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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter X The Rival Companies


The Hudson's Bay Company accepted the challenge of its rivals. Hearne's successful explorations were the prelude to a wide and rapid extension of the company's business, and in the thirty-live years which followed his appointment to the governorship of Port Prince of Wales it had occupied nearly all the vast interior of the region granted to it by Charles II. Its factors were trading with Indians beside the Great Lakes, its flag floated over posts far south of the international boundary, and its brigades were ready to penetrate the mountains which barred its way to the Pacific.

It is true that in the race for the Pacific as well as the race for the far northwest it had been outstripped by the North-West Company. The great discoveries which that company owed to the courage and determination of Alexander Mackenzie had been supplemented by the explorations of such men as James Finlay, Simon Fraser, and John Stuart. These men were traders as well as explorers, and a score of new posts in the far north and west marked the trails which they had found through the mountain wilds. Another noted name m the annals of western exploration is that of David Thompson, a name appropriately given to one of the great rivers whose course he followed.

Before Thompson was sent to the mountains by the North-West Company, he had done valuable work for it in the country we now call Manitoba. He had come to the west in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company; but bartering goods for furs with Indians was far less to bis liking than making explorations and surveys, drawing maps, and taking notes of the country through which he passed. Acting on the orders of Mr. Joseph Colen, the officer in charge of York Factory, Thompson had made an exploratory trip to Lake Athabasca m the summer of 1795: but when he asked for more of such congenial work, his request was not granted. He therefore resigned and entered the service of the NorthWest Company.

Thompson left Grand Portage with one of the North-West Company's brigades in the spring of 1796. The tasks before him were just such as he would have chosen. He was instructed to determine the exact position of all the posts of the company which he might visit, to survey the forty-ninth parallel west of the Lake of the "Woods, to find the true source of the Mississippi, to visit the ancient villages of the Mandans, and to gather all the scientific and historical information possible about the places and people which he visited. He, travelled by the usual route to Lake Winnipeg, crossed it to the mouth of the Little Saskatchewan, and ascended it to Lake Winnipegosis. To follow the Swan River toward its source, cross to the branches of the Assiniboine, and follow that stream eastward were the next steps in Thompson's journey. He found very comfortable quarters in Assiniboine House and spent some time there, writing up the records of his journey and preparing for a trip to the Missouri. This journey was made successfully during the winter.

About the end of February, 1798, Thompson started down the Assiniboine sad in ten days reached its mouth. There was no trading post at that point then, and the explorer pushed on up the Red River without delay until he reached Pembina House. He remained there some time to determine as accurately as possible the position of the boundary between Canada and the United States, and then continued on his way up the river. Leaving it at Grand Forks, he crossed to the upper waters of the Mississippi and spent some weeks in attempts to locate its source. Then he followed a series of small lakes and streams to the St. Louis River, descended it to Lake Superior, and coasted its shore until he reached Grand Portage.

The first important move of the Hudson's Bay Company in its aggressive campaign against its rivals was the building of Cumberland House on the spot beside Sturgeon Lake which Hearne had selected in 1773. The fort which he had begun was completed by Mr. Cockings in the next year, and the latter remained in charge of it for some time. No more strategic position could have been chosen, for it was the very centre of the fur trade of the vast region in every part of which the war of the companies went on. From it canoe routes led up the Saskatchewan and its branches across the great plains to the mountains; another took the trader to Lake Athabasca and thence to the immense country drained by the Mackenzie River; a third led easily to the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. Descending the Saskatchewan to its mouth, and crossing Lake Winnipeg, canoe routes in all directions were open to the trader One took him northeast by the Nelson and the Hayes Rivers to Hudson Bay; another took him far into the south by the Red River, and from it a branch route led him west and southwest; a third took him to Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, and Lake Superior—the oft-travelled route of the French voyageurs and their successors; and from the last a branch route, easily followed, led to the Albany and -Tames Bay.

Along all these great interior waterways the two companies sent their canoes, brigade for brigade; in all the districts reached by them the companies established their trading posts, fort beside fort; and wherever the Indians had furs for sale, there the companies sent their agents, trader competing with trader. It is hard for us to realize the vastness of the territory over which these operations were carried on, the tremendous distances to be traversed, the transportation difficulties to he overcome, the splendid organization which made it all possible, the remarkable ability of the men who managed it, and the endurance of their employees. To have accomplished such a wonderful extension of trade in a single generation would seem a remarkable thing even in these days of swift transportation and instantaneous communication; and it appears almost a miracle when we remember that it was done a hundred years ago when there were no swift railway trains or steamships, no mails, no telegraphs, when the swiftest means of transportation was the bark canoe and the quickest means of communication was the Indian runner.

