Thunder Bay art exhibit chronicles fur-trade era

By Sandi Krasowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

Thunder Bay, Ont. — Since its beginnings, Fort William’s deep-rooted history as one of the first trading posts during the fur trade in the early 1800s provided the nucleus of what would become Thunder Bay.

The Thunder Bay Museum and Fort William Historical Park have collaborated to present what life looked like during those fur trade days through early artists’ concepts. The exhibit, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the historical park, is called Fur Trade Fort William: A Chronology Through Art, 1805-1882 and has been installed at the Thunder Bay Museum.

The exhibit features works of art created by 18 different period artists which captures the grandeur and vibrancy of Fort William throughout the 1800s.

Exhibit highlights include works by artists William Armstrong and Paul Kane, whose masterpiece in oil, Chief at Fort William, Maydoc-game-kinungee (1848), serves as an exhibit centre piece.

Shawn Patterson, the Fort William Historical Park’s collections team leader and exhibit curator, said the art pieces have been compiled from many different collections, bringing 27 of them from Library Archives Canada, National Gallery Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Ontario Archives.

An additional 18 pieces have been reproduced from the collections of the Toronto Public Library, the Yale University Archives, private owners and three original pieces are from collections from the Thunder Bay Museum and Fort William Historical Park.

“The Northwest company had its inland headquarters from 1803 to 1821 and in terms of the paintings that are exhibited here, that’s about the first eight paintings on the wall,” Patterson said.

“After the merger, 1821 with Hudson’s Bay Company, that’s the banner under which the fort operates for the rest of its time. These paintings capture the activities, the environs of what was going on around Fort William right up until 1882.”

Patterson explained that around 1882, the fur trade, which saw the local people going out and harvesting fur, bringing them in and exchanging them for European goods, was declining.

“This was primarily because there were other employment opportunities,” he said.

“Mining was starting to pick up in the region as was the railway and the telegraph. If you were a local person living in Thunder Bay at that time, the majority of whom were Anishinabek folks, you had lots of employment opportunities that didn’t involve participating in the fur trade.”

This is why the Hudson’s Bay Company over time, closed up its fort in the east end of the city and opened up a general store on Simpson Street to continue conducting businesses they had for the previous 100 years.

“The arrival of the railway by 1883 is really the end (of the fur trade),” he said. “All of the architecture of the fur trade, with the exception of one building, was knocked over so that the switchyard for the Canadian Pacific Railway could be put in place. That was the only building that survived into the 20th century and was eventually demolished in 1902.”

Patrick Morash, general manager of Fort William Historical Park, called early Fort William (1803-1821) the “first transshipment point” where furs were brought from the (Canadian) interior by canoe to Fort William.

“Trade goods were brought by water up the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence system to Fort William and exchanged, and then they went back to their respective places,” Morash said. “And that’s exactly what Thunder Bay is today, the same transshipment point, but we just have a different means of shipping those things. It’s essentially the beginning of what Thunder Bay has become today.”

Scott Bradley, executive director at the Thunder Bay Museum, says the exhibit not only brings light to the fur trade but strengthens the connection with the museum society and Fort William Historical Park.

The exhibit will run until March of 2024, and admission fees at either the museum or Fort William Historical Park also cover the next visit to the alternate site.