The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company
The Beginning of Commerce in Canada

Founding of the Hudson's Bay Company

Radisson and Groseilliers

Hudson's Bay Company Logo

Henry Hudson's expedition had found the northern route into the Canadian interior, by following an arctic passage that allowed the English to avoid the French who were expanding in the south, along the St. Lawrence River valley.

In the 1660s, two Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, explored all the way to Hudson's Bay, and learned that the area was rich with furs.

Their tales of the bounty of furs that were to be had made rich businessmen in Montreal, Quebec, and London drool with greed. They managed to raise money to bring a ship load of furs back to England, and convince merchants to invest in the fur trade.

As a result, a group of wealthy English merchants formed the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1670, and the King of England granted the Company a fur trade monopoly for all the lands drained by rivers flowing into Hudson's Bay. Even though the land did not belong to him or to his country.

The Hudson's Bay Company built trading forts along Hudson's Bay at several river mouths where sailing ships could be anchored.

The deep-water ports gave the British traders easy access to the richest fur country of all, and a great advantage over the French: Big ocean-going ships could sail directly between Britain and Hudson's Bay, bringing in trade goods, and carrying out furs.

On the other hand, the French fur traders out of Montreal and Quebec, had to paddle long distances along rivers and lakes to reach their forts in the interior.

Hudson's Bay Ports

Hudson's Bay was named after explorer Henry Hudson who first sailed the bay in 1610. The first ships to sail under the company are the Eaglet and Nonsuch, which set sail on June 3, 1668.

In 1670, the company is officially declared and given access to Rupert’s Land. Named after Prince Rupert, it was an area of about 7 770 000 km² and included the land along rivers that drained into Hudson Bay.  In exchange, every time the British monarchy visited, they were entitled to two elk and two black beaver.

In 1673, the first official post, Moose Factory is established on the Southern Hub of James Bay.

In 1679 Albany Fort is established, followed by Severn House in 1680.  In 1684 York Factory, named after the Duke of York, was constructed on the bank of the Hayes River.  Flooding forced the building to be rebuilt twice.

Other posts are erected only at the mouths of major rivers flowing into the bay, except for Henley House, a small outpost built in 1743 on the Albany River, 200 km from the coast.

How the Company worked...
Hudson's Bay Company trading post, by C.W. Jefferys

At a general meeting, a governor and committee are elected to organize fur auctions, order trade goods, hire men and arrange for shipping.

Each post is appointed a chief factor (trader) and a council of officers.

Based on annual reports, post journals and account books, supplied by bay officials, basic policies are decided in London, England and then implemented in Rupert’s Land.

Lower Fort Garry interior

First Nations trapper
The First Nations and the HBC

The First Nations people were essential to the fur trade, because they were the trappers.

First Nations middlemen collected furs from the interior, and brought them to the forts on Hudson's Bay to trade them for rifles, ammunition, pots, cloth, needles, axes, knives, muskets, and glass beads.

First Nations people developed their own areas of control and kept rivals out. The fur trade changed the economy of First Nations, because as well as hunting and trapping for subsistence, First Nations people were now trapping to acquire trade goods.

Unlike New France, the Hudson's Bay Company did not create British colonies, but brought in many employees from Ireland and the Orkney Islands off Scotland with contracts to serve for 7 to 9 years.

Many Hudson's Bay men secretly lived with Cree women, though it was against Company rules. Their children were known as "Half-breeds". Eventually the Hudson's Bay Company scrapped its rules, and the English Half-Breed families settled openly around the forts of the Hudson's Bay Company. The children in turn became employees of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Hudson's Bay Blankets

Blackfoot Indians dressed in HBC blankets

There has been much controversy about some HBC blankets among First Nations chroniclers of their history. There is a claim - supported by documentary evidence from modern scholars, and widely believed among Canada's Aboriginal people - that some British administrators, like British Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, supported the handing out of blankets that were contaminated with small pox, to native people at Fort Pitt in 1763, to wipe out their populations.

In 1779, the Hudson's Bay Company in London needed suggestions to improve inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. In the spring of 1780, they start shipping over stock of pointed blankets, already popular among First Nations people, to the HBC posts on a regular basis.

Each blanket was graded by weight and size using a point system identified by indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A standard pair of 1 point blankets measured 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. Contrary to popular belief, the number of points represented the overall finished size of the blanket, not its value in beaver pelts.

The 3 point white blanket had a wide coloured stripe or bar at each end, and was popular with First Nations people because they were warm and gave excellent camouflage in winter.

The well-known white blankets striped with green, red and yellow, introduced in 1800, were sometimes called "chief's blankets" but were officially named multi-stripe blankets.

Queen Anne of England and King Louis XIV of France signed the Treaty of Utrecht, which determined the future of the Hudson's Bay Company

Rivalry between Britain and France

For years, the English and French fought over possession of key forts.

