Five companies that dominated the Canadian fur trade
Hooked on new TV show Frontier? Here are the real-life titans of Canada’s first industry.
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A look back at the early years of the 350-year-old institution that once claimed a vast portion of the globe
There are many ways to tell the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which claimed and traded on some eight million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface, including large parts of Canada and the northwestern United States. It can start with Indigenous hunters, whose sustainable methods of trapping were exploited by HBC traders for a profit. It can start with European consumers, men and women desperate for the waterproof skins of the beaver, which had been hunted to near extinction in Europe. It can even start with the now-iconic Hudson’s Bay point blanket, something you’re bound to find in cottages and cabins across Canada. The English-made wool blanket — cream, with thick coloured stripes — harkens back to the 18th century, when it was the company’s most popular traded good.
This telling of the HBC starts in London, the epicentre of the British Empire. It starts there because although the story of the HBC is a Canadian story, it’s a transnational one, too. It’s the story of an English company claiming and helping to colonize huge swathes of North America, inhabited by sovereign Indigenous nations. From London parlours to Cree communities to the U.S. Senate, it’s a story that connects Canadian history to world history — to the demands of European consumers, the decisions of English officials, the aspirations of Scottish traders and the futures of diverse Indigenous Peoples. It reminds us that although Indigenous history is inseparable from Canadian history, they aren’t always the same. Well before the establishment of Canada, which was never a foregone conclusion, Indigenous actors interacted with British actors as representatives of their own communities and nations. The HBC has become a part of Canadian history. But it’s a story that predates Canada, the making of which is only one small telling. In other words, the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company is a global story for our global era.
In October 1666, King Charles II of England granted an audience to two men who had travelled a long way to see him. Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson were from New France. Brothers-in-law and voyageurs, they came to tell the king about the “great store of beaver” they’d discovered west of France’s imperial claims.
If Charles II asked why they hadn’t taken their discovery to his cousin, King Louis XIV of France, they had an easy answer. After returning from an initial expedition to the region west of Lake Superior, in which they’d learned about the potential for a fur trade from the Sioux, des Groseilliers and Radisson presented their bounty of beaver fur to New France’s governor, Pierre de Voyer D’Argenson. Expecting to be rewarded for their entrepreneurial spirit, they were instead reprimanded, arrested and fined for travelling without D’Argenson’s permission and abandoning their post. After serving their sentences, the two men travelled to New England, where they met English officials who encouraged them to take their vision of an imperial company that traded in fur to Charles II.
Sailing with Charles’ backing, on the same expedition but different ships, the men attempted a journey to Hudson Bay in 1668. But des Groseilliers was the only one to make it, after a storm damaged Radisson’s ship and forced him to return to England. Des Groseilliers set up on James Bay’s southern shores, where he traded with the Cree. Upon his return to England, in October 1669, he confirmed what they had suspected, and Charles II’s papers reported: “Beaver is plenty.”
This confirmation was important for the establishment of the HBC’s charter, but other factors motivated Charles II’s interest in the region. In addition to fur, investors hoped they would discover other natural resources, such as gold or silver. Explorers and monarchs were also eager to find the much sought-after Northwest Passage. All this motivated Charles II when he granted the charter establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company, officially “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson’s Bay,” on May 2, 1670. Characteristic of British imperial ventures at the time, the charter established a legal monopoly aimed at preventing others from doing the same.
Crucially, the charter also claimed some 1.5 million square kilometres of land inhabited by Inuit and First Nations communities. This was land connected to all of the river ways — “Seas, Streights, Bays, Rivers, Lakes, Creeks, and South” — that fed into Hudson Bay. Charles understood that he couldn’t take land that didn’t belong to him. But he reserved the idea of land ownership for Europeans, ignoring the territory’s Indigenous inhabitants. Charles baked this belief into the HBC’s charter by outlining whose land he would not claim: that of British subjects, or “the Subjects of any other Christian Prince or State.” In other words, any other European power.
As part of Charles II’s refusal to recognize Indigenous sovereignty, he granted a new name for the region: Rupert’s Land, in honour of his cousin, Prince Rupert, who served as the HBC’s first royal governor. By the mid-19th century, as the HBC’s landholdings grew, the region would encompass some eight million square kilometres and large parts of modern-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario and Quebec, as well as the northwestern and midwestern United States. From the perspective of English officials, this achievement was nothing short of extraordinary, a true marker of how British commerce could transform — or “civilize” — the globe. But parts of this region already had names. For some Indigenous communities, it was Turtle Island; for others, Inuit Nunangat or Denendeh. And for the Indigenous nations who called this region home, the simple act of one man signing a piece of paper, in a candle-lit room across the Atlantic Ocean, would have profound consequences.
