From: "Montreal 1535-1914"
By William Henry Atherton, S.J.Clarke Publishing Co., Montreal, 1914
“The members of the famous Beaver Club, constituted perhaps the most picturesque and magnificent aristocracy that has ever dominated the life of any young community on this continent, with the possible exception of the tobacco lords of Virginia. The majority of them were adventurous Scotsmen, but they included French-Canadians, Englishmen and a few Irishmen, and were thoroughly cosmopolitan by taste and associations.”
The Beaver Club was instituted at Montreal in the year 1785, by the merchants then carrying on the Indian trade of Canada. Originally the club consisted of but nineteen members, all vovageurs, having wintered in the Indian Country, and having been in the trade from their youth. Subsequently the membership was extended to fifty-five, with ten Honorary Members.
On the first Wednesday in December of each year, the social gatherings were inaugurated by a dinner at which all members residing in the town were expected to be present.
The club assumed powers which would, in the present day, he strongly resisted; among the most notable of them was the rule, that “no member shall have a party at his house on club days, nor accept invitations ; but if in town, must. attend, except prevented by indisposition”
The meetings were held fortnightly from December to April and there was, in addition, a summer club for the captains of the fur vessels, who, in some instances, were honorary members.
The object of the meetings (as set forth in the rules) was “to bring together, at stated periods, during the winter season, a set of men highly respectable in society, who had passed their best days in a savage country and had encountered the difficulties and dangers incident to a pursuit of the fur trade of Canada.”
The members recounted the
perils they had passed through and after passing around the Indian emblem
of peace (the calumet), the officer appointed for the purpose, made a suitable
From: "The Honorable Company, A History of the Hudson's Bay Company"
"In Montreal the full-blooded lives of these men found outlet in the Beaver Club where hospitality was famous. The club was founded in 1785 with nineteen members who qualified by having wintered in the northwest, “the pays d’en Haut.” Later the membership numbered fifty-five men.
The club met fortnightly in winter; fines such as six bottles of Madeira were imposed for neglect of exacting rules and ritual. Members wore large gold medals on club nights, and on the unvarying toast list were: “the fur trade in all its branches,” and “voyageurs, wives and children.” Pemmican, the dried buffalo meat mixed with berries and fat which was the staple food of the fur trade, was brought from the Saskatchewan to be served in the unfamiliar atmosphere of mahogany, silver and candle glow.
After hours of dining and drinking, the climax of the evening was “The Grand Voyage.” Members and guests sat on the floor in a row as if in a great canoe. With fire tongs, swords of soldier guests, or walking sticks, for paddles, they dipped and swung to the rhythm of voyageur songs. It was all very brilliant, expensive, and probably extremely noisy.
One September night in 1808,
thirty-one members and guests sat down to dine.
The club that night had a notable list of rollicking fur traders. Presiding was:
From: "Rules and Regulations of the Beaver Club" 1819
Roll of the Beaver Club
Honorary Members of the Beaver Club
From: "The Beaver Club Jewels"
FORMING OF THE BEAVER CLUB
"Montreal, in the latter part of the 18th century, was the fur trading centre in Canada, apart, of course, from the vast operations of the Hudson's Bay Company along the shores and inland of Hudson's Bay. Business for the most part, was conducted during the season of open water, and at freeze-up trade would return to Montreal to relax and enjoy themselves and to prepare for another expedition to Indian territory the following spring. It is not difficult to understand their desire to relax and enjoy themselves in sumptuous wining and dining and partaking of some of the uxuries of civilization. Partying of all kinds was common during the winter months but there was felt a desire, and the atmosphere was just right, for the forming of a club composed exclusively of men of the fur trade. What these men were looking for was a club where all members had something in common. A club where the members could let off steam, tell of their adventures and dangers in Indian territory, and conduct business under the most congenial conditions.
