The Grand Portage Story
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The Hurly-Burly of Business

The early 1780s brought two events that would have a profound effect on the history of Grand Portage.

In 1781 and 1782, one of the worst epidemics in North American history swept across the western half of the continent. It was smallpox. The horror of it was still fresh for traders who wrote years after: it "spread its destructive and desolating power, as the fire consumes the dry grass of the field. The fatal infection spread around with a baneful rapidity which no flight could escape. . . . it destroyed . . . whole families and tribes." [1]

The disease seems to have started on the Missouri River and spread north and west till it decimated the population as far as Athabasca. The casualty rate was higher than the Black Death in Europe—most estimates said two-thirds of the population died. Whole villages stood deserted. Hungry dogs mauled the corpses, for no one was left to bury them. One fur trader who went west that year first learned of the tragedy when he met a few survivors who were "in such a state of despair and despondence that they could hardly converse with us. . . . We proceeded up the River with heavy hearts. . . . When we arrived at the House instead of a crowd of Indians to welcome us, all was solitary silence, our hearts failed us." [2]

The population of northern Minnesota did not escape. Ojibway tradition says that a war party of Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibway went to attack a village on the Missouri River but found it inhabited only by the dead. They brought the disease back to the Red River, from which it spread to Rainy Lake, then to Grand Portage, and south to Leech and Sandy lakes. Years later a traveler in this region commented, "This great extent of country was formerly very populous, but [now] the aggregate of its inhabitants does not exceed three hundred warriors; and, among the few whom I saw, it appeared to me that the widows were more numerous than the men." [3]

The seal of the North West Company. (National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

It would be hard to overstate the effect of the epidemic on Indian society. Craft techniques died with the artisans; with the elders went medicine knowledge, tribal history, religious traditions, stories, and songs. The political structure faltered when clan leaders died. People left without families had no one to protect them, and in the decades following, reports of domestic violence and murder became more common. [4]

At the time and ever since, the Indians suspected that the whites had introduced the disease deliberately. Such biological warfare had been practiced by the British during the French and Indian War. But in this case it seems unlikely. The fur trade was entirely dependent on Indian hunters and artisans. Traders were salesmen, and it was against their interest to kill their customers. In fact, the Hudson's Bay Company belatedly sponsored a vaccination program, but it did little good. There was a precipitous decline in fur returns in 1782-83. But though traders may not have been responsible, they did not hesitate to take grisly advantage of the situation. At least one of them stole beaver-pelt shrouds from corpses and collected skins offered up as sacrifices. [5]

Smallpox changed the demographic ratio of whites to Indians, and the balance of power shifted. Hitherto, traders had been guests in a thriving society with its own systems of justice and control. Now, with Indian society reeling, the traders unleashed their own sense of justice and hierarchy. Duncan McGillivray, one of the fur trade's autocratic upper class, set the tone. He wanted to see the Indians "dependent; and consequently industrious & subordinate." The trade, which in many ways had reached a mutually beneficial balance, began to show signs of exploitation and domination. [6]

Lords of the Lakes and Forests

The second important—and not unrelated—event of the 1780s was the founding of the North West Company.

Actually, the kernel of the company had existed since 1775, and the name was even used by various annual mergers that formed throughout the late 1770s. Some historians have picked the coalition of 1779 as the founding. Others name the one of 1782. But the participants themselves often pointed to 1784. Unlike the 1779 agreement, which was formed in summer at Grand Portage, this one was hatched in January, in Montreal—meaning that it was the brainchild of Montreal merchants rather than wintering traders, The center of power had shifted. [7]

Places and Waterways of the North American Fur Trade. (click on image for a PDF version)

The structure of the company would have given a modern corporate lawyer nightmares. It was never a single corporation, but a loose association of companies. The best modern term is cartel. On the Montreal side were the various merchant houses, dominated by the Frobishers and Simon McTavish, each of which received a proportion of the importing and shipping business equal to the number of shares it owned. Each company kept separate books and might deal in other lines of business unrelated to the fur trade. The winterers, instead of being the proprietors of competing companies, became heads of various geographical "departments," each with separate accounts. The departments were so independent that the Montreal partners even charged them separately for interest and shipping. At the end of each yearly agreement the profits were paid out to the share holders in proportion to their investment, so there was no company treasury. [8]

At first there were sixteen shares, divided between winterers and Montreal agents. But each reorganization gathered more competitors into the fold, and by 1805 there were a hundred shares. One clue to the company's self-image was the fact that it called its fiscal years "adventures." The accounts of each adventure had to be kept separate because the partners were in such a constant state of fratricidal warfare that the company had to be reorganized almost yearly.

Amazingly, it worked. One key was a decision that the partners made in 1787: no share in the company could be sold or granted to anyone but those who had risen through the ranks. Two-thirds of the partners had to approve the new shareholder. This rule strengthened the incentive of the lower-level employees and the camaraderie of the partners. The North West Company became a brotherhood, an exclusive club whose members had all gone past the divide and had their baptism in the ways of the west. They had become "lords of the lakes and forests," in the nostalgic words of Washington Irving. Outsiders often remarked on their esprit de corps: the quiet, inky-fingered clerk of the old [Hudson's Bay] Company, expecting only his poor salary, was no match for the fiery youth who worked on shares." [9]

By 1798 the North West Company employed 50 clerks, 71 interpreter-clerks, 35 guides, and 1,120 canoemen. True to the strict class- and race-consciousness of its founders, the company was a hierarchical organization, but it was a hierarchy that men with the right connections—and the right ethnic background—could climb. At the top were the partners, on bourgeois, divided into the Montreal agents and wintering partners. The winterers, each of whom had charge of a district, enjoyed privileges: for example, nations of tea, coffee, and chocolate; a larger allowance of personal belongings; servants or slaves; travel in a "light" canoe set aside for themselves and their baggage. And perhaps the most competed-for, occasional trips back east. [10]

Below the partners were the many "gentlemen" employees who were trying to climb into the ranks of shareholders. A well-educated young man entered the company in his teens or early twenties as a clerk or commis. He signed a contract to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in the west for only £100 total and the possibility of getting a share at the end. Some called the seven-year contract "slavery" and "servitude." [11]

Clerks were what most people mean when they say traders. The more experienced, called head clerks, were in charge of individual posts. They kept the accounts and did much of the actual bargaining with the Indians. Yet at the end of their seven years, they often found no shares available. Most opted to stay on at a salary of £100 to £300 a year, still hoping for a partnership, for which "we must depend on success in trade and friends in power." In the closed society of the North West Company, promotion was highly political. In summers when a share became available, Grand Portage was the scene of intense lobbying. Clerks without the right friends or relatives had to wait, sometimes for fifteen or twenty years. They complained bitterly about how promotion was reserved for "dissembling courtiers" rather than hard-working men.

Below the clerks were the clerk-interpreters, often literate mixed-bloods. Most worked on salary, without any expectation of becoming partners. And at the bottom were the illiterate "common laboring men." From the 1780s on, more and more Scots filled the upper echelons, while the lower were open to French Canadians, Iroquois, and mixed-blood Algonquians.