The basics of the HBC’s fur trade were relatively simple, even if the day-to-day operations were anything but. The company built posts, staffed by English officials and mostly Scottish traders, along rivers that connected to Hudson Bay. From there, traders waited for Indigenous trappers and their middlemen to bring them furs, which they exchanged for goods that were becoming increasingly important to the community’s survival, such as guns and wool. The furs were then brought back to Europe. To standardize the terms of the trade, the company established its own currency, known as “Made Beaver.” This currency valued goods by placing them against the standard of one prime beaver pelt, which could buy you, for example, two pounds of sugar or a pound of black lead.
The company gave the men who worked for it adventure, and in the process they helped spread British business and trade practices, as well as their culture and social values, across the region. They did the work of colonizing and nation-building, such as mapping British Columbia’s interior and charting the Arctic coast, almost always with the help of Indigenous guides.
In late 1770, for instance, Englishman Samuel Hearne reignited the company’s commitment to not just resource extraction but territorial exploration. After two unsuccessful expeditions, Hearne ventured out from Prince of Wales Fort in northern Manitoba into lands that would become Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. He did so under the guidance of the Dene chief Matonabbee, who had saved Hearne’s life on an earlier mission, as well as London governors’ orders to promote “an extension of our trade, as well as for the discovery of a North West Passage [and] Copper Mines.”
After a long and gruelling journey, accompanied by a party that included several of Matonabbee’s wives, the group reached their first destination, the Coppermine River, in the summer of 1771. From there, they walked the final 13 kilometres to the Arctic Ocean, where Hearne found a region inhospitable to company ships and nothing like the famed Northwest Passage. Although Hearne was underwhelmed by what he saw, he took a moment to erect a mark, claiming the coastline for the HBC.
Taken on its own, Hearne’s journey was noteworthy, though disappointing. He was the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean by land and had trekked more than 5,500 kilometres. But he never found the rich copper mine or Northwest Passage he and other men dreamed of. Writing after his expedition, Hearne believed his “discoveries are not likely to prove of any material advantage to the Nation at large.” But when it came to British ambitions in the region, the real value of Hearne’s expedition lay in the contributions it made to a larger system of knowledge HBC employees were amassing about the region. From des Groseilliers and Radisson onward, Hearne was one of several men whose explorations gave HBC, British and later Canadian officials invaluable knowledge on the geography of the region they were claiming — and how best to exploit it.
While the company gave men such as des Groseilliers, Radisson and Hearne adventure, and London businessmen bragging rights to large parts of a continent, its founding and dealings had the biggest impact on the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the region. Although HBC officials saw their venture as a business, many underestimated how it created a complex, often contentious web of social relations with the mostly male traders and Indigenous men, women and children.
But just as such relations were starting to form, HBC traders, like other Europeans before them, introduced and advanced the spread of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, to which Indigenous Peoples had no immunity. James Daschuk traces this history in his award-winning book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. He notes that disease killed not just individuals but also cultures and sometimes even entire communities. In Saskatchewan, for instance, disease decimated the people of Basquia and Pegogamaw Cree communities. Elders — those who held important positions within the community and carried traditional knowledge — were particularly susceptible to contamination.
Still, the company depended on Indigenous hunters to bring them the furs they sold in Europe. The fur trade simply didn’t work without Indigenous Peoples’ labour and knowledge. A 1782 report penned by HBC official Matthew Cocking from York Factory, in northern Manitoba, epitomized this thinking: “I believe never a Letter in Hudson’s Bay conveyed more doleful tidings than this. Much of the greatest part of the Indians whose Furrs have formerly & hitherto brought to this place are now no more, having been carried off by that cruel disorder the Small Pox. This great fall is owing to our loss of Indians but what is worse, several of the Indians who brought the little we have got are since dead.” For economic reasons, the HBC took the spread of disease seriously, and started giving vaccinations not long after the vaccine was invented in 1796.