In 1777 several Montreal traders, including Peter Pond, Maurice Blondeau, & Nicholas Montour, formed a small partnership to compete against the Hudson's Bay Company. Historians mention a partnership of 1779 in which 16 shares were held by 9 different partners, and they also tell us that in 1787 the "North West Company" partners divided their stock into 20 shares. Just when this partnership, or partnerships, became officially known as the North West Company does not seem to be determined as it is of little consequence to this study. What we are concerned about is, that it was these men who in February of 1785 were responsible for forming the Beaver Club of Montreal.
In looking over the list of members it is evident that membership in the club was not reserved exclusively for the North West Company men, but we may be quite certain the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company would not be allowed in the door, at least not until after the Union of 1821. While it is true the records mention Lord Selkirk at a Beaver Club dinner in 1803, we must bear in mind his attendance there was as a guest only, and undoubtedly both parties had an ulterior motive in setting up this meeting, as we will see later.
Originally the club consisted of 19 members, whose names appear on page 8. As time went on, others who qualified were admitted, but memberhsip was not allowed to get out of hand since one of the club rules states there were to be no more than 55 regular and 19 honorary members at any time. During the 42 years of the Club’s existance there were about 100 admitted to membership, many of whom have their names perpetuated in the naming of streets, towns and institutions in their honour.
Regular meetings of the Club were held fortnightly from December until April and occasionally during the summer months, which is said to have been the means of entertaining officers of the ships transporting Company furs to the markets in Europe.
One of the rules of the Club stated that no member was to have a party at his house on Club days nor accept invitations. If he was in town he was obliged to attend or face disciplinary action. The only excuse for not attending was being indisposed.
One of the objects of the club was: "To bring together, at stated periods during the winter season, a set of men highly respectable in society, who had passed their best days in a savage country, and had encountered the difficulties and dangers incident to a pursuit of the fur trade in Canada.” Another object was to afford a means of introduction into society to such traders as might from time to time, after a long absence, retire from the Indian Country. It was indeed a great honour to be a member of the Club or to be invited as a guest to one of their dinners.
There were a number of rituals which took place at the dinner meetings, one of them being the passing of the Calumet, or peace pipe, a custom among the Indians emblematic of peace. There were also five toasts which had to be offered: 1. The Mother of all Saints; 2. The King; 3. The Fur Trade in all its Branches; 4. Voyageurs Wives and Children; 5. Absent members. Following this, the members and their guests were permitted to persue their own pleasures.
Guests were often Invited to attend Beaver Club dinner meetings. On September 17, 1808, a dinner was held at Mr. Dillon’s Montreal Hotel on Place d’Annes where 19 guests attended. Among the most notable at that meeting were General Drummond, and John Jacob Astor the well known New York fur trader. Mr. Astor had been a guest on several occasions. Some of the other prominent names recorded in the Minute books as guests include:
Company and detrimental to his host. The North West Company, at that time was endeavouring to gain control of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Selkirk now had knowledge of some of their plans."
"Due to the absence of official Beaver Club records up to 1807 it is not known just where the meetings were held during the first twenty years. It has been said the headquarters of the Club were at Beaver Hall, the home of Joseph Frobisher in Montreal, but Beaver Hall was not built until about 1800. Frobisher was a wealthy man who enjoyed sumptuous dining, and following his retirement from the fur trade in 1798, at the age of fifty-nine, dining became somewhat of a passion with him. So great was his love of dining that he kept a special diary entitled “Diary of my dinners” in which he recorded his Beaver Club dinnets. his invitations to dine out, and guests he entertained at Beaver Hall. How often Frobisher and his wife, Charlotte, may have opened their elegant home for Beaver Club dinners has not been recorded.
It has been established the Club held meetings fortnightty from December to April, and often during The off-season, and that they met regularly until 1804. For the next three years there seems to have been little, if any, activity.
From the Minute Book of 1807 (the earliest official record of the Club preserved) we find that in January of that year the Club was revitalized and five new members were elected. No sooner had they been admitted when they put forth a motion to change the name to the “Voyageurs” Club. The motion was defeated, but apparently Jacques Giasson, one of the early members whose jewel is still preserved, was so put out that he never attended another meeting.