The independent traders and the North-West Company had reached the Upper Saskatchewan, the Upper Churchill, Lake lie a la Crosse, and Lake Athabasca before the factors of the Hudson's Bay Company had reached those districts, and yet the latter was soon carrying on an energetic competition in them. It established a post at Lake He a la Crosse in 1791, built Edmonton House on the Saskatchewan in 1795, and Carlton House two years later. It was not until 1798 that the North-West Company built Fort Augustus to compete with Edmonton House and secure a share of the fur trade which even at that early date centred at Edmonton. Although many of its partners had traded near Cumberland House before they united in the North-West Company, the latter does not seem to have built a fort there until 1793.

The region lying between the Saskatchewan and the Assiniboine and extending eastward to Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis was one of the best fur-producing districts in all the west. La Verendrye had developed the fur trade on the Assiniboine from its mouth upward; but the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company reversed the process and developed their trade along this river from its sources downward, and so it happened that the site of the present commercial centre of Manitoba was one of the last points to be occupied by these companies. It came about in this way. From Lake Winnipeg there is an easy canoe route by the Little Saskatchewan River, St. Martin's Lake, Lake Manitoba, and Lake Winnipegosis to Swan Lake. This small lake receives Swan River, which drains a valley once very rich in beaver fur. From the most southern elbow of the Swan River an Indian trail a few miles in length led across the portage to the main stream of the Assiniboine. Thus it was easier to reach the upper waters of this stream by way of the Swan River than to follow the 'winding Assiniboine itself.

After Fort de la Reine was burned by the Indians in 1752 there seems to have been no fort on the Assiniboine or its affluents until Robert Grant, one of the independent traders, built Fort Esperance on the Qu'Appelle in 1780; but his post seems to have been occupied for a short time only. The Hudson's Bay Company built a fort on Swan River in 1790. It was about twelve miles above the lake, but it was soon abandoned for Fort Belly on the Assiniboine near the portage leading to the Swan River. A fort was erected on the Qu'Appelle River a little later. Extending its trade down the Assiniboine, the company built Brandon House thirteen miles below Brandon in 1794 and a fort at Portage la Prairie in 1796.

The other companies were equally active. In 1794 Peter Grant built a fort on the Shell River for the North-West Company, and one of its agents built Fort Tremblante on the Assiniboine the previous year. Fort Alexandria was erected in the neighborhood in 1800. Before 1804 both the North-West and X. Y. Companies had forts on the Qu 'Appelle River.

The Souris was the most important branch of the Assiniboine on the south. It flowed through a good fur district; it led to plains where buffaloes were numerous ; and it was the route to the Missouri and the country of the Mandans. There is a tradition that la Verendrye had a post at the mouth of the Souris and that a priest who lived there a little while taught his religion to the Indians in the vicinity; but all traces of such a post had disappeared long before the Hudson's Bay Company and its rivals contended for the control of the trade along the river. The North-West Company had a post called Pine Port a few miles below the junction of the Souris and Assiniboine, which was probably built in 1785. Nine years later the Hudson's Bay Company built Brandon House on the^ south side of the Assiniboine and about three miles above the outlet of the Souris. It occupied a good position, having the river in front and a ravine on one side; and it was quite a large post, being one hundred and fifty-five feet long and one hundred and twenty-four feet wide. It was a challenge to the North-Westers, and so their company built Assiniboine House, sometimes called Stone Indian House, on the opposite bank of the Assiniboine during 1795 and then abandoned the old Pine Fort. When Thompson visited Assiniboine House in 1797, it was in charge of John Macdonell, and when Harmon was there seven years later Charles Chalroillez had charge. Thompson mentions Ash Fort, a post some miles up the Souris.

The X. Y. Company also built a fort on the south side of the Assiniboine, separated from Brandon House by the ravine which has been mentioned. It was about one hundred and fifty feet long and sixty-six feet wide and was called Port a la Souris. It became the post of the North-West Company after the X. Y. Company lost its identity in 1804, and a few years later the agent in charge was John Pritchard.