To optimize its own fur trade relations, the HBC looked to the French-Canadian traders who had preceded them for more than 50 years. There, they found men who were comfortable travelling to communities and familiarizing themselves with Indigenous cultures. “The Canadians,” HBC officer Thomas Hutchins noted, “have great influence over the Natives by adopting all their Customs and making them Companions.” How can we do the same, he and many others wondered.
Part of the answer to this question lay in marriage, which cemented traders’ ties to the Indigenous communities upon whom they relied. As historian Sylvia Van Kirk explains in Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870, Canadian traders understood that “an Indian mate could be an effective agent in adding to the trader’s knowledge of Indian life.” James Isham, an 18th-century governor at York Factory, noted that marriage to an Indigenous woman afforded “a great help in Engaging them to trade.” The only question was whether HBC officials in London would feel the same.
Long winters, supply shortages, starvation and swarms of mosquitoes. These were just some of the realities of life in the fur trade that were impossible for the company’s London-based officials to understand from more than 6,000 kilometres away. There was a tension at the heart of the company: although it relied on Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and labours in one part of the world, it was crafted and administered by the sensibilities of British men in another. And in London, there was a strict belief that the English and Scottish men employed by the company shouldn’t socialize with Indigenous Peoples. This translated into an explicit ban on intimacy between HBC men and Indigenous women. The policy differentiated the HBC from its Montreal-based competitor, the North West Company, until the two companies merged in 1821.
According to one official, the presence of Indigenous women at HBC factories was “very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires” because it gave HBC men a means of “debauching themselves,” “embezzling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions.” In other words, it just wasn’t what British gentlemen did, and it could cut into profits.
Enforcing the ban, however, proved difficult. Soon, local officers and governors, who were some of the first to “take” Indigenous wives, turned a blind eye when their employees did the same. With little control over what happened across the ocean, the company eventually relaxed its restrictions. Officials came to realize that forming kinship ties with Indigenous communities would boost men’s morale and enhance business.
By the end of the 18th century, the practice of HBC employees marrying Indigenous women was widespread. Often, these unions were formed in what was known as the “custom of the country.” Rather than strictly following European marriage customs, the relationships incorporated the woman’s Indigenous culture. They were a unique product of fur trade society, a blend of European and Indigenous cultures and, in some cases, the beginnings of a distinct Métis culture.
Some HBC men, however, seemed to believe that because these relationships weren’t solemnized with British rituals, they could abuse them. One of the most notorious examples of this was 19th-century governor George Simpson, who ruled Rupert’s Land with an iron fist. Simpson was ruthless in his “taking” and treatment of Indigenous women. From 1820 to 1830, he fathered five children with four different women, whom he often passed off to someone else, sometimes with detailed instructions. “If you can dispose of the Lady it will be satisfactory as she is an unnecessary and expensive appendage,” he wrote to one friend. “I see no fun in keeping a Woman, without enjoying her charms … but if she is unmarketable I have no wish that she should be a general accommodation shop to all the young bucks at the Factory and in addition to her own chastity a padlock may be useful.”
Other men demonstrated respect for their wives and families. Master canoeman William Flett ensured that upon his death, all his money went to “the sole use and benefit” of his “reputed wife, Saskatchewan.” Van Kirk relates the story of a Cree woman known as “Pawpitch, Daughter to the Captain of the Goose Hunters,” who fell ill in early 1771. Her husband, Humphrey Marten, recorded her passing at 2:50 a.m. on the morning of January 24. With her death, “my poor Child becomes Motherless,” Marten mourned.
These women, whose names rarely appear in the written record, and whose feelings about their marriages are impossible to know, were critical in the HBC’s development. Traders and officials relied on them to strengthen ties with male relatives who could provide furs and speak with trappers in Indigenous languages, not to mention cook, clean, care for their children and treat the furs they received.
Still, their labour was rarely rewarded by officials, whose attitudes toward Indigenous women became clear when their husband retired from the company or died. Until the early 19th century and the founding of Manitoba’s Red River Colony, HBC policy banned its contract employees, called “servants,” from settling in Rupert’s Land after they stopped working for the company. As a result, most men returned to Britain. But the company also banned employees from taking Indigenous wives or children with them.
