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Five companies that dominated the Canadian fur trade

Hooked on new TV show Frontier? Here are the real-life titans of Canada’s first industry.

  • Published Nov 14, 2016
  • Updated Aug 02, 2022
  • 1,044 words
  • 5 minutes
Fur traders in Canada, trading with Indians (1777) Expand Image

In Discovery Canada’s new scripted television drama FrontierAllan Hawco, Jason Momoa and Alun Armstrong play agents of rival companies battling for domination of the 1700s fur trade. Though many of the characters are fictionalized, the show is an unflinching and accurate look at a brutal time in early Canadian history, when wealth and power were controlled by a few competing companies, loyalty was sold to the highest bidder, and disputes over land and personnel were frequently resolved at the point of a gun. 

Here’s a look at some of the real players in the industry that created Canada.

Compagnie de la Nouvelle France

Fishermen in the fledgling colonies of New France had been supplementing their earnings by fur trading since the mid-16th century, but growing demand for pelts in Europe at the turn of the 17th century brought an influx of traders to the region around the St. Lawrence River. In 1627, in an effort to formalize the trade and secure France’s territorial claims, Cardinal Richelieu, the first minister of King Louis XIII, created the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France — colloquially known as the Compagnie des Cent-Associés (The One Hundred Associates) because it was financed by 100 shareholders. In return for territorial rights to the entirety of New France, from Florida to the Arctic, and a monopoly on the fur trade, the company was tasked with importing French Catholics to permanently colonize the new land. It was an unmitigated disaster: the company’s fleet was attacked and seized by the British before it could deliver any settlers to their new home, and in 1629, the colony of Canada passed briefly into English hands.

The Hudson’s Bay Company

Present-day Canadians know HBC as a place to purchase high-end clothes and housewares, but for the better part of two centuries, the Hudson’s Bay Company was one of the most powerful entities in the new world. In 1660 two French traders, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, returned from an expedition around Lake Superior bearing tales of a fur-rich land to the northwest, beyond an inland salt sea — Hudson Bay. The pair tried to interest France in backing a new venture west of the bay, to no avail. Instead, they went to England, and managed to convince Prince Rupert, cousin to the British king, of the tremendous opportunity that awaited on the new frontier. In 1668, Groseilliers landed at the mouth of the Rupert River and established the first trading post on Hudson Bay, and in 1970, King Charles II granted the “Governor and Company of Adventurers” exclusive trading rights in the region. The company’s rise was meteoric and brought new structure to the fur trade, including a currency, Made Beaver, by which all pelts and other manufactured goods could be valued. But it also became the target of military aggression by the French, including a raid led by its own founders, Groseilliers and Radisson.

Compagnie de la Baie du Nord 

Sometime near the end of 1674, Groseilliers and Radisson met Charles Albanel, a Jesuit priest who had been captured while apparently on a mission to persuade the local Indigenous peoples to stop trading with the British-backed HBC. Exactly what Albanel told the Frenchmen is lost to the mists of time, but it was enough to convince Radisson to return to the bosom of the mother country and join a Canadian merchant, Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye, in a new business venture to challenge HBC’s supremacy in Hudson Bay. The short-lived Compagnie de la Baie du Nord was formed in 1682 and a mission led by Radisson and Groseilliers successfully captured the HBC trading post at Fort Nelson, along with a fur-laden ship bound for Boston. However, France declined to pay the pair for their spoils on the grounds that France and England weren’t officially at war, and Radisson — who all this time had remained married to the daughter of an HBC partner — quit in disgust. War ultimately did break out between England and France in 1688, and Hudson Bay became a key North American theatre; by the turn of the century costly sorties against the British and escalating taxation had bankrupted the Compagnie. 

The North West Company 

Founded in 1779 from a partnership between nine different fur trading groups, the North West Company would ultimately become the Hudson’s Bay Company’s biggest rival. True to their name, the Nor’Westers, as they were known, worked primarily west of Hudson Bay in the heart of HBC’s domain; their explorers — who included Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson — surveyed thousands of kilometres of uncharted territory and opened up lucrative new trading territories in the Pacific Northwest. Tensions between the rivals came to a head in 1816 when the HBC moved to block the NWC’s supply of pemmican, which they purchased from the Métis of the Red River valley. A confrontation between the Métis and the HBC near Portage La Prairie resulted in the deaths of 21 men and kicked off years of lawsuits until, in 1821, with their resources exhausted, the NWC agreed to merge with the HBC and operate under the terms of its Charter. 

XY Company

While the North West Company was the most successful of the HBC’s many challengers, it wasn’t without its own internal unrest. From 1787 onward, the majority of the NWC’s shares were controlled by the firm of Simon McTavish, a Scottish-born merchant who managed the company from Montreal. As a business leader, McTavish was ruthless and ambitious, but he also had nepotistic tendencies and a short fuse that annoyed some of the NWC’s western winterers. In 1798 a group of these dissidents formed their own company, unofficially called the XY Company after the mark they used on their beaver pelts. Their efforts received a considerable boost after 1800 when the hero of the NWC, Alexander Mackenzie, joined up. The death of McTavish in 1804 removed the cause of the animosity and the companies were persuaded to put their brief, violent rivalry aside and once again join forces against the monolithic HBC.


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