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McTAVISH, SIMON, fur trader and dealer in furs, militia officer, office holder, landowner, seigneur, and businessman; b. c. 1750 in Strath Errick, Scotland, son of John McTavish of Garthbeg; d. 6 July 1804 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
Simon McTavish came from a poor family. His father was a lieutenant in the 78th Foot, a Highland regiment, and was at Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), when New France fell; he returned to Scotland when the troops were demobilized in 1763. The following year Simon, who was still very young and penniless, landed at New York. He found work there with a merchant, who may also have been a Scot. This marked the beginning of his apprenticeship in business. In 1771 he petitioned the governor of New York for a grant of 2,000 acres in Albany County on behalf of his father. At that time McTavish seems to have been in business for himself, with an interest in the fur trade. In 1772 he was at Detroit, a place favoured by American traders, and there he joined forces with William Edgar, one of the most important local merchants. The following year he traded in the Niagara region. In December 1774, following the passage of the Quebec Act, he wrote, “I apprehend this Bill will be of infinite hurt to our Trade. . . . But in case it shou’d not be repealed at all, we must inevitably break off our Connexion with this Province & have our Supplies from Canada.” It would appear that he was beginning to envisage moving his operations from New York and Albany to Montreal. At this point McTavish was in partnership with another Scot, James Bannerman, and he steered his fur-trading expeditions towards the region northwest of the Great Lakes, unlike a great many American merchants who were concentrating on the area south and west.
The reasons that led McTavish to establish himself in Montreal were primarily economic, although political circumstances precipitated his decision. In 1775 he was at Detroit. In June 1776 Bannerman noted the scarcity of trade goods and indicated that McTavish had already left Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.) for Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). As the season advanced, events seemed to confirm their pessimistic forecasts. From the end of July to 10 August, Bannerman continued to be all the more worried since he feared that the poor take of furs “here [Michilimackinac] & in the North” would not allow him to pay for “the large purchases of Goods, provisions, & Liquors” which he had been obliged to make in order to guard against the shortage of these items. “I am afraid I shall lose considerably,” he wrote. By mid August McTavish was back at Michilimackinac and was getting ready for a new expedition, in which he took George McBeath as a partner. Pessimistic forecasts notwithstanding, as a result of arrangements made at Grand Portage McTavish was back in Montreal around the end of September 1776, content, and announcing that he was leaving for London with a cargo of pelts that he valued at £15,000. “Fortune has proved so kind a Mistress to me for some years past,” he declared, “that perhaps I am too Sanguine; and the Jade may now Jilt me effectually by lowering the Prices of Furrs at home – at any rate I am determin’d to Venture.”
It was customary among the merchants, voyageurs, and engagés to celebrate their return from the pays d’en haut. McTavish was never backward in joining the festivities. His trip to England was probably for business reasons and a chance to see Scotland again, where as a rich relative he undertook to pay for secondary schooling for his nephews, among them Duncan and William* McGillivray. But in addition it was a good chance to relax. In March 1778 he wrote to Edgar: “We have had a continual round of dissipation here, dancing Clubs drinking, &c a& yet I do not like the place . . . as we advance in Life we are more difficult to be pleased . . . I was always like a fish out of water when not in Love.”
This period seems to have been an important one in McTavish’s career. He tried out all aspects of the fur business: in financial matters he was connected with the London firm of Phyn, Ellice and Company [see Alexander Ellice], and his partnership with Bannerman enabled him both to acquire wide experience in the field and to become aware of the possibilities that were offered by joint enterprises. In May 1777 Bannerman had informed him of his intention to retire to England in the autumn of 1778. Perhaps as a result of successes in the preceding years, their investments were particularly large: in 1777 they fitted out 27 bateaux, hired 108 men, and purchased goods worth £15,800; in 1778 they outfitted 8 canoes and 30 bateaux, engaged 178 men, and allocated £9,500 for trade goods. Bannerman did not retire until the end of the 1779 season.
