CAESARS OF THE WILDERNESS
Peter C. Newman
Canadians have traditionally prided themselves on having staged no wars or major revolutions, setting themselves apart from the citizens of most other countries as always having lived in a “peaceable kingdom.” Specifically, they have adopted the notion that Canada’s inland frontiers were settled in a series of orderly processions of fur traders, missionaries and farmers, with none of the violent equivalents of the American Wild West. But in his new book, Caesars of the Wilderness, being published this month, Maclean’s Senior Contributing Editor Peter C. Newman disputes that smug assumption. In the following exclusive excerpt, he documents the bloody vendetta that set the fur country ablaze between 1783 and 1821. It was a fight to the finish between the traders employed by the London-based royally chartered Hudson’s Bay Company and the self-employed upstarts of Montreal’s North West Company.
From Caesars of the Wilderness by Peter C. Newman. Copyright ® Power Reporting Ltd., 1987. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Canada Ltd.
Like crusaders of the Middle Ages, they ultimately failed in their quest and soiled the banner under which they set out to conquer a continent. But between 1783 and 1820 the Nor’Westers braved the wilderness and won. Operating out of their counting houses in Montreal and a hundred or so outposts connected by an inland navy of 2,000 canoeists, they challenged the power and majesty—the very existence—of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and fought the Royal Adventurers to a standstill.
The North West Company (NWC) was the first North American business to operate on a continental scale. Its vast fur-trade network was administered with greater efficiency and larger civil budgets than the provinces of Lower and Upper Canada. The NWC’s wilderness headquarters, first at Grand Portage an*1 later at Fort Kaministikwia (renamed Fort William in honor oi William McGillivray, the company’s second chief executive officer), could accommodate nearly 2,000 people at the height of the trading season, its 15-foot palisade of pointed timbers enclosing Canada’s first inland metropolis. Fort William’s 125 acres ac-
•oiiimodated 42 buildings massed in a rectangle paralleling the anding docks; its Great Hall, where the senior partners lived, ite, sat in council and celebrated their large and smaller triimphs, was spacious enough to seat 200 at a formal dinner.
In the charged atmosphere of multiplying confrontations ¡ver the fur harvest of the great Northwest, the two companies ‘ought one another with hardening determination and the bravado reminiscent of a civil war. There was no commercial feud ;o equal it, yet it was somehow typically Canadian that this struggle was not, as in the American West, concerned with loble assertions of individual liberty against land-hungry cattle .tarons and black-hatted railway promoters—or even a brave >ush for collective independence—but was rather an internesine feud between two houses of commerce locked in mortal sombat for greater profits.
Ostensibly, the struggle between the two companies was a jrporate contest for markets and furs, but it quickly turned nto a quest for power and territory. The competition for beaver >elts grew so intense that the northern reaches of America’s orests became a battleground. Both sides settled their accounts n blood. Snipers rode the riverbanks. Loaded cannons were ised to reclaim stolen cargoes. Murder and ambush, arson and heft, kidnapping and destruction of property became so common that the act of maiming a competitor was regarded as a condition of doing business.
In one assault, European mercenaries captured the Nor’Wesers’ main wilderness stronghold at Fort William. Both sides ibused their prisoners, and on the rustic outskirts of the HBC’s led River Colony, now Winnipeg, 20 settlers and the resident
governor were shot and their bodies mutilated by retainers of the North West Company. Worst of all, by concentrating on massive quantities of liquor as an irresistible lure in the frantic contest for the Indian trappers’ bounty, the traders of both companies debauched a civilization, leaving in their wake a dispirited people and nearly destroying a once-proud culture.
Only after the spiral of violence had exhausted itself by the 1821 amalgamation of the two companies’ 173 posts under the name and dominance of the HBC did it become clear how close the hostilities between the two firms had come to escalating into all-out war. When the NWC eventually turned in its weapons, the inventory of the Columbia department alone revealed that its Pacific Coast traders had been armed not only with the usual array of rifles and other small arms but with 32 cannons ranging from 18-pounders to half-pound swivel guns.
