Crossing the Continent

Setting Sail for North America | The Battle for Land | A Company for the Future

ROBERT MacNEIL: But despite grand celebrations in London and the colonies, there were many people in the New World who viewed the British victory as a disaster

Martha SaxtonMARTHA SAXTON, Historian: The consequences of the expulsion of the French from the North American Company were truly terrible for Native Americans. On the one hand, it gave the English a monopoly. No consumer is in good shape when there's a monopoly controlling the situation. There were a number of other things that were perhaps a little bit less tangible. In many Native American accounts of the loss of the French, what they talk about is the French understanding of their culture, the French desire to, to find out more about them and the French, what I can only describe as the ability to have a good time, which the English never really seemed to have mastered exactly. The French also participated in cultural rituals like distributing gifts before trade, establishing long term military alliances that meant parity with the Indians. Again, the English never did this kind of thing and as soon as the French were expelled from North America, the English stopped gifts immediately so that, so that the relationship of trade suddenly was stripped of the ceremonial and ritual function and became really just a market, a market transaction which the Native Americans never really liked and didn't understand.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Following the defeat of the French, their territory in present-day Canada was abandoned to the British.

Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives
The Hudson's Bay Company had expected to enjoy its monopoly in peace. But its old enemy, the French were soon replaced by new competitors -- freshly landed entrepreneurs. They were feisty Scots, adventurous Irish hawkers and shrewd Yankee veterans of the Mississippi fur trade. These volatile and often violent men obeyed their own rules.

By the late 1770's, these "peddlers," as the Bay men called them, formed the North West Company --dedicated to capturing control of the northern fur trade from the Hudson's Bay Company. For the next fifty years, the competition between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Nor'Westers would motivate exploration and expansion of trade into the North American interior. The partners of the North West Company met each summer on the northwest shore of Lake Superior to plan the next season's fur harvesting strategies. With the leadership in the field, they were far more flexible than the Hudson's Bay Company, whose men had to defer to their distant, London-based management and shareholders.

Within a few decades, the freewheeling North West Company would become North America's first transcontinental enterprise, trading from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from London to China.

Crewed by French Canadian voyageurs - the famous "river rats" - the Nor'Westers' canoes rushed freight and furs along the great river route from Montreal to Fort William, a distance of a thousand miles. The shallow lakes were deceptively calm and eerily beautiful. But in a sudden squall, they could become death traps.

Traders at camp
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Sixty paddle strokes a minute, 25 miles a day, seven to eight weeks without a break, in any and all weather conditions, the voyageur brigades were the engine of the North West Company.

Once an hour they paused to refill their pipes. Distances came to be measured in pipes instead of miles. Restless and ambitious, the Nor'Westers left the Hudson's Bay Company traders far behind in the competition for the best furs.

The company had fallen out of step in other ways as well. It had been almost twenty years since it had mounted a serious expedition to explore the vast North American continent. The last trek inland had been conducted in 1754, by a company employee, former smuggler and net mender named Anthony Henday.

ANTHONY HENDAY, Explorer: Almost three weeks of travel. Met four canoes of Indians and informed me that I was on the confines of the dry inland country, called by the natives the Muscuty Tuskee.

ROBERT MacNEIL: During his journey, Henday would explore the western Plains and be the first European to camp within sight of the Rocky Mountains.

On October 1, 1754, several months after leaving York factory, Henday encountered leaders of the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy.

ANTHONY HENDAY: The leader set out several grand-pipes, and we smoked all round, according to their usual custom.

My interpreter Attikashish informed him I was sent by the Great Leader who lives down at the great waters, to invite his young men down to see him and to bring with them beaver skins and wolves skins, and they would get in return powder, shot, guns, cloth, beads . . . The Blackfoot chief answered, it was far off, and they could not live without buffalo flesh, and they could not leave their horses.

He made me a present of a handsome bow and arrows, and in return I gave him a part of each kinds of goods I had.

North West Company ship
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

ROBERT MacNEIL: After traveling 900 miles, Henday's party wintered within sight of the Rocky Mountains. In mid-January, they began the long voyage back to York Factory.

Henday's journey, like those of explorers before him, was largely ignored by the company. But twenty years later, fierce competition from the Nor'Westers began changing official attitudes.

As it saw its trade erode, the company decided the only way to beat the Nor'Westers was to copy them. In 1773, a company bookkeeper, Matthew Cocking, journeyed inland in an effort to drum up business.

Cocking met Nor'Westers everywhere. He came back convinced that if the company was to remain competitive, it would have to move inland and establish permanent trading posts closer to the Indians.

In 1774, a hundred and four years after it was founded, the Hudson's Bay Company finally established its first inland post - Cumberland House, on Pine Island Lake.