McTavish does not seem to have gone very far into the northwest before 1779. Nevertheless he had begun to realize that the future of the trade in pelts lay in this direction. Consequently his meeting with the Frobisher brothers, Benjamin* and Joseph, was an event of paramount importance. The Frobishers had set out to build a great enterprise that would give them control of the trade in the northwest. In 1779 the formation of a coalition which in addition to the Frobishers and McTavish included Charles Paterson, James McGill, Isaac Todd, Robert Grant, and some fur traders of secondary rank, made evident the emergence of the North West Company. Perspectives much broader than those afforded by his partnership with Bannerman now opened up for McTavish. Moreover, the struggle for the upper hand in trading, as it developed from 1780, effectively served the interests of the Frobisher–McTavish group. McGill, Todd, and Paterson were primarily interested in trading in the southwest. Unlike the Frobishers, they were convinced that the peace treaty of 1783 between Great Britain and the United States would not really alter the balance of forces in the fur-trade economy. Consequently they were no longer in the NWC when it was reorganized during the winter of 1783–84. They confined themselves to helping finance the firms engaged in this northwest trade, keeping the southwest as their own field of endeavour. McTavish and the Frobishers, who had held 4 of the 16 shares in 1779, owned 6 of them in 1783. At that date, although McTavish had become an important member in the enterprise, the pre-eminent figure was undoubtedly Benjamin Frobisher, who was the brains of the company. The other partners, Grant, McBeath, Nicholas Montour, Peter Pond, Patrick Small, and William Holmes*, did not possess leadership qualities.
Despite its power in the field and the strength of its support in Montreal, the NWC was not immediately successful in establishing its supremacy. The support of Phyn, Ellice enabled Gregory, MacLeod and Company, under John Gregory’s management, to engage in the northwest trade from 1785; rivalry with this firm would become more and more intense and difficult to sustain financially. But it was an unequal struggle; in 1787 Gregory could outfit only 9 canoes, whereas the NWC got 25 ready and also made use of 4 bateaux.
The year 1787 was a decisive one for McTavish. Benjamin Frobisher’s death in April would provide the opportunity to climb to the top of the NWC. He was not unaware of the fact that Joseph Frobisher, who had neither the experience nor the talent to manage a large enterprise, was incapable of succeeding his brother as general director of the company. He also knew that an organization of its size could not be run entirely from Montreal or Grand Portage. He therefore proposed to Frobisher that they amalgamate their firms, which, he said, between them owned half the shares in the NWC. Frobisher was quick to accept, on 22 April, the offer from McTavish, who was about to leave for Grand Portage. When McTavish reached his destination feelings were running high because of the murder of John Ross, one of the partners in Gregory, MacLeod and a former partner in the NWC. McTavish then proposed a reorganization of the NWC that would permit him to bring his rivals into the enterprise. Thus, when the firm of McTavish, Frobisher and Company was founded in November 1787, it effectively controlled 11 of the company’s 20 shares – 7 held in its own right, and 4 others in the hands of Small and Montour – and it reserved only 4 shares in all for Gregory, Normand MacLeod*, Peter Pangman, and Alexander Mackenzie. The admission of these valuable men into the company strengthened it and signified the elimination of all opposition from the hinterland.
From the beginning the NWC grouped together a certain number of firms: eight in 1779 and 1783–84, nine in 1787; theoretically they were all on an equal footing, with expenses and profits being divided in proportion to their respective interests in the enterprise. This principle of equality governed decision making about the allocation of territory and about strategies for fighting competitors, both within the country and abroad. On the other hand, financing, importing trade goods, hiring men, and selling the pelts on the outside market were the responsibility of one firm, which enjoyed a kind of supremacy on the management level and profited from it. Before 1787 Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher’s firm played that role; it had now passed to McTavish, Frobisher. This structure would enable McTavish to extend his hold over all NWC operations.
