Fort William Historical Park. Including Baby Goats.
Fort William Historical Park is a living history museum consisting of the reconstructed Fort William, which was the major trading post for the North West Company from 1803 – 1821. The North West Company began as an upstart rival to the established fur-trading monopoly held by Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 18th century and it expanded rapidly, becoming dominant through shrewd management and the employment of revolutionary business tactics. Unlike many other enterprises, the company was managed based solely on what would bring in the highest profits for its partners and shareholders. While this may not sound revolutionary today as capitalist mega-corporations are the norm and there is a seemingly singular focus on profitability at the expense of other considerations, the partners of the North West Company went to extreme lengths for that time in order to increase the bottom line, most notably by bucking social norms and by their willingness to invest significant capital in the employment of labor-saving technologies.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the North American fur business consisted of numerous outposts across the continent which collected pelts and sent them over thousands of miles in canoes with voyageurs. The furs would be collected at a central depot such as Fort William where they would be exchanged for money and goods that would flow back to the outposts while the pelts would be sent on to Europe. At it’s height, the North West Company had 97 outposts and employed thousands of trappers, voyageurs, tradesmen, and clerks; once it merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 amidst declining availability of furs, another 76 outposts were incorporated from across North America.
I was intrigued by the company’s business model which appeared to be so utterly modern in the singular profitability objective, willingness to design innovative systems, and examination of workflow in order to achieve greater efficiency. As a former financial analyst I could not help seeing parallels to the way in which modern businesses are run, but what struck me (again and again) were the sheer number of them: It seemed that the 18th century North West Company was run almost exactly like a 21st century company.
As a first step in ensuring complete control over their ability to generate the highest possible revenue for the lowest possible cost, the partners structured the company in a way alien to contemporary enterprises, eliminaing class based on nationality/ethnicity and replacing the normal societal hierarchy with a highly stratified structure determined by position and merit. Not only did the company incorporate men from differing European backgrounds such as Scottish company partners, English and Dutch tradesmen and clerks, and French/French-Canadian voyageurs, but it most importantly accorded the indigenous people equals to their European counterparts. As an example, the native chiefs who collaborated with the company to grant access to trapping grounds were accorded the same respect as the company partners, to whom their daughters would frequently marry. These wives of the most important men in the company occupied the same upper level of company society and, though not directly involved in the business decisions of their husbands and fathers, served in key roles in the company as trusted interpreters and negotiators. Their children even went on to occupy the highest ranks of Montreal society outside the company. European professional clerks and the contract tradesmen living at the fort would also marry native women who were accorded the associated status as their husbands. They too served as interpreters but also as guides, cooks, seamstresses, and most importantly, as conveyors of the specialized local knowledge needed for survival in the harsh climate. I found particularly interesting the fact that these native women were granted their own agency in deciding to marry a European clerk or tradesman, doing so because it would benefit their families. Referred to as “country marriages” by the European men, native women would enter into a contracted union for the term of their husband’s employment at the fort, and would have the option of returning to their tribe with their children at it’s conclusion without shame or of following their husbands to Montreal or Europe provided that both parties were amenable.
This is not to say that prejudices did not exist but that a rigid structure existed that ensured equal rights and privileges between Europeans and the natives in order to facilitate cooperation for the benefit of business operations. While bias undoubtedly played a role, my point is not that life in the North West Company was rosy nor that it was a haven for civil rights, but that the enterprise was designed to be mutually beneficial to both the Europeans and the local natives so that profitability could be maximized – despite prevailing Euro-concentric societal norms.
Other aspects of the employment contracts with the North West Company such as free medical care were also designed to be mutually beneficial, providing services to the workers in order to bolster goodwill while protecting what the company viewed as its human capital. Skilled and experienced employees were a valuable commodity, and worth the cost of medical care. Voyaguers in particular who had paddled thousands of miles through the continental interior and suffered punishing portages carrying two 90lb packs of furs around rapids and waterfalls were in particular need of medical attention; nearly universal among them was foot rot due to having their feet submerged continuously in the canoes, though other ailments were rampant. Upon arriving for the great annual rendezvous at Fort William almost all voyageurs would need to avail themselves of needed medical care while enjoying a few weeks of rest; without care the company would have had to constantly search for qualified workers. It was in their best interest to care for resident tradesmen and clerks at the fort as well, particularly because there was little redundancy in skills due to the company employing the least number of people. Providing medical care as needed was always preferable to the costs and delays associated with finding a replacement and transporting them to the backcountry Fort William.
Separate contracts existed for piecemeal work or incremental labor in which the company would capitalize on available human resources. For example, voyageurs arriving at Fort William for the summer rendezvous had the opportunity to earn extra wages by bundling furs or serving as assistants to the tradesmen who were overloaded by the seasonal influx of thousands of company employees. In another example, native wives of clerks and tradesmen were given opportunities to perform work such as moccasin repair or bread baking during the population explosion. But of greater benefit to the company was the invaluable translation, guiding, and food preparation work performed year-round by the native wives who were incentivized by company centralization of housework such as cooking and childcare. Through this system, one kitchen (and a dozen or less women) provided meals for all the current residents at the fort, removing the necessity for each woman to be involved in food production for multiple hours per day. This harnessing of casual, at will labor was revolutionary and allowed the North West Company to maximize available resources.
Of final note are some various cost-savings measures employed by the company. I had always associated workflow analysis and the creation of effciencies as a somewhat modern development in business – or at least one that developed in the industrial factories of the 19th century. But at the end of the 18th century the North West Company had invested in technologies such as double bellows that eliminated the need for a second worker at the blacksmith shop as well as the fur press which could maximize the use of shipping space by compressing furs into a dense bale. The case of the latter is all the more interesting since it would have been a significant expense and logistical issue to get the massive, heavy press to Fort William from Europe in an age when there were no ships crossing Lake Superior. The cost was determined to be offset however by its labor- and time-saving properties and became integral to the standardization of pack dimensions and weight. This mandated standardization was both a tremendous aid for accounting purposes and for weight distribution when loading canoes at each portage.
As we toured the reconstructed fort and learned more details from the incredibly knowledgeable historical interpreters, it became apparent that no process was left unconsidered by the North West Company in their quest to maximize profitability. I geeked out a bit, asking some pretty specific questions regarding business operations and ended up extremely impressed – not just with the depth of knowledge of the historical interpreters, but increasingly with the amount of planning and analysis undertaken by the partners and with their singular focus on the bottom line. Regardless of whether you have an opinion on enterprises who exploit natural resources, I believe it would be difficult for anyone to not have an appreciation solely for the execution of the partners’ vision and their utter success at capturing the market.
One last thing: Because Fort William is a living history museum it contains a working version of the farm that was originally outside the fort stockade. And this farm includes the most adorable baby goats I’ve ever seen.