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Book Review: Superior Rendezvous Place

Oct 04, 2020 05:52AM ● By Editor
These are 10 man canoes – still much smaller than the big trading canoes.  Photo:

From - October 4, 2020

The city of Thunder Bay, in northern Ontario near the far western end of Lake Superior, is a curious city when one looks into it. As cities go, the entity is quite young, having only been formed in 1969. But it was formed by the merger of 3 smaller cities, one of which bore the name of Fort William, and Fort William itself had, for a brief moment in time, a crucial role in the settlements of both the Canadian and American interiors. 

As its name implies, it was initially an actual Fort – a fortified settlement, but not a military one. Fort William was a trading and commercial hub, a deliberate outpost of the same sort of ventures that gained India for Britain. Fort William was the key interior post of the Northwest Company. As with its more famous British contemporaries, the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company, the NWC’s pursuit of trade in effect claimed much of what today is western Canada. Moreover, much of early American trade either crossed through, or crossed swords with the traders of the NWC. 

Superior Rendezvous-Place: Fort William in the Canadian Fur Trade
, by Jean Morrison, is an approachable history of this settlement, and its significant, if rather brief time as a vital hub of early Canada.

Superior Rendezvous-Place begins with background history on the discoveries of the interior of North America, French and British explorations, and early commercial networks for shipping manufactured goods in, to barter with the natives in exchange for furs (chiefly beaver), and to then packaged and ship the furs back out to ports, thence to Europe. In the absence of roads, the many lakes and rivers of the Canadian interior were mapped and surveyed for the purpose of the portage – trade routes navigated by crews in massive birch-bark canoesThe French developed their network across what is today lower Canada and Michigan, across the Great Lakes, and from there even further into the interior. The British, by way of the Hudson Bay Company, entered the interior from Hudson Bay. In the 7 Years War (the French and Indian War), France lost Canada, and the Scottish Clan McTavish, eager businessmen, saw an opportunity to replace the old French network with one of their own.

Jean Morrison tells the life of the Northwest Company as it revolved around its trade networks, and how those networks competed both with the Hudson Bay Company, and with John Jacob Astor’s rival American Fur company for dominance over the interior fur trade. This competition over territory and native tribal loyalties also extended to competition over who was allowed to use which networks of lakes and rivers for portage, with all sides scouting out the easiest and most navigable routes – the ones where their crews were required to do the least work to lug canoes and cargoes around rapids and waterfalls. This competition over trade and resources had all three companies attempting to create, in the days before rail, a sort of rapid overland version of the fabled Northwest Passage, even spurring the first trading colonies on the Pacific coast (which prompted military intervention in the War of 1812). NWC voyageurs (the crews that manned the massive canoes) and officers even formed military units during the War of 1812, which fought near Lake Champlain and assisted (in competition with the HBC) in the seizure of Michilimacinac, while standing by in case of any incursions nearer to home – helping keep Canda out of US hands.

Fort William has some other curious points in its history. What became Fort William was not the intended or original location.Their original choice for Rendezvous (the large annual trade exchange) was a short distance south on a different river mouth, at a location that was established by the French as Grand Portage, near the Pigeon River. The ascent up the river systems was easier from this point, whereas the Kaministiquia River, where Fort William would be located, had a massive waterfall (Kakabeka Falls), requiring a strenuous portage up sharp incline. And so the NWC first established its presence further south. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 may have settled the American War for Independence, and set the geographic bounds of the young United States, but the map makers in Paris were far removed from the lands and peoples they were dividing. To the annoyance of the NWC traders, Grand Portage was set just within in the bounds of the United States. For twenty years, as the NWC established itself, the United States largely ignored their presence. When US tax collectors finally made their presence known, the NWC burned Grand Portage to the ground and established Fort William further north.

Jean Morrison spends a great deal of time discussing the people who controlled and lived in Fort William during its heyday.Voyageurs were recruited, or otherwise found their way to Fort William truly from the world over. Morrison for instance even notes a native Hawaiian who worked for the Northwest Company for several years, helping a voyageur crew all the way from the Pacific eastwards to the fort, over the Rockies. The impact of the fort on the various Native American nations was immense. The trade goods provided an immediate quality of life improvement, but as such goods were entirely dependent on supplies of furs, much of Canada was denuded of beavers to the point where the Ojibwe (the nation with whom the fort chiefly dealt) was eventually impoverished, having nothing else to trade (and by this time often being prevented from other work). But there was also a great deal of intermarriage, to the point where many families across that region to this day can trace mixed ancestry from any number of European and Native nations both.

To read more of this review and see related stories follow this link to the Ricochet website.

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