During the four decades that the feud lasted, each of the two competitors threw increasingly large cadres of men into the battle. The logistics of fur and goods purchasing and the need to co-ordinate a precariously overextended transportation network led to the development of a remarkably sophisticated trading system. The impact of those transcontinental routes was pervasive enough to work the magic that helped save Western Canada from being absorbed into the United States. The land had already been claimed through right of exploration by the Nor’Westers and later by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was a puny scattering of tiny outposts that held the line, but it was enough. And there was little doubt, as the Canadian furtrade historian Harold Innis once put it, that “the North West
Company was the forerunner” of Canadian Confederation.
The brigades of canoes, loaded to the gunwales with kegs of liquor and packs of trade goods, pushed up from the St. Lawrence along the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, over the height of land and across Lake Nipissing, down the French River to Georgian Bay, through the company’s primitive wooden lock at Sault Ste. Marie and into Lake Superior. At their northwestern terminus on Superior, the trade goods were transshipped into the smaller canots du nord (northern canoes), then paddied and portaged up through Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River into Lake Winnipeg for dispersal along the South and North Saskatchewan rivers and up the Red. The canoes also headed northwest up the Churchill River toward the dreaded Methy Portage that linked the river systems with outlets in the Arctic and Pacific watersheds.
Bringing the furs back to Montreal—the gathering point for their ultimate destination at London’s auction markets—meant backtracking over the same route. By the time the Nor’Westers were fully exploiting the prime fur-bearing grounds of the Athabasca Country, the supply line was more than 3,000 miles long. Those horrendous distances, as well as a climate that reduced the period of navigation on northern rivers to less than half the year, created the company’s greatest dilemma. Up to 30 months might elapse between the purchase of trade goods and the sale of the furs for which they had been bartered.
Within two decades of their incorporation the Nor’Westers controlled 78 per cent of Canadian fur sales and could caustically claim that the Hudson’s Bay Company was doing business “as if it were drawn by a dead horse.” They ruled the West. Despite perilously overextended supply lines, during the first decade and a half of the 19th century the Nor’West
partners earned gross profits estimated at £1,185,000, the equivalent of about $75 million in modern Canadian currency. That meant that original investments of £800 returned £16,000.
In the process of pursuing the fur trade and taking advantage of the buoyant London market for beaver hats, the Nor’Westers not only grew rich, they also became powerful, forming the fledgling colony’s first indigenous commercial
Establishment. Unlike the Bay men who went back across the Atlantic at the expiration of their contracts, most Nor’Westers settled down and stayed on. Many of the NWC partners built elegant houses at the foot of Montreal’s Mount Royal, capricious castles meant both to display their newly won riches and to proclaim their intention of establishing family dynasties. Their profits helped build the Bank of Montreal into what was briefly North America’s largest financial institution.
The fur barons tried hard to emulate their role models, the clan chiefs of Scotland, by building themselves huge overdone pavilions and carefully keeping score of one another’s ostentations. Joseph Frobisher, a Yorkshireman who passed as Lowland Scot, erected an impressive rock pile called Beaver Hall, whose sweeping driveway lined with Lombardy poplars welcomed every dignitary visiting Montreal. William McGillivray moved into Château St-Antoine, and many of the lesser partners purchased seigneuries along the St. Lawrence. There was a golden autumn quality about their sybaritic lives, with even their most delightful diversions pervaded by a subtle end-of-season mood.
The fur trade was a demanding but highly seasonal enterprise. While the rivers were frozen the Montreal-based nouveaux riches devoted their energies to outdoing one another at lavishly catered sleigh rides, card tournaments, private
TWELVE-FOOT DAVIS’S REVENGE
His real name was Henry Fuller Davis, and he was a Yankee from Vermont who headed northwest to the Cariboo during the gold rush of the late 1850s to try his luck. He could neither read nor write—but he could measure. One rainy night he realized that a 12-foot strip of land between two of the most productive claims on Williams Creek had not been properly
staked. So he grabbed that tiny wedge of ground, which quickly yielded gold worth $15,000 and made him known far and wide as Twelve-Foot Davis.
The bonanza soon exhausted itself but, unlike most of the other fortune hunters, Twelve-Foot Davis stayed on. He spent the rest of his life swapping goods for furs with local Indians, competing for a fading trade with the
mighty Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). They say that he never forgot a debt and always kept his tiny trading cabins stocked with emergency provisions as a welcome for weary travellers. According to one story, when a trapper named Johnny Split-Toe died before collecting what was due him for his pelts, Davis spent 10 years searching for Johnny’s son so that he could pay for them.
