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A Sketch on The Hudson's Bay Company

The early history of The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) is not well known1, however, an appreciation of the earlier English/French conflicts will bring some insight into what brought about the establishment of the HBC. We cannot go into this conflict to any extent, I have done so at other places. What we learn is that the English in their colonization and trading efforts in North America, quite literally ran up against a western brick wall, one located just beyond the Appalachian range. This was a French wall, manned by the French and their native allies. The southern flank was covered; the northern flank, was not. It was this northern flank that made the French vulnerable. English traders had long since found a way to the far northwestern lands of North America; it was by way of the Hudson Bay. They knew this since the days of Henry Hudson. The English not only knew of the easier route, they also understood that at the northern centre of the continent a nation could tap into the riches found there. What they ran into, as they proceeded inland from the western shores of the Hudson Bay, were natives who were ready for a trade and who lived in trackless northern forests filled with the fox, the bear, the beaver, and many other richly-clad denizens of the north. In, went the wanted items, such as: metal tools, tobacco, rum, guns2; Out came pelts of northern animals.

What drove the early searches in the north was what drives all searches, is was the burning desire to make a buck, commerce. These northern searches were carried out in an attempt to satisfy the thirst the gentry had for furs. The development of the northern fur market was an evolving thing, as with any market, a slow and systematic build-up on both the supply and demand sides. The fur market, like all commercial markets, however, was to be satisfied by private enterprise.3 However, the far northern searches by sailing vessels were made to suit another end: to satisfy the thirst Europeans had for the wondrous commodities to be found in the orient. It was thought that a much shorter route to the far-east could be had by going over the top of the North American continent; if only one could be found. This search for the North West Passage was carried out mostly by government expeditions, including, in later years, that of John Franklin.

In 1656, two Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, arrived at Quebec with fifty canoes laden with pelts. They had travelled many months to and from the territory beyond that of Lake Michigan, the Wisconson country. Such men as Radisson and Groseilliers continued through to 1660 to arrive at Montreal with large flotillas of canoes "so great a number of boats that did almost cover the whole River." This business the French Governor sought to tax and it was soon thought by those who laboured in the business to shift their business elsewhere.

Not only did the French tax gathers bothered the fur traders, but so did the high cost of getting product back and forth given that it was necessary to travel over great distances paddling and portaging all the way with light birch-bark canoes through a vast and seemingly endless wilderness. (Map) The exploration of the far north, and, in particular, that of Hudson Bay, was once again picked up with the specific purpose, in reference to the fur trade, to the business of "solving the transportation problem and of circumventing the Indian middlemen."4

To come back to Radisson and Groseilliers: their tax problems with the French authorities led them to turn to the English. Eventually they found their way to England. There, particularly at London, the smart money was soon attracted to Radisson and Groseilliers, indeed, even the King of England Charles himself, in spite of the problems of the time (the Plague, the Fire of London and the Dutch War) lent personal assistance to the two enterprising Frenchmen.5

"Finally, after many discouraging delays, Radisson in the Eaglet (Captain Stannard) and Groseilliers in the Nonsuch (Captain Gillam) set sail from Gravesend on 3 June 1668. Radisson's ship was driven back by storms, as indeed he was again driven back next year, but Groseilliers won through, and by 25 August had reached the Cree summering place in Rupert Bay, the first vessel to be there since Henry Hudson in 1610 or 1611. While a fort was being built for the winter, he brought his skill to bear on the natives, so that they gathered furs for him, to be bartered in the ceremonious primitive pretence of interchange of gifts. The scale was absurdly profitable among these remote aborigines, the skins, especially the beaver, were the prime of North America, and the Nonsuch carried a fair-sized cargo of cheap-won peltries back to the fortunate merchants of London in 1669."6
It is with these voyages of Radisson and Groseilliers that one might trace out the beginnings of the HBC.