In 1713, a treaty between Britain and France gave the Hudson's Bay Company sole trading rights through the Hudson's Bay and Rupert's Land (what is now the prairie provinces)

The French retained exclusive trading rights on the St. Lawrence and in Mississippi.

But these rights were impossible to enforce. Many independent French Canadian traders (coureurs-des-bois) ignored the Hudson's Bay Company efforts to prevent others from trading in their territory.

To trade their furs to the Hudson's Bay Company, Indians had to travel long distances to the forts on Hudson's Bay.

But many French Canadian independent coureurs-des-bois traders went directly to the First Nations people to trade, thus saving them the long journey.

The coureurs-des-bois also had family alliances through their Native wives that made it easy for them to travel into First Nations areas.

Thus, the independent coureurs-des-bois traders were able to get many of the furs that the HBC claimed rights to under its monopoly. Each spring, the coureurs des bois paddled to Montreal to trade their furs.

The Hudson's Bay Company men made many trips into the interior to urge the Indians to do their trading at the port in Hudson's Bay, but to no avail.

By 1744 the Hudson's Bay Company had to establish its first post in the interior at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River near the present Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.

Fort La Presentation, in Montreal, where many Iroquois were converted to Catholicism and allied with the Coureurs des Bois

Building of Cumberland House
The British Conquest

The land designated by the 1763 Proclamation

Chippaway Squaw & Child
Painter - Charles Bird King c1816-1835

In 1759, the British defeated the French at Quebec. Soon after that, the British were in control of eastern North America.

The French had to abandon their trading posts on the Great Lakes.

But the Anisinabe, former allies of the French, had no intention of recognizing English rule.

Chief Pontiac's warriors seized Fort Detroit, and First Nations people burned several forts along the frontier.

To secure peace, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It reserved all lands outside the boundaries of the settled colonies as hunting grounds for "the several Nation or Tribes of Indians with who We are connected, and who live under Our Protection." The reserved territory encompassed the entire Great Lakes region, including Detroit.

The Proclamation forbade individual colonists from entering land negotiations with First Nations, because of "great Frauds and Abuses". It stipulated that only properly authorized officials acting exclusively on behalf of the British monarch could make purchases of Indian land.

Thus, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 clearly recognized Aboriginal Peoples as Nations, and acknowledged Indian title to their lands. It recognized Indians as rightful occupiers of their hunting grounds until such times as these were ceded to a government authority.

Today, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 is regarded, in British and Canadian law, as the historical root of the treaty process that would transfer First Nations land to the newcomers.

James McGill, a founder of the North West Trading Company

Fort William, North West Company Fort

Rivalry between the HBC
& the North West Company

In 1779, Scots and French Canadian fur traders formed the North West Trading Company in Montreal. The North West Company did not recognize the monopoly claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company in Rupert's Land, and the Hudson's Bay Company had no way to enforce it.

The North West Company's trade route began in Montreal and proceeded along the Ontario-Minnesota border waters to the Lake of the Woods, down the Winnipeg River to Lake Winnipeg following the river system to the far North West.

The Nor'Westers traveled to the Indians to trade with them, whereas the Hudson's Bay Company insisted the Indians go to their posts on Hudson's Bay. As a result, the North West Company got far more furs than the Hudson's Bay Company. By 1795, the HBC share of the fur harvest was down to one-fifth that of the North West Company.

The Hudson's Bay Company still had one great advantage: control of the ports at Hudson's Bay. The Hudson's Bay Company adopted the York boat as their main form of transport. A York boat could carry four tons of cargo, about three times that of a trade canoe.

The Hudson's Bay Company was forced to establish posts further inland in order to keep up with the North West Company.

Expansion in the west followed a distinct pattern: the North West Company would build an inland trading post, and the Hudson's Bay Company would follow, building their fort adjacent to those of the North West Company.

York Boats
York Boat at Norway house

In 1821, the York boat grew to replace the canoe as the mode of transportation for the HBC. For over a century it became the main mode of transportation named after it’s ultimate destination, York Factory.

The boat could carry more than 3 tons of goods; three times the capacity of a canoe.

The boats were long and flat-bottomed, with a pointed bow and stern angled up at a forty-five degree angle, making it easy to beach off a sandbar.

The oars were over 6 metres long, and each boat held six to eight oarsmen, who sat at the opposite side from the oar lock. Each man would stand up to push the oar forward and sit down to pull the stroke.

When the river was shallow the boat was poled, when it ran fast the crew went ashore, and pulled the boat with ropes.

When the wind was from behind, a square sail was used. For open water, the York boat was equipped with a mast, which could be dismantled.

A typical boat was 12.6 metres in length, 9.1 metres to the keel and have an inside depth of 0.9 metres.

Boats typically lasted about three years.

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Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007