Overshadowed in Canadian history by George Simpson, who later managed the affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company, William McGillivray of the North West Company was a prominent administrative force in the fur trade prior to Simpson's rise with the HBC. Although McGillivray never visited British Columbia, he was an important influence in the development of the West Coast fur trade. The incursions of non-HBC explorers through the Rockies, most notably Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson, led the way to European settlement of British Columbia, but McGillivray's role in western expansion is seldom acknowledged. McGillivray's Rock in British Columbia, at the summit of Athabasca Pass near the B.C./Alberta border, was named for him in 1812, after David Thompson became the first European to take the route through the Rockies in 1811.

McGillivray (1764?-1825) served as Chief Director of the North West Company for over twenty years after arriving in Canada in 1784 as a Scottish immigrant. He gained the position in 1804 upon the death of his uncle, Simon McTavish, "the Old Lion of Montreal," who had been the chief component in the Montreal-based consortium of investor-partners that included Peter Pond, Benjamin Frobisher, Isaac Todd, Robert Grant, Nicholas Montour, Patrick Small, William Holmes, Thomas Frobisher and Joseph Frobisher. In 1788, McGillivray had acquired Peter Pond's share in the North West Company when Pond retired. He officially became a partner in 1790.

Although McGillivray was on friendly terms with Alexander Mackenzie, the latter was excluded from a truce agreement forged by McGillivray in November of 1804 that transferred 25 per cent of North West Company shares to a splinter group of traders called the XY Company, so-named due to the mark its traders placed on their bales of furs. McGillivray operated a New York branch of the North West Company that enabled his Canadian traders to send furs to China on cargo ships that sailed under the American flag, thereby circumventing the constraints of the British East India Company's monopoly. Initially McGillvray and John Jacob Astor were complicit in the trade, forming the South West Company in 1811, but trading conditions and international strife undermined their joint enterprise.

The North West Company gradually faltered under McGillivray due to international circumstances beyond his control. First, in 1809, the United States government passed a Non-Intercourse Act that curtailed trade between the U.S. and Britain. Having already had lost access to its primary supplies of timber in the Baltic, due to a naval blockade erected by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, Britain could no longer conveniently access timber from its secondary source, American-owned companies based in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Canada quickly became the primary supplier of timber and wood products to Britain, and furs were suddenly no longer the main export of country.

During the War of 1812, Americans attacked and destroyed the North West Company post at Sault Sainte Marie. For his part, McGillivray and his contingent of voyageurs assisted Issac Brock in capturing Detroit. Rewarded with an appointment to the legislative council of Lower Canada in 1814, McGillivray was soon embroiled in more turmoil when he opposed the Red River settlement engineered by Lord Selkirk. After the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, William McGillivray and several North West Company proprietors were arrested by Lord Selkirk for complicity in the deaths of twenty-one people and the headquarters of the North West Company at Fort William were seized. Although McGillivray was exonerated, the accompanying unrest did little to alleviate the impending crisis of over-harvesting animals, particularly beaver.

Competition between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company remained intense until their merger in 1821. Until then, their policies had been quite different. Whereas traders employed by the North West Company were discouraged from marrying in order to keep them freer to travel in winter, the Hudson's Bay Company encouraged its traders to take "country wives" in order to solidify trading alliances. By the time of the merger, the "upstart" North West Company had eclipsed the Hudson's Bay Company with 97 trading posts compared to 76 managed by the Hudson's Bay Company.

McGillivray died in London, England, four years after the merger. He has been profiled in a biography, Lord of the Northwest (Vancouver: Clark, Irwin, 1962), by Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, a consultant for the restoration of the North West Company trading post in Fort William, on Lake Superior, that was named for McGillivray in 1807. Among her many other books are The Nor'westers, for young readers, and The North West Company.


Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins. The Nor'westers: The Fight for the Fur Trade (Macmillan, 1954, 1958, 1974).

Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins. The North West Company (Macmillan, 1957; D&M, 1983).

Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins. Lord of the Northwest (Vancouver: Clark, Irwin, 1962).

Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins, ed. The Savage River: Seventy-One Days With Simon Fraser (Macmillan, 1968; Fifth House, 2003).

[BCBW 2005] "Forts and Fur"