The HBC was incorporated in 1670. This came about after two expeditions were sent out the previous year. One of which, apparently was under the command of a Captain Newland, "formed a settlement at Port Nelson, the first station founded by the English north of the St. Lawrence." By 1682, at Port Nelson, had a fort in the course of erection. The whole of the south-west coast of Hudson's Bay, from the head of James Bay to the mouth of the Churchill River, was occupied in a little over two decades after the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company. 7 To the west was a very large territory which included the Hudson Bay drainage. All of it to be explored, but only by those approved by the HBC. This territory came to be known as "Rupert's Land."8

The northern territories that HBC had opened up was to be contested when war came along between France and England (1689-97). During these times the forts on the western coast of Hudson's Bay were exchanged back and forth, on more than one occasion. At another period (1701-13) when the English and the French were battling once again, the same thing happened but the balance went to England, when, in 1713, that particular war between the ancient enemies came to an end. The parties signed a treaty (Treaty of Utrecht) which declared that Great Britain possessed all rights to the whole of the Hudson Bay territory.9

The war of 1701-13 between England and France did not settle things. As is usually the case that might be observed, the conclusion of one war sows the seeds for the next. And the next war did come along, in 1754, The Seven Years War, the last war between England and France over the spoils of North America. It ended any claims that France had on North America. The prospects of the HBC were thereby to change. As of 1763:

"There were no more boundary questions, and the Franco-Canadian trappers, the finest hunting material in the world, passed into the service of the company, which was thus enabled at once to effectively establish its claim to the immense territory of millions of square miles covered by the ample provisions of its Caroline charter. Roughly speaking, this territory extended from Hudson Bay westwards to and even beyond the Rocky Mountains; in fact, practically from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Laurentian 'height of land' northwards to the Frozen Ocean."10
With the conclusion of The Seven Years War, in 1763, the field opened up for HBC, one free of foreign competition; but, not, as it happened, free from competition from fellow British subjects. A few hard-headed and far sighted Scotsmen at Montreal decided to cut themselves in. They were masters at getting financial support; and, as far as employees go - there were, because of French territorial loss, experience voyageurs, or coureurs de bois ready to go to work. Thus was formed the North-West Company, or, as sometimes known, the Canada Company.
"The history of the North West Company, which probably began sometime in the middle or late 1770s, is a complex not least because its membership was often a changing, usually expanding, one. The name alone is confusing because the organization itself was composed of a number of individual fur companies.11 However, the North West Company was never at any time in its existence a company in the normal sense of a legally constituted corporation accountable for its actions, financing, etc. It was simply a trading name used by a loose association of men who worked in the same line of business and agreed to turn it into a very profitable livelihood by creating what amounted to a monopoly."12
Members of the two companies (Hudson's Bay and North-West) fought bloody battles in the wilderness.13 By 1816 matters came to such a head that the British government stepped in. And thus the feuding parties, in 1821, were merged into one by an Act of Parliament to be officially known as The Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.

There are yet significant events to which I must refer, before concluding. The merging of the two companies, in 1821, by government fiat, allowed for a continuing monopoly which extended from Rupert's Land to the Pacific coast, an arrangement which was renewed in 1838. Thus the Company had government control on everything in the North West Territories and beyond to the Pacific Coast. Then, in 1838, an event happened which shaped the current day State of Alaska. In respect to securing the furs of North America: the Russians were not asleep; they made inroads from the west. Apparently they had their own company, Russian-America Company. An agreement was worked out whereby the Russians recognized the HBC posts and in return it agreed to supply the Russian posts. Apparently, too, a boundary was worked out which eventually became the eastern border of the Alaskan State.

It is, of course, necessary, in this short sketch on HBC to make reference to George Simpson. Simpson became the Canadian governor of the HBC. For years he worked for the company in every capacity one might imagine. His experience in traveling through the then wilderness encompassing western Canada; no one knew these wilderness areas any better. During his years, 1820-60, as the Canadian governor, the HBC was at its greatest peak of power and profitability. The territory, over which it exercise its power, government-like, covered the whole of Western Canada, indeed parts of the north-western States as they exist today.

