Objects of American Enterprise.--Gold Hunting and Fur Trading.-- Their Effect on Colonization.--Early
French Canadian Settlers.-- Ottawa and Huron Hunters.--An Indian Trading Camp.--Coureurs Des
Bois, or Rangers of the Woods.--Their Roaming Life.--Their Revels and Excesses.--Licensed
Traders.--Missionaries.--Trading Posts.--Primitive French Canadian Merchant.--His Establishment and
Dependents.--British Canadian Fur Merchant.--Origin of the Northwest Company.--Its Constitution.--Its
Internal Trade.--A Candidate for the Company.--Privations in the Wilderness.--Northwest Clerks.
--Northwest Partners.--Northwest Nabobs.--Feudal Notions in the Forests.--The Lords of the
Lakes.--Fort William.--Its Parliamentary Hall and Banqueting Room.--Wassailing in the Wilderness.
TWO leading objects of commercial gain have given birth to wide and daring enterprise in the early
history of the Americas; the precious metals of the South, and the rich peltries of the North. While the
fiery and magnificent Spaniard, inflamed with the mania for gold, has extended his discoveries and
conquests over those brilliant countries scorched by the ardent sun of the tropics, the adroit and buoyant
Frenchman, and the cool and calculating Briton, have pursued the less splendid, but no less lucrative,
traffic in furs amidst the hyperborean regions of the Canadas, until they have advanced even within the
These two pursuits have thus in a manner been the pioneers and precursors of civilization. Without
pausing on the borders, they have penetrated at once, in defiance of difficulties and dangers, to the heart
of savage countries: laying open the hidden secrets of the wilderness; leading the way to remote regions
of beauty and fertility that might have remained unexplored for ages, and beckoning after them the slow
and pausing steps of agriculture and civilization.
It was the fur trade, in fact, which gave early sustenance and vitality to the great Canadian provinces.
Being destitute of the precious metals, at that time the leading objects of American enterprise, they were
long neglected by the parent country. The French adventurers, however, who had settled on the banks of
the St. Lawrence, soon found that in the rich peltries of the interior, they had sources of wealth that might
almost rival the mines of Mexico and Peru. The Indians, as yet unacquainted with the artificial value
given to some descriptions of furs, in civilized life, brought quantities of the most precious kinds and
bartered them away for European trinkets and cheap commodities. Immense profits were thus made by
the early traders, and the traffic was pursued with avidity.
As the valuable furs soon became scarce in the neighborhood of the settlements, the Indians of the
vicinity were stimulated to take a wider range in their hunting expeditions; they were generally
accompanied on these expeditions by some of the traders or their dependents, who shared in the toils
and perils of the chase, and at the same time made themselves acquainted with the best hunting and
trapping grounds, and with the remote tribes, whom they encouraged to bring their peltries to the
settlements. In this way the trade augmented, and was drawn from remote quarters to Montreal. Every
now and then a large body of Ottawas, Hurons, and other tribes who hunted the countries bordering on
the great lakes, would come down in a squadron of light canoes, laden with beaver skins, and other
spoils of their year's hunting. The canoes would be unladen, taken on shore, and their contents disposed
in order. A camp of birch bark would be pitched outside of the town, and a kind of primitive fair opened
with that grave ceremonial so dear to the Indians. An audience would be demanded of the governor-general, who would hold the conference with becoming state, seated in an elbow-chair, with the Indians
ranged in semicircles before him, seated on the ground, and silently smoking their pipes. Speeches
would be made, presents exchanged, and the audience would break up in universal good humor.
Now would ensue a brisk traffic with the merchants, and all Montreal would be alive with naked Indians
running from shop to shop, bargaining for arms, kettles, knives, axes, blankets, bright-colored cloths, and
other articles of use or fancy; upon all which, says an old French writer, the merchants were sure to clear
at least two hundred per cent. There was no money used in this traffic, and, after a time, all payment in
spirituous liquors was prohibited, in consequence of the frantic and frightful excesses and bloody brawls
which they were apt to occasion.
