On today’s date in 1779, the North West Company (NWC) was created in competition with Montréal’s fur-trading interests as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which was granted an exclusive trading monopoly over the entire Hudson Bay drainage basin about a century earlier.
British and Anglo-American businessmen established several small independent fur-trading companies in Montréal after the fall of New France in 1763, according to the Canadian Museum of History.
On April 24, 1779, several of these independent companies merged to form the NWC. What began as a loose association of merchants eventually grew to control about 80 per cent of the northern fur trade by the end of the 18th century.
After exploring the western and Arctic regions of North America, the company was taken over by its rival, the HBC, in 1821.
1820 NORTH WEST COMPANY TOKENS
In 1820, the NWC issued copper and brass tokens, each worth a single beaver pelt.
Most known examples have a small hole at the top because they were often worn around the neck as adornments. Used to promote the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, these tokens (Breton 925) were struck in Birmingham, England, by John Walker and Co.
Most surviving examples are “either worn, corroded (sometimes heavily), or both,” said Ron Guth, president of Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) CoinFacts.
“These tokens are very scarce and popular, primarily because of the beaver that appears on the reverse,” writes Guth. “Though not a true Colonial coin (it was issued well after the United States had been formed), they are an important part of American numismatic history.”
DOUGLAS ROBINS COLLECTION
One “spectacular highlight” of the Douglas Robins Collection, offered in Heritage Auctions’ April 2018 Chicago Coin Expo World Coins Signature Auction, was an 1820 NWC unholed brass plain edge token in Mint State-61.
Robins purchased this token in May 2004, during the sale of the John Ford Collection, for nearly $49,000 US.
“That’s a really interesting one,” said cataloguer Dr. Jim Haxby, who worked with the Bank of Canada’s National Currency Collection from 1972-80. “This token is probably unique in that I’ve never seen or heard of another unholed brass example, and it’s plain edge, and that’s only plain edge I’ve ever heard of.”
It’s believed to be a trial piece struck without the usual engrailed edge found on all the other NWC tokens.
“This North West Company token without the hole is the only one I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have an engrailed edge. It’s not unusual for specimens or trial pieces to be struck without the edge decoration, so that fits the trial piece theory,” said Haxby. “This is one of the few – or maybe the only one – that I think came to collectors directly out of England. I don’t think that piece even made it over to North America; I think it was a trial piece that stayed in the hands of the coiner and eventually went to a London coin dealer.”
Haxby said NWC tokens were “primarily, if not exclusively, American in their issue and usage,” adding this U.S. connection should drive stronger prices.
“Of course, the North West Company was a Canadian company, but they barely had time to circulate their tokens,” he said, adding amalgamation with the HBC took place in 1821, no more than a year after the NWC could have received their tokens.
He also referenced past research by Donald Stuart, who wrote the HBC in London and received three critical HBC accounts before writing his article, “Notes on the North West Company Token” for the June 1970 issue of the Canadian Numismatic Journal, the official publication of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association.
In November 1821, an HBC inventory of stock, including copper and brass tokens, was taken at Oregon’s Fort George (formerly Fort Astoria), which was operated by the NWC before the HBC took over in the summer of 1821.
“The following spring, there was another account, and it showed a decrease in the number of those tokens, so that shows the HBC was using them. They were issuing them, and the only HBC post mentioned as having the tokens is Fort George; they were issuing them from that fort in Oregon,” said Haxby, who added it’s “tempting to believe that the North West Co. issued their tokens from the same location when they controlled it.”
“The third account was from the mid-1820s, when Fort George closed temporarily and all their affairs were transferred to what’s now Vancouver, Wash., to a new fort that had been built, Fort Vancouver. An 1826 account for that location includes North West Company tokens, and there were fewer yet.”
Haxby said between 400 and 500 tokens were leaving the fort each year.
“So more of these tokens were issued by the HBC, and they were being issue only by forts in Oregon and Washington. The long and short of it is the Americans should be very interested in these tokens, and when the Americans get involved, you know can happen to prices,” he said, adding the NWC tokens are listed in the U.S. “Red Book,” officially named A Guide Book of United States Coins.
What’s more, in the late 1970s, more than 20 NWC tokens were discovered among the “Umpqua River Valley hoard” found in Oregon. Haxby noted that most of the NWC tokens are tied up in institutions and they very seldom come to market.
At the time of Stuart’s research in 1970, there were no known Canadian discoveries of NWC tokens.