"Simpson was one of the principal architects of the HBC monopoly which came to dominate the North American fur trade in the 19th century. At the time of his death the companyís fortunes were still buoyant, but its future was increasingly threatened by the free-trade movement at Red River, demands for annexation of Rupertís Land to Canada, and the impetus to open up the territory to agricultural settlement by the extension of the railway system across British North America. Simpson foresaw the impact that these developments would have upon the fur trade but he died before it materialized. He was a controversial figure, sometimes ruthless, sometimes unscrupulous ... On one aspect of his character, however, there is unanimity: he served the HBC with great ability and with consummate devotion ..."14
With the death of George Simpson in 1860, the character of HBC, as it had been through the years from its corporation in 1670, changed radically. Not so much because of Simpson's death, who had such an impact on the history of HBC; but more for the reasons stated in the forgoing paragraph. After two hundred years of governing a vast western area which is these days covers much of what we now know as western Canada. So, to conclude, we make reference to the last decade of HBC as was set out by Wikipedia:
"In 1869, after rejecting the American government offer of $10,000,000, the company approved the return of Rupertís Land to Britain which in turn gave it to Canada and loaned the new country the £300,000 required to compensate HBC for its losses. The deal, known as The Deed of Surrender, came into force the following year. The resulting territory, now known as the Northwest Territories, was brought under Canadian jurisdiction under the terms of the Rupert's Land Act 1868, enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Deed enabled the admission of the fifth province, Manitoba ..."15

1 "Most of the HBC history is not very well known, even with the vast archives available in Manitoba, Canada. The largest land purchase in Canadian history is due to the HBC holdings, and the first explorers and map makers in the area." (

2 "From England they [HBC] sent annually three or four ships laden with coarse woolen goods, guns, powder and shot, spirits, edge-tools, and various other utensils, in return for which the natives sell them all kinds of furs or peltry, goose-quills, castorum, whale-fins, and oil, bed-feathers, etc ..." (Cawston, The Early Chartered Companies (1296-1858), pp. 161.) Castorum, incidentally, was defined in a footnote: "The mucilaginous substance found in two inguinal sacs of the caster (beaver), of pungent smell and acrid taste, formerly much used in the European Pharmacopoeia."

3 What I have come to realise, as my study of history continues, is that the the exploration of the North American continent was carried out by private interests with a view to profits. European countries such as England and France did not send out "Government Explorers." Their involvement, in time, was to attempt to regulate matters. People, or companies, who wanted to set-off exploring in foreign parts of the world might seek their particular approval, an approval which was usually given for a cut of the profits.

4 Brebner, p. 229. The early Canadian routes beginning at Montreal, while it involved a very long trip by paddling canoes to the reaches of the far Canadian north, the old Rainy Lake Route continued to be used.

5 Brebner, p. 235. The Dutch, as Brebner points out, were also trying to entice Radisson and Groseilliers into their service; knowledge in those days, as it is these days, was a marketable commodity in itself.

6 Brebner, p. 236.

7 Cawston, The Early Chartered Companies (1296-1858), pp. 157 & 164-5.

8 It was named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of Charles I and the first Governor of the HBC.

9 I touch on certain aspects of The War of the Spanish Succession in my work on Acadia.

10 Cawston, The Early Chartered Companies (1296-1858), p. 177.

11 "The anonymous author of a pamphlet written about the year 1820 has truly remarked that 'individuals cannot extend society to distant places without forming a compact amongst themselves, and obtaining some guarantee for its being observed." (Cawston, The Early Chartered Companies (1296-1858), p. vii)

12 Alexander Mackenzie Explorer, by James K. Smith, p. 24. It was a monopoly which HBC wanted to protect; it was very covetous of its monopoly position. Its policy "was to throw every obstruction in the way of private adventurers." (Cawston, The Early Chartered Companies (1296-1858), p. 170). "There can be little doubt that the HBC were for a long time exceedingly jealous of their monopoly; and that they not only discouraged all attempts at northern discovery, but withheld what little information came to their knowledge ..." (A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions, p. 280.)

13 The people the North-West Company, because of the colour its officer's uniforms: were known as the "Grays"; HBC, the "Blues."



[A LISTING OF The Early Explorers]
[A LISTING OF The Searchers For Franklin]

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Peter Landry