slid beneath the frigid waters. However, d’Iberville and most of his crew made it safely to shore.Undaunted by his close escape from a watery grave, d’Iberville awaited the arrival of the rest of the French squadron before launching an assault on York Factory, the most important of the Hudson’s Bay trading posts. To distract the British cannoneers from the vulnerable fleet, d’Iberville mounted a bold feint that completely took the British garrison by surprise. Before the company men realized their predicament, French sailors had dragged heavy cannons from their ships to bombard York Factory. The factory’s defenders were now in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The resident factor, Henry Baley, quickly decided that discretion was the smarter half of valor-he surrendered.
With the capitulation of York Factory, d’Iberville had effectively swept from the map British control of Hudson’s Bay and opened to France the precious treasure of brown gold: la pelletrie, the fur trade. It would not be until the Peace of Utrecht ended the war in 1713, a full 16 years later, that the factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company would return to the desolate land.Toward the end of the 18th century, an even greater threat to the survival of the Hudson’s Bay Company loomed before it than French warships. The threat was all the more severe because it came from the company’s own English countrymen-the aggressive agents of the North West Fur Company.
The menace that was the North West Company began innocently enough, its origins in the bands of hardy French Canadian traders and trappers whose sires were the coureurs de bois, the ‘runners of the woods,’ who had opened up la pelletrie when France still held Canada. These modern coureurs de bois combined a freedom of initiative denied the servants of the bureaucratic Hudson’s Bay Company with a knack for supplying their Indian customers with goods unthought of by company men.The inroads these freewheeling trappers had on company revenues soon began to be substantial. Matthew Cocking was sent into the interior in 1773 to assess the effects of the competition of these free traders, who were based by and large in Montreal. To the shock of Hudson’s Bay’s governors, Cocking reported that York Factory’s yearly return had plummeted from an annual average of 30,000 beaver in the decade before 1766 to only 8,000 in 1773.
Rocked out of their complacency by this nerve-shattering news, Hudson’s Bay’s chieftains set out on a frantic period of expansion into unknown areas, fearful that the devil-maycare French Canadians would push them out of the fur trade entirely. It was a fear made all the more palpable when the competitors, who had started forming business partnerships about 1770, coalesced into the mighty North West Fur Company in 1779. Led by a Scot, Simon McTavish, the so-called Nor’Westers were determined to break forever the Hudson’s Bay monopoly on the Canadian fur trade.
To show their determination, the Nor’Westers matched Hudson’s Bay move for move, like players in a high- stakes poker game. In 1775, Samuel Hearne had established Cumberland House in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, thus bringing Hudson’s Bay Company into the heart of the continent. To counter this gambit, the Nor’Westers opened an inland command post, Fort William, on the shores of Lake Superior, in 1805.Two of the Nor’Wester explorer-traders, David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie, would do more to map the face of modern-day Canada than any other men in history. Indeed, it was the very free-spirited atmosphere of the Nor’West Company that enabled these men to become such prodigious travelers.
Thompson, one of the greatest of the Nor’Wester explorers, was no French Canadian. He was born in London in 1770, of a Welsh family whose original name was Ap Thomas. Arriving in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1784, Thompson transferred his allegiance to the North West Fur Company in 1797. During his tenure as chief topographer for the Nor’Westers, Thompson staked a claim to being one of the greatest-if not the greatest-of the discoverers of North America. He not only charted the course of the Columbia River system to the far Pacific, he also located the sources of the Mississippi River, as well as extensively exploring the Missouri River country. When the tireless Thompson finally retired in 1812, 28 years after he first enlisted in the service of Hudson’s Bay Company, he had logged an amazing 55,000 miles of travel by canoe and foot. Few men, in any age, can lay claim to such a herculean feat.
While Thompson was wearing out his moccasins on countless miles of tundra and prairie, another Nor’Wester was pursuing a dream that had spurred on the likes of Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake: a northwest passage across North America to the riches of the exotic Orient.