A few meetings were held at the City Tavern on St. Paul Street that year but were later moved to the Montreal Hotel on Place d’Armes where they continued until 1815. During the 1815-1816 season the Club met at the City Tavern as well as at Palmer’s Hotel, and in 1817 they moved to the Mansion House Hotel on St. Paul Street.
The records for the years around 1821, which saw the Union of the North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies are somewhat obscured, but we know a big dinner was held in May of 1824 at the Mansion House Hotel where fifty atttended.
The meetings then appear to have ceased until January of 1827 when George Simpson, recently appointed Governor of Rupert’s Land, made an attempt to revive the Club. Ten members met at the home of William Blackwood where they elected to membership James Keith, Hugh Faries, and George Simpson. Two dinners were held that year at the Masonic Hall Hotel - one on the 3rd of February and the last to be recorded on the 5th of March."
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BEAVER CLUB
"I believe a parallel can he drawn between the periods of high and low interest in the Beaver Club, and in the rise and fall and the good and the bad years of the North West Company.
We know the many fur trading companies in the Montreal area during the latter part of the 18th century were finding it very difficult to compete against the monopoly held by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and being divided they had little strength. From time to time some of the traders joined forces to fight competition but such loose partnerships made little headway. It was quite a different matter after the North West Company partnership was formed. These partners had much at stake and their determination and energy was so instilled in them, and in the men who worked for them, that Company spirit was very high. They entered Hudson’s Bay Company territory and were successful in taking a great deal of business away from them.
The forming of the Beaver Club in 1785 provided the North Westers with an ideal opportunity to let off steam, tell of their experiences in Indian territory, and to revel in the havoc they played with their competitor. They were indeed in very high spirits.
During this period the Hudson’s Bay Company was not idle. The men from the Bay fought blow for blow and were able to recouperate many of their losses.
When the North West Company failed in 1804, ii their attempt to buy the Hudson’s Bay Company, and again in 1805 when their offer to buy the rights to use the Hudson’s Bay route for shipping furs to Europe was turned down, the North Westers must have had some doubts about their future and this undoubtedly affected company spirit. Such a situation could account for the apparent lack of interest in the Beaver Club between 1804 and 1807.
The revival of interest in the club after 1807 could be accounted for by the fact the North West Company was again on the verge of buying controlling interest in their rival and in 1808 when the deal fell through they became more determined than ever to break their competitor. This determination is vividly reflected in the many skirmishes between the two companies during the establishment of the Red River Settlement.
The bloodshed at Red River must have caused the traders from Montreal to realize how senseless it was to carry on with this bitter rivalry and in 1821 they were absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company. What was now left to instill interest in the Beaver club?
With the building of trading
posts throughout the west, it became less dangerous to travel into the
wilderness. The rough and tough devil-may-care fur trader was becoming
a thing of the past, and no longer did they have a competitor whose territory
they could invade. That which caused the Club to be formed, held it together,
and made the meetings so interesting to the members, was now gone. The
attempt by George Simpson to revive the club
in 1827 was doomed from the start. The spirit just wasn’t there and the
Beaver Club faded into oblivion."
From: "Lords of the North"
Now the Beaver Club was an organization of Nor'-westers renowned for it's hospitality. Founded in 1785, originally composed of but nineteen members and afterwards extended only to men who bad served in the Pays d'En Haut, it soon acquired a reputation for entertaining in regal style. Why the vertebrae of colonial gentlemen should sometimes lose the independent, upright rigidity of self-respect on contact with old world nobility, I know not. But instantly, Colonel Adderly’s reference to Lord Selkirk and the Beaver Club called up the picture of a banquet in Montreal, when I was a lad of seven, or thereabouts. I had been tricked out in some Highland costume especially pleasing to the Earl - cap, kilts, dirk and all - and was taken by my Uncle Jack MacKenzie to the Beaver Club.
