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Review

Profit and Ambition, The North West Company and the Fur Trade 1779-1821

By David A. Morrison

November 4, 2013

Review By Marie Elliott

This booklet was published to accompany the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s current exhibition (by the same name), which ends 6 February 2011. It is more than just a catalogue because, in addition to the superb graphic layout of maps, paintings, and artefacts, most in colour, the text provides a succinct overview of the history of the North West Company (NWC). 

There were so many twists and turns to the progress of the NWC that it is impossible to include all the main characters and plots in a brief publication. But it is too bad that a little more weight could not have been given to its affairs west of the Rocky Mountains. In little more than forty years the company extended its influence from Montreal to the Arctic and south to Fort George (Astoria) at the mouth of the Columbia River. Modern British Columbia owes its existence to four great NWC explorers: Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, Simon Fraser, and John Stuart (Fraser’s second-in-command). Omitted is the important fact that, for almost half of the NWC’s forty years – until its amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821 – the NWC trading posts in New Caledonia (Fraser’s name for British Columbia) shipped up to four tons of superior furs by annual fur brigades, thousands of kilometres east to Fort William. During the final terrible six years brigades were forced to run the gauntlet of HBC traders fighting hard to gain a foothold in Athabaska and New Caledonia. 

Looking closely at the illustrations, one finds a definite preference for the east side of the Rockies: a brass and iron kettle, assorted guns, Native dress, and ornaments. Even the romantic vistas by Frances Anne Hopkins are of voyageurs on eastern rivers, and Paul Kane’s The Mountain Portage is of Kakabeka Falls near Fort William. The maps provide some glimpse of New Caledonia and the Columbia River, but those on page 48 appear to be post-1960. Fraser did not portage around the Peace River Dam and canoe up Williston Lake, nor did Thompson travel across Kinbasket Lake. The map on page 62 shows too many forts west of the mountains for 1817; there were only three in New Caledonia at that time. 

This publication fills the void in a dearth of fur trade resources available for social studies teachers in elementary and high schools and also serves as encouragement to conduct further research. Lest we think that the fur trade died out long ago, the Fur Council of Canada assures us on their website that, “thanks to modern wildlife management and trapping regulations, there are as many beavers and muskrats in North America now as when the Europeans first arrived in the continent.”

 

Profit and Ambition, The North West Company and the Fur Trade 1779-1821
By David A. Morrison
Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, 2009.  64 pp. Illus., maps, $19.95 paper