By Canoe To Empire


The fur trade failed in the end; it was doomed the moment the settlers began moving into the West to farm. Long before that time there were men engaged in it who had seen the writing on the wall. Sometimes when I walk up the avenue of the McGill campus and reach the founder’s tomb, I think back on the life he led and the shrewd Lowland caution which prompted James McGill to take his money out of the fur trade in time. He had never been a true voyageur, merely a poor boy from Scotland who had entered the only Canadian trade which offered him a living. He had earned his place in the Beaver Club by a winter spent alone near the headwaters of the Mississippi, but he got off the rivers before the life on them broke him. McGill lacked the transcendent imagination of Simon McTavish and the last-ditch loyalty of William McGillivray, but he had much common sense. Unlike most of his old colleagues in the fur trade, he did not die broke. His life had taught him that civilization could never grow in Canada under the conditions he had known in his youth. Though he was well off by colonial standards, he would never have been accounted an especially rich man in England. He left just enough to make it possible to found a college. Today McGill University lies like a quiet pattern of order in the roaring tumult of modern Montreal, and is by far the most important visible monument to the North West Company’s great adventure.

For the economic contribution of the fur trade after the American Revolution has surely been exaggerated. It is a common argument that furs saved the country from being absorbed by the United States because they provided an east-west trade, all Canadian, in a continent where the normal lines of economic communication run north and south, with the greater power and population of the United States sucking the wealth of Canada southward. I cannot believe this. The fur trade may have bridged an economic gap for a number of years, but the true reason why it saved Canada from absorption was not economic. It was political.

Not only did the voyageurs explore most of North America; after 1783 they staked out Canadian—or, at that time, British—claims to the whole northwestern hinterland from the head of the lakes to the Pacific. When the tide of homesteaders fanned out from the railheads in the American Midwest in the nineteenth century, the Canadian West would surely have been occupied by them, and subsequently claimed as American territory by the American government, had not the ancient rights of prior exploration, which the Americans respected, bound the land to Canada. The lonely posts were on the plains, in the Fraser and Columbia valleys, on the Pacific coast, and the Union Jack flew over all of them. Yet only a handful of men achieved this result. At the height of its power the North West Company may have employed as many as five thousand men, but less than two thousand were in service in the field between Montreal and Chipewyan. It was not their numbers that counted, but what they did. And in the long run what was done by the dreamers mattered the most.

David Thompson was probably the greatest geographer ever developed in North America; without his work, backed by Simon Fraser’s voyage down the river which bears his name, it is hard to believe that British Columbia would now be a Canadian province. And of course there was Alexander Mackenzie, the exploring prince of them all after the time of La Vérendrye.

A dozen years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie reached the Pacific through North America. He threaded to the end the Northwest Passage. Its reality bore no resemblance to the European dream of a great gorge which would float sailing ships from the Old World through the continental land mass of the New. It was simply the chain of rivers, lakes, and portages which enabled canoes from Montreal to move all the way from the St. Lawrence across Canada to the northern and western oceans.

“Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three”—this celebrated understatement, scrawled in a mixture of vermilion and grease on a rock in Dean Channel after Mackenzie’s passage down the Bella Coola, wrote finis to a quest begun exactly three hundred and one years earlier when Christopher Columbus set out across the Atlantic from Palos. The reality found by Mackenzie served only to dissipate the dream. But it introduced a new reality, just as Columbus’ lost quest drew an entire hemisphere into the story of civilization. How strange that a Canadian birch-bark canoe without a name, last in a long succession of canoes from Champlain’s first one, should have earned a place in the company of ships like the Santa Maria and the Golden Hind!

*Mackenzie’s exploits were chronicled in “First by Land” in the October, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE; those of Thompson in “A Man to Match the Mountains,” in the October, 1960, issue.