The laborers, too, were divided into ranks. Their canoe skills determined their status. The least skilled were the middlemen (milieux in French), who worked in the center of the canoe and carried the goods across portages. Next came the foreman (avant) and steersman (gouvernail), whose jobs were to direct and steer the vessel and to carry it over portages. Each brigade of four to six canoes had an experienced guide who chose the proper route through the mazy waterways, commanded the canoemen, and was responsible for the vessels and their ladings. Like the captain of a ship, the guide had absolute authority in his sphere—down to countermanding the orders of a bourgeois. [12]

The gentlemen of the company looked on the voyageurs with a paternalistic fondness as "common people that must necessarily be employed in the menial offices of this Trade." They freely acknowledged the boatmen's skill—it was astonishing, said one, "to witness the dexterity with which they manage their canoes in those dangerous rapids, carrying them down like lightening [sic] on the surface of the water." Most of the gentlemen's praise, however, was reserved for doglike qualities of obedience and mindless endurance—"No men are more submissive to their leaders and employers, more capable of enduring hardship, or more good-humored under privations. Never are they so happy as when on long and rough expeditions, toiling up river or coasting lakes." [13]

(omitted from the online edition)
A North canoe on Clove Lake during a 1989 voyageur reenactment. (© Will Goddard)

But there was also suspicion, prejudice, and conflict between the classes. "Keep every thing as secret as you can from your men," one bourgeois advised an inexperienced clerk; "otherwise these old voyageurs will fish all they know out of your Green Hands." An educated French-Canadian clerk found the laborers' dialect a "barbaric jargon"; some called it "Français sauvage. Daniel Harmon wondered, "What conversation would an illiterate ignorant Canadian be able to keep up. All of their chat is about Horses, Dogs, Canoes and Women, and strong Men who can fight a good battle." The voyageurs, he continued, "make very indifferent Companions, and with whom I cannot associate." [14]

The prejudice went both ways, as another young clerk, George Nelson, found when he was injured on his way to Grand Portage from his wintering post. Unable to walk, Nelson was crawling painfully over a portage on hands and knees. "I asked the men to help me, but they refused, cursing me for a damned Englishman and protestant. 'It is good for you' would they repeat with oaths & reproaches & sarcastic Sneers. It irritated me a good deal. I could never divine what could possibly be the cause of this cruel feeling towards me. . . . After many years with them, I at last found it was owing to my nation & my religion." [15]

There might have been other reasons, as well. Like other early extractive industries (lumbering and mining, for example), the fur trade was structured so as to balance the books on the backs of the poorest-paid employees. While wages nominally went up between 1767 and 1800, few workers actually made money, and many ended up owing the company. In 1791 it was said that nine hundred men owed more than ten or fifteen years' pay. They were usually in debt from the moment they started, since they had to borrow from the company for any extra clothing or equipment. The wintering voyageurs were paid once a year at Grand Portage, but they were paid in goods or in vouchers for merchandise from the company run store. Because of the inflated prices at Grand Portage, the pay was worth only two-thirds of what it would have been in Montreal. In addition, the company made a 50 percent profit on any goods purchased with bons. Sales to its own employees were absolutely crucial to the company. "Were it not that the Men Spend their Wages and the extraordinary high price of Bears and Beaver it would be to us a loosing [sic] business," one partner wrote. [16]

In order to make up for exploitative wages, the company allowed workers permission de porter le pacton—to trade on their own for relatively worthless pelts like moose and buffalo. Many men earned as much this way as in wages. But there was a catch here, too. When they got to Grand Portage, the only market the men were allowed to sell to was backed by the North West Company itself—and the company made a profit on each transaction. [17]

An incident in 1802 proved how important their employees' business was to the company. An independent firm from Michilimackinac sent a clerk, Paul Hervieux, with a canoeload of goods to trade not with the Indians, but with the voyageurs at the Grand Portage rendezvous. Even before he arrived the partners caught wind of his purpose: "to reduce the prices which the North West Company generally charged there for goods." A rumor said that he boasted "he had come there for the purpose of releasing them [the voyageurs] from their slavery." [18]

No sooner had Hervieux set up a tent on the beach east of the stockade than Simon McTavish and one of his numerous nephews, Duncan McGillivray, marched out and ordered him to move away from their men. Hervieux protested, showing his license, but the Nor' Westers retorted that it "amounted to nothing." When he didn't move fast enough, McGillivray returned "in a great rage" with a mob of cronies. As Hervieux later recalled, McGillivray "grasped his hunting knife and with it pierced the tent." One of his companions "then tore up the pins of the tent, which had fallen, and seized a bale of goods and threw it into the air. . . . He then advanced threateningly . . . saying, 'Sacré petit noir, if you were at Rat Portage you would see what I would do to you. . . . I would break your neck.'" When the marauding bourgeois found that one of their men had bought a tent from the intruder, they burned it as an example. Later, Hervieux's employers brought McGillivray to court in Montreal and won a settlement—but the company had proved its point. In 1805 voyageur contracts were changed to stipulate that any employee caught trafficking with "petty traders or Montreal men" would forfeit his wages. [19]

Profits were not the only issue in the Hervieux incident. The North West Company also felt keenly the necessity "to keep their engagés and men in submission." It was the era of the French Revolution. Old systems of authority were under question, and fear of mobs and rebellion was everywhere. By the 1790s the score or so bourgeois at Grand Portage looked out on 1,200 men camped around them and knew they were "beyond the aid of any legal power to enforce due obedience." From time to time rumors flew that the voyageurs were plotting attack. In 1794 panic raced among the bourgeois when "a few discontented persons" among the voyageurs en route to Rainy Lake began talking about "how much their Interest suffered by the passive obedience to the will of their masters." As Duncan McGillivray told it, these "rascals" inspired an entire brigade to demand "with one voice that unless their wages would be augmented, and several other conditions equally unreasonable granted them they would immediately sett off to Montreal." The strike, however, was soon quelled. In the end, there never were any major rebellions at Grand Portage—a fact the company put down to "the good opinion these men entertain of their employers." [20]

The Voyageur by Abby Fuller Abbe, about 1860. (Abby Fuller Abbe—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Surprisingly, there are almost no records of the development of the Grand Portage depot. We do not know when the buildings were constructed or who laid out the site. No pictures, plans, or complete inventories survive. We have not a single post journal or the diary or letters of anyone in charge. For Fort Charlotte, no eyewitness left even a single description.

The North West Company evidently took over the site, and possibly the buildings, of one of its ancestor companies of the 1770s. We do know that in the 1780s the company expanded its complex of buildings on the bay to house the valuable goods and furs that arrived each summer—£50,000 worth in 1784, and more every year that followed. Archaeology suggests that the depot was enlarged twice—first on the west and then on the north. By 1799 the company estimated that it had £25,000 of property at the portage, "a great risk and heavy Charge for any one Man." When it abandoned the depot in 1802, the value of the buildings was put at £30,000. [21]

The North West Company was never alone at Grand Portage. Independent fur traders camped there unnoted. Of more concern to the company was the periodic competition from Montreal—"the opposition." Since Grand Portage was a strategic bottleneck, anyone who controlled it could control trade to the northwest. The big company constantly tried to monopolize access to it. In 1787 the Nor' Westers petitioned the Quebec government for a grant of land encompassing the portage in exchange for improving the path into a wagon road. The request was denied, so the company resorted to fencing off tracts of land. In 1796 an American government official reported that the Canadian company had fenced "every Inch of Ground upon the portage . . . that might admit of buildings stores &ca under various and frivilous [sic] pretences." But this was an exaggeration. Three years later the company's manager at Grand Portage got a letter from his superiors in Montreal warning that the opposition would "try to build somewhere on the point, where the Montreal canoes usually pass the Summer, or about the premier's scaffold." He was instructed to take possession of these sites "by erecting a couple of Tents on the proper places & getting out the Montreal Canoes (that are remaining there from last Summer) on the point." The same year, the company plotted to buy up all the canoes on the Pigeon River side to force the opposition to run "the expense of sending Canoes across the Portage." [22]