Within a little more than a decade, a string of Hudson's Bay Company posts sat along the Saskatchewan River, tiny isolated beads on an immense necklace.

The increased activity by the Hudson's Bay Company only made the Nor'Westers more ambitious. They began a series of exploratory voyages led by Alexander Mackenzie, a Scotsman. Mackenzie's vision was to create a global British commercial empire by linking the North American fur trade to the exotic commerce of the Orient. His dream was reminiscent of the quest for the Northwest Passage that had inspired explorers in earlier centuries. In pursuit of this goal, Mackenzie set off to find an inland route to the Pacific. His first attempt led him to the Arctic.

Alexander Mackenzie
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

On July 14, 1789, the same day a mob in Paris stormed the Bastille, Mackenzie and his small flotilla of men in canoes arrived at the Arctic Ocean. It had taken two months of constant paddling to make the three thousand mile journey.

Although the voyage was a magnificent feat, it was not a trade route to the Orient. Decades later it would become the great water route to the Arctic, known as the Mackenzie River.

ALEXANDER MACKENZIE: This morning I fixed a post close by our encampment on which I engraved the latitude of the place, my own name & the number of men with me & and the time we had been here.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Four years later, convinced more than ever of the North West Company's need for a base on the Pacific coast, Alexander Mackenzie set out again.

This time his crew and equipment were stripped to the bare essentials: one specially built twenty-five-foot canoe, one clerk, six voyageurs, two Indians and a large friendly dog.

On June 13, 1793, high in the mountains, the canoe was smashed against the rocks. Mackenzie.

Mackenzie's expeditionALEXANDER MACKENZIE: Not withstanding all our exertions, the violence of the current was so great as to drive her sideways down the river, and break her by the first bar. We had hardly regained our situation, when we drove against a rock which shattered the stern of the canoe, the violence of this stroke drove us to the other side, in a few moments we came across a cascade which broke several large holes in the bottom of the canoe.

ROBERT MacNEIL: He soon left the river and set off on foot. Climbing from cliff to cliff, from precipice to precipice, Mackenzie and his party made their way across the mountains. When one local guide threatened to desert, Mackenzie kept tabs on the man by making him sleep next to him, under the same blanket.

Guided by a relay of Indians from local tribes, he moved up into the cool reaches of the Pacific Coastal mountain range.

Leaving the mountains, he entered the rain forests and met the salmon-fishing Bella Coola Indians.

ALEXANDER MACKENZIE: From the houses I could perceive the termination of the river, and its discharge into a narrow arm of the sea.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Twelve years ahead of American explorers Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie had accomplished what so many explorers had only dreamed of - he had reached the Pacific.

British Columbia coastALEXANDER MACKENZIE: I now mixed up some vermilion in melted grease, and inscribed, in large characters, on the South-East face of the rock on which we had slept last night, this brief memorial - "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

ROBERT MacNEIL: They had logged an incredible 2,811 miles in territory never before visited by Europeans. Mackenzie had not lost a man - or a dog.

Mackenzie's exploits have rarely been equaled. His adventures are a proud chapter in the history of Canada. The map of North America was forever transformed by his two voyages.

ROBERT BOTHWELL: Mackenzie was the first person to locate the Pacific in terms of the whole space of North America. After Mackenzie we actually know how much there was, so Mackenzie's triumph is first of all geographical. Second Mackenzie's triumph is political because the British are the first to the Pacific, and that confirms and eventually results in British Columbia being part of the British empire instead of the empire of Spain or Russia, or eventually the United States.

ROBERT MacNEIL: But Mackenzie, who was a Nor'Wester, was now convinced that the fight for the fur trade was suicidal. As competition with the Hudson's Bay Company intensified, the Nor'Westers kidnapped Indian trappers, laid siege to bay posts, terrorized women and children. Dozens of bay men were murdered. The solution, Mackenzie said, was to merge the two companies before they destroyed one other.

His dream of unification would indeed be realized -- although it would take almost another thirty years. In the meantime, the Hudson's Bay Company responded to the North West challenge by adopting the less gentlemanly business practices of their adversaries As the Hudson's Bay Company successfully wooed their Indian suppliers away, the North West company fought back by expanding their trade into new territories.

Fort WiliamBut the North West company was unable to sustain its ever-growing trade network, and by the early nineteenth century, the company was near collapse. In 1820, the Nor'Westers sent a delegation to London to negotiate a merger with their old enemy, the Hudson's Bay Company. But the resulting agreement looked more like a takeover than a merger. The Hudson's Bay Company had the upper hand.

Overnight, the territory controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company had vastly expanded to almost three million square miles, covering most of North America. It now stretched from the Arctic to California, and from Labrador to Alaska.



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