Born in Scotland, Alexander Mackenzie traveled to New York state with his father, who served in the Loyalist (proBritish) forces during the American Revolution. After the war, young Alexander and his father emigrated to Canada.Joining the North West Fur Company, Mackenzie became the proteacute geacute; of a shadowy transplanted American, Peter Pond. Pond, one of the earliest Nor’Wester explorers, taught young Mackenzie how to find his way through Canada’s trackless wilderness. There was just one disagreeable fact about Pond: his trading competitors kept turning up dead. After the second had died in suspicious circumstances, Pond felt it wise to return to the United States, perhaps before a hangman’s noose or backwood’s justice (shot out in the woods by an unknown assailant) prematurely ended his career.
With none of Pond’s vices, Mackenzie continued his patron’s career. On June 3, 1789, he set out on the trip that ultimately would lead him to the Arctic Sea. The weather was so miserable-it snowed in June-that the voyageurs and Indians accompanying Mackenzie begged him to turn back.It was not just the misery of their exertions that crushed the spirits of Mackenzie’s veterans. They were entering the frozen realm of the Eskimos, whose age-old vendetta against the Copper Indians Samuel Hearne had once seen acted out in blood. On the night of July 14, 1789, as a new age was beginning with the fall of the Bastille in Paris, the dispirited party camped on Garry Island, deep within Eskimo country. Mackenzie suddenly awoke at 4 a.m. to find his belongings wet from an incoming tide. He had found the Arctic Sea.
Four years later, in May 1793, Mackenzie began the journey that would immortalize his name: the search for an overland passage to the bright waters of the Pacific.Moving through what is now British Columbia, Mackenzie and his party ascended into the harsh beauty of the Canadian Rockies. They then canoed down the flood-swollen Parsnip River. Finally, having made it down the Fraser River and its tributary, the West Road River, the haggard voyagers reached the rain forests of the Pacific Coast. Aided by the friendly coastal Bella Coola tribe, which even lent them a new canoe, Mackenzie and company made the final dash for the Pacific down Dean Channel. On July 22, Mackenzie made dream into reality: he gazed on the shores of the Pacific.
Although menaced by hostile Indians, he took time with typical Scottish tenacity to record the momentous occasion. On a rock, he painted with vermillion and bear grease, a mixture of Indian war paint, an inscription that the Canadian government still preserves to this day: ALEX MACKENZIE FROM CANADA BY LAND 22d JULY 1793.
As stirring as the sagas of Thompson and Mackenzie were, their dramatic ventures had a single, bottom-line objective: to hew out of the wilderness an ever-greater empire of beaver for the North West Fur Company. Accordingly, the Nor’Westers pursued their campaign of exploration with a vengeance, while such posts as Fort Chipewyan on the Peace River and Fort William on Lake Superior began to close like a steel beaver trap on the Hudson’s Bay Company. It is no wonder that the coat of arms of the North West Fur Company bore one bold word in English: ‘Perseverance.’
In the growing rivalry over furs, made worse by a decline in the number of beaver due to frenzied trapping, it was not long before violence entered into the competition for the beaver pelts. Like the American frontier in later decades, the only law that was recognized by Hudson’s Bay Company and the Nor’Westers was the law of the gun.
The flashpoint for all-out war between the goliaths of the fur trade came from an unlikely and tragic source: the desire of a man to help his fellows before he departed this life. Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, was a Scottish laird driven to do something for the poor Scottish peasants before tuberculosis, then a medical death sentence, ended his life. The Scots Highlanders, once the most stalwart farmers in the British Isles, had been driven from their farms by their own lords, for whom they had fought proudly in many a clan battle, to make room for sheep in the notorious Highland clearances of the late 18th century. Grief-stricken at the poverty in which these loyal people found themselves, Douglas was determined to resettle them in Canada. A colony on Prince Edward Island in 1803 proved a great success, with 800 Highlanders happily transplanted to the New World.
