North West Company
The North West Company was, according to journalist and historian Peter Newman, “the first North American business to operate on a continental scale.” Between 1783 and 1821, the company created an extensive fur-trading network that stretched 3,000 miles from Montreal to the Athabasca Country of the North West and included 100 outposts along the way. The richness of the fur trade—including beaver, bear, fox, otter, muskrat, marten, mink, lynx, wolverine, fisher, and wolf, as well as deer and elk hides—yielded extensive profits for its Montreal, Quebec, investors.
In response to the loss of territories south of the Great Lakes in the American Revolution (1775–83), a number of Montreal fur-trading firms joined together during the 1780s to form the North West Company. By 1800, the company was far exceeding all rivals, including the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1811, Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, who owned controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company, obtained from the latter a grant of 116,000 square miles of land at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers near Lake Winnipeg to establish a colony of Scottish and Irish immigrants who had been driven from their lands as a result of the enclosure movement. In reaction, the North West Company, fearing loss of access to the valuable fur-bearing regions of the Northwest as well as to its essential supply of pemmican, joined with local Métis (Canadians of mixed white and indigenous heritage) in an attempt to drive the settlers away. This led to a frontier war, in which Lord Selkirk hired German, Swiss, French, and Polish mercenary veterans of the War of 1812 to attack the North West Company’s interior headquarters at Fort William. Although the North West Company had been successful at first, sounder finance and a gradual adaptation to wilderness warfare enabled the Hudson’s Bay Company to prevail. Under pressure from the British government, in 1821, the two companies merged, with North West shareholders receiving shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1824, a reorganization led to an almost complete loss of influence by former shareholders of the North West Company.