McTavish’s influence on the company’s destiny was soon felt. Within a few years he undertook to reorganize company relations with London business circles. In 1787 he was still satisfied with the system linking the company with its two London suppliers, the houses of Dyer, Allan and Company and Brickwood, Pattle and Company: “As we are supplied from Home by two Houses which we have reason to esteem we would continue the business, one-half with each for we should have occasion for the credit allowed by both, to carry on the business on an extensive scale, as we do now.” But the situation became more complicated the following year, because Dyer, Allan stopped sending goods. In June Brickwood, Pattle, which Joseph Frobisher invited to supply his company with all its merchandise, refused to commit itself further, having decided to reduce the scope of its commercial activities. Finally, in October 1788 Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis agreed to furnish the other half of the company’s requirements. In order to minimize the uncertainties surrounding the sale of pelts, the obtaining of credit and insurance, and the purchase of goods, McTavish decided to found his own house in London: McTavish, Fraser and Company. He entrusted its management to his cousin John Fraser, a businessman who was thoroughly knowledgeable about trading conditions on both sides of the Atlantic. This enterprise seems to have enjoyed a degree of autonomy, since in 1794 Frobisher, James Hallowell Sr, and Gregory, who were grappling with a difficult economic situation, wrote to Fraser, “The only Idea that must in future be entertained is, that the two Houses must stand or fall together.” But in 1799 Fraser himself reminded McTavish that McTavish, Fraser and McTavish, Frobisher were separate enterprises: “From all these considerations I trust you will not press such unpleasant & unprofitable business on us.” Be that as it may, Fraser played an extremely important role. He kept very careful watch on the sales of furs and noted how consignments from the Hudson’s Bay Company fared. He saw to the purchasing of goods, insured them, and had them shipped. He proved indispensable in the financial field above all; McTavish observed, “All that man can do Mr. Fraser is equal to, in matters of finance.” On this subject Fraser multiplied his warnings and admonitions. To Frobisher he declared: “Nothing but a total ignorance of the situation of your affairs in this Country could have dictated your letter . . . by refusing to comply with our request, you have brought your affairs to the verge of destruction.” In 1795 he wrote to McTavish himself, “In short my dear friend the business is become extremely important, & requires most serious attention.” In 1793–94 the turnover of Fraser, McTavish, on which the two partners received a commission, amounted to £311,400.
The fluctuations of demand on the London market were a factor over which dealers in pelts had little control. The only solution to the problem, which was made more acute from 1793 by the French revolutionary wars, lay in diversification of markets. Around 1790, besides the American market only the Chinese one was open. From then on the NWC turned its efforts in that direction. As the furs had to pass through New York, McTavish, Frobisher was obliged to extend its network of associations. Shipments for China were organized in collaboration with two merchants connected with the fur business, Alexander Henry* in Montreal, and John Jacob Astor, his New York partner. At first McTavish and Frobisher used American ships, which delivered the pelts and took on tea, silks, and porcelain for the return trip. These ventures cost £13,484 in 1792, £16,260 in 1793, and £22,824 in 1794. Expansion of this part of the business made it necessary to set up a new structure, an office in New York. When Alexander Mackenzie took charge of this branch, he urged the company to use its own ships. In 1798 the enterprise bought the Northern Liberties, a 340-ton vessel, and had the Nancy built. In London Fraser was concerned and advised McTavish to be very cautious. He maintained that this trade was creating other problems related to competition with the HBC since the finest furs were being shipped to China. In 1799 he noted, “We have been much disappointed in the assortment of your fine Beaver . . . from which we infer that you have pickd out the best for the China market.” It may also be assumed that the Chinese venture facilitated access to the American market.
Almost inevitably the fur economy led to territorial expansion. Not only was it necessary to meet the demand, but the best pelts had to be sought out. The volume of these extraordinary catches of animals was so great that resources were sure to be gradually exhausted. In the period 1764–86, 10,258,350 pelts were exported through the port of Quebec. Shipments of beaver accounted for 2,556,236 of them. As this process had been going on since the earliest days of New France, the need to extend the trading grounds can be readily understood. The realities which McTavish faced were not new, but they steadily became more compelling. The hunt for fur-bearing animals prompted a continual shift of the centres of exploitation to the west and north and also required explorers, a fact evident at the time of Pierre Gaultier* de Varennes et de La Vérendrye and even more evident around 1790. The voyages of Mackenzie, who went down the river that bears his name right to the Arctic Ocean in 1789 and travelled overland to the Pacific in 1793, were inspired by the needs of the fur economy. The explorations of David Thompson*, who journeyed as far as the Rocky Mountains in 1800 and finally reached the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, were also dictated by the same concerns. Moving the centres of production towards the Athabasca region and beyond made more necessary than ever the elimination of competition, an essential condition for tight control of transportation costs and wages, especially since prices tended to rise.
