Revillon Frères

A sturgeon-nosed boat on the Athabasca River.
This is one of the sturgeon nosed boats used on the Athabasca River after 1835. This image, na-1338-20 is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives.

Many of the images I used in my book, The York Factory Express, came from the Revillon Frères Collection at Glenbow Archives. So who were the Revillon Frères?

Revillon Frères was a French fur trade company, founded in Paris in 1723. In those days it was called La Maison Givelet, but that business was purchased by Louis-Victor Revillon in 1839 and soon became the largest fur company in France. It also dealt in luxury goods such as perfume — naturally, as castoreum — a product from beaver — is still a prime ingredient in fine perfumes!

Revillon Frères had stores in Germany, Russia, Mongolia, and Turkestan, as well as in North America. By 1912 they had 125 trading posts in America and Russia. One resource I had said they had a store in New York City — another says they manufactured fur coats which they sold through Saks 5th Avenue. But they also had fur stores in Edmonton and by 1903 had 23 stores across Canada. Obviously, they competed directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company as they also had a number of fur trade posts in Alberta, Northern British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the North West Territories. All this information is from Wikipedia, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revillon_Frères

However, I first stumbled on the Revillon Frères when I read the book Northern Trader: The last Days of the Fur Trade, by H.S.M. Kemp [University of Regina Press, 2014]. I found his story fascinating. The back cover of the book tells us that he joined Revillon Frères after working for three years for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and that his Northern Trader is the only recollection of the fur trade we have by a “French Company” man. This book really is a good read, and I do recommend it. In the forward is this piece of information:

Northern Trader, first published in 1956, is…Kemp’s account of his nearly thirty years in the trade. It is historically valuable, not least because, for much of that time, Kemp worked for Revillon Frères, then the HBC’s great rival, and his is the only full-scale recollection we have by a “French Company” man.”

Kemp hired on with Revillon Frères (for the second time) after World War I, and was put in charge of the Red Earth post on the Carrot River, where he felt as if he had stepped back in time. He was then transferred to the Stanley post, on the Churchill River, and spent six years here — the best years of his life, he said. I learned a lot from this book: I learned how to use a tumpline, for example. I learned about running rapids, I learned a lot about York Boats, and that little had changed from the early days. Here he talks about the York Boat arriving at Brochet:

She came in loaded, rowed by her Indian crew… They were a gaudy lot — shirts of black sateen and flowery scarves, wide Stetson hats and ornate moccasins. They’d stopped a mile or so short of their destination and changed from their working clothes. No self-respecting York boatman would arrive in a settlement looking like a tramp.

Indeed — that is exactly how the York Factory Express men behaved in the early days. They came into each post acting as if their long hard journey was “but a jaunt.” He also talked about the smell of a fur trade post:

It’s a smell that you can’t analyze. It’s piquant, intriguing. It’s a smell that you can never forget. Be away from it for years, for half a lifetime, and when you meet it again it is vibrant with memories. It’s a mixture of beaver castors and twist tobacco, of tea, candy, and moose hides. The smell of fur from the room above will have gone into it, smoke from the big square stove, and a host of other things.

A long time ago I wrote about the smell of furs, here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/smell-of-furs/

So, there’s lots more to interest you in this book. It seems that the Revillon Frères fell on hard times after 1918, and between 1925 and 1936 they gradually sold their business to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

However, this is not the only book that tells us about the Revillon Frères! I recently found another book that speaks of this fur trade company: sometimes this man worked for them, and more often he opposed them as a Hudson Bay man. This book is written by Philip H. Godsell, and is titled: Arctic Trader: The Account of Twenty Years with the Hudson’s Bay Company [Toronto: Macmillan Co of Canada, 1946].

I was interested to find that by the time Godsell worked for the HBC, no furs went out to York Factory — instead it all came up to Norway House. Nevertheless, York Factory still existed, as Godsell arrived at that post in 1906. It is interesting that little had changed from the early days — the London ship arrived off York Factory and fired rocket after rocket until someone at the post noticed they were there. That is exactly what they did in the early London ship journals I have collected!

