We stepped back in time at Fort William, a stone’s throw from Thunder Bay. We spent a day exploring this impressive Historical Park. I especially enjoyed meeting the staff who were “in character” as individuals who lived at the fort in 1816.
There were two indigenous re-enactors who were particularly engaging. First, a woman at the native encampment just outside the fort. She told us about Anishinaabe traditions such as how birch bark and roots are prepared for use and how wigwams are built. She told us a wigwam can last up to eight years. Her storytelling was entertaining and informative.
Inside the fort we met a native man who talked to us about how trade with the Europeans brought positive change to the lives of the Anishinaabe people.
For example, the people had herbs they used as tobacco for ceremonies. By substituting the tobacco they obtained from the Europeans they were able to use their herbs for other purposes, like making medicine. As another example, having access to cloth made life easier because tanning and sewing hides was very labour-intensive. Using cloth instead of hides for clothing left them with more time for other activities. Later, we learned that cloth made up 80 percent of goods traded for furs.
I had never considered the effects of trade in this light before.
The historic site itself has more than 30 buildings reconstructed according to historical sources. You can wander around, entering buildings and chatting with the various characters. You discover the life of the fort during a period when the North West Company was cutting into the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Fort William served as a transshipment point. Goods for trade were brought in by canoe from Montreal by the “mangeurs de lard” (pork-eaters) voyageurs. Furs arrived from the West also by canoe thanks to the “hivernants” (over-winterers) voyageurs, those who stayed all winter at trading posts. During Rendez-vous, a few weeks in July and August, the two groups exchanged goods and the “mangeurs de lard” paddled back to Montreal with furs; the “hivernants” were provisioned with trade goods for the upcoming winter.
All this trade was financed and overseen by the shareholders of the Beaver Club in Montreal, who became phenomenally wealthy when the furs were sold in London.
In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company merged and the more northerly Hudson’s Bay trade routes were favoured. Fort William was eventually abandoned.