As soon as the American Revolution was over, the North West Company petitioned for permission to establish a fleet of sailing ships to supply Grand Portage. The British government, which still maintained military dominance on the Great Lakes, was reluctant to ease controls on transportation, fearing "a clandestine illicit Commerce" by American traders poised to "debauch our friendly Indians." But lobbying by the company's Montreal agents gradually had an effect. In 1786 the North West Company launched the forty-ton Athabasca, and by 1790 it had two more ships of twelve and fifteen tons. These were inadequate, and in 1793 the seventy-five-ton sloop Otter was launched. Under Captain John Bennet, the Otter shuttled between Sault Ste. Marie and Grand Portage four times each summer, taking five to eighteen days each way. The main cargoes were food going west and hides returning, but the ship also carried building materials, livestock, and, doubtless, furniture for the post. By 1799 Grand Portage had two wharves and four boats to serve the Otter, which occasionally wintered and was repaired there. [23]

In the years when the ship's crew wintered at Grand Portage, the men joined a small year-round staff that maintained the buildings, looked after the animals, planted the gardens, and traded with the Indians. Only a few of their names are known. In 1785 the post was entrusted to Zacharie Cloutier, "a very respectable old man" of clerk-interpreter rank, assisted by a clerk named James Givens. He was later replaced by a higher-ranking bourgeois, though he stayed on at Grand Portage as an interpreter. In 1797 a partner named Simon Fraser was in charge. The next year he was replaced by Henry Munro, who served in the double capacity of post manager and doctor for two years. After that, Kenneth McKenzie took over. Five or six laborers also spent the winters, many of them going en dérouine to live with the Indians in their hunting camps on Lac des Chiens and Lac des Bois Blanc. Some of them were skilled workmen, such as a blacksmith and joiner. Although no record survives, most probably had families. At the typical fur post, women and children outnumbered the men. [24]

Two or three men were also stationed at Fort Charlotte. In 1793 a man named Donald Ross was said to have "been so long in charge of Fort Charlotte that he has acquired the respectable name of Governor." He was, however, replaced the next year by a clerk named Lemoine, "a Gentleman of a respectable [French] Canadian family." Lemoine's tenure was short, as he was charged with "some nasty tricks" and dismissed. [25]

The presence of year-round posts at each end of Grand Portage doubtless changed the lives of the local Ojibway. A fur post was a safe haven where the old and infirm often settled; it was a place for men to leave their families while out hunting or at war; and it was a source of income. Traders, on the other hand, needed Indians nearby to provide them with snowshoes, canoes, guides, information, furs, and food.

The Grand Portage Ojibway did bring in furs, but never very many—twenty packs in 1800 was a good return. The relationships revolving around food probably had much more impact on the band. Grand Portage was better supplied with food than many posts, for it had shipped-in stores of corn, biscuit, sugar, flour, and rum, besides its small herd of livestock and its potato gardens. But its residents still faced hunger in winter, for traders typically lacked both skills and equipment to supplement their diet from the land. In this predicament they depended on the local Indians to supply food. A post manager would hire one or two hunters and fishermen to provide food through the winter, and he would buy additional supplies from the local band. [26]

This was a familiar system to the Ojibway and Cree, who had age-old customs of sharing. Food was never hoarded, but freely given to anyone who had none. The Indians shared their surpluses with the post, and they expected the traders to reciprocate in times of famine. Most complied, realizing the necessity of conforming to social norms. So the post was integrated into the Indians' seasonal subsistence pattern as a kind of food bank. They borrowed food when they needed it and shared it when they didn't.

The post made it possible for the Grand Portage Ojibway to spend less time scattered in isolated winter hunting areas inland and more time congregated in the village on the lake. To support the winterers and themselves, they stepped up their wild ricing on the inland lakes in September, fishing on Lake Superior in November, and maple sugaring in March. In spring they sometimes invited their favorite traders to a celebratory festin &afrave; tout manger—a feast where all the food must be consumed. One who got such an invitation wrote that "each guest was served with a small bundle, neatly tied, of orignal [moose] dried meat of the best quality; but my appetite could not do justice to the whole of my portion. A friend close by me, observing my embarrassment, asked the rest saying 'I shall manage it for you.'" [27]

Food was not all the Indians provided. The traders were always in the market for canoes. The going price for one in the 1790s was about one hundred dollars. The large Montreal canoes were made in Trois Rivières and at St. Joseph on Lake Huron, but the twenty-five-foot North canoes were almost entirely of Ojibway make. In 1792 the Rainy Lake band was the main source, but the Grand Portage Ojibway also provided their share. In 1799 they had contracts for thirty-five canoes, of which the company expected twenty-five to thirty to be delivered. With the Indians constructing so many, it seems unlikely that the North West Company had much of a canoe yard at its depot, as it would later at Fort William. [28]

By the 1780s the local Ojibway included several regional groups. On the shores of Lake Superior were the Omushkasug. Farther inland lived the Bois Forts, or Sugwaundugahwininewug. Along the chain of waterways lived the Kojejewininewug, and south of them the Omushkegoes. The political center of all these divisions was at Rainy Lake, where the elders "meet in council to treat of peace or war" under the leadership of a well-known chief called Nectam, or the Premier. Nectam was a famous ally of the British. Years later, travelers mentioned the burial scaffold of a "distinguished chief" that was erected at Grand Portage and later moved to Fort William. As a mark of respect, the North West Company placed a British flag over the remains, an act that "was extremely gratifying to the Indians." It may be that Nectam was the chief so honored. [29]

The fur trade brought the Ojibway problems as well as opportunities. One was the influx of tribespeople from farther east, trying to make a living in the fur trade. Particularly unwelcome were Iroquois, itinerant trappers who "do not feel the same interest, as those who permanently reside here, in keeping the stock of animals good." Other people needed help. An Ottawa family was thrown upon the charity of the local Ojibway when both of its adult men died at Grand Portage. One of the children, an adopted white boy named John Tanner, later recalled: "As the weather became more and more cold, we removed from the [Grand Portage] trading house and set up our lodge in the woods that we might get wood easier. . . . Thus we lived for some time in a suffering and almost starving condition, when a Muskegoe, or Swamp Indian, called the Smoker, came to the trading house, and learning that we were very poor, invited us home with him to his own country, saying he could hunt for us. . . . He took us into his own lodge, and while we remained with him, we wanted for nothing. Such is still the custom of the Indians, remote from the whites. . . . [T]hose who were too young, or too weak to hunt for themselves, were sure to find some one to provide for them." [30]

By the late 1780s Grand Portage was beginning to have all the marks of permanence: a major complex of buildings, year-round employment, an Indian village. But this fur trade community was built on the shakiest of ground. It was, in fact, illegal.

