Tags: McGillivray, William; North West Company; North American fur trade; The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company by Irene Ternier Gordon; Montreal and the fur trade; Montreal social life ca. 1783
Anyone with an interest in the fur trade will be familiar with the name of the North West Company, which was a major fur trade company along with the Hudson’s Bay Company before the two joined together in 1821 under the HBC name. William McGillivray, head of the NWC from 1804 to 1821, was arguably the most powerful and wealthiest businessman in Canada in the early nineteenth century.
I wrote a biography of William entitled The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company. He is a direct ancestor of my grandson Felix. In today’s Blog I describe Montreal at the time of William’s first arrival there in 1783 to become an apprentice with the North West Company, under the patronage of his Uncle Simon McTavish who was one of the founders of the NWC.
The city of Montreal, which had a population of less than 9000 people in 1783, occupied only the south side of the island of Montreal. The lower level of Mont Royal, not yet part of Montreal, rose gently and was planted in gardens and orchards; the steeper upper part was still wooded. Both the houses and warehouses of principal merchants were spacious and covered with sheet iron or tin to protect them from fire. While most houses were of timber, there also were a few stone mansions.
Houses commonly had benches on either side of the front door facing the street. There families spent many fine summer evenings visiting with passers-by. William found the young women attractive and very well dressed – especially on Sundays — however he was likely too shy to do more than politely tip his hat to them. The young women, in their turn, undoubtedly took a great interest in William because an early painting shows him as a handsome, well-built young man with thick, curly red hair.
The arrival of the first canoes of the season at Lachine in late August was the most exciting event of the year for most Montreal residents. The fur trade brigades had been gone since the ice went out of the rivers in late spring, and everyone anxiously awaited their return home. People could talk of nothing else. William found that he had to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to understand the conversations going on around him. Because he knew how to speak French, he knew the literal meanings of most of the expressions he heard. What he had to learn was what these expressions meant to Montrealers. For instance, “les mangeurs de lard” (pork eaters) were voyageurs who only travelled between Montreal and Grand Portage on Lake Superior. While their arrival back in Montreal was a cause for celebration, much more exciting would be the return of “les hommes du nord” or “hivernants”. These men of the north or “winterers” would spend at least three years away from home, travelling beyond the Great Lakes to the North West. This was the country also known as “le pays d’en haut” or high country. Les hommes du nord felt themselves much superior to the men who returned to their Quebec homes each winter.
Many people rushed to travel the nine miles of rough trail separating Lachine from Montreal so as to be first to greet the returning brigades. The Lachine Falls prevented loaded canoes from travelling all the way to Montreal, so the goods had to be unloaded and transferred to carts to bring them to the warehouses. The quiet summertime Montreal that William had got used to burst into life with the arrival of the brigades. The townspeople welcomed home husbands, fathers, sons, sweethearts and friends. Church bells rang and flags waved. The voyageurs swarmed the narrow streets like school boys just let out of school – shouting and singing, greeting friends, telling tall tales, drinking too much, recklessly spending money. Single men rekindled romances with the young women they had left behind or tried to impress new girls with tales of their daring do. McTavish, now a successful merchant, would not likely join the throngs celebrating on the streets; but William, almost certainly did.
William’s time of leisure was over. His first job was to tally the packs of furs as they arrived at the McTavish warehouse along the waterfront…After all the furs were tallied, William had to help repack them and transport them to the wharf where they were loaded on ships for London. Finally, he helped his uncle pay off the voyageurs.
Social life became livelier in December because travel was easier once there was enough snow on the ground for sleighs and the rivers were frozen over. Now it seemed that people were constantly on the move and there were parties almost every day with music, dancing, or card-playing – and always with lavish food and drink, and much conversation.
The wealthier citizens travelled about in carioles in winter. These were light sleighs pulled by one or two horses that could carry two passengers and a driver… All the men seemed to be in competition to have the handsomest outfit. Most carioles were open because the great pleasure of going for a cariole ride seemed to consist in seeing and being seen. The ladies always went out dressed in the most superb furs and almost everyone looked as if they were really enjoying themselves. Because carioles glided along so quietly, bells were attached to the horse’s harness and many drivers also had horns which they frequently sounded to guard against accidents.
While William may not have been aware of it, not everyone was enjoying winter parties in December 1783. On Christmas Eve, some 550 officers and men of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York learned that their regiment was disbanded since the British had lost the revolutionary war. These men were not only unemployed but also had permanently lost their homes and lands in New York. They, along with their [families, a total of about 1,460 people,]…were crammed into a newly-built barracks…To make matters even worse; most of the women and children were down with measles or small pox.
Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/www.ireneterniergordon.ca
Or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon