Bound for Fort William

Bound for Fort William
Oil on canvas
26” x 36”

 From 1670 to 1783, the vast fur trade of Canada was dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It held sway over the entire drainage basin of Hudson’s Bay, a territory that comprised 1.5 million acres. Furs were mostly brought to the company by the First Nations people and Métis.

An enterprising group of independent traders based in Quebec and Montreal knew, if they established trading posts further inland, they would be able to trade before the furs reached the HBC . In 1784, the North West Company was formed and the challenge to the Hudson's Bay Company for domination of the fur trade in North America was on.

The entire fur trade industry relied on the use of the birch bark canoe.  There were several different types and each canoe was designed and manufactured according to its use and the water it would traverse. The largest was the Montreal canoe or Voyageur canoe.  It measured 35 to 40 feet long, carried 5 tons of crew and freight, was paddled by 14 men yet weighed only 300 pounds.  This canoe was used on the Great Lakes and the largest rivers.  The North canoe, 25 feet in length and paddled by 8 voyageurs, was used on smaller streams and lakes.  The bâtard or “bastard canoe” measured between 25 and 35 feet in length.  Canoes 10 to 15 feet in length were known as “light canoes”.

Voyageur canoe brigades could not penetrate the western interior, pick up furs from isolated posts and return to Montreal before winter freeze-up, so a midway transshipment point was established. Initially, the Nor'Westers used Grand Portage as their 'rendezvous' point near Pigeon River in what is now Minnesota.  However, the establishment of the American border in 1783 and subsequent threat of customs duties forced the Nor'Westers to find another inland base in British-held territory. They resurrected the old French route at the Kaministiquia River in 1801 and held their first rendezvous at Fort Kaministiquia in 1803.

In 1807, the name of the fort was changed to Fort William, after William McGillivray, Chief Director of the North West Company from 1804-1821.

In the painting “Bound for Fort William”, I have depicted a canoe brigade on Lake Superior approaching the fort..  A light canoe paddled by a French-Canadian is closest to the viewer with Montreal canoes in the background.

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