Developing new grounds with the aim of increasing production and maintaining stricter controls led the company to establish new posts. Naturally, in this steady drive towards the west Grand Portage remained the most important staging post built under Benjamin Frobisher’s reign. At the end of the century, however, when the cession of the posts in the Great Lakes region to the Americans had become a reality, a move from Grand Portage to Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.) was foreseen. This expensive operation, estimated to have cost more than £10,000 and completed in 1803, shows clearly the key role that meeting place and transit point had played. But the construction of other, more distant staging posts also required larger investments of funds than previously. These establishments were to serve as warehouses and distribution centres for pelts, provisions such as pemmican, and products needed for the fur trade. Their size also depended upon the danger that the HBC traders in the region represented. Personnel at these posts was increasingly organized on hierarchical lines, from the partners right down to the voyageurs. In 1804, for example, there were 17 posts comprising 837 men in all, divided as follows: at the top, 45 partners; then 76 clerks, 44 interpreters, 15 guides, and 657 voyageurs.
The empire over which McTavish reigned was thus inhabited: first by the Indians, and then by the “professionals” of the fur trade and the body of engagés, who came mainly from the seigneuries. Many took part in this adventure, since transporting goods from Montreal to Grand Portage mobilized a lot of manpower. In 1783 there were 3,069 men engaged in the trade. In 1795 Count Paolo Andriani estimated the number employed at 2,540 – 40 guides, 1,100 winterers, and 1,400 engagés . It is quite evident that wages represented an important variable in the NWC’s costs. As long as agriculture had remained at subsistence level, it was easy to recruit the “professional” and seasonal manpower required by trading enterprises. At that time wages had been low. But since 1765 agriculture had grown into a commercial operation, with the result that rural manpower had become much less flexible and much less available. Consequently wages had risen rapidly, endangering the very existence of the firms. The pressure of wages, together with the scarcity of manpower and the expansion of agricultural production, continued unabated throughout the second half of the 18th century. On this matter William Grant (1743–1810) commented in 1793: “We have now engaged upwards of two hundred wintering men. We are yet difficient in men to go and come. . . . The high price wheat fitches keeps the good hands backwards to engage.” The scarcity of manpower had prompted the fur merchants to replace canoes with bateaux as far as possible in order to reduce the need for seasonally hired men and the total remuneration and substitute the less costly St Lawrence River route in part for the Ottawa River route. Ten crewmen were needed for handling a canoe but a bateau carried the same volume of goods with a crew of only four. The NWC also followed the trend initiated by traders at Detroit and Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). In 1790 it had two ships on Lake Superior, one of 10, the other of 15 tons burden; in 1793 it owned the Beaver (45 tons) and the Athabaska (40 tons) on lakes Erie, Michigan, and Huron, and it assigned the Otter (75 tons) to Lake Superior.
When McTavish took over management of the company in 1787, he had applied rigorously the policy instituted by Benjamin Frobisher. But these manpower problems constantly preoccupied the people in charge of the NWC. In 1791 Joseph Frobisher told McTavish: “I likewise left orders with St Cir to Run about the Country from his Parish to Quebec. . . . The same Orders I gave also to Fainante.” The following year he wrote again: “What you mention respecting Wintering Men shall be duly attended too. Mr. Gregory will be able to pick up a great Many . . . (as I shall be at Quebec the best part of the winter) I will endeavour to hire as many Stout Lads as I can. Attention will also be paid to what you recommend respecting the Young Men that may be Hired in future for the North West.” The preoccupation with the labour market and its cost implications was dictated by the very way in which the enterprise worked. In 1793 Frobisher reverted to this subject: “I am going out to La Chine to send of six boats & one Canoe for [Charles-Jean-Baptiste] Chaboillez [George Edme] Young & [Bazile] Irelande with Two Canoes for the Portage [Grand Portage], which is all the Men I Can muster & was under the necessity of hiring them for St. Mary’s [Sault Ste Marie, Ont.] only; at extravagant wages . . . had we raised their wages for the Portage we would have been under the necessity of augmenting the Wages of all those that are gone up & we would have met with great difficulty in hiring Men next Winter.” As the trading territory expanded, the proportion of winterers to men hired seasonally increased, and the salary problem became more critical. The NWC not only made use of bateaux between Montreal and Lake Ontario, but also exerted pressure for improved communications between Montreal and Lachine and invested in York (Toronto) for the same reasons.
