The Bourgeois – Gentlemen of the Fur Trade

The gentlemen of the North West Co. were the second wave of peddlers to launch a trading invasion of the interior from Montreal after the French. With the fall of New France in 1763, the French were quickly displaced by aggressive British merchants many of whom were self-exiled Scots. They left a troubled homeland with little in their pockets, but in spite of persecution at home, possessed an intense ambition and ingenuity. The voyageurs referred to the gentlemen as bourgeois.

18th century bourgeois, gentleman

The gentlemen soon developed a unique tri-level managerial system. Occupying the top of the ladder at the North West Co. were the Montreal Agents, who served as the company financiers, wholesalers and suppliers. Their end of the business took them some 6000 miles from Grand Portage to London.

Next on the ladder were the Wintering Partners. They were part owners in the North West Co. and lived year round in the interior. As field managers, they were responsible for supervising trading districts from the St. Lawrence River to the Pacific Ocean. While in the interior, they served as ambassadors to the Indian nations and as generals who waged wars against rival companies. They were also explorers who opened up the remotest regions of the continent to European commerce.

On the bottom of the ladder were the Company Clerks. The rank of clerk was second in prestige and power only to that of the shareholders of the North West Co. Clerks served as writers, accountants, and warehousemen. They served apprenticeships for a period of 5 to 7 years. After suffering the hardships of the trade, the superior Clerks were elevated to the positions of Wintering Partners.