Their wants and caprices being supplied, they would take leave of the governor, strike their tents, launch
their canoes, and ply their way up the Ottawa to the lakes.
A new and anomalous class of men gradually grew out of this trade. These were called coureurs des
bois, rangers of the woods; originally men who had accompanied the Indians in their hunting expeditions,
and made themselves acquainted with remote tracts and tribes; and who now became, as it were,
peddlers of the wilderness. These men would set out from Montreal with canoes well stocked with goods,
with arms and ammunition, and would make their way up the mazy and wandering rivers that interlace
the vast forests of the Canadas, coasting the most remote lakes, and creating new wants and habitudes
among the natives. Sometimes they sojourned for months among them, assimilating to their tastes and
habits with the happy facility of Frenchmen, adopting in some degree the Indian dress, and not
unfrequently taking to themselves Indian wives.
Twelve, fifteen, eighteen months would often elapse without any tidings of them, when they would come
sweeping their way down the Ottawa in full glee, their canoes laden down with packs of beaver skins.
Now came their turn for revelry and extravagance. "You would be amazed," says an old writer already
quoted, "if you saw how lewd these peddlers are when they return; how they feast and game, and how
prodigal they are, not only in their clothes, but upon their sweethearts. Such of them as are married have
the wisdom to retire to their own houses; but the bachelors act just as an East Indiaman and pirates are
wont to do; for they lavish, eat, drink, and play all away as long as the goods hold out; and when these
are gone, they even sell their embroidery, their lace, and their clothes. This done, they are forced upon a
new voyage for subsistence."(1)
Many of these coureurs des bois became so accustomed to the Indian mode of living, and the perfect
freedom of the wilderness, that they lost relish for civilization, and identified themselves with the savages
among whom they dwelt, or could only be distinguished from them by superior licentiousness. Their
conduct and example gradually corrupted the natives, and impeded the works of the Catholic
missionaries, who were at this time prosecuting their pious labors in the wilds of Canada.
To check these abuses, and to protect the fur trade from various irregularities practiced by these loose
adventurers, an order was issued by the French government prohibiting all persons, on pain of death,
from trading into the interior of the country without a license.
These licenses were granted in writing by the governor-general, and at first were given only to persons of
respectability; to gentlemen of broken fortunes; to old officers of the army who had families to provide
for; or to their widows. Each license permitted the fitting out of two large canoes with merchandise for the
lakes, and no more than twenty-five licenses were to be issued in one year. By degrees, however, private
licenses were also granted, and the number rapidly increased. Those who did not choose to fit out the
expeditions themselves, were permitted to sell them to the merchants; these employed the coureurs des
bois, or rangers of the woods, to undertake the long voyages on shares, and thus the abuses of the old
system were revived and continued.(2)
The pious missionaries employed by the Roman Catholic Church to convert the Indians, did everything in
their power to counteract the profligacy caused and propagated by these men in the heart of the
wilderness. The Catholic chapel might often be seen planted beside the trading house, and its spire
surmounted by a cross, towering from the midst of an Indian village, on the banks of a river or a lake.
The missions had often a beneficial effect on the simple sons of the forest, but had little power over the
renegades from civilization.
At length it was found necessary to establish fortified posts at the confluence of the rivers and the lakes
for the protection of the trade, and the restraint of these profligates of the wilderness. The most important
of these was at Michilimackinac, situated at the strait of the same name, which connects Lakes Huron
and Michigan. It became the great interior mart and place of deposit, and some of the regular merchants
who prosecuted the trade in person, under their licenses, formed establishments here. This, too, was a
rendezvous for the rangers of the woods, as well those who came up with goods from Montreal as those
who returned with peltries from the interior. Here new expeditions were fitted out and took their departure
for Lake Michigan and the Mississippi; Lake Superior and the Northwest; and here the peltries brought in
return were embarked for Montreal.