"A Dish of Grande Portage politicks"

Simon McTavish must have celebrated when peace broke out between England and its former colonies. His company had been dodging wars almost as long as he had been in the business. With peace, interest and insurance rates might go down. But any relief he felt turned to horror when news of the Peace of Paris reached Montreal in 1783. The English had agreed to a boundary line across the middle of the Great Lakes, leaving every major fur post—Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac, and, worst of all, Grand Portage—on the American side. "The idea overwhelmed our minds with the prospect of such certain ruin to the most valuable commerce of these provinces," a group of Canadian merchants wrote. Should the boundary go into effect, "the remaining Indian Trade of these Provinces would hardly be worth retaining or pursuing." [31]

The surrender of Grand Portage had been a mistake. The negotiators, looking at an incorrect map, thought the chain of border lakes was navigable to Lake Superior and had drawn the line straight through the lakes in order to give both countries equal access to the waterway. They did not know that the only route to the Pigeon River lay overland, five miles south of the border. [32]

As the shock wore off, the merchants took stock. The fur trade south of the Great Lakes was twice as large as that to the north, but an astute observer like McTavish could see that it was dwindling, while the northwest trade was just taking off. But "the Grand Portage is the Key to that part of British America." "It is indispensably necessary," McTavish and his cohorts told the government in 1792, "that the Grand Portage be thrown into our hands, or at any rate, that it be considered an open highway, equally belonging to both parties. . . . Without this, even the part of the North West still within our limits would become useless." [33]

If the traders were upset by the treaty, the Indians were outraged. They had fought on the British side because their interests coincided. The British knew that the fur trade depended upon the native work force and an undisturbed forest habitat. American settlers, on the other hand, wanted land. The British had formally acknowledged Indian title to the west and acted to prevent encroachment by the colonists. But the Peace of Paris, in which the Indians had no say, surrendered their territory to the land-hungry Americans. The high-handedness of this was recognized even at the time. "The Indians are free and independent people if ever any on earth were so," the Montreal merchants reminded their government. "Our running a Line of boundary by Treaty conveys no right of Territory without obtaining one from the aboriginal proprietors. We cannot give what is not our own." [34]

The issue stayed moot for many years. The new American government was far too busy to worry about the west. The British stayed in possession of their forts, still trading in territory that was nominally American. But the problem would come back to haunt both traders and Indians.

In the meantime, the North West Company had other worries. The annual meeting of 1784 was a disaster. The previous winter the Montreal partners had put their heads together and drawn up a new agreement that redistributed the company's shares so that many of the oldest traders were excluded or demoted. When this proposal was unveiled at Grand Portage, it met an explosion. Peter Pond stormed out. Two other snubbed winterers—Peter Pangman and John Ross—joined him and decided to form an opposition company. That winter they secured the backing of a Montreal firm called Gregory, McLeod and Company. Under its name, they prepared to challenge the Nor' Westers [35]

The years had taken a toll on Pond. He was forty-five, an age when most men had retired from the rigors of the trader's life. But his ambition had not faded. In the isolation of the long Athabasca winters he had taken to brooding on the problem that had obsessed La Vérendrye years before: how to reach the western sea. Pond's years of travel had given him an unparalleled knowledge of western geography, and he had drawn a map to prove it. But like La Vérendrye, he was naive about the ways of bureaucracies. In the winter of 1784-85 he traveled to New York, then to Quebec, trying to interest the American and British governments in his discoveries and in a river route he thought would lead to the Pacific. The British thought his map "very curious," but neither government took action. Disillusioned, Pond gave up his resolve to form an opposition and rejoined his old friends at the North West Company. In 1785 he was back in Athabasca licking his wounds and growing ever more bitter and eccentric. [36]

A portion of the 1785 map drawn by Peter Pond. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Pond's defection did not stop Gregory, McLeod. In the spring of 1785 the new opposition sent four canoes to Grand Portage to challenge the North West Company's twenty-five. Along with those canoes went the most significant imports the company would make: two young cousins from the Scottish Hebrides, Alexander and Roderick Mackenzie. [37]

Alexander was twenty-one and already a bourgeois. Born three years after Alexander Henry's men first crossed the Grand Portage, he had spent a disrupted, Dickensian childhood: by age eleven he had lived in three countries and seen the last of both parents. At fifteen he entered "the counting house of Mr Gregory" (as in Gregory, McLeod). There, his intelligence and initiative so impressed his employers that they made him a partner in the firm. He was perfect for a trader: "blond, strong and well built," with a "frame of body equal to the most arduous undertakings" and a confident flair that made men "ready to go with me wherever I choose to lead them." But his long, introspective letters reveal a more complex story: an intense, moody person prone to bouts of superhuman exertion followed by months of black depression, anxiety, "vain Speculations," and disturbing dreams. [38]

Roderick—or "Rory," as Alexander affectionately called him—was of a different cut. An "industrious, methodical man" who loved books and later tried vainly to write one, he seems to have gotten along with virtually everyone he ever met. He was assigned to spend his first winter at Grand Portage, clerking for Pierre L'Anniau, who was in charge of the opposition's fort. [39]

When Rory arrived at the portage he found that the new company's main winterers, Pangman and Ross, already had erected "one hangard or store warmly put together, and sufficiently spacious for the purpose of the season." Roderick's fellow clerks, who were "few in number and not of the first quality . . . did not seem to like doing the ordinary drudgery attending the general rendez-vous . . . so that I, who could yet claim no privilege, necessarily became the fag of the whole; but I did not grumble, though I often made the comptoir [counter] my pillow." After the outfits were off, Roderick settled down to the routine of Grand Portage life. The main job that winter was the erection of buildings, a job that employed eighteen voyageurs. It is not known where the buildings stood. [40]

William McGillivray. (Martin Archer Shee; C-167—National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

Despite the competition, Roderick became "good friends" with the North West Company staff in the nearby depot. But relations with his own superior were less smooth. L'Anniau "had been for many years in that country, and was so handy that he was considered a 'jack of all trades,'" but he was illiterate and given to drink. "I made it my duty to keep a sharp eye over my gentleman," said the young Scot. After one binge he called the old man into the office, demanded the keys, and "assumed the charge and became master. This pleased all."

The genial Roderick quickly caught on to the techniques of the trade: "In the Fall, when the Indians were about the place, the young men and I became great friends, which, on their return with their hunt in the spring, they did not forget." When the company's partners arrived from the west, they found Roderick very much in charge and all but one of the local Indian families camped "within the limits of our Establishment."

The next year Roderick was deemed experienced enough to winter in the west, so he set out for English River under the command of his cousin. There he formed another fast friendship with an opposition clerk—a young nephew of Simon McTavish named William McGillivray, who was spending his third winter in the west. Roderick wrote that "in the Spring, after the trade was over, my neighbour and I, after comparing notes, agreed to travel in company to our respective head-quarters [at Ile-à-la-Crosse], where our canoes arrived side by side, the crews singing in concert." But not all business that winter had ended in such harmony. [41]

The canoes from Athabasca were late that summer. The two companies were already holding their separate rendezvous at Grand Portage when Rory McKenzie came hurrying in from English River with the news. John Ross, one of Gregory, McLeod's partners, had been killed in a confrontation with North West Company men. Once again, the evidence pointed to Peter Pond. [42]

The two companies met, probably in the North West Company's Great Hall. The Gregory, McLeod people were demoralized by "the direful effect the late opposition has had upon those that were engaged in it and upon the country." One of their partners was dead, another lamed, all felt their lives in jeopardy—and they were losing money to boot. Having beaten them down, Simon McTavish now made them an offer they couldn't refuse: the North West Company would increase its shares to twenty, and Gregory, McLeod's partners would get four. The opposition had little choice. It took the bait, the partners consoling themselves that at least the Nor' Westers had been "compelled to allow us a share of the trade." [43]

The Great Hall was reconstructed in 1974 on the basis of historical research into the design of the original building. (Jet Lowe, HABS MN-76-4)—Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service; negative at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

The next question was what to do about Peter Pond. Someone had to go to Athabasca and keep an eye on the man. The person selected was young Alexander Mackenzie. It was a fortuitous choice.

