Reliving the fur trade… at Old Fort William

Colourful reenactments at the world’s largest fur trade post bring life in the early 1800s alive

By Katharine and Eric Fletcher


You can read about history as much as you want, but to really understand what life was like, there’s nothing like visiting “living museums.”

Old Fort William is one such museum: summer students are hired to play the role of voyageurs, natives, farmers and others who peopled this fur trade post in the early 1800s.

Entering the compound of the fort is to step back in time to 1803 to 1821, when the magnificent inland headquarters of the Montreal-based North West Company was in full operation. Named after William McGillivray, the NWC’s Chief Director, this fort contains 42 historic buildings on a 25 acre site. This fort was part of the Company’s network that allowed tons of furs to be shipped from the interior to Montreal in one year: quite an astounding feat when you realize we’re talking about canoe traffic!

Once inside the palisade walls, we were struck by two things: first, the village atmosphere of the fort is immediately evident. From barns and chickens through to Company store, every necessity of life and trade is well-represented in a compact, well-laid-out design. Secondly, we were impressed by the number of “actors” role-playing the many different classes of people who made the village — and fort — hum with life as it used to be.

There were three main groups: Scots, French Canadians and Native peoples. The Scots were the NWC managers, Montreal agents who had controlling interest in the firm. The French Canadians had many roles, being the voyageurs who paddled from the East, shipping the precious cargo of furs from the interior through to Montreal. Also known as “Hivernants,” many wintered-over in the hinterland, maintaining the precious connections with the natives with whom the Company traded. Other French Canadians were labourers: many worked on the farm at the fort, raising the animals, crops and working the land to produce foodstuffs required by man and beast. The French were called “les engages,” meaning those who were employed by the NWC.

The Ojibwa and Métis, both men and women, were well represented. Although their main encampment was actually located outside the palisade walls, they did enter the fort. In fact, at first there were only native women here, since European females did not come here during these early days.

This fact became extremely clear when we stepped inside a house, where actors were reliving a departure announcement. The scenario that unfolded before our eyes was the re-enactment of when Kenneth Mackenzie was promoted by the Company: this meant that he would return to the company’s head office in Montreal. He had not discussed the promotion with his Ojibwa wife; instead, we witnessed him telling his wife, in front of his lawyer, about his imminent departure.

Such a scene tellingly depicted how women were considered property and chattel. Because she was Ojibwa, there was no question of him taking her with him. Nor would Montreal society have looked kindly upon their daughter, who Mackenzie termed his natural offspring. Instead, he left them both at the fort.

What hardship! The scene plunged us back in time, to a period in our history when personal freedoms and opportunities were defined far too much by the colour of one’s skin — and one’s gender. Viewing the shock, hurt and fear displayed by the actress portraying Mackenzie’s wife brought the past vividly alive.

Next on our itinerary was the company store, where goods like blankets, material for dresses, and all sorts of commodities were “purchased” by credit. No money existed.

When we entered, a native woman dressed in her Ojibwa costume was fingering a bolt of cloth. Because the summer students role-play their parts here at the fort, such scenes allow visitors to “eavesdrop on the past.”

This young woman was “buying” cloth to make a European-style dress so she could catch the eye of a Scots or French-Canadian fellow. She explained to us that, “I need some cloth that will bring out the colour of my eyes,” she simpered a bit. “I want some Egyptian cotton. From that I’ll make an Empire style dress…”

She asked us which material suited her eyes best, a question that cleverly brought us right into the conversation.

And this was what we found so intriguing throughout the fort: the student actors and actresses engaged us in their conversations. In this way, they compel visitors to use their own imaginations to truly experience the past.

An aspect of life in the early 1800s that continually impresses us is the complexity of trade that already existed back then. Imagine being able to choose which material you wanted from several bolts of cloth that had travelled to Fort William from its origins as a cotton plant grown in Egypt!

Not only was there Egyptian cotton cloth at the Company store. Remember all those textbooks we read in school about barter items which the voyageurs traded with the natives, in order to get the rich beaver pelts?

Well, here at the store we saw glass beads from Venice, Brazilian twist tobacco, blankets from England… among many other goods.

As we marvelled about the sophistication of trade, our native lady friend finally selected her material and left the store, evidently delighted that the next step in the goal of marrying a European was accomplished.

So it was that we learned much about the social stratification, goals, trials and day-to-day lives of Fort William residents of the early 1800s.

We noted how fascinated many young visitors seemed to be with the re-enactments and with various Fort residents, such as the farm animals. These were all authentic and now rare-breeds that were in use at the time, being Canadienne cows, Dorset sheep, Percheron heavy horses and Tamworth pigs. All captured the fancy of youngsters who, with outstretched hands petted, cooed and otherwise tried to touch the friendly creatures.

And talk about typical: boys couldn’t wait to visit the musket-making shop, where Eric joined a chorus of young fry demanding that the musket-maker “test” his newest creation by firing it! Ah yes, boys (of all ages) will be boys!

When it was time to leave Fort William, we realized that in three hours we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore everything it has to offer.

We recommend that you budget at least a day here, so you can stroll about, relax and take in many of the re-enactments that take place. As well, consider booking one or two nights at the fort whereby you can dress up in historic costumes, eat, sleep, paddle and play as the North West Company adventurers did so long ago. Called Voyageur Overnight Adventures, this activity sounds like a wonderful opportunity: you can paddle a 26-foot canoe, make birchbark items such as a mukuk container for boiling water, and, after the fort closes for the day, you get to dine a 1800s typical meal in the Great Hall. Note, however, that although overnight accommodations are rustic, modern washrooms do exist: no, you do not have to use the more-than-rustic “necessary” or outhouse used by the Scots’ Company managers!

Whether you stay overnight or, like us, just spend a few hours, we’re sure that Old Fort William on the banks of the will intrigue you.

Getting there

Located just outside Thunder Bay on the banks of the Kaministiquia River, Old Fort William is a two-day drive from Ottawa, via Highway 17 west. You will drive past North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie en route to “The Bay.”


The fort is open from mid-May to mid-October, daily. Check out the website for the many events year-round, such as the spectacular Christmas Lights program where decorations that evoke Canada’s fur-trade past are a highlight. Ask about the Voyageur Overnight Adventure (or, see website for details) where the all-inclusive price covers accommodation, meals, activities and crafts. A minimum group of 12 is required so reservations are a must.

Contacts: Old Fort William, Vickers Heights Post Office, Thunder Bay, Ontario, P0T 2Z0. Tel: Visitor information (807) 473-2344; Fax: (807) 473-2327; Internet: Tourism Thunder Bay: 1-800-667-8386.