From the Assiniboine the two companies extended their operations to the Red. The Hudson's Bay Company built a fort at the mouth of the river near the present site of Fort Alexander about 1795, and the North-West Company erected Port Bas de la Riviere near by within a year. In 1797-8 Charles Chaboillez built Port Pembina close to the international boundary for the North-West Company, and in 1800 the other company erected a post not far away. The former seems to have had several temporary trading stations along the Red River about this time, but probably none were occupied for more than a single season. La Verendrye does not seem to have found Fort Rouge at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine a good point for trade with the Indians, and the companies which took up that trade fifty years after Verendrye's time were slow to establish posts there. It was not until 1805 that the North-West bourgeois, John McDonald of Garth, ordered John Willis to construct Fort Gibraltar at the mouth of the Assiniboine and on its northern bank. It- took twenty men a year to complete the work. It was surrounded by a stockade eighteen feet high, made of oak trees split in half; and inside was a residence for the bourgeois, sixty-four feet long, two houses for servants, a store, a smith's shop, a stable, a kitchen, and an icehouse surmounted by a watch-tower. It may be that the Hudson's Bay Company had a small trading post about a mile north of Fort Gibraltar soon after the latter was completed; but the first important fort which it built on the site of Winnipeg, was Port Douglas. It stood on the west bank of the Red River nearly two miles below the mouth of the Assiniboine and dates from 1812.

The keen competition of the two companies was not restricted to the prairie country. The North-West Company had a chain of posts along the water routes leading southeast from Lake Winnipeg, and its rival pushed its way along most of them. It had a post on the Lake of the Woods and another on Rainy Lake before 1797 and pushed south to Red Lake in Minnesota soon after. Between that lake and Lake Superior the North-West Company had several posts, but into that particular district the English company does not seem to have penetrated just then. It did push its Way along the north side of Lake Superior, however, for both companies were trading on the Nepigon very early in the nineteenth century.

The relentless rivalry of the two great companies was not confined to the interior. In the spring of 1803 the North-West Company fitted out the Beaver, a vessel of one hundred and fifty tons, and sent her to Hudson Bay to secure as much as possible of the trade over which the Hudson's Bay Company claimed a monopoly. At the same time an expedition was sent to the bay by the old French overland route for the same purpose. These expeditions established two posts for the company—one on Charlton Island, and the other beside the Moose River. The factors of the Hudson's Bay Company were astonished to see these posts erected under their very noses by their irrepressible opponents; but, secure in the long friendship of the Indians and confident of the superiority of the goods in their stores, they felt no alarm. These two ventures did not prove remunerative to the North-West Company, and in a few years both of the new posts were abandoned.

Had the rivalry of the two great companies been confined to the extension of their operations to remote districts, the building of new forts, and competition for furs by legitimate methods, it might have resulted in good to both of them, for the country seemed capable of supplying an incalculable quantity of fur. Certainly legitimate competition would have been an advantage to the poor Indian. Unfortunately the competition soon became too fierce to he confined to legitimate methods. Many of the traders were utterly unscrupulous men whose one rule of life was to get the largest cargoes of fur possible, regardless of the means employed. So the Indians were wheedled, deceived, or intimidated into taking their furs from the post of the company, which had probably advanced them the price of the furs in provisions during the previous season, to the post of the other company. When these methods failed, the unprincipled traders resorted to the free use of the vilest "fire-water," and the terrible demoralization of the Indians which resulted is the darkest stain on the records of the two companies.

But the competition which resorted to such methods would not stop at them; and from debauching the Indian and cheating him of the value of his furs, it was an easy step to take furs from the stores of the rival company, seize them by force when being transported in its canoes, or burn both stores and the furs in them. Such robbery naturally led to fights between the employees of the hostile companies, and a long list of brave men—Scotch, French, and Metis—lost their lives in a quarrel in which they really had nothing at stake.

In 1800 a young Frenchman named Labau was employed in the North-West Company's fort on the Nepigon; but becoming dissatisfied, he resigned and went over to the post of the Hudson's Bay Company. Schultz, the North West clerk in charge of the post, went across to the other fort and ordered Labau to return. When the young fellow declined to go, Schultz stabbed him, and before morning he died. Schultz was sent to Montreal, but he does not seem to have been brought to trial, and after a time the company gave him a position m Lower Canada.

In the year 1806 both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company had posts at Bad Lake not far from Albany. William Corrigal was in charge of the post of the older company, in which four hundred and eighty packages of fur were stored; a North-West partner named Haldane had charge of the other. One night in .May, Haldane with five of his voyageurs carried off the furs in Corrigal's store; and when the latter demanded their return, he was told, "I came to this country for furs, and furs I am determined to have." Haldane kept the furs, and later in the same year he pillaged a Hudson's Bay Company's post at Red Lake, carrying off provisions as well as furs.