That winter rumors about Pond flew among the fur posts. "I am quite surprised at the wild ideas Mr. Pond has of matters which Mr. Mackenzie told me were incomprehensibly extravagant," one bourgeois wrote. But Mackenzie wasn't laughing. Alone with Pond over the winter, he learned the old trader's theories, studied his map, and contracted the Northwest Passage fever. By February he was writing his cousin secretively about his "distant intentions," which "I beg you will not reveal . . . to any person, as it might be prejudicial to me." The next summer Pond had to go back east, possibly to clear himself of murder charges, and Mackenzie was left in command in Athabasca. Over the winter he laid his plans. In the summer of 1789 the partners at Grand Portage were surprised when Roderick instead of Alexander arrived with the Athabasca furs. They learned then that Alexander had set out to explore Pond's river of the west. [44]

The river was a disappointment. After an arduous, 1,500-mile journey, Mackenzie ended up standing on the shores of the Arctic Ocean watching beluga whales cavort amid the ice floes. Though he had "discovered" the Mackenzie River, it was not what he had been looking for. The next year he went back down to Grand Portage and found his cohorts unimpressed. McTavish's only reaction (in Mackenzie's exasperated words) was "a very severe letter . . . respecting the Athabasca packs of last year." The Marquis took the young bourgeois to task for having run off to explore rivers while leaving the furs "without a proper person to conduct them &c. &c. and desires in general that it must not be the case in the future and so forth." Mackenzie found "every thing quiet" at Grand Portage. "Every body had plenty of Letters and news from Montreal except myself. . . . My Expedition is hardly spoken of but this is what I expected." [45]

If Mackenzie was disappointed, Pond was destroyed. The map he had spent half a lifetime drawing was obviously incorrect. Bitterly he sold his share in the company to William McGillivray and left the west never to return. A sigh of relief must have gone up at Grand Portage. [46]

Mackenzie could not get the western sea out of his mind. He was torn. Increasingly interested in company politics, he itched "to mix in the business at the Portage" each summer, but another river beckoned. In 1793 he wrote his cousin, "I have been so vext and disturbed in mind since the beginning of this month that I cannot sit down to any thing steadyly. . . . I never was so undecided in my intentions as this year, regarding my going to the Portage on remaining in land." In the end, he opted for the west.

With a handful of voyageurs and two Indian guides, he set out up the Peace River. Traveling with astonishing speed, they dragged their canoes over the Rocky Mountains and descended to the Pacific coast, the first recorded group to cross North America. [47]

It was a year before Mackenzie could return to Grand Portage with the news. He spent the time in the grip of depression, tormented by dreams and visions of the dead. In January he wrote Rory, "What a pretty Situation I am in this winter. Starving and alone, without the power of doing myself or any body else any Service." He wished that "we could contrive matters so that we could both go to the Portage. MacTavish having come to Canada [from England] . . . we may expect him at the Portage, when it will be neceassry [sic] for every person concerned to meet." But when he arrived in that summer of 1794, McTavish was not there, Grand Portage was simmering with conflict, and Mackenzie was thrown into the midst of it all. [48]

The problem had been brewing a long time. In 1787 Benjamin Frobisher had died, leaving his brother Joseph in charge of the largest Montreal supply house in the business. Simon McTavish, knowing that "Joe" had never been much of a businessman, quickly wrote him: "Ever since the death of my worthy friend, your Brother, I have been considering in what manner our business in the N.W. can be best managed, so as to keep up our present influence and interest in that country." He pointed out that "your being alone, will render it impossible for you to attend to the business here and above," and noted his own dislike of "go[ing] every year to the Portage, which is unavoidable for any person largely interested in that country." He therefore proposed "to join our Fortunes and names in a general copartnership." Joseph readily agreed, and the firm of McTavish, Frobisher and Company was born. [49]

From the outset McTavish, Frobisher was a juggernaut. It owned almost half the shares of the North West Company outright and controlled others. Soon it was the company's sole Montreal agent. But McTavish did not stop there. To control the London end of the trade he and John Fraser (a family member) founded McTavish, Fraser and Company, which was soon marketing and exporting North West Company furs. McTavish was relentless in his pursuit of new markets. He shipped to China in competition with the East India Company. He recruited an up-and-coming businessman named John Jacob Astor to import North West Company furs to New York. The demand soared and so did profits. The company's yearly returns rose from about £30,000 in 1784-86 to £197,695 in 1803. "Every year brought with it enlarged operations and accession of capital," one observer wrote. Soon "the North-west Company [was] almost irresistible in Canada." [50]

All this was not accomplished without controversy. McTavish acquired "the reputation of a tyrannical and domineering leader." And yet he had a talent for co-opting rather than crushing the people and companies that opposed him. His invariable strategies were merger and acquisition—competition was to him a vulgarism. His pursuit of power was underlain by Old World attitudes. He loved to control through patriarchal benevolence and conspicuous noblesse oblige. Clannish as any Scot of Bannockburn, he shamelessly promoted his own family. He became fabulously rich but still hankered after the old marks of honor: a family crest, a landed estate, and, most of all, a title. In a rare fit of sentimentality, he bought the family estate in Scotland from the impoverished heirs when the chief of Clan Tavish died. [51]

The wintering partners of the North West Company well knew that the growth of McTavish, Frobisher was sapping away their power. There was an inbuilt conflict of interest between winterer and agent, a conflict intensified by cultural differences. Good eastern business practices did not always sit well with the experienced, self-reliant westerners. As McTavish worked for centralized control, the winterers had less and less input on the quality of goods and other decisions. The man they had regarded as their agent now seemed to view them as hired hands. They looked askance at the way the Marquis was packing the ranks with his own relatives. First it seemed as if there was a McGillivray under every stone. Then Frasers and McDonalds started sprouting up everywhere, as McTavish found jobs for second cousins and in-laws. And it was not lost on the winterers that the Montreal partners were building vast mansions while they starved in log huts. [52]

When the wintering partners arrived at Grand Portage in 1794 they found that McTavish had not come for the annual meeting, sending instead William McGillivray, the young nephew he had been grooming as an heir. Disgruntled by this snub, the partners gathered around a champion: Alexander Mackenzie. To Mackenzie, fresh from his winter of isolation and depression, such recognition must have been heady stuff.

So the stage was set for one of the classic confrontations of fur trade history, the decade-long battle of Mackenzie and McTavish, much of it played out in the Great Hall at Grand Portage. It was more than just a clash of personalities. On one level, Mackenzie represented men who had made the fur trade a way of life. McTavish represented those for whom it was a way of making money.

The discontent of 1794 came to a focus in a stormy meeting the next year when Mackenzie spearheaded an effort to renegotiate the North West Company's agreement. He succeeded in wresting several concessions for the winterers: McTavish actually ceded some shares for the sake of peace, and he accepted limits on his power to make decisions without a majority vote from the partners at Grand Portage. [53]

Alexander Mackenzie. (Thomas Lawrence; 8000—National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

The Marquis's reaction was typical. Seeing that Mackenzie had become the lightning rod for a rift in the company, McTavish quickly acted to co-opt him. He offered the younger man a partnership in the inner sanctum of McTavish, Frobisher. Dazzled, Mackenzie accepted. When he next arrived at Grand Portage, he was McTavish's representative. [54]

But McTavish soon found that he had not neutralized Mackenzie, who remained a champion of the men in the field. Mackenzie's philosophy was that capital could be raised anywhere, any time, but good employees were made only by experience. He saw the company as "an association of men of wealth to direct, with men of enterprise to act, in one common interest" but structured so that "the latter may succeed the former, in continual and progressive succession." The company needed more room at the top for the "men of enterprise" like himself. [55]