During the last half of the 19th century Davis was on the trading circuit, trying with little success to buck the HBC store. He grew to despise the company, not for any particular inci-
musical recitals and masked balls. One former winterer shod his favorite horse with silver and galloped through the city’s poorer districts, scattering showers of coins. He also loved riding into particularly fancy restaurants and ordering the animal a full-course meal. It was a comfortable, if self-indulgent, existence, but like veterans who can never transcend their time in the trenches the citified Nor’Westers yearned to recapture the wild freedom and excitement of the frontier.
Something, anything, to make the adrenalin pump again.
Those urges found their outlet in February, 1785, with the founding of the Beaver Club, that saturnalian dining phenomenon that became for its time the most exclusive fraternity on the continent. Nothing like it could have been created by the prosaic ramrods then in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Despite its astronomical liquor consumption, the Beaver Club was much more than an urban wateringhole.
There the Nor’Westers could abandon artificial dignities and re-create those heady times that had given meaning to their lives. Because it was only among their own that such nostalgia was lifted above its more mundane level of providing an excuse to get drunk and break furniture, membership in the Beaver Club was limited to 55 fur traders who had spent at least one full season in le pays d’en haut (the high country). Club rules were simple but rigidly followed. On admission
each new member had a gold medal struck, engraved with his name, initial wintering date and the club motto, “Fortitude in Distress.” These baubles were worn at fortnightly evening meetings, and there was a nominal cash penalty for leaving one’s medal at home.
The repasts were convened at prestigious local dining rooms such as Richard Dillon’s Montreal Hotel at Place d’Armes or the Mansion House at 156 St. Paul Street, where meals were served on the club’s own crested crystal and china with matching silver cutlery. The menu consisted of such country delicacies as wedges of pemmican, venison steaks,
roasted beaver tails and
1 pickled buffalo tongues, gFive toasts were proposed:
2 the Mother of All Saints;
I the King; the Fur Trade in
All Its Branches; Voya\ geurs, Wives and Children; and Absent Members. Any reveller who deviated in the order of those salutes was fined six bottles of Madeira. Each round was climaxed by the dashing of glasses into the fireplace. After that a peace pipe was passed around and the serious reminiscing and drinking began.
Usually no one was sober enough to keep minutes of the proceedings, but George T. Landmann, a visiting British officer, left this description of a typical meeting in his Adventures and Recollections: “In those days we dined at four o’clock, and after taking a satisfactory quantity of wine, the married men retired, leaving about a dozen to drink to their health. We now began in right earnest and true Highland style, and by four o’clock in the morning the whole of us had arrived at such a state of perfection that we could all give the war whoops as well as Mackenzie and McGillivray, we could all sing admirably, we could all drink like fishes and we all thought we could dance on the table without disturbing a single decanter, glass or plate. But on making the experiment we discovered that it was a complete delusion and ultimately, we broke all the plates, glasses, bottles, etc. and the table also, and worse than that all the heads and hands of the party received many severe contusions,
dent, but because being a free trader up against the enormous enterprise proved as tough a way to scratch a living as there was—especially for a man of his generous, if somewhat impractical, nature.
He was 80 when he died at Lesser Slave Lake, worn out by a harsh life but respected for his many kindnesses. It took a dozen years for Davis’s best friend, a frontier character named Col. Jim Cornwall, to carry out TwelveFoot’s last wish: that his remains be moved to a hilltop near Peace River Crossing. Cornwall erected a simple gravestone there in the shape of a pop-
lar stump, bearing his late partner’s epitaph: HE WAS EVERY MAN’S FRIEND AND NEVER LOCKED HIS CABIN DOOR.
The grave is there still, but according to local lore (confirmed by Cornwall before his own death) the real reason Davis had wanted to be buried in that unlikely spot high above the little settlement—directly overlooking the local HBC trading post—was not quite as romantic as the natural beauty of the site might indicate. “Bury me with the feet pointing downhill,” had been Twelve-Foot’s final instructions to the colonel, “so I can piss on the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
cuts and scratches. I was afterwards informed that 120 bottles of wine had been consumed at our convivial meeting.”
