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Research Trip to Ottawa
Liam Blanc, King's College London

I am currently conducting doctoral research at King’s College London, looking into the Canadian fur trade and its links to the global economy between 1760 and 1820. This 60 year period was a critical one for the later development of Canada as a trans-continental state. Following the British capture of New France in 1760, fur traders from the St. Lawrence Valley swarmed into what is now western Canada, establishing a durable and lasting trading network that stretched as far as the Pacific slope in the west and the Mackenzie River basin in the north. The rapid expansion of this trade based in Montreal caused conflict with the English Hudson’s Bay Company which was only ended in 1821 by the merger of the HBC with the largest Canadian concern, the North West Company. The construction of a continent-spanning fur trading network after 1760 was the critical factor in ensuring that the northern half of the continent was drawn into the British sphere of influence and was not absorbed by the United States.

It is natural that such an important topic in Canadian history has attracted much scholarly attention, but much of this has been rather narrow and ‘Canadian’ in focus; that is to say it very much concentrates on events in North America itself. What has been largely overlooked is that the Canadian fur trade was entirely dependent upon foreign markets for its survival and growth, and that its integration into the world economy over the sixty years following 1760 was of vital significance. My research is primarily concerned with investigating the foreign centres of demand for Canadian furs during this time, how these markets fluctuated and how this impacted upon the development of the trade in North America. There is a huge quantity of useful information on this subject held in the HBC archives (microfilm copies of which are held at Kew) and records held by the British government are also revealing. What is unavailable in Britain however is any archival information relating to the Montreal fur traders who played by far the most dynamic role in events.

With the help of a BACS travel grant I was lucky enough to travel to the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa to consult their collections. The major sources I consulted whilst there were the business papers of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a senior partner in a short-lived fur trading company (the XY Company) and also a major player in the North West Company. The information contained in these papers was extremely useful. Of most interest to me were the Account Books of the XY Company which provided very detailed information on all aspects of the Company’s activities. Not only did this include useful details on fur prices in the early 1800s, it also provided me with a much clearer picture of the precise scale of Canada’s north-western fur trade, a topic that has hitherto been largely ignored. The later records kept by Alexander Mackenzie deal with the North West Company which absorbed the XY Company in 1805. While these records are less broad-ranging, they do provide a valuable insight into how the Canadian company reacted to serious instability in European fur markets caused by the imposition of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade in 1807. In particular, the records highlight the huge quantity of furs the North West Company offloaded into the United States and China between 1807 and 1813.

The Archive in Ottawa also holds a huge range of correspondence and records from many smaller fur traders from the period. These provided further information on a whole range of topics across the years 1760-1820. Although it would be impractical to list them all here, among the many topics these sources touched upon were the role of the Philadelphia hat-making industry in the fur trade in the 1770s, the unscrupulous practices employed by traders in modern-day Manitoba during the 1790s and the cut-throat competition between the XY Company and the North West Company in the early 1800s.

18 July 2007

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(C) 2008 British Association for Canadian Studies