Mackenzie also acted as a cultural broker for the winterers. An anecdote illustrates his intermediary role. The winterer Jean Baptiste Cadotte (the half-Ojibway son of the man who had started Alexander Henry in the trade) had gotten deeply in debt to his father's old partner. Cadotte, who had had an eastern education and a handsome inheritance, was a good trader but a poor money manager because his cultural values of "open-handedness and generosity to his Indian relatives" always left him impoverished. Unknown to Cadotte, Henry prevailed on Mackenzie to buy the winterer's debt at a discount. One summer at Grand Portage Cadotte interpreted for Mackenzie during a difficult council with the local Ojibway. Afterwards Mackenzie walked him to his canoe, shook his hand, and gave him a sealed paper. On the way to his post Cadotte opened the paper and found a "clear quittance of all his indebtedness to Alexander Henry, which had always been a trouble on his mind. . . . [H]e ordered his canoe turned about, in order that he might go and express his gratitude to the generous McKenzie [sic], but on second thought he proceeded on his journey, imbued with a firm determination to repay this mark of kindness by attending closely to his business." With such stories circulating, it was no wonder the winterers looked upon Mackenzie as an ally. Later, the voyageurs would nickname him "Le Chevalier," gilding him with the aura of the old French nobility. [56]

For a while it seems Mackenzie (who had scarcely known his own family) tried to fit into the close-knit McTavish clan. He and William McGillivray outwardly got along like brothers—they shared rooms and held competitive drinking matches that left their guests gasping. But under the surface there was also an unmistakable sibling rivalry between them. Mackenzie must have known that, no matter how heroically he worked, McGillivray would win any battle before it started, as long as Uncle Simon McTavish was around. Mackenzie would never be in the inner circle of McTavish's confidence; he was not truly one of the clan. The evidence is sketchy, but it seems Mackenzie secretly began to lay a daring plan: no less than to oust McTavish from his own company. To do it, he would need the support of the winterers. [57]

Simon McTavish. (C-164—National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

In 1799 Mackenzie and McGillivray traveled together to Grand Portage, McGillivray little suspecting that his companion might be plotting a coup d'etat. Of the meeting that followed there are half a dozen accounts, all biased. Roderick, caught painfully in the middle, said Mackenzie announced to the assembled partners that he felt "uncomfortable" about some misunderstanding existing between him and his Montreal associates . . . and was determined to withdraw from the Concern." This brought on "a very violent discussion between the wintering partners on the one hand and the agents on the other." The winterers declared that Mackenzie, "having their sole confidence, they could not dispense with his services, therefore . . . every means should be adopted to retain him"—apparently including the increased powers he was after. Duncan McGillivray, in a more jaundiced account of the "vexatious proceedings at G. Portage," accused Mackenzie of having made his dramatic announcement "in terms evidently calculated to inflame"; after passions were raised, "very unwarrantable measures were adopted to retain him. . . . In short many causes concurred to produce violence & disagreement for a little time." McTavish described it later as "a Dish of Grande Portage politicks." [58]

Fortified by the demonstration in his favor, Alexander Mackenzie returned to Montreal. What happened there no one knows. Apparently there was a confrontation in which Mackenzie made "unreasonable & inadmissible" demands. McTavish, enraged at finding himself the target, turned the tables, called Mackenzie's bluff, and reorganized McTavish, Frobisher to leave him out. The would-be ouster was ousted. After "a great deal of havering & irresolution," Mackenzie impulsively set out for England. William McGillivray, consummate diplomat, put a calm face on it all: "I believe finding at last he had carried matters too far—he would have preferr'd things were otherwise,—tho' we parted not on the best terms, nothing has past [sic] to prevent an amicable settlement . . . —hard indeed! would it be on us all, on me particularly, if after our long intimacy, we could only look on each other as Enemies in future." [59]

That winter John Fraser, McTavish's London partner, kept an eye on Mackenzie. Though he believed the young man had acted "entirely from a fit of ill-humour, without any fix'd plan or knowing himself what he would be at," he warned McTavish not "to fly off, as you seem to think you now have a right to do." Mackenzie still had power. "You know him to be vindictive, he has got an intire ascendant over your young Men, & if driven to desperation he may take steps ruinous to you. He has told myself Your Nt.West business will be completely ruin'd; to others he has thrown out most violent threats of revenge." [60]

It took two years for Mackenzie's revenge to take shape. But when it did it rocked the northwest.

The Knight's Vendetta

McTavish brooded about the events at Grand Portage in 1799. In a letter the next spring he reproached the wintering partners: "I feel hurt at the distrust and want of confidence that appeared throughout all your deliberations last season, and particularly at the attempt which was made to dictate to my House in the appointment of its agents at the portage, which interference on your part is not warranted by our contract with you." But many of the partners had already had second thoughts, and support for Mackenzie was waning. In the end, as one witness put it, "not one of them joined the standard of the Knight." [61]

Though Mackenzie had failed to lead a revolution within the company, there were threats from outside as well. The Nor'Westers had not been alone at Grand Portage all these years. The competition consisted of a plethora of small companies, many of which also had interests south of the Great Lakes. The most noteworthy were the two Montreal firms of Forsyth, Richardson and Company (backed by the London firm of Phyn, Inglis and Company); and Parker, Gerrard and Ogilvy. McTavish's way of dealing with these firms had been to allow them a nominal share in the North West Company in return for a pledge of noncompetition. But this arrangement began to fall apart in the mid-1790s. The Americans were getting restless about continued British operations in the land ceded after the Revolution and had sent John Jay to negotiate a way to oust them. Signed in 1794, Jay's Treaty once more declared the territory south of the Great Lakes off limits. The companies operating there turned with new interest to the northwest. By 1799 McTavish was concerned. "The threatened opposition have, this year, made a serious attack to us, and I fear that a coalition of interests between the parties opposed to us may render them more formidable." In the end, however, he dismissed the impact of what "the new adventurers to the North-West may clip from our wings." [62]

The coalition he feared took place that year. The new opposition was called by several names—the New North West Company was popular, but the one that stuck was the XY Company, allegedly from the marks on their bales. Still the Nor' Westers were not concerned. "It is said they must fail for want of Capital," wrote one. [63]

But there was a source of capital waiting to be tapped. Alexander Mackenzie had made a fortune in his years at McTavish, Frobisher. Since his move to London he had become quite the celebrity in England's high society. He published a book about his explorations, hobnobbed with royalty, and in 1802 was knighted by George III. It must have galled the title-conscious McTavish to hear the words "Sir Alexander Mackenzie." [64]

And Mackenzie was still simmering. Only the year before he had scoffed at the "pityfull .. appearance" of the XY Company, but by 1800 he was ready to sign on. He wrote a friend that joining the competition against "those for whom I had .. the Sincerest regard" would "be one of the severest trials to my Feellings, but McTavish & his relatives Treatment of me is such that I may for a time forget I had Friends & even forget . . . my Interests." In short, he knew he could make no money in the opposition. He could only have revenge. [65]

In 1802 the XY Company officially became Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company. That year Mackenzie was back at Grand Portage, organizing the rendezvous. The firm already had some buildings there. In 1799 a man named L'Etang, working for Forsyth, Richardson, had gotten "a Hangard and House erected by Men at a Dollar per day." These were probably the structures an 1802 visitor found "a few hundred yards to the East of the N.W. Co below the hill." But Mackenzie thought them inadequate and soon had his men building "a very fine 'fort' upon the hill." By 1803 the work was finished. "Situated on the brow of a sloping hill, over a mile from the landing," the new fort had a view that was described as "very fine." The perimeter was marked by "palisades of tall cedar pickets with bastions at the four corners. Within the enclosure were several good buildings for the use of members of the Company, and towering over all was an immense flagstaff from which, on Sundays and when heralding the arrival of the principal bourgeois, floated a large and very handsome flag." This impressive structure may have stood on the present site of the Catholic church or the school. From an 1803 inventory we know it contained at least twenty-three panel doors, thirty window sashes, ten bedsteads, twenty-four chairs, and three japanned candlesticks. [66]