The French merchant at his trading post, in these primitive days of Canada, was a kind of commercial
patriarch. With the lax habits and easy familiarity of his race, he had a little world of self-indulgence and
misrule around him. He had his clerks, canoe men, and retainers of all kinds, who lived with him on
terms of perfect sociability, always calling him by his Christian name; he had his harem of Indian
beauties, and his troop of halfbreed children; nor was there ever wanting a louting train of Indians,
hanging about the establishment, eating and drinking at his expense in the intervals of their hunting
The Canadian traders, for a long time, had troublesome competitors in the British merchants of New
York, who inveigled the Indian hunters and the coureurs des bois to their posts, and traded with them on
more favorable terms. A still more formidable opposition was organized in the Hudson's Bay Company,
chartered by Charles II., in 1670, with the exclusive privilege of establishing trading houses on the shores
of that bay and its tributary rivers; a privilege which they have maintained to the present day. Between
this British company and the French merchants of Canada, feuds and contests arose about alleged
infringements of territorial limits, and acts of violence and bloodshed occurred between their agents.
In 1762, the French lost possession of Canada, and the trade fell principally into the hands of British
subjects. For a time, however, it shrunk within narrow limits. The old coureurs des bois were broken up
and dispersed, or, where they could be met with, were slow to accustom themselves to the habits and
manners of their British employers. They missed the freedom, indulgence, and familiarity of the old
French trading houses, and did not relish the sober exactness, reserve, and method of the new-comers.
The British traders, too, were ignorant of the country, and distrustful of the natives. They had reason to
be so. The treacherous and bloody affairs of Detroit and Michilimackinac showed them the lurking
hostility cherished by the savages, who had too long been taught by the French to regard them as
It was not until the year 1766, that the trade regained its old channels; but it was then pursued with much
avidity and emulation by individual merchants, and soon transcended its former bounds. Expeditions
were fitted out by various persons from Montreal and Michilimackinac, and rivalships and jealousies of
course ensued. The trade was injured by their artifices to outbid and undermine each other; the Indians
were debauched by the sale of spirituous liquors, which had been prohibited under the French rule.
Scenes of drunkeness, brutality, and brawl were the consequence, in the Indian villages and around the
trading houses; while bloody feuds took place between rival trading parties when they happened to
encounter each other in the lawless depths of the wilderness.
To put an end to these sordid and ruinous contentions, several of the principal merchants of Montreal
entered into a partnership in the winter of 1783, which was augmented by amalgamation with a rival
company in 1787. Thus was created the famous "Northwest Company," which for a time held a lordly
sway over the wintry lakes and boundless forests of the Canadas, almost equal to that of the East India
Company over the voluptuous climes and magnificent realms of the Orient.
The company consisted of twenty-three shareholders, or partners, but held in its employ about two
thousand persons as clerks, guides, interpreters, and "voyageurs," or boatmen. These were distributed at
various trading posts, established far and wide on the interior lakes and rivers, at immense distances
from each other, and in the heart of trackless countries and savage tribes.
Several of the partners resided in Montreal and Quebec, to manage the main concerns of the company.
These were called agents, and were personages of great weight and importance; the other partners took
their stations at the interior posts, where they remained throughout the winter, to superintend the
intercourse with the various tribes of Indians. They were thence called wintering partners.
The goods destined for this wide and wandering traffic were put up at the warehouses of the company in
Montreal, and conveyed in batteaux, or boats and canoes, up the river Attawa, or Ottowa, which falls into
the St. Lawrence near Montreal, and by other rivers and portages, to Lake Nipising, Lake Huron, Lake
Superior, and thence, by several chains of great and small lakes, to Lake Winnipeg, Lake Athabasca,
and the Great Slave Lake. This singular and beautiful system of internal seas, which renders an
immense region of wilderness so accessible to the frail bark of the Indian or the trader, was studded by
the remote posts of the company, where they carried on their traffic with the surrounding tribes.