Here, in a room, that glittered
with lights, was a table steaming with things, which caught and held my
boyish eyes; and all about were crowds of guests, gentlemen, who bad been
invited into the quaint language of the club, “To discuss the merits of
bear, beaver and venison.” The great Sir Alexander
MacKenzie, with his title fresh from the king, and his feat of exploring
the river now known by his name and pushing through the mountain fastnesses
to the Pacific on all men’s Iips—was to my Uncle Jack’s right. Simon
Fraser and David Thompson and other
famous explorers, who were heroes to my imagination, were there too. In
these men and what they said of their wonderful voyages I was far more
I remember when the huge salvers and platters were cleared away, I was placed on the table to execute the sword dance. I must have acquitted myself with some credit; for the gentlemen set up a prodigious clapping, though I recall nothing but a snapping of my fingers, a wave of my cap and a whirl of lights and faces around my dizzy head. Then my uncle took me between his knees, promising to let me sit up to the end if I were good, and more wine was passed.
“That’s enough for you, you young cub,” says my kinsman, promptly inverting the wine-glass before me.
“0h Uncle MacKenzie, “ said I with a wry face, “do you measure your own wine so?”
Whereat, the noble Earl shouted, “Bravo! here’s for you, Mr. MacKenzie.”
And all the gentlemen set up a laugh and my uncle smiled and called to the butler, “Here, Johnson, toddy for one, glass of hot water, pure, for other.”
But when Johnson brought back the glasses, I observed Uncle MacKenzie kept the toddy. “There, my boy, there’s Adam’s ale for you,” said he, and into the glass of hot water he popped a peppermint lozenge.
“Fie!” laughed Sir Alexander to my uncle’s right,” Fie to cheat the little man!”
“His Is the best wine of the cellar,” vowed His Lordship; and I drank my peppermint with as much gusto and self-importance as any man of them.
Then followed toasts, such a list of toasts as only men inured to tests of strength could take. Ironical toasts to the North-West Passage, whose myth Sir Alexander had dispelled; toasts to the discoverer of the MacKenzie River, which brought, storms of applause that shook the house; toasts to “our distinguished guest,” whose suave response disarmed all suspicion; toasts to the “Northern winterers,” poor devils, who were serving the cause by undergoing a lifelong term of Arctic exile; toasts to .“ the merry lads of the north,” who only served in the ranks without attaming to the honor of partnership; toasts enough, in all conscience, to drown the memory of every man present. Thanks to my Uncle Jack MacKenzie, all my toasts were taken in peppermint,and the picture in my mind of that banquet is as clear today as it was when I sat at the table.
What would I not give up be back at the Beaver Club, living it all over again and hearing Sir Alexander MacKenzie with his flashing hero eyes and quick, passionate gestures, recounting that wonderful voyage of his with a sulky crew into a region of hostiles; telling of those long interminable winters of Arctic night, when the great explorer sounded the depths of utter despair in service for the company and knew not whether he faced madness or starvation; and thrilling the whole assembly with a description of his first glimpse of the Pacific! Perhaps it was what I heard that night—who can tell—that drew me to the wild life of after years. But I was too young, then, to recognize fully the greatness of those men. Indeed, my country was then and is yet too young; for if their greatness be recognized, it is forgotten and unhonored.
I think I must have fallen
asleep on my uncle’s knee; for I next remember sleepily looking about and
noticing that many of the gentlemen had slid down in their chairs and with
closed eyes were breathing heavily. Others had slipped to the floor and
were sound asleep. This shocked me and I was at once wide awake. My uncle
was sitting very erect and his arn around my waist had the tight grasp
that usually preceded some sharp rebuke. I looked up and found his face
grown suddenly so hard and stern, I was all affright lest my sleeping had
offended him. His eyes were fastened on Lord Selkirk with a piercing, angry
gaze. His Lordship was not nodding, not a bit of it. How brilliant he seemed
to my childish fancy! He was leaning forward, questioning those Nor’Westers,
who had received him with open arms, and open hearts. And the wine had
mounted to the head of the good Nor’-Westers and they were now also receiving
the strange nobleman with open mouths, pouring out to him a full account
of their profits, the extent of the vast, unknown game preserve, and how
their methods so far surpassed those of the Hudson’s Bay, their rival’s
stock had fallen in value from 250 to 50 per cent.