The new company also erected a complex of buildings on the Pigeon River end of the Grand Portage, across Snow Creek from Fort Charlotte. On the Lake Superior side it had a barn and animals. In 1803 Mackenzie was able to travel to Grand Portage on the company's new eighty-five-ton schooner, the Perseverance, under Captain White—a harrowing, storm-tossed journey that nearly brought the company to an untimely end. [67]

The Nor' Westers were agog at the amount of capital the XY people were investing. "The sacrifices they have made to procure Men are incredible," said Duncan McGillivray, who had replaced Mackenzie as agent for McTavish, Frobisher. "They throw away their means with a profusion that astonishes the Men themselves." Traders in the field felt the results. One, faced with an XY Company rival, said, "For eleven years that I have been wintering among the Savages I have never known a competitor trade as cheaply as Chorette. I think Lucifer brings him his goods from London as he needs them." The XY Company was willing to lose money. It was not a business. It was a vendetta. [68]

Throughout his life, Simon McTavish's reaction to a challenge had been compromise and accommodation. Not this time. If the "Little Company" (as he scornfully called it) wanted war, so be it. McTavish wanted nothing more than to crush Mackenzie, and he could play hardball. [69]

Events at Grand Portage prefigured what would soon be happening across the west. In 1802 XY clerk George Nelson found Grand Portage in a stew of lawlessness. One of his company's brigades bound for the west camped with its goods on the Pigeon River near Fort Charlotte, "where they feasted & got drunk upon the 'régale' that was always given them when they arrived from, or departed for, their winter quarters. When they arose the next morning they found thirty Kegs of High Wines . . . had all run out! Upon examination it was found they had been bored with two gimlets holes each! . . . These were called witty tricks. Rumor gave out that it was Benjamin Frobisher [son of Joseph] who bored the Kegs. It created an excessive bad feeling & led to retaliations some of which would have ended tragically but for providence." [70]

Another incident soon followed. Nelson was about to set out for an XY post in Wisconsin with three engagés whose contracts with the old company had expired. As they were loading the canoes, Duncan McGillivray came down to berate the men for changing allegiance:

A quarrel ensued. We were at dinner. The men came running up saying Mr McGillivray was going to carry off the men by main force. 'The Knight' [Mackenzie] ran down, we all followed. And no small affair it was, all in words, men aces & gestures indeed, but those are often the fore-runners of blood. We at last embarked fully determined to defend ourselves, fight, & kill, if driven too it; & armed for the purpose. Mr McGillivray got into a boat with a couple of men, he hailed their vessel that was then anchored in the bay,—the Captain sent out the Jolly boat, But they at last gave up the chance, assuring us however, that they would come upon us at night; and for several days we were in great fear. [71]

Though Nelson saw no bloodshed, others did—"in the 'North,' it was 'neck or nothing.' They did not 'stickle at trifles.'" On the Saskatchewan, a clerk named James King was killed by an opposition counterpart. On the Assiniboine, Daniel Harmon heard more rumors of bloodshed and worried that "most of us soon should have cut one anothers throats." A shocked Hudson's Bay Company trader claimed that "the Country all over is in a ferment of murder and robbery so that men were not in safety to stirr out." [72]

The traders did not confine their aggression to each other. In fact, the Indians suffered most. Normally, competition was advantageous to them, for they could—and did—drive down prices by playing traders off against one another. But without many of the social controls that had existed before the smallpox, traders' tactics got more violent. Theft, beatings, and harassment were not uncommon. On the Red River, Alexander Henry the Younger (nephew of the old trader) recorded how he assaulted a party of women in order to steal furs the XY Company had already paid for, though he claimed to be "vexed" at "the necessity of fighting with the women." It vexed him less to steal a horse and administer a "cruel beating" to a man who hunted for the opposition. "I . . . stopped up his Eyes, so that he could not see for several days," Henry wrote with evident satisfaction. [73]

Grand Portage was not immune. John Tanner's Indian family, which was taking 120 beaver skins east to sell, found that passing over the portage was like running a gauntlet:

When we reached the small house at the other side of the Grand Portage to Lake Superior, the people belonging to the traders urged us to put our packs in the wagons and have them carried across. But the old woman [Netnokwa, Tanner's adoptive mother] knowing if they were once in the hands of the traders it would be difficult, if not impossible, for her to get them again, refused to comply with this request. It took us several days to carry all our packs across, as the old woman would not suffer them to be carried in the trader's road. Notwithstanding all this caution, when we came to this side the portage, Mr. McGilveray [Duncan McGillivray?] and Mr. Shabboyea [Charles Chaboillez?], by treating her with much attention, and giving her some wine, induced her to place all her packs in a room, which they gave her to occupy. At first, they endeavoured, by friendly solicitation, to induce her to sell her furs; but finding she was determined not to part with them, they threatened her; and at length, a young man, the son of Mr. Shabboyea, attempted to take them by force; but the old man interfered, and ordering his son to desist, reproved him for his violence.

In the end, however, all the pressure paid off. The traders got the furs by manipulating Netnokwa's son, and the family was left destitute. [74]

But the traders knew that strong-arm tactics were not enough, for they only alienated the Indians and encouraged them to drop out of the trade relationship. Somehow traders had to find an incentive for the Indians to hunt more, to push into new lands. The Indians' limited desire for material goods made them too independent. Traders needed a controlling lever. Alcohol and tobacco were their solution.

Alcohol had always been part of the fur trade. Normally it was not sold, but given as a diplomatic gift or as part of the food-exchange system. Its use had been kept down partly by its symbolic role, for the Indians normally drank only as a function of ceremonial situations like trade or funerals. Alcohol was also kept scarce by the difficulties of transporting it, government regulations, and traders' distaste for dealing with the crime and disruption it caused. [75]

But a trade war could not be won through business as usual. Like no other commodity, alcohol could buy goodwill and even, because of its symbolic overtones, pseudokinship ties. Supplied in large enough quantities, it could also become physically addictive; then there would be no need to worry about sales resistance, since demand would always go up. Duncan McGillivray reasoned with the devastating logic of a drug dealer: "When a nation become addicted to drinking, it affords a strong presumption that they will soon become excellent hunters." And that was all the traders needed. [76]

In the years before the XY Company was formed, the North West Company had shipped an average of 9,600 gallons of liquor into the west each year. By 1803 the total had shot up to 16,299 gallons, and the opposition was bringing in 5,000 more. [77]

Indian society was unprepared for the onslaught. At the time it had few rules or taboos surrounding liquor. The resulting violence and social dysfunction were mainly turned inward, ghettoized in Indian villages, only rarely breaking out. Even so, longtime traders with Indian families were shocked and sickened. But Duncan McGillivray and policymakers like him blamed the "wretched Indians" and the competitors who had "compelled" the North West Company to set the west awash in rum. [78]

As Indian hunters struggled to meet traders' demands for food and furs, exploitation began to exhaust the delicately balanced forest habitat. Food became scarce, and tribes were forced to compete for territory. Confrontations erupted, often egged on by traders who wanted "their" Indians to expand hunting lands through war. The situation was to no one's long-term advantage, but very profitable to a few people in the short term. Ethnohistorian Harold Hickerson perhaps put it best: "Rampant spoliation meant immediate enrichment of major traders and Company, but exhaustive impoverishment for the Indians and the minor figures of trade." [79]