The company, as we have shown, was at first a spontaneous association of merchants; but, after it had
been regularly organized, admission into it became extremely difficult. A candidate had to enter, as it
were, "before the mast," to undergo a long probation, and to rise slowly by his merits and services. He
began, at an early age, as a clerk, and served an apprenticeship of seven years, for which he received
one hundred pounds sterling, was maintained at the expense of the company, and furnished with suitable
clothing and equipments. His probation was generally passed at the interior trading posts; removed for
years from civilized society, leading a life almost as wild and precarious as the savages around him;
exposed to the severities of a northern winter, often suffering from a scarcity of food, and sometimes
destitute for a long time of both bread and salt. When his apprenticeship had expired, he received a
salary according to his deserts, varying from eighty to one hundred and sixty pounds sterling, and was
now eligible to the great object of his ambition, a partnership in the company; though years might yet
elapse before he attained to that enviable station.
Most of the clerks were young men of good families, from the Highlands of Scotland, characterized by
the perseverance, thrift, and fidelity of their country, and fitted by their native hardihood to encounter the
rigorous climate of the North, and to endure the trials and privations of their lot; though it must not be
concealed that the constitutions of many of them became impaired by the hardships of the wilderness,
and their stomachs injured by occasional famishing, and especially by the want of bread and salt. Now
and then, at an interval of years, they were permitted to come down on a visit to the establishment at
Montreal, to recruit their health, and to have a taste of civilized life; and these were brilliant spots in their
As to the principal partners, or agents, who resided in Montreal and Quebec, they formed a kind of
commercial aristocracy, living in lordly and hospitable style. Their posts, and the pleasures, dangers,
adventures, and mishaps which they had shared together in their wild wood life, had linked them heartily
to each other, so that they formed a convivial fraternity. Few travellers that have visited Canada some
thirty years since, in the days of the M'Tavishes, the M'Gillivrays, the M'Kenzies, the Frobishers, and the
other magnates of the Northwest, when the company was in all its glory, but must remember the round of
feasting and revelry kept up among these hyperborean nabobs.
Sometimes one or two partners, recently from the interior posts, would make their appearance in New
York, in the course of a tour of pleasure and curiosity. On these occasions there was a degree of
magnificence of the purse about them, and a peculiar propensity to expenditure at the goldsmith's and
jeweler's for rings, chains, brooches, necklaces, jeweled watches, and other rich trinkets, partly for their
own wear, partly for presents to their female acquaintances; a gorgeous prodigality, such as was often to
be noticed in former times in Southern planters and West India creoles, when flush with the profits of
To behold the Northwest Company in all its state and grandeur, however, it was necessary to witness an
annual gathering at the great interior place of conference established at Fort William, near what is called
the Grand Portage, on Lake Superior. Here two or three of the leading partners from Montreal proceeded
once a year to meet the partners from the various trading posts of the wilderness, to discuss the affairs of
the company during the preceding year, and to arrange plans for the future.
On these occasions might be seen the change since the unceremonious times of the old French traders;
now the aristocratic character of the Briton shone forth magnificently, or rather the feudal spirit of the
Highlander. Every partner who had charge of an interior post, and a score of retainers at his Command,
felt like the chieftain of a Highland clan, and was almost as important in the eyes of his dependents as of
himself. To him a visit to the grand conference at Fort William was a most important event, and he
repaired there as to a meeting of parliament.
