The Northwest Fur Company established historic Fort William in present day Thunder Bay, Ontario on the Kaministiquia River in 1803 as its interior headquarters and distribution center. The company’s headquarters were originally in Grand Portage, Minnesota, forty miles Southwest. The company moved because it was an English company doing business on United States soil. The US government wanted them to pay taxes on the fur they were exporting to Europe.
The predominate fur being traded was the beaver, which was used to make hats for the gentry in every major city in Europe. The beaver had been eradicated in Europe, but were plentiful in North America, especially in Northern Canada. The Northwest Company’s largest competitor was The Hudson Bay Company. They had the original British Royal Charter for trading fur since 1670, but were only a quarter of the size of the Northwest Company. The company averaged over 90,000 beaver pelts per year for over ten years. Simon McTavish and his partners became extremely wealthy.
In 1804 McTavish died and his nephew, William McGillivray, became the Chief Director of the company. The distribution center took on his personality. Whereas the Grand Portage location under the leadership McTavish consisted of approximately 17 Spartan buildings, the Kaministiquia River location boasted 42 various buildings. Some of the buildings are painted white. They even had a fire engine in case of a dreaded fire. This was a showcase for the entire world to see.
The original site was near the mouth of the Kaministiquia River and Lake Superior. That is not longer there and is a switching yard for Canadian National Railroad. Today a reproduction of the depot sits two-miles up river from the original site.
Prepare to spend a day visiting the site. Guides in period clothing will take you around to the different buildings. They use first person interpretation and represent different characters that were there in 1815. Six years later, the company would be destroyed by The Hudson Bay Company and would merge with them in a hostile takeover.
Fort William Historic Park is a living history site. Tradesmen, such as carpenters, canoe builders, black and tinsmiths, bakers, coopers, tailors, gunsmiths, etc., demonstrate their skills. Visitors are invited to participate in their work, using the period tools of their trades.
Outside the walls is a working farm with Percheron horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, chickens and other farm animals. Also outside is a replica of an Ojibwe village with people to help the visitor understand the culture of the Ojibwe Nation.
Back inside the stockade are a doctor’s residence, operating room and apothecary. A sea captain’s house, and various living quarters for the partners, clerks and tradesmen. Not to be missed is the trading post where the Natives would bring furs, wild rice, maple sugar, and other commodities to be traded for the European goods: metal products, textiles, and other conveniences. Go into the fur building and be overwhelmed by the variety and vastness of their fur collection. Finally on the places to see is the Great Hall or mess hall. This sits as the focal point of the depot. Here meals were served to the gentlemen and business was conducted for the company.
Visiting Historic Fort Williams is quite an eye-opening experience. Very few American know about what happened in Canada when their country was just a youth. The story of the Northwest Fur Company mirrors business even today. Only the names, commodities and locations have changed.