Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls, Ontario
by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919)
Hopkins Collection - National Archives of Canada C-002771
The first Europeans to cross the continent of North America came from East to West. They were the fur trade explorers of the North West and Hudson's Bay trading companies.
Following the inland river and lake systems, and led by MacKenzie, Fraser and Thompson, they built trading posts, explored the waterways and created the first maps of those regions. These were the Voyageurs!
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)incorporated in England in 1670 hoping to find the northwest passage to the Pacific. Its object was also to occupy the lands surrounding Hudson’s Bay and carry on commerce and trade in those lands. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) became the most powerful company in Canada, contributing significantly to the political and economic structure of the nation. During the first two hundred years of its existence the HBC engaged primarily in the fur trade industry by setting up fur trading outposts on all of the major waterways in the country in order to trade with the Native populations and gaining a monopoly in the industry after 1821. In 1870 the HBC sold its lands that consisted of all of Western Canada to the Government of Canada.
The Voyageurs typically spoke French, and were French Canadian from Quebec, or Métis. They were often employees of French, French-Canadian, or later British trading operations who traveled by canoe deep into uncharted North America to trade fur with the Native American peoples. The voyageurs typically interacted with the native peoples more closely than the settlers who were to follow in their footsteps. Many served as interpreters and guides for the French or the English.
During the struggle for supremacy in the fur trade in the late 18th century, the upstart North West Company challenged the more-established Hudson's Bay Company by employing a network of Voyageurs. Unlike the Hudson's Bay traders, who traditionally stayed inside coastal posts and required Natives to come to them, the Voyageurs roamed along the river valleys as far as present-day Oregon, doing business directly with the Natives. The success of the Voyageurs prompted a change in strategy by the Hudson's Bay Company, which began sending out its own expeditions into the continental interior.
In 1779, several of these operators formed the North West Company (NWC). The NWC was led by several businessmen, including Simon McTavish. By 1787, McTavish
controlled eleven of the company’s twenty shares. Among the other shareholders were Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and Peter Pond, all fur traders and three of Canada’s best-known explorers. The NWC became known for its bold and aggressive approach to business.
The company had twenty-three partners, but more than 2000 guides, interpreters, and voyageurs. McTavish and other Scots shareholders married French Canadian women and French Canadians played key roles in the company.
By July of 1821 a merger was forced upon the Northwest Company which resulted in their 97 posts and forts being amalgamated into the HBC system at the end of the great company. George Simpson became the new head of the HBC and their new head quarters was located in Lachine Quebec.
by Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1879