The burden of wages and the increase in transportation costs and prices were the mainsprings of technological change. The same factors set in motion a process leading to the concentration of enterprises. Seen from the angle of wages, this movement aimed to create a monopoly on the labour market. As long as trade in pelts was the object of competition among a great many entrepreneurs who were fighting to get the best employees, it was impossible to control wages; these could only rise more rapidly in a situation where shortage prevailed. Thus Benjamin Frobisher’s ambition, and subsequently McTavish’s, to concentrate all the fur trade in the hands of the NWC was not just a manifestation of their personalities; it was fostered by economic conditions and partly by labour problems. And it was operative as long as the final objective had not been attained.
In 1787 McTavish may have believed that the NWC could thenceforth be satisfied with exploiting its domain in complete tranquillity. Its most dangerous adversary, Gregory, had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy and forced to join the company on terms set by McTavish. In 1791 Joseph Frobisher was not far from thinking that his dream in this regard had been realized: “The North W. Co was never in such a formidable and respectable footing as it is at present . . . it would require an immence Capital & great exertions to get to the least footing there.” In reality neither of them could cherish illusions of this sort for long, because the riches of the northwest were always fiercely coveted. They were desired by those who wanted to enter the trade, and would be even more eagerly desired by those who, believing that the American revolution would not alter the existing equilibrium, had limited their activity to the southwest. The depletion of resources, Jay’s Treaty of 1794, and, within a few years, the attitude of the Americans, who were bent on controlling trade in the southwest, forced these firms to turn to the resources of the northwest. From 1791 the rumours about the development of opposition to the NWC became increasingly explicit. Todd and McGill let it be known that they wished to acquire an interest in the company. By then, however, McTavish and Frobisher were no longer financially dependent upon them. They were also independent of the Ellice–Forsyth–Richardson group, represented by Forsyth, Richardson and Company, the Montreal subsidiary of Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis, who were eager to take part in the northwest trade. All that these potential competitors were offered with a view to the reorganization of the NWC anticipated for 1795 was a meagre block of two shares. They of course refused it.
This refusal marked the beginning of the rise of another competing power, the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company) [see John Richardson*]. After its founding in 1798 this company brought into its ranks John Ogilvy, the agent of Parker, Gerrard, and Ogilvy, as well as Daniel Sutherland* and, still more important, Alexander Mackenzie. After having fought alongside Gregory against the NWC, Mackenzie had joined that company at the time of the amalgamation in 1787. Then, following his successes as an explorer, he had a position and functions of increasing importance within it. Since he was ambitious and since he had his own views on the future of the company and the fur economy, his position became increasingly difficult vis-à-vis McTavish, who was predominantly responsible for policy, and McTavish’s nephew and heir apparent, William McGillivray. As a result Mackenzie became a member of the new rival company.
To McTavish’s way of thinking all competition was pernicious, not only for his company but also for the fur-trade economy as a whole. In 1799 he admitted that his adversaries presented a real danger, from the point of view of both the capital invested and the experience of the men engaged in the fight. In August 1800 Fraser wrote from London, “I am happy to have such favorable Accounts of your returns; to find that you have so much the advantage over your Opponents.” Two years later, in October, Fraser was just as optimistic about the outcome of the fight: “Your complete union must ultimately baffle the attempts of your adversary, & your success (which is really extraordinary under such circumstances) will enable you to combat them with advantage.” In 1804, according to John Askin, the New North West Company had already spent £70,000 but had not succeeded in damaging its rival’s position. Consequently, that year it had to accept the terms of an amalgamation put forward by McGillivray, who, however, excluded Mackenzie from the enterprise. As usual, competition had resulted in a rise in wages and in prices paid the Indians for furs.
Under McTavish’s rule the NWC was perpetually being reorganized: five major transformations took place between 1790 and 1804. These changes were probably caused by the increase in production and the expansion of the company’s domain; but in addition they also stemmed from circumstances closely linked with the life of the enterprise and the mind of its director. For example, the number of shares in the company and of people receiving them kept on growing. This situation was partly dictated by the existence of opposition, open or veiled, so that admission into the company of a real or potential competitor was a technique to reinforce its ascendancy. The increase in the number of participants also served as an instrument for promotion within the enterprise. The pressure in this respect came primarily from the clerks and partners. Around 1795, following suggestions from Duncan McGillivray, Mackenzie became the spokesman for these disgruntled elements: it is significant that the number of shares went from 20 in 1787 to 46 in 1795 and 100 in 1804.