The partners from Montreal, however, were the lords of the ascendant; coming from the midst of
luxurious and ostentatious life, they quite eclipsed their compeers from the woods, whose forms and
faces had been battered and hardened by hard living and hard service, and whose garments and
equipments were all the worse for wear. Indeed, the partners from below considered the whole dignity of
the company as represented in their persons, and conducted themselves in suitable style. They
ascended the rivers in great state, like sovereigns making a progress: or rather like Highland chieftains
navigating their subject lakes. They were wrapped in rich furs, their huge canoes freighted with every
convenience and luxury, and manned by Canadian voyageurs, as obedient as Highland clansmen. They
carried up with them cooks and bakers, together with delicacies of every kind, and abundance of choice
wines for the banquets which attended this great convocation. Happy were they, too, if they could meet
with some distinguished stranger; above all, some titled member of the British nobility, to accompany
them on this stately occasion, and grace their high solemnities.
Fort William, the scene of this important annual meeting, was a considerable village on the banks of
Lake Superior. Here, in an immense wooden building, was the great council hall, as also the banqueting
chamber, decorated with Indian arms and accoutrements, and the trophies of the fur trade. The house
swarmed at this time with traders and voyageurs, some from Montreal, bound to the interior posts; some
from the interior posts, bound to Montreal. The councils were held in great state, for every member felt
as if sitting in parliament, and every retainer and dependent looked up to the assemblage with awe, as to
the House of Lords. There was a vast deal of solemn deliberation, and hard Scottish reasoning, with an
occasional swell of pompous declamation.
These grave and weighty councils were alternated by huge feasts and revels, like some of the old feasts
described in Highland castles. The tables in the great banqueting room groaned under the weight of
game of all kinds; of venison from the woods, and fish from the lakes, with hunters' delicacies, such as
buffalos' tongues, and beavers' tails, and various luxuries from Montreal, all served up by experienced
cooks brought for the purpose. There was no stint of generous wine, for it was a hard-drinking period, a
time of loyal toasts, and bacchanalian songs, and brimming bumpers.
While the chiefs thus revelled in hall, and made the rafters resound with bursts of loyalty and old Scottish
songs, chanted in voices cracked and sharpened by the northern blast, their merriment was echoed and
prolonged by a mongrel legion of retainers, Canadian voyageurs, half-breeds, Indian hunters, and
vagabond hangers-on who feasted sumptuously without on the crumbs that fell from their table, and
made the welkin ring with old French ditties, mingled with Indian yelps and yellings.
Such was the Northwest Company in its powerful and prosperous days, when it held a kind of feudal sway over a vast domain of lake and forest. We are dwelling too long, perhaps, upon these individual pictures, endeared to us by the associations of early life, when, as yet a stripling youth, we have sat at the hospitable boards of the "mighty Northwesters," the lords of the ascendant at Montreal, and gazed with wondering and inexperienced eye at the baronial wassailing, and listened with astonished ear to their tales of hardship and adventures. It is one object of our task, however, to present scenes of the rough life of the wilderness, and we are tempted to fix these few memorials of a transient state of things fast passing into oblivion;--for the feudal state of Fort William is at an end, its council chamber is silent and deserted; its banquet hall no longer echoes to the burst of loyalty, or the "auld world" ditty; the lords of the lakes and forests have passed away; and the hospitable magnates of Montreal--where are they?
1. La Hontan, v. i. Iet. 4.
2. The following are the terms on which these expeditions were commonly undertaken. The
merchant holding the license would fit out the two canoes with a thousand crowns' worth of goods, and
put them under the conduct of six coureuis des bois, to whom the goods were charged at the rate of
fifteen per cent above the ready money price in the colony. The coureurs des bois, in their turn, dealt so
sharply with the savages that they generally returned, at the end of a year or so, with four canoes well
laden, so as to insure a clear profit of seven hundred per cent., insomuch that the thousand crowns
invested, produced eight thousand. Of this extravagant profit the merchant had the lion's share. In the
first place he would set aside six hundred crowns for the cost of his license, then a thousand crowns for
the cost of the original merchandise. This would leave six thousand four hundred crowns, from which he
would take forty per cent., for bottomry, amounting to two thousand five hundred and sixty crowns. The
residue would be equally divided among the six wood rangers, who would thus receive little more than
six hundred crowns for all their toils and perils.