By Canoe To Empire


The fire, the imagination, and the boldness of these Highland leaders transformed the whole character of the fur trade and turned it into an enterprise in which business considerations—at least as seen by a coolheaded man—very often took a second place to dreams. When the American Revolution broke out, James McGill (a Glasgow man originally) instantly recognized that if the Americans won the war the southwest of the continent would soon be closed to the Canadian fur trade. When he realized that the Americans were on the point of victory, he sold his shares in the company. But Simon McTavish met the challenge by pushing it right over the edge of the map. He bet his fortune on the Athabaska region. The tenacity of McTavish and his colleagues in the face of appalling obstacles approaches the sublime. Under the best of circumstances, fur trading was a gamble in which the margin of profit over cost was never very great. Though a few large fortunes were made in it, they were acquired by penny pinching and a driving of the engagés to a degree which would horrify a modern labor union. But McTavish and his associates did not hesitate. Not even the complete success of the American Revolution lessened their compulsion to expand. Ironically, it was the blind obstinacy of these Highlanders which limited the plans of some of the shrewdest American statesmen who ever lived.

When Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay met the English diplomats in Versailles in 1783 to sign the treaty which ended the Revolutionary War, one of their chief objects was to destroy permanently the British ability to threaten the new Republic. The British were still entrenched in Nova Scotia and the St. Lawrence; the Americans had not yet moved out in any large degree beyond the Appalachians. The boundary between the United States and what remained of British North America was therefore the most vital question at this conference.

The boundary to which the British finally agreed was a triumph for the United States and a permanent disaster for Canada. The British were so ignorant of North American geography they did not understand what they were giving away, and they had invited no Canadians to the conference who might have told them. Ever since 1783, the Canadian population has been penned between the shield and the border in narrow strips. The St. Lawrence and the four northern Great Lakes were split down the middle between the two countries. Montreal was cut off totally from the Ohio territory and the Mississippi Valley, and as a final touch, Grand Portage was slipped in just underneath the new border so that it reposed in the United States. However, the British did insist on gaining equal rights along the Pigeon and Rainy rivers, and this was to be of vital importance to Canada. It left open a canoe route to the prairies and the Far West.

The Montreal fur traders had few illusions about what this border would mean to them. In time, and the time would not be long, they would be forbidden to do any business at all in the wilderness south of the border which Canadians had explored and opened up to trade. Even Grand Portage would be closed to them. So the North West Company moved their inland base to a new site at Fort William. The cost of doing so came to £10,000.

From this time until the North West Company was absorbed by the Bay in 1821, the Montreal traders met one of the most astonishing challenges in the history of commerce. As they depended on the far northwest for their furs, they were now committed to an operation in which the supply lines were stretched to a limit which would make any normal, hardheaded man of commerce turn pale. The pelts had to be paid for in trade goods conveyed three-quarters of the way across the continent in birch-bark canoes. The pay loads had to be paddled and portaged back to Montreal over a distance of some three thousand miles. The market, nearly all of it in Europe, was still another three thousand miles to the east across the Atlantic Ocean.

Speed and efficiency of the highest kind, supported by an esprit de corps among the canoe men, were the sole possible replies to a challenge so stern. The travel schedules set for the voyageurs seem incredible to the modern imagination.

Leaving Lachine in “brigades” of three to four canoes, with an experienced guide in the leading craft, the voyageurs from Montreal first set out for the Grand River, as the Ottawa was then called. At Sainte Anne de Bellevue they always stopped to pray in the chapel to the saint who protects travelers on water, and this rite gave rise to Thomas Moore’s famous poem, “Canadian Boat Song”:

Faintly as tolls the evening chime /Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time, /Soon as the woods on the shore look dim /We’ll sing at St. Ann’s our parting hymn,/ Row, brothers, row! The stream runs fast, /The rapids are near and the daylight’s past …