Inevitably, the NWC became more and more embodied in the person of McTavish. Certainly the man himself knew how to impress people and inspire loyalty. In a letter to him in 1794 Hallowell observed: “I have lived in the habit of sacrificing my Opinions & my feelings to yours, for which however I must confess, I expected some credit with you; You, I am afraid, have placed this deference to a wrong Account – to a meanness of Spirit in my part, & to the want of having an opinion of my own, when the true Principles which governed my Conduct were, a sense of Obligation to, & personal regard for you – & more than all, a strong persuasion that, that regard was reciprocal. . . . In the Spring I hope we shall see you, which will relieve me in a Situation where subordinate to every one, you seem to hold me accountable for all.” McTavish was certainly autocratic, and this tendency became more pronounced with time, but he could also delegate authority. The meetings at Grand Portage were not solely information sessions, and the agreements that came out of them did not depend especially upon the presence of tamely members among the partners. It can be said, however, that it was through McTavish, Frobisher and Company that McTavish wielded his power. This firm’s participation in the NWC went from 7 out of 20 shares in 1787 to 75 of 100 in 1804, and it received more than its due proportion of the profits.
The firm of McTavish, Frobisher was not a rigid, unprogressive institution dominated by a fixed personnel. The most experienced and capable merchants were promoted in it, and it was possible for them to push themselves forward. James Hallowell and his son William, Gregory, the McGillivrays, Alexander Mackenzie and his cousin Roderick McKenzie* were all people who had proven their efficiency in the field and had displayed particular talents. And even if several members of the McTavish clan – for which Simon had a remarkable attachment – belonged to it, this firm was not a family enterprise in the true sense of the term. Before becoming McTavish’s successor William McGillivray would have to prove his capabilities: after his arrival in 1784 came nine whole years in the Athabasca department, then various and widespread responsibilities. The same was true for Duncan McGillivray, who despite his promotion in the firm remained almost all his life an effective man in the field and an explorer. Yet it remains the case that the presence of some of his relatives in both the NWC and McTavish, Frobisher and Company served Simon McTavish’s interests well.
The organization of McTavish, Frobisher, which assumed so many responsibilities, was based upon criteria of efficiency. That Joseph Frobisher was soon more or less downgraded is not in the least surprising. After a few years his role in the firm was clear: hiring manpower and handling external relations. As for Gregory, he rapidly specialized as the person responsible for the warehouse – preparing the trading expeditions and the shipments of pelts for export. His subordinate at Quebec, James Hallowell, who was a relative of McTavish, for his part was increasingly limited to keeping the books, and in this capacity his authority was exercised over the clerks in the west and at Grand Portage. Before 1800 the only two people who really seemed in the running for the succession were Alexander Mackenzie, whose ideas seemed to worry McTavish, and William McGillivray. McTavish had certainly given some thought to providing for his replacement, but Mackenzie’s defection to the New North West Company left him virtually no choice, and he prepared the way for his nephew McGillivray.
McTavish presided over the fortunes of a smooth-running organization which operated from Montreal west to the Rocky Mountains and east to Labrador, where in 1802 he and his associates acquired the lease to the king’s posts for £1,025 a year. In addition the company was well represented in London, New York, and Quebec. Served by effective men of varied talents, it was not only destined to establish a monopoly directed against its competitors in Montreal, but also strove to eliminate competition, from both the Americans and the HBC. Around 1790 the latter company was not showing much drive and at that period the Nor’Westers clearly felt superior in the field. In 1792 William McGillivray wrote to the HBC factor William Tomison*, “I do not perfectly understand your threat respecting Pills but if by them you mean [musket] Balls you have certainly the weakest side & should matters come to such Extremities you will find that we can play off more ourselves – & can pay the natives dearer, should it be necessary – for playing off theirs, than is in your power in either Case.” In 1791 McTavish had even asked Prime Minister William Pitt to rescind the HBC’s charter. Having met with a refusal, and being quite aware of the advantages that the rival company had in dispatching trade goods to the west, he tried to obtain transit rights, which of course were refused him. Subsequently the struggle with the HBC was pushed into the background because that company was reorganizing its tactics by slow steps and competition was not yet keen. But there was to be an awakening, and at the turn of the century the question was back on the table. McTavish had certainly envisaged buying the HBC, but circumstances had not been favourable. He then decided to strike a heavy blow to force his adversary into conceding transit rights [see Duncan McDougall]. He organized two expeditions to James Bay: one overland from Montreal, the other by sea with a ship hired for the occasion. In September 1803 the two expeditions met at Charlton Island (NWT), of which they took possession in the name of the NWC. The rivalry did not end until 1821, when the amalgamation of the two companies marked the absorption of the NWC.