Meanwhile, Simon McTavish was building himself a castle three stories tall, of dressed limestone, bastioned by circular towers with conical tops and covered with a high peaked roof. It stood on a plateau looking down on Montreal, a city now "torn with factions" allied with himself or Mackenzie. As the elderly Alexander Henry remarked, "There could not be two Caesars in Rome." Even old friendships fell. Roderick McKenzie had married the sister of McTavish's wife and taken a job in McTavish, Frobisher, leading to a break with Alexander. When the cousins resumed correspondence years later, they addressed each other frostily as "Dear Sir." [80]

In both 1801 and 1802 McTavish was back at Grand Portage, suspicious even of his allies. To discipline his wayward partners he pushed through a program of austerity. Any partner found abusing alcohol—a companion risk to the increased liquor trade—would be expelled. Any partner who engaged in competitive trade would be fined £5,000 for each share he held. No longer would the company supply wintering partners with more than their "personal necessaries"—later explicitly defined to limit status symbols like light canoes, excess baggage, and more than one servant. In a new company agreement McTavish wrested significant powers from his partners, including authority to "hire and employ all Clerks, Interpreters and engagés." [81]

Then, in 1804, with the west bubbling in rum and mayhem, Montreal at odds, and his mansion half finished, Simon McTavish abruptly died. He was fifty-four years old.

His heir apparent, William McGillivray, quickly stepped into his place. His first act was to do what McTavish himself would have done in saner times—he offered the olive branch to Alexander Mackenzie. In fall the two companies met and negotiated a merger. The North West Company inherited mainly debts, and the XY Company got a quarter of the shares in the reorganized firm. But it was a Pyrrhic victory for Mackenzie. The one stipulation McGillivray would not negotiate was that "Sir Alexander Mackenzie is excluded from any interference" in the company. [82]

The news traveled like wildfire across the west: the war was oven. The next summer the two companies would meet together at a single rendezvous. But it would not be at Grand Portage. Other events had over taken the old site of so many conflicts. The North West Company would henceforth have a new headquarters and a new route to the west.

Leaving the Post

It was a problem with boundaries that led to Grand Portage's downfall. Back in 1796, the "fatal moment" the traders had feared so long had arrived: by the terms of Jay's Treaty, the British had to vacate their posts south of the border. But that year came and passed, and the North West Company was still at Grand Portage. Rumors flew the next year: the Americans were coming to build a military post at the portage. No, the customs collector at Michilimackinac was coming to charge duties on all the goods that passed through. Later they heard that "United States troops had actually landed at Michilimackinac . . . for the purpose of proceeding to the depot of the fur trade, at the Great Carrying-place, and there enforcing the duties." The company was beside itself. Alexander Mackenzie and two Indians surveyed the north side of the Pigeon River to see if there was a way through, but they found nothing but "high falls, rapids, and shelving precipices." There seemed to be no alternative. [83]

As the partners were mulling their boundary problems, a new employee arrived at Grand Portage. He was no ordinary recruit. David Thompson was a Welshman who had been educated at a London charity school and at age fourteen assigned to the Hudson's Bay Company, which sent him into the wilds of Canada. Trained as a surveyor, he had spent the next thirteen years traveling thousands of miles for the English company. Later, he would discover the sources of the Columbia and other routes to the Pacific. But he was scarcely the romantic figure his accomplishments call to mind. Meticulous and puritanical, he was the sort of man who, once told a rule, followed it till he died. To one observer he was "a singular-looking person . . . plainly dressed, quiet, and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. . . . [H]e has a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it . . . so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snow-flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks." [84]

In 1797 Thompson decided to jump ship to the North West Company. When he arrived at Grand Portage in July, he was just the man the partners needed. No one knew where the boundary ran. Half of the company's posts might be on the American side. In the next year Thompson, who was listed as the Grand Portage post astronomer, traveled in a four-thousand-mile circle around his home base. He first went west, locating the boundary as far as Lake of the Woods, then to the northernmost curve of the Missouri River, since it might be considered part of the Mississippi in some future treaty. He then traveled back through northern Minnesota, locating the region of the Mississippi headwaters, then around the south shore of Lake Superior. At Sault Ste. Marie in spring, he met Alexander Mackenzie on his way to Grand Portage, who told him that "I had performed more in ten months than he expected could be done in two years." [85]

But Thompson's survey had not eased the partners' minds on the central issue—what to do about Grand Portage. It was the Indians who finally came to their rescue. As Roderick McKenzie was traveling from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake that spring, he overheard some local Indians talking about another way to Lake Superior. When he asked, they pointed out the old route by the Kaministikwia River that the French had used. "This was excellent information," he said. "Of course I immediately engaged one of the Indians to . . . show me this new route." Even he admitted that "it is most astonishing that the North-West Company were not acquainted with it sooner." [86]

It was not a perfect solution. The men complained that the new water route was made up of "brooks rather than Rivers." The canoes had to be loaded more lightly for the shallow water, and the distance was longer, so that "the voyageurs had to be coaxed and bribed into the use of it." But the route had one enormous advantage: it ran north of the border. Simon McTavish, who had never had much sentimental attachment to Grand Portage, immediately ordered that "no time should be lost in moving our place of rendez-vous." [87]

By 1800 the company had men at work draining the "dead Swampy flat" at the mouth of the Kaministikwia, where the new depot would stand. It was to be a structure grand enough to put the XY Company to shame. By one account the move cost the partners £10,000 and would have cost more but for the fact that they wrested "a certain number of days of forced labour" from each canoeman, which "cost them little." The rendezvous of 1802 was the last the North West Company held at Grand Portage. The next summer the new depot was still unfinished, though Alexander Henry the Younger found "great improvements had been made here for the space of one Winter season, Fort, Store, Shop, &c built, but not a sufficient number of dwelling houses for all hands. . . . We were under the necessity of erecting our Tents for our dwelling. . . . Building was going forward very briskly in every corner of the Fort, and Brick kilns were also erected and turning out great numbers, so that we shall have every thing compleat and in good order before our arrival here next year." In a few years, the sprawling new complex was christened Fort William in honor of William McGillivray, the now-unchallenged ruler of the North West Company. [88]

Sketch of Fort William by Robert Irvine, 1812. (C-18834—National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

The local Ojibway tried to dissuade the company from moving. All this fiction of boundaries within their land had an ominous ring. "They claimed the country as their own," wrote William Warren, the half-Ojibway son of a trader, "and felt as though they had a right to locate their traders wherever they pleased." Moreover, they would not "acknowledge the right which Great Britain and the United States assumed, in dividing between them the lands which had been left to them [the Indians] by their ancestors, and of which they held actual possession." [89]

Despite these arguments, the traces of Grand Portage's long fur trade occupation were fast disappearing. On leaving, the North West Company "destroyed their forts and warehouses." The scarcity of building fragments found by later archaeologists suggests that many structures were dismantled and shipped up the coast to the new site. The XY Company held its rendezvous alone until the merger in 1804, when it too abandoned its brand new depot on the hill. For a few years the North West Company kept "a clerk there with two or three men, as a mere Indian trading post." But by 1822, when David Thompson returned, once more surveying the boundary—this time for the government—he found that "scarce a vestige remains of all the former Factories; they are covered with rank Grass, and in places a little fine red Clover." [90]

The North West Company, which in its years at Grand Portage had commercialized the continent from Lake Superior to the Pacific, walked away with scarcely a look back.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009