In his search for more available land, Douglas made contact with Alexander Mackenzie, although Douglas was unaware of Mackenzie’s true allegiance. When Douglas tried to buy a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mackenzie went along with him in a 19th-century version of Wall Street insider trading. The unsuspecting Douglas bought the controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The meaning of the earl’s financial coup was that the Bay Company granted him a huge piece of territory that included much of western Canada, plus parts of the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Although the company felt empowered to grant Douglas this huge tract of real estate because of its 1670 charter, it deliberately ignored the fact that Douglas’ New World empire was at the very heart of land claimed by the Nor’Westers, including their beaver-rich territory around Lake Athabasca. When land-starved Highland peasants began to arrive at the new preserve along the Red River in 1812, they did not realize their coming was the opening move in an increasingly bitter war. The French Canadians and their Meacutetis relations had considered this country their own land, and they deeply resented the Scots’ intrusion. Matters were only made worse when the French Canadians and Meacutetis, who usually labored for the NorWesters, began to consider the newcomers covert agents for their Hudson’s Bay rivals.
Miles Macdonnell, governor of the Selkirk Settlement, seemed intent on bringing the volatile situation to a violent climax. From the colony’s headquarters at Fort Douglas, he banned the sending of pemmican, an essential frontier food concocted from dried meat and fat pounded together, to the voyageurs of the North West Company who depended on it. Then he ordered all Nor’Wester stockades on settlement land to be evacuated within six months.
The Nor’Westers were not long in retaliating. At an emergency meeting at Fort William, the barons of the North West Company determined to erase the new colony. The man ultimately placed in charge of operations against the ill-starred farmers was Cuthbert Grant, one of the most sinister figures ever to appear in the Canadian West.Like a hired gun in the American West, Grant always seemed to turn up whenever the Nor’Westers appeared threatened by a rival. In January 1806, when Zebulon Pike marched into Minnesota, Grant was the bourgeois, or factor, who greeted him at the Nor’Westers’ post on Lower Red Cedar Lake. The meeting took place on January 3. On the night of January 4, Pike’s tent caught fire and he was saved only by being awakened by the cries of his yelling soldiers. Although Pike never blamed Grant directly for the blaze, he did confide in his diary on January 5: ‘Mr. Grant promised to overtake me yesterday, but has not yet arrived. I conceived it would be necessary to attend his motions with careful observation.’
After the council of war in the Great Hall at Fort William, Grant readily went to work. Raiding parties of voyageurs and their Indian allies swept down on unsuspecting farmers in their fields. Meanwhile, nature itself turned against the settlers, as drought and Red River floods took turns ravaging their crops. Finally, by the end of the summer of 1815, all but 13 die-hard households had abandoned their landholdings-and their dreams. Eventually, even these hardy survivors gave up and trudged off, their last sight the howling French Canadians and Métis putting to the torch their beloved cottages.
On their way out, the refugees ran into Colin Robertson, a Hudson’s Bay officer, who persuaded them to return to the settlement to harvest what was left of their crops. At the same time, more Scottish immigrants arrived under the leadership of Robert Semple, who was not only the new governor of the colony (the Nor’Westers had jailed the impetuous Mcdonnell) but also the head of the Bay Company’s northern and southern departments. There was now no doubt in the mind of the Nor’Westers that the Selkirk Settlement and the Hudson’s Bay Company were one and the same.In the growing tension, Robertson struck first. On March 17, 1816, Robertson attacked and seized the Nor’Westers’ Fort Gibraltar. In the fort, Robertson found information that the Nor’Westers planned to attack the Red River colony in force that summer. He informed Semple of this alarming news and, before he left the region, told the governor to prepare for war. But he gave Semple no orders to strike first.