Because of his preoccupation with the fur business, McTavish took little interest in owning land on a large scale until 1802, although his subscription to the Montreal section of the Agriculture Society at the beginning of the 1790s does reveal an interest in farming. In 1802, at a period when agriculture was prosperous and land a source of profit, he obtained 11,500 acres in Chester Township, and he bought the seigneury of Terrebonne, near Montreal, for £25,000. From the beginning he proved a capitalist seigneur. He ran a store and two very modern flour-mills, built a bakery that made biscuit for the northwest, set up a sawmill, and encouraged the manufacture of barrels. He was not content just to collect the seigneurial rents but tried to channel the region’s surplus production to his mills. The wheat he processed was intended for the local market and for export. He was, of course, in contact with former fur merchants such as Francis Badgley* and Pangman. But his relations in this business were primarily with grain merchants and exporters: Louis Dunière, Jacob Jordan*, the brothers John and William Porteous, and Thomas Porteous* as well, Henry Caldwell, William Burns* and his partner John William Woolsey*, Robert Lester and Robert Morrogh, Adam Lymburner*, David Monro*, and Mathew Bell*. McTavish’s situation clearly illustrates the connections between the different sectors of the economy and proves that the fur dealers were not opposed to the commercialization of agriculture. The motives for his purchase of the seigneury of Terrebonne were certainly not those behind his buying back in 1799 of the small estate of Dunardary, for generations the home of the chief of the McTavish clan, in Argyllshire, Scotland.
McTavish’s participation in the public life of his town and of the colony seems modest, compared with that of other important merchants such as James McGill and John Richardson. At most he held the rank of lieutenant in the British Militia of the Town and Banlieu of Montreal from 1788 until about 1794, and in 1796 he received a commission as justice of the peace for the District of Montreal which was renewed three years later. His elegance, his personality, and his cleverness, however, won him the nickname of “the Marquis” from his contemporaries. In October 1793 McTavish had married Marie-Marguerite Chaboillez, the 18-year-old daughter of Charles-Jean-Baptiste Chaboillez. The couple had four children, all of whom died in their twenties. At the time of his marriage McTavish had bought the house on Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste in which he had been living as a tenant for ten years. Just before his death he began building a huge home which was not yet finished when he died on 6 July 1804. His estate amounted to more than £125,000. His will was significant, not just because it disclosed the close ties he had maintained with the whole McTavish clan, but because it revealed the friendly relations he had established with his former partners, Frobisher, Gregory, and James Hallowell. He bequeathed £700 to his doctor George Selby* and Selby’s son. He gave £2,000 to two Montreal hospitals, the Hôtel-Dieu and the Hôpital Général.
Simon McTavish was certainly the colony’s most important businessman in the second half of the 18th century. Like his friends the Frobishers, he was shrewd and far-sighted, but he possessed an even greater sense of organization and management. His career shows that the success of entrepreneurs cannot be reduced to a matter of patronage or be forecast simply from the amount of capital with which they began.
ANQ-Q, CN1-262, 15 nov. 1802. PAC, MG 19, A5; MG 29, A5, 26–28. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Quebec Gazette, 5 May 1803, 12 July 1804. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Denaut,” ANQ Rapport, 1931–32: 202–3, 205; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” 1927–28: 232. Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” ANQ Rapport, 1942–46. “Papiers d’État,” PAC Rapport, 1890: 294, 340. “Papiers d’État – Bas-Canada,” PAC Rapport, 1891: 117; 1892: 155, 211, 220, 223. Quebec almanac, 1788: 52; 1791: 44; 1792: 120; 1794: 89; 1797: 131; 1801: 78. Wallace, Macmillan dict. M. W. Campbell, McGillivray; lord of the northwest (Toronto, 1962); NWC (1973). W. S. Dunn, “Western commerce, 1760–1774”
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Cite This Article
Fernand Ouellet, “McTAVISH, SIMON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mctavish_simon_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Fernand Ouellet|
|Title of Article:||McTAVISH, SIMON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|