Officials adopted this policy in the wake of the tragic story of Chief Factor Robert Pilgrim and his Cree wife, Thu-a-Higon, who retired to London in 1750 with their son. Soon after their return, Pilgrim died. In his will, he stipulated that his son should stay in England, while Thu-a-Higon was to return to her family in Churchill. While Thu-a-Higon likely agonized over the forced separation from her son, HBC officials agonized over the cost of sending her back and caring for the child. Hoping to prevent the situation from arising again, the company banned Indigenous men, women and children from travelling to Britain aboard HBC ships, “without Our Express order in Writing for so doing.” The policy sent a clear message: the HBC valued Indigenous Peoples in Rupert’s Land but considered them a hindrance any place else.
Attitudes toward Indigenous Peoples grew more disdainful by the mid-1800s, as HBC officials became more comfortable in the region and relied less on Indigenous knowledge. In 1822, Simpson wrote that Indigenous Peoples “must be ruled with a rod of iron, to bring and to keep them in a proper state of subordination.” Although he fathered children with Indigenous women, he eschewed marriage in the custom of the country and married his British-born cousin, Frances, in 1830. Simpson’s treatment of Indigenous women and Frances’s arrival to the colony marked the beginning of the end of marriage in the custom of the country. Taking a cue from their governor, other HBC men started marrying English and Scottish women. As Van Kirk notes, the arrival of white women stratified fur trade society and ushered in disrepute of the very Indigenous customs HBC employees had depended on for so long.
Back in London, the fur trade was making some men — and a few women who held shares in the company — rich. From 1738 through 1748, company imports to England from Rupert’s Land totalled more than £270,000. That’s more than £31 million in today’s currency. As historian David Chan Smith has calculated, from 1730 through 1750 this translated into more than one million beaver pelts.
English officials, Scottish traders, European consumers, Métis trappers, Ojibwe women and others from the Anishinaabeg Confederacy were just some of the people in the HBC’s fur trade, the products of which appeared on British soldiers’ belts in India, industrial machines in Liverpool and furniture in Manhattan. They were also the people who made an indelible mark on Rupert’s Land. Still, the fact that their story, and the story of the HBC, became a part of Canada wasn’t predetermined. Things could have gone differently. And some Americans were hoping they would.
By the mid-1800s, profits from the fur trade had dropped. The settler population of Canada and the United States was growing. Industrialization was spreading. The future was not in fur but in real estate, agriculture, railroads and oil and gas.
Meanwhile in Britain, public opinion was turning against the HBC. According to The Times, the company was “the last great monopoly which the improvidence and reckless favouritism of Charles II inflicted upon the commercial world.” Many Brits were eager to break down the HBC’s monopoly and open the region to settlement. Then in 1867, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec confederated, creating the Dominion of Canada. Under the leadership of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the government aimed to bring Western Canada into its fold and colonize the region. But Macdonald faced persistent and sustained resistance to this plan from Indigenous nations. And there was another challenge coming from the south.
From as early as the American Revolution, the British — and later Canadian — governments feared American encroachment. Alarm grew after the U.S. secured major territorial gains in the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1840s and purchased Alaska the year Canada confederated. Many Canadians felt entitled to the western territories, believing them to be an extension of the country’s eastern provinces. As George Brown, The Globe’s editor, wrote, Rupert’s Land was “the vast and fertile territory which is our birthright — and which no power on earth can prevent us occupying.”
While Brown and Macdonald saw the Americans as their foe, they shared a similar goal with them, as politicians such as Minnesota Senator Alexander Ramsey saw a future for their republic in Rupert’s Land. Ramsey had a history of working toward the colonization of Indigenous lands and had called for the “extermination” of local Sioux. By 1868, he was no less eager to secure Indigenous territories for American settlers, and presented a resolution to the Senate calling for the Committee on Foreign Relations to annex Rupert’s Land.
Ramsey hoped to make a deal the HBC (and U.S. Congress) couldn’t refuse. He proposed paying the company $6 million for its land claims and using that land to construct a Pacific railway and create three U.S. territories. The offer was a good deal for HBC shareholders, but it was $4 million less than what James Wickes Taylor, the U.S. Treasury’s special agent for the northwest, had proposed years earlier. It also came on the heels of added pressure from Macdonald, who had dispatched George-Étienne Cartier and William McDougall to London to discuss purchasing Rupert’s Land for Canada. In 1868, the Rupert’s Land Act was passed — an agreement to transfer the region from the HBC to Canada.