Nevertheless, the fire-breathing governor-on the very day in June that Robertson departed-dealt the first blow by torching the captured Fort Gibraltar. Aroused to fury, the voyageurs were led to all-out war by Grant. The result was the fatal confrontation between the Nor’Westers and Semple’s party at the Seven Oaks, on June 19, 1816. Semple and his followers were no match for the hard-riding Nor’Westers, who could kill a bull buffalo with one shot from their rifles while at the gallop on their wiry Indian ponies. That night, the mournful cry of the loon was the only sound heard over the mutilated bodies of Semple and his men.The shots fired in Seven Oaks grove transformed a sporadic backwoods conflict between the two companies into full- scale war. On August 12, just two months after the Seven Oaks massacre, Douglas himself led an attack on the Northwest citadel at Fort William with a mercenary army composed of veterans of the de Watteville regiment and others who had fought against Napoleon. Taking the post, Douglas not only captured senior partner William McGillivray, who had raised Grant, but also damning evidence of the rewards paid to the voyageurs for the atrocity at Seven Oaks.
Nowhere did the trade war flare so dangerously as in the Athabasca country, the plentiful beaver area surrounding Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan and Alberta provinces. The Nor’Westers retaliated for the seizure of Fort William by striking fast and hard to take five Hudson’s Bay posts in the Athabasca land. The richer Bay Company, however, responded by sending a brigade of 200 men under Robertson, which quickly shifted the balance of power in the area. Then, in a daring move, Nor’Westers Simon McGillivray, Jr., and Joseph Black kidnapped Robertson at gunpoint while he was outside the Bay Company’s Fort Wedderburn reading the funeral service for a man killed in a fishing mishap.But Robertson was not a man to be undone easily. He was imprisoned at Fort Chipewyan in a shack located next door to the outpost’s maladorous privy. Yet from his cell, he managed to spirit messages outside the fort to Bay Company comrades in Fort Wedderburn. Discovered one day busily writing another coded note, Robertson was bundled off in a canoe for Montreal, the capital of the North West Fur Company, where he could be kept under more watchful eye. As the birchbark canoe ferrying him tried to shoot the rapids at Ile-á-la-Crosse, the fragile craft capsized. Two of his keepers drowned, but Robertson survived. When the party passed Cumberland House, Robertson asked permission of the voyageurs to go inside to say farewell to some old friends. Once inside, Robertson simply made his escape by having the doors barred and refusing to come out again. The voyageurs, their prize quarry eluding their grasp, traveled on without him.
The wily Scot soon had his revenge. One of the messages he had smuggled out of his evil-smelling confinement bore a message for William Williams, a high-level Bay Company official, alerting Williams that top Nor’Wester officers and a harvest of furs were returning to Montreal by way of Grand Rapids, where the Saskatchewan River joined Lake Winnipeg. Acting on this priceless nugget of intelligence, Williams surprised the Nor’Westers at Grand Rapids with a schooner armed with cannons and an assault team of 20 men. The partners were apprehended and the furs confiscated.Williams’ audacious coup-he had even arrested Benjamin Frobisher, a son of one of the North West Company’s founders put an effective end to the war in the Athabasca country.
Ironically, it was not the struggle in the woods and marshes of the beaver country that ultimately forced the North West Company to give up the fight. In the end, the Nor’Westers were defeated by the access of Bay Company governors to the corridors of power across the ocean in London. Hudson’s Bay could count on loans from the Bank of England to finance its fight against the Nor’Westers in Canada. And it was the Bay Company that still held the never-broken Royal Charter. There seemed no hope for the Nor’Westers but to form an alliance with their old enemies.
On March 26, 1821, the North West Fur Company officially merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The name of the new fur trade monopoly? The Hudson’s Bay Company. The toughminded business administrators of the Bay Company were now united with the dynamic Scots and voyageurs of the old Nor’Westers. It was not a moment too soon, for the new company would soon be confronting the greatest challenge in its history: the seemingly irresistible flood tide of American empire surging up the Pacific Coast and the Mississippi Valley. The Hudson’s Bay Company was the power down in Oregon; for example, until mountain man-turned-cattle driver Ewing Young and other Americans asserted their independence beginning in the late 1830s).
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