A highlight of the Beaver Club gatherings was the restaging of le grand voyage (the big voyage). Using that narrow window of opportunity between being uproariously drunk and actually passing out, the Nor’Westers would stumble around until they were seated on the floor, arranged two abreast, pretending they were steering a fast-moving canot du nord. Grasping fire tongs, pokers, walking sticks, swords and other likely looking implements as imaginary paddles, they bawled voyageur songs as they stroked ever faster, their eyes glazed, their faces beet-red with exertion. But even make-believe northern canoes must eventually encounter rapids—and that required a change of tactic. With the false shrewdness of the very drunk, the Nor’Westers would consider the possibilities, then clamber up on the dinner tables and pretend to ride the rapids by “shooting” to the floor astride empty wine casks, bellowing a variation on Indian war whoops that verged on Highland battle cries. By that time it might have been four or five in the morning, and the rented dining room resembled the field hospital of a vanquished army. The few members still upright would adjourn the meeting and stagger home.
Away from Montreal, the NWC’s winterers scattered across the Indian Country led isolated but endurable lives. Almost entirely cut off from the outside world, they created a universe of their own that often included country brides and families.
Unlike the HBC, the North West Company placed no restrictions on their traders’ taking Indian wives until 1806. Those relationships, which were formed at every level of the enterprise, were based on more than sexual gratification and became vital to the fur trade. The women acted as interpreters, mentors, and through their kinship links, vital conduits into Indian society. Women dressed the hides, made the moccasins and snowshoes, pounded the pemmican, netted the snowshoes and acted as porters when no animal power was available.
There is evidence that an active trade in female slaves was sponsored by some of the NWC winterers. When Archibald McLeod, who later became a senior member of the Beaver Club, was stationed at Fort Alexandria on the upper Assiniboine, he noted in his diary: “I gave the Chef de Canard’s widow to the amount of 28 plus, and took the Slave Woman, whom next fall I shall sell for a good price to one of the men.” James McKenzie, who participated in the Northwest fur trade for 27 years, described in his journal entry of April 9, 1800, how complicated some of the human transactions could become: “His Indian brought his daughter, who deserted in the course of the winter from Morin, at Slave Lake, in order to be returned to her husband. Mr. Porter wrote me, by Morin’s orders, to sell her to the highest bidder and credit Morin for the amount. Two advantages may be reaped from
this affair. The first is that it will assist to discharge the debts of a man unable to do it by any other means, for he is neither good middleman, foreman, steersman, interpreter or carpenter. The second is that it may be the means to tricking some lecherous miser to part with some of his hoard. I therefore kept the woman to be disposed of in the season when the Peace River bucks look out for women, in the month of May.” There were examples of women and girls as young as nine or 10 being traded for horses or kegs of rum, but such transactions were a perversion of Indian custom. More common was the taking of “country wives” in temporary marriages that customarily lasted the length of a Nor’Wester’s posting—although many such liaisons endured the stretch of
their partners’ lives. If the traders’ diaries are to be believed, some of those matings were entered into by the men with considerable initial reluctance.
Alexander Henry the Younger, who travelled the Northwest accompanied by a tame dancing bear, left behind a 1,600-page journal describing his encounters with the Plains Indians. Occasionally he would come across some exceptional scene such as this one that he recorded in his diary: “The Indians appear to be destitute or ignorant of all shame or modesty. In their visits to our establishments, women are arti| cles of temporary barter § with our men. For a few l inches of twist tobacco, an I Indian will barter the per^ son of his wife or daughter with as much cold-bloodg edness as he would barI gain for a horse. He has no equal in such an affair, though the Blackfoot, Blood or Peigan is now nearly as bad—in fact, all those tribes are a nuisance when they come to the forest with their women. They intrude upon every room and cabin in the place, and even though a trader may have a family of his own, they insist upon doing them the charity of accepting the company of at least one woman for the night. It is sometimes with the greatest difficulty that we can get the fort clear of them in the evening and shut the gates.”