In the same year a man named John Crear had charge of a post of the Hudson's Bay Company at Big Falls not far from Lake Winnipeg. One evening a party of "Frenchmen in two canoes, commanded by Alexander McDonell, arrived and camped near by. All of Crear's men, except a man named Plowman, went away to fish the next morning; and during their absence McDonell's party broke open the warehouse and carried off the furs, a part of the provisions stored there, and a canoe. When Crear and Plowman tried to prevent this robbery, they were roughly handled by the North-Westers, Plowman being stabbed in the arm by McDonell, and Crear being badly clubbed with a musket, In the following February, McDonell sent one of his under-clerks to the same post with a number of men, and they carried off a quantity of valuable furs. Crear was beaten until he signed a paper declaring that he had given up the furs willingly.

In the year 1808 John Spence had charge of a post at Reindeer Lake belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company, and John Duncan Campbell had charge of the neighboring North-West post. Spence sent one of his men to procure furs from a party of Indians who were bringing them down from Lake Athabasca. He had obtained the furs and was nearing his post with them, when Campbell and a number of his men came out and demanded the furs on the usual ground that the Indians had promised them to the North-West Company in payment of debts contracted the year before. Linklater, the Hudson's Bay Company's man. refused to give them up, but they were taken from him by force.

The same Campbell had plundered a post of the Hudson's Bay Company at lie a la Crosse, which was in charge of Peter Fidler who had gone there in 1806. Campbell came down with a party of bullies and forbade the Indians to trade at Fidler's fort and ordered Fidler's men not to go beyond a line which he drew on the sand. For some three years Fidler remained, getting some furs by strategy and sending many of the Indians by circuitous routes to sell their furs at other posts belonging to his company; but his wood was stolen, his nets cut, his; canoes broken, and in the end he was compelled to retire. His buildings were burned as soon as he went away.

William Corrigal, who had been at Bad Lake in 1806, was sent to a post of the Hudson's Bay Company at Eagle Lake in the fall of 1809. About the middle of September a party of North-Westers, commanded by Aeneas McDonell, camped close to the post. An Indian, who had sold his furs to the Hudson's Bay Company, was about to set off for his camp with the goods he had purchased, when McDonell came down to the water's edge and claimed the Indian's canoe and his goods in satisfaction of a debt contracted with the North-West Company some time before. When two of Corrigal's men went to the Indian's assistance, McDonell drew his sword and wounded one of them severely on the wrist and neck, while his companion threatened to shoot the other. Men from both camps joined in the fray, and before it was over McDonell had slashed another man with his sword, and an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company had a shoulder dislocated by a blow from an axe. As MeDonell continued to attack those opposed to him, one of them who had been struck by him, shot him on the spot. A few days later Haldane came to the post with ten North-Westers and shortly after another partner, McLellan, arrived with his men ; so the party in the post of the Hudson's Bay Company found itself besieged. Finally John Mowat, who had killed McDonell, agreed to surrender, and was sent to Montreal for trial. The North-Westers were careful to keep him in the dungeon of their post at Fort William for months before taking him on to Montreal.

These are a few examples of the lawlessness which prevailed over much of the country in which the two companies carried on their operations. That it could have continued so long seems scarcely credible, especially when we remember that these events happened little more than a hundred years ago. But there was no law in the land then, and ''might was the right of the strongest."

In the winter of 1801-2 the North-West Company and the X. Y. Company had posts at the same point in the Athabasca district. A band of Indians came down to sell their furs, and each agent sent a clerk to secure them. King, the North-Wester, got all of them except one bale; but not satisfied, he attempted to take by force the single bale which Lamotte, the X. Y. Company's man, had obtained. Lamotte warned him to desist, and when he persisted, shot him dead. Only the interference of the savages prevented a general melee between the employees of the two companies. Lamotte was afterwards arrested and sent to Montreal but he was never tried, although kept in prison for two years. This outrageous proceeding led the British parliament to pass the "Canada Jurisdiction Aet" 'in 1803, which professed to remedy a defect of the law arising from the fact that some parts of the empire in North America were not included in any organized province. It allowed the courts of Canada to take cognizance of offenses committed within certain districts, termed in the act the "Indian Territories." The act was very vague, and the districts to which it applied were not clearly defined, and so it did little to improve conditions in the west. John Mowat was tried under this act and condemned to branding and a term of imprisonment, a sentence which showed the great need for better administration of justice in the west. The defects of the "Canada Jurisdiction Act" were partly remedied by a supplementary act passed about eighteen years later.


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