Fur-Trade Merger Results in Red River's First Downsizing

by George Siamandas

On June 1 1821 the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Co were unified ending years of keen competition for Red River's fur trade business. For nearly a century the two companies had operated as two competing organizations their own forts or trading posts. Since 1812 when the Selkirk colonists arrived at Red River tensions had increased. The settlers were into farming and were there in part to support the HBC, while the NWC was comprised of fur traders and buffalo hunters who, preferred the Nomadic lifestyle. The NWC had 4,000 employees across the North West and several hundred worked in Red River.

They used the HBC name instead of NWC even though the NWC was a larger organization because of the HBC's charter which gave them control over 1/4 of North America. The NWC was never totally out of the picture as they operated as the HBC's Northern Stores division. Its assets were purchased back in 1987 and the company was once again renamed the North West Co. And they renamed their offices Gibraltar House after the name of their original fort. It still is the largest employer of native people outside of the federal government.

The pecking order at Red River was as follows. Amongst the British, the elite were HBC officers and Scotts farmers, followed by traders, carters, boatmen and guides, with buffalo hunters at the bottom. But for the Metis, the buffalo hunters were the elite, followed by fishermen and then those that had no regular employment. It seemed that it was the French and Metis people that had worked for the North West company that got the majority of job loses.


The unification had been begun by Nicholas Garry for whom Fort Garry was named. But it was Governor George Simpson a man known as "the little emperor" who ruled the HBC's new empire starting in the mid 1820s. He was a critical person who liked to handle things personally even if it meant long voyages to various parts of the North West. Simpson who was contemptuous of the half breeds, is known to have fathered more than half a dozen illegitimate children and had casual relations with many native women. Some workers were given land grants. But not all Metis were suited for agriculture or a stay-at-home lifestyle.

The union helped in the eventual establishment of St Boniface. Prior to 1820 Pembina which was the centre of the buffalo hunt was attracting more Metis than the fledgling community of St. Boniface which was only begun after 1818 with the coming of Provencher.

After the 1821 merger the HBC took down its fort at Pembina and Pembina was uprooted and the Metis were encouraged to locate at St Boniface and to St. Francois Xavier. Over the 1820s and into the 1830s retiring HBC and NWC employees took up river lots along the Red from the Forks to the La Salle River. Over time the Red River valley filled up with French speaking people creating communities like St. Norbert, St. Adolphe and St. Agathe.



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