On New Year’s Day, 1801, Henry awoke with a chief’s dark-eyed daughter in his bed. “His daughter took possession of my room,” he complained, “and the devil himself could not have got her out.” After a month of sparring he accepted the young woman as his companion. Four years later, while he was away from his post at Fort Pembina, Henry’s in-laws were massacred by a raiding party of Sioux. When he later rode out to survey the remains of his family’s camp beyond the fort’s gates, Henry found only his father-in-law’s torso, the skull having been carried off by the raiders as a water dish. “I gathered up the remaining bones of my belle-mère in a handkerchief,” he lamented, “then I gave a party of 300 Assiniboines Saulteaux and Cree a nine-gallon keg of gunpowder and 100 musket balls. ‘Go,’ I encouraged them. ‘Revenge the death of my beau-père and his family.’ ”
The NWC traders left behind a legacy of alcoholism, syphilis and mixed-blood babies—the sons of many North Country
ARTERIES TO THE HEARTLAND
T he fur-trappers and traders used a 3,000-mile network of water ways-with occasional portagesthrough the rugged wilderness and established a scattering of rough hewn forts, several of which eventu ally became major cities.
liaisons being absorbed into the fur trade—while some of the daughters were sent to the East for convent educations.
Throughout its glory days the North West Company sought in vain what the HBC took for granted: direct seaaccess into the continent’s midriff and a monopoly sanctioned by royal decree over the trading area within its jurisdiction. Because the Hudson Bay route reduced the cost of transportation by more than 1,500 canoe-miles, the geographical ad-
vantages clearly lay with the HBC. Never able to establish themselves on Hudson Bay, the Nor’Westers stepped over the edge of the horizon and explored virgin lands beyond the known world. The NWC’S profitability depended on constantly moving onward and outward to tap newer and richer animal preserves. That, in turn, meant maintaining an ever-lengthening transportation system with large and multiplying overhead expenditures. Unlike the more sedentary Bay men, the Nor’Westers were constantly in motion. As the beaver lodges in relatively accessible corners were trapped out, the canoes moved ever farther afield—and the longer the network, the less viable it became.
To outsiders observing the pride and the arrogance, the fight and the flux of the Nor'Westers. the imoression was one of
omnipotence; the reality was much closer to frailty. The qualities that made the NWC great inexorably drove it to the wall.
What finally decided the outcome of the battle between the NWC and HBC was that the once-staid HBC transformed itself into a mirror image of the enterprise it was trying to defeat. The HBC lost more battles but won the war, partly because it eventually recruited the quality Highlanders previously sought out only by the North West Company and because it adopted the Montrealers’ field tactics. With the escalation of hostilities, the governors expanded their inland facilities and incurred expenses with a momentum that had been the exclusive trait of their opponents. They also established an aggressive policy to drive their rivals out of competing fur areas by setting their barter exchange rates with the Indians
at levels ruinous to the Nor’Westers. As the long fight wore on, the once-quiescent royally chartered company emerged in the guise of a band of merry adventurers determined to surpass the derring-do of the Montrealers.
Conversely, the Montrealers were ultimately defeated because the metamorphosis did not, could not, work both ways. Their British rivals could adopt the Nor’Westers’ methods and ethics simply by altering their strategy and personnel,
never losing the sustaining advantages of access to long-term credit from the Bank of England, a supportive bulwark of highly placed politicians willing to respect the monopoly bestowed by an antique charter— and, above all, a management committee whose members, awash in alternative sources of income, could afford to skip dividends and, if necessary, help tide the company over with personal loans. Those were privileges more easily envied then copied. Even at the height of its power, when the North West Company’s domain extended from Lachine to the Arctic, over to the Pacific and back again, it lacked secure longterm financing and enjoyed no significant claims to British money at a time when most investment funds emanated from London. By 1821 the North West Company was bankrupt; its men and operations were
absorbed by the HBC.
The North West Company’s defiant alliance of voyageurs and Highlanders whose audacity had established Canada’s first indigenous national enterprise vanished almost overnight. Instead of spawning dynasties, the NWC partners left their heirs deep in debt, and their castles turned out to be only monuments to their self-indulgence. They had set down the matrix of a country and had been its uncrowned rulers, but were brought down by overextending their reach. “The feudal state of Fort William,” elegized the popular American author and historian Washington Irving, “is at an end; its council chamber is silent and desolate; its banquet hall no longer echoes to the auld-world ditty; the lords of the lakes and the forests are all passed away.”