Old Fort William

Center of the Fur Trade

Thunder Bay, Ontario

June 26th,, 2000

My specialty in writing about our travels has been history museums. Over the years we have seen our share. I tend to break them into three types, not necessarily recognized by any museum authority. There are the static museums, or artifact storage centers. Filled with glass cases displaying those items deemed too fragile to be handled. Of more interest to me are those who present their artifacts in dioramic settings. The settings can be anywhere from small carved wooden figures on a small stage to full sized animatronic figures using such artifacts to their intended purpose. Then there is my favorite, the living museum, which presents history as nearly as possible to the life and times of the period represented. So when I heard that Fort William was a living museum, I was ready to go. Our first step was to contact Marty Mascarin, the Fort's communications officer and set up the shoot. Marty couldn't have been more helpful, as he arranged all that was necessary to record the story. Upon our arrival, we found the visitor's center to be impressive with its massive tamarack columns supporting the welcome shelter at the entrance. Opposite the front door, is a large mural covering the entire wall, depicting the fur trade which was the cause of all this historical activity. Fort William is a misnomer in that it was never actually a fort, and never housed military troops. It was, for the most part, a trading post and collection point of the North West Company, a British business and one of the chief rivals of the Hudson Bay Company. The North West Company was finally merged with Hudson Bay, making the latter the largest trading company in the North. It got its start when the 49th parallel was established as the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. This put the North West trading center at Grand Portage in Minnesota, and as the U.S. began to exert excise taxes on the furs, the North West Company moved their center of collection north to Thunder Bay, just over the border. There is a short but well done film on the trading post's activities during its heyday in the mid 1800s. and of course there is a prime example of the cause that created a need for such a large trading post in such a wilderness, that ever fashionable, always desired fur felt top hat. With the winter months freezing the rivers, transportation from the far west to Montreal oftentimes took more then one season. In order to facilitate this movement, a collection and trading point was needed mid-way. Transportation was broken up into two parts. Those who brought trading goods from Montreal to the Fort and took furs back; and those who brought furs from the west and took trading goods back. The North West company had no desire to create a settlement out of the Fort so non-essential people were not allowed. This included European women and children. The Fort was strictly business and, as such, had set up a rigid class distinction. This was enforced by a tall palisade surrounding the main buildings for which access was denied to many. As we passed through the visitors center and out onto the staircase in the rear we were offered to walk or ride to the fort, several hundred yards away. We elected to walk, reading the placards along the way. We arrived at the collection point shortly there after and waited while the group grew in size sufficient to have a guide. During this time we got a basic overview of the park. Built as an authentic duplicate of its namesake, by the Canadian government, this 25 acre site contains 42 re-created historic buildings, staffed with actors portraying the Fort and its operations during the early 1800s. With sufficient people gathered, we moved on to our first visit which was with the Ojibwa (Chipewa)Indians, camped along the Kaministiquia River. Here we met 17 year old Hiim-Anong (dancing star). The Ojibwas were the bottom rung of the entire North West Company operation, as they supplied not only the precious pelts for the top hats of the elite of Europe, but much of the raw material needed to exist in this wilderness; canoes, snowshoes, and moccasins, along with supplies of meat from wild game were all trade items for the Indians. There were several wigwams, both summer and winter, complete with traditional household items.


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