All this meant that although Ramsey’s plan was presented to the Senate, it never went anywhere. American authorities understood that the best policy was to respect earlier agreements on the U.S.-Canada border. But if shareholders were excited by the prospect of a seven-figure deal for their landholdings, they were less enthusiastic about the proposed deal with Canada. They knew they were sitting on valuable land and the brand-new Canadian government was broke. If there was any buyer who could pay a good price, it was the United States.
But the British and Canadian governments were eager to make the sale happen and keep the territory within the empire. So, the British Colonial Office pushed shareholders to accept £300,000 for the land, which the British government loaned Canada. This was a far cry from the millions Ramsey had proposed, but the British and Canadian governments sweetened the pot by promising the company title to some 10 million acres of their choosing.
The deal angered many Indigenous nations, who resisted the HBC’s transfer of their lands to a colonial power who wanted them to relinquish their claims and enter into confusing, often non-consensual treaties. At the acrimonious 1874 ceremony of the signing of Treaty 4, for instance, which covered large parts of southern Saskatchewan, Chief Paskwa of the Pasqua is reported to have said to an HBC official, “You told me you had sold the land for so much money — £300,000. We want that money.” Likewise, in an 1885 petition to U.S. President Grover Cleveland, Métis leader Louis Riel pointed out that the HBC had no right to sell the lands because it did not own them. These leaders identified a vicious irony of both the 1670 charter that created Rupert’s Land and the British legislation that transferred it to Canada. Just as Charles II had ruled on the creation of Rupert’s Land some 200 years earlier, a small group of mostly British men decided its future.
Canada’s 1870 purchase of Rupert’s Land is where parts of the HBC’s story end, even if it’s where large parts of the story of modern Canada begin. From the Canadian perspective, the purchase of Rupert’s Land was a magnificent win. Since its inception, the HBC had helped establish an English presence in the region by founding trading posts, three of which became provincial capitals: Fort Garry in Winnipeg, Fort Edmonton and Fort Victoria. These posts, and the HBC’s business activities, more broadly, helped block what would have otherwise likely been American encroachment into the region. It is in large part because of the HBC (with a little help from the British Parliament) that much of Western Canada became Canadian, not American, territories.
But from the perspective of HBC officials, things were more complicated. The sale ceased their efforts to govern the West and their claims to the region. It also ended their attempted monopoly of the fur trade. But there were benefits for those looking to make a buck, or two. As Andrew Smith, author of British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation: Constitution Making in an Era of Anglo-Globalization, writes, without the responsibility of governing, the company “was able to devote itself to the pursuit of profit” — in the form of land settlements, oil and gas and, later, retail.
While the HBC provided urban shoppers with a range of goods, many Indigenous Peoples maintained a different relationship to the company, particularly those in northern communities where the HBC trading post was the only store around. As related in The Other Side of the Ledger, a 1970 documentary produced by Canada’s National Film Board, the HBC operated some 100 stores in Indigenous communities into the 20th century. Charging the company with setting low prices for furs and high prices for their goods, a process that kept Indigenous consumers in a perpetual state of debt, narrator George Manuel, then-President of the National Indian Brotherhood, notes, “The Hudson’s Bay Company has almost complete economic control and through this power governs the lives of our people.” Ojibwe artist and scholar Duke Redbird, who appears in the documentary, says this relationship persisted until 1987, when the HBC sold its interests in Canada’s fur trade and northern trading posts to an American company.
The history of the HBC is messy and complicated. It has moments of compassion, but also competition and contention. It’s the history of global capitalism, North American colonialism and the British Empire. Although Canadians have a tendency to claim the history of the HBC as theirs and theirs alone, it isn’t just a Canadian story. In fact, suggesting the HBC story is simply a “Canadian” one glosses over much of the company’s nuance.
Today, 350 years after Charles II signed the HBC into existence, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it remains a transnational company. In 2006, U.S.-based NRDC Equity Partners purchased the company, and the HBC brand is now affiliated with a range of department stores across the U.S. and Europe.
And when you step into your local “Hudson’s Bay” store, as the brand is now known, it’s just as easy to miss the company’s long history, much of which remains relegated to history textbooks, while any indication of the company’s roots has been repackaged into a range of goods. Everything from coffee mugs to dog collars to those timeless wool blankets is adorned with the iconic green, red, yellow and blue stripes. They’re the stripes of a company that helped create Canada and connect it to the world, though this creation and this connection came at a price.
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This story is from the May/June 2020 Issue
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