The staple of the North West Company was the beaver pelt. Beavers have a thick, barbed under-layer of hair ideally suited for the production of the felt hats that were then the rage in Europe. And North America had become the key source of supply.
Most partners in the North West Company earned £1000 to £3,000 per year. But when Simon McTavish died in 1804, his estate was valued at £125,000, making him perhaps the richest man in Canada. Company clerks were paid £60 to £100 per year, plus food and equipment. In return for their efforts and sacrifice, voyageurs were paid £30 to £60 per year, plus food and equipment.
In 1798, for instance, the North West Company exported to London more than 175,000 pelts. Some 106,000 pelts were from beavers. Other furs included muskrat, marten, otter, lynx and wolf. Exports also included castorum, a substance taken from the beaver’s musk glands and used in making fine perfumes.
Fort William — today’s Thunder Bay, Ontario — was the linchpin in the North West Company’s commercial empire. Here, the main summer rendez-vous of the Montréal and North West fur brigades brought together partners, clerks and voyageurs. Crews and cargoes were exchanged, serious business discussed and the successes of the year celebrated with feasting and drinking.
In 1778, Montréal fur trader Peter Pond was the first white man to explore canoe routes into the Lake Athabasca region. The Athabasca region was probably the richest trapping area in Canada, and profits for the North West Company were enormous.
Profits from the fur trade transformed Montréal from a sleepy provincial town into the urban, economic centre of Canada. At the time, it eclipsed Québec as the wealthiest city in Canada.
The journey from Montréal to the Lakehead on Lake Superior was made in large canots du maître (Montréal canoes), about 10 metres long, with a five-tonne carrying capacity and a crew of 10 or more. Made of fragile birch bark, none of these canoes have survived from the era of the North West Company.
The North West Company was a capitalist enterprise, run for profit and charging what the market would bear. In a good year, trade goods that cost £25 in London, England, could be exchanged for beaver pelts in Canada worth £100 or more.
Popular trade goods included muskets, metal tools and cooking pots, clothing and jewellery, and tobacco and alcohol. The North West Company was especially ruthless in pushing the sale of alcohol in Aboriginal communities. Quickly consumed and therefore always in demand, alcohol helped maintain a steady supply of pelts.
By canoe, the round-trip distance between Montréal and Lake Athabasca is almost 7,000 kilometres. The company quickly adopted a two-stage transportation system to deal with the distance. Brigades carrying trade goods left Montréal in the spring and paddled via the Ottawa River to the Lakehead on Lake Superior where they met other brigades, laden with furs, travelling down from the Northwest. The brigades exchanged their cargoes and returned the way they had come.
Voyageurs paddled 14 to 16 hours a day and carried heavy loads on every portage, averaging about 82 kilograms (180 pounds). Drownings and injuries were common. In the words of one observer, “No men in the world are more severely worked than are these Canadian voyageurs.”