I first run into the Revillon Frères in this book when I learn in a footnote that the company sent out a ship to Hudson Bay with a big cargo of trade goods. The ship, Adventure, was wrecked in Hudson Strait and all their goods lost, and as a result they did not ever again attempt to set up a post in Hudson Bay.

So Godsell worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but was forced to quit when he got ill. Later that summer (about 1911, I think) he arrived in Edmonton, travelling by rail. He heard of, and joined, the Peace River Trading and Land Company, another fur trade company that marked its packs with a P inside a diamond. Their post was at Athabasca Landing, where after a short while Godsell “was approached by the Revillon Frères Company to take charge of their post at Fort St. Johns [sic] the following summer (1912?) I eagerly accepted the offer, and as soon soon as I could obtain relief I set out again along dim and infrequently trodden trails.” When they arrived at the post at Fort St. John:

We dismounted before four whitewashed log buildings bearing a sign “Revillon Frères,” and I shook hands with a smiling black-haired man wearing corduroy pants, a flannel shirt, moccasins and a cowboy hat, whom I would have taken to be a half-breed anywhere, but it was the renowned Harry Garbitt, an Englishman whose place I was taking as he was to guide an expedition into the Rockies through the Laurier Pass.

The Hudson’s Bay post was situated about a hundred yards to the south of his post, and Mr. Beatton, an Orkneyman, was the trader there. The two posts were surrounded by the volatile Beaver Indians [First Nations], who were upset that so many white men were coming into their territory. The Beavers were wonderful trappers, and the Revillon Frères men spied on the HBC, and the HBC spied on the Revillon Frères, with each Company encouraging the Beavers to trade with them and not the opposition. In the spring:

the place was alive once more with Indians. The throbbing of drums resounded in the valley, and horse races and gambling became the order of the day…It was amusing to watch the manner in which some proud hunter would hold aloof until satisfied there was a big crowd in the store. Then he would canter nonchalantly up, leading three or four heavily loaded pack ponies. Casually, though seething internally with unbounded pride, he would throw pack after pack of furs upon the floor while the Indians squatted around marvelled at the mounting evidence of the great man’s wealth.

It seems that Godsell only remained there for one winter, returning to England for a visit. There he was on the point of accepting another offer from Revillons, when he came into contact with the Hudson’s Bay Company once more. He signed a three year contract with them in 1914, and worked to organize canoe transport between Osnaburgh post on Lake St. Joseph, and Lac Seul. These two posts were in Ontario, and because of the Ontario Game Authorities, who had at that time restricted the trapping of beaver and otter, they had to smuggle out their contraband furs. The Revillon Frères was also trading here, but “La France, Revillon’s agent at Missanabie, was arrested for handling “contraband” fur he was treated rather roughly, and for a while it looked as though he might spend a considerable time in jail.” La France was fined ten thousand dollars or twenty-seven years in jail, but an agreement was arrived at where he avoided jail time. Nevertheless, as Godsell says, “From that time forward the Revillon traders seemed to lose all stomach for this class of trade which, for a considerable while thereafter, became, to a large extent, a monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay men.”

This was the period of time when the Revillon Frères disappeared from the fur trade in North America. They withdrew from the Lake Superior District entirely, and at the same time they disappeared from Godsell’s book. Nevertheless, his story continues and is interesting, and I am enjoying his book.

As I am interested in the Revillon Frères, if you know of a book that gives more information about them, I wouldn’t mind hearing about it.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Revillon Frères

  1. Les Oystryk

    Thanks NANCY, your account of both Kemp’s time as well as Godsell’s time with the RF is an excellent reminder of that companies historic record. The written accounts of both men are very rare examples of actual people who worked their trade here in the west. I read Arctic Trader a number of years ago and I had the wonderful experience of working with others to bring “Northern Trader” back into print (complete with photos) a few years ago.
    Have you read “Revillon Man” by Robert Cockburn in the Beaver Magazine.?
    I would appreciate speaking with you and perhaps exchanging other pieces of RF history as scant as it is. The6 have been of great interest to me as well.