When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stayed at the Mandan villages during the late fall and winter of 1804-1805, they were surprised to find that they were not the only white men there. Clark wrote in his journal in November 1804, “Cap lewis visit the Me ne tar rees, the 25th and returned the 27th of Nov. with 2 Chiefs &c. &c. and told me that 2 Clerks & 5 men of the N W Company & Several of the hudsons Bay Company had arrived with goods to trade with the indians a Mr. La Roche & Mc Kinzey are the Clerks.” Lewis had just met Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque of the North West Company. And he wasn’t happy about it.
Based in Montreal, the North West Company provided trade goods such as blankets, guns, powder and lead, knives, kettles and pots, cloth, jewelry, food, spices and whiskey to the Indians, in exchange for valuable furs for the European market. The Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in London, played a similar role in the fur trade, though they also provided rifles to their best customers—including the Blackfeet. Lewis and Clark found that at least a dozen Canadian traders representing the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were ensconced in the earth lodge villages alongside them that winter.
It was a recipe for tension. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mandan Villages were technically American territory, and Lewis & Clark were not pleased to find the Canadians trading there. In reality, there was little they could do about it. Trade was one thing, but there was something else they simply could not tolerate. They believed the Canadians were giving British sovereignty medals to the Mandans and Hidatsas. As newly minted American subjects, only Jefferson peace medals were allowed.
On November 29, 1804, the captains attempted to lay down the law. Clark wrote, “Mr. La Rock and one of his men Came to visit us we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians, he Denied haveing any Such intention, we agreeed that one of our interpeters Should Speak for him on Conditions he did not Say any thing more than what tended to trade alone— he gave fair promises &.”
Despite the tense rivalry, Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque were frequent callers at Fort Mandan that winter. Sergeant Patrick Gass concluded that the North West Company men were more interested in keeping an eye on Lewis & Clark than in enjoying the pleasure of their conversation. In fact, Larocque asked several times if he might accompany the Corps of Discovery when they resumed their journey west. Lewis & Clark politely blew him off. Struggling to plant the seed of American sovereignty in the Louisiana Territory, they saw little advantage in providing transportation, protection, and inside information on their discoveries to a Canadian merchant in the pay of the British.
Lewis, in particular, seems to have disliked the Canadian traders. As an inveterate Republican and the son of a deceased Revolutionary War veteran, Lewis seems to have curled his lip at all things remotely British. Charles McKenzie confirms this in his journal. “Mr. La Roque and I having nothing very particular claiming attention, we lived contentedly and became intimate with the Gentlemen of the American expedition; who on all occasions seemed happy to see us, and always treated us with civility and kindness,” McKenzie wrote. “It is true Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us—he could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence. Captain Clark was equally well informed, but his conversation was always pleasant, for he seemed to dislike giving offence unnecessarily.”
Offensive or not, Lewis and Clark were unsuccessful in discouraging the North West Company men, and they and their counterparts in the Hudson’s Bay Company were fixtures in the Indian fur trade network for decades to come. The North West Company endured through the 1810’s, when the destruction of a major fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie by the Americans during the War of 1812, along with a decline in the beaver population due to over-harvesting, dealt a serious blow to their fortunes. In 1821, they merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As for the Hudson’s Bay Company, it still exists, the oldest commercial corporation in North America. Today the company is best known for operating popular department stores throughout Canada, including The Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters, and Fields. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, located in Winnepeg, Manitoba, is considered one of Canada’s national treasures. It is a treasure trove of information on the era of the fur trade and early exploration in North America, and contains fascinating, detailed records of the company’s activities from its chartering in 1670 to the present. Meriwether Lewis might take satisfaction in knowing that the company is now American-owned.