HOLMES, WILLIAM, fur-trader; of Irish descent; d. 17 Aug. 1792 in Montreal (Que.).
William Holmes apparently came to Canada some time after 1763, and by 1774 he was actively engaged in the fur trade into the Saskatchewan country. In October 1774 Holmes, Charles Paterson, and François Jérôme, dit Latour (Franceway), were reported on their way up the Saskatchewan River with seven canoes to their post at Fort des Prairies (Fort-à-la-Corne, Sask.), where they spent the winter. Holmes was there the next season and on 5 Feb. 1776 set out on an expedition with Alexander Henry* the elder to visit the winter villages of the Assiniboins in the parklands of the Saskatchewan. In May 1777 he was reported going down to Montreal with 12 canoes of furs. About this time he must have formed a partnership with Robert Grant, another Canadian trader, for in April and May of 1778 Holmes, Grant and Company engaged at least four men in Montreal to go to Fort des Prairies. That October Holmes and Booty Graves, an Englishman who had been a partner of Peter Pond* in 1775, travelled up from Montreal with ten canoes to the Canadians’ lower settlement, often known as Sturgeon River Fort, on the Saskatchewan River just below its confluence with the Sturgeon River.
During the 1770s competition among the Canadian traders, and between them and the Hudson’s Bay Company, was intense; the rivals, pursuing furs and each other, pushed farther and farther into the Saskatchewan country. By March 1779 Holmes had moved up the Saskatchewan River to the Canadians’ middle settlement (near Wandsworth, Sask.). There in a space of a few hundred yards were located the HBC’s Upper Hudson House and, as the company servant Philip Turnor wrote, four Canadian houses as well as “about ten small Houses inhabitet by their men, which in fact are trading Houses every one of their men being a trader.” Such competition was destructive of profits, and on 1 April Holmes informed Turnor that “the Canadian traders in that River except Blondeaux [Joseph-Barthélemy Blondeau] had then entered into a General Partnership, and they expected he would likewise join them.” Partnerships of this kind were common in the Canadian settlements along the Saskatchewan River, and Holmes had probably been party to them. For example, Henry reported that in 1776 the traders at Fort des Prairies had agreed to pool their resources and profits, and this arrangement appears to have been renewed the next year. These local and temporary agreements undoubtedly made Holmes receptive to the idea of one great partnership, for some time in 1779, probably after he returned to Montreal in the late spring, he and Grant were to become joint partners in the founding of the 16-share North West Company.
Despite the “General Partnership” at the middle settlement, Holmes still faced a major rival in the HBC, and he had to resort to tactics the company’s servants found offensive. In April 1779 he and his men locked up some Indians who had come down to the settlement, forcing them to trade all their furs with them. When Magnus Twatt, one of the company’s servants, protested this action, Holmes was reported to have beaten him “in a cruel manner.” Holmes had other problems as well. On the 25th the traders learned of the killing of John Cole three days before by Indians at the Canadians’ upper settlement in the Eagle Hills (southwest of Battleford, Sask.). A nervous Turnor wrote that the news had incensed the French Canadian engagés, who thought that the HBC had incited the Indians, and he reported that Holmes had had to arm himself against his own men who were “much sett against us and likewise against every Englishman.” There being a ratio of 27 Englishmen to about 300 French Canadians, the traders had some cause for worry, but nothing came of the incident.
The fierce competition for furs ensured that Holmes’s relations with the HBC would never be good. In October 1779, after William Tomison* had established the HBC’s Hudson House about 14 miles downstream from the old post, Holmes arrived to build a post opposite. From there he and Peter Pangman* informed Tomison in December that Cumberland House (Sask.) had been destroyed by Indians. Tomison, however, dismissed the story as untrue, which it was, and the Canadians as “a parcle of villains.” The next May Holmes and Pangman obtained from the Indians beaver coats that had been loaned them by the HBC. In retaliation Robert Longmoor*, at Cumberland, impounded the trade goods of Patrick Small, a Canadian trader, and released them only when Small gave him three beaver coats.
Holmes remained active in the Saskatchewan country in the 1780s. The smallpox epidemic that swept through the western Indians in the early years of the decade reduced the fur returns of Holmes and his partners severely; between 1781 and 1782 they dropped from 330 packs to 84. The destruction, by the French under the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup], of York and Churchill factories on Hudson Bay in the summer of 1782 cut the source of the HBC servants’ supplies and put Holmes in an advantageous position. In October 1783 he was able to sell supplies to Tomison, at Cumberland House, for a price which the latter considered “rather too much.” Holmes had a post at Battle River, near the upper settlement, in 1784, but two years later he moved down the Saskatchewan to build at Fort de l’Isle, opposite the HBC’s newly established Manchester House (near Pike’s Peak, Sask.).
Holmes, who had remained a partner in the NWC throughout the 1780s, retired from the fur trade in 1790. Some time after August 1791 he sold his share in the company to John Gregory*.
Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Henry, Travels and adventures (Bain). HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson); XV (Rich and Johnson). Hudson’s Bay miscellany, 1670–1870, ed. and intro. Glyndwr Williams (Winnipeg, 1975). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell). [Alexander Mackenzie], The journals and letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1970). PAC Report, 1888, 59–61. Saskatchewan journals and correspondence: Edmonton House, 1795–1800; Chesterfield House, 1800–1802, ed. A., M. Johnson (London, 1967). Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” ANQ Rapport, 1946–47, 306–7. Morton, History of Canadian west.