Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Hudson 's Bay Company



[This text was written in 1948 by Lawrence J. BURPEE. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]


In May, 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay", and so was born a corporation that, more than 265 years later, is still an important factor in the life of Canada . Among the stockholders in 1670 were Prince Rupert, the first governor, the Duke of York, the Duke of Albemarle, the Earls of Shaftesbury, Craven, and Arlington, and a glittering array of courtiers, as well as several substantial London merchants, but the real founders of the Company were two adventurous Canadians, Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard Chouart des Groseilliers. Under the terms of its charter, the company was granted "the sole trade and commerce of all these seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks, and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly called Hudson's Straits, together with all the lands and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid;" and it set forth "that the said land be from henceforth reckoned and reputed as one of our Plantations or colonies in America, called Rupert's Land."


First meeting of the shareholders of the Hudson Bay Company

with Prince Rupert in 1670.


In 1670 neither the king nor his beneficiaries had anything more than the vaguest idea of the extent of the domain that was being handed over to the company. It reached out into the interior of a continent the greater part of which was still unknown. In later controversies, national and international, the boundaries of Rupert's Land were to become a matter of long-standing dispute, but even under the narrowest interpretation they embraced a region larger than Western Europe or the Roman Empire in its period of greatest expansion, and the generally accepted view has been that they included all the territory draining into Hudson bay, from Labrador to the Rocky mountains and from Chesterfield inlet to the source of the Red river. Indeed, the time was to come when the flag of the Hudson 's Bay Company would fly over trading-posts scattered throughout a vast fur-trading empire extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Circle to California .


That, however, was a long way ahead, and for many years the company was content to build forts at strategic points on Hudson bay. Fort Rupert at the mouth of Rupert river, on the east side of James bay, was the first of these, and within a few years it was followed by Fort Albany, Fort Severn, Fort Nelson or York Factory, and Fort Churchlll, all on the west side of Hudson. bay. Here the company established itself, with trading goods brought out annually from England, and waited confidently for the Indians to come down with their furs. Nor was their confidence unjustified. For the better part of a century they carried on a profitable trade with the tribes of the interior, without the trouble of going inland. Word of the advent of the white man had spread rapidly, and with it the knowledge that novel and fascinating commodities were to be had in exchange for peltries. The Indian thought it no particular hard­ship to paddle down to the bay with his cargo of furs, and the goods of the white man, at first merely a novelty, soon became a necessity.


The time came, however, when the Hudson's Bay Company found its comfortable monopoly seriously threat­ened. It had had competition almost from the beginning from French traders, who brought trading goods from Canada and built posts in the Indian country, but that competition never became formidable enough to compel the com­pany to abandon its policy of sticking for the most part to the shores of the bay, even though French opposition more than once went to the extent of armed expeditions, under such redoubt­able leaders as Iberville  and Troyes. It was not, in fact, until British traders from Canada invaded the west, and intercepted the Indians on their way down to Hudson bay, that the company awakened to the fact that if they wished to retain even a share of the fur-trade they must go inland and fight for it against their new and ener­getic rivals, the North West Com­pany


The Hudson 's Bay Company already knew something of the vast extent of the Indian country; having sent Henry Kelsey  into the interior in 1690, Anthony Henday  in 1754, Samuel Hearne  in 1770, and Matthew Cocking  in 1772. Cocking returned in 1773, and a year later Hearne was sent to build Cumberland House   at a strategic point on the water route between the Saskatchewan and the Churchill. The North West Company had already built a small post at the same place.


The issue was now joined between the two fur-trading corporations, and for nearly half a century their rivalry was to continue and to grow in in­tensity and in bitterness, until finally what had seemed to be an insoluble problem was to be settled by the com­mon-sense expedient of union. Mean­while, the older company had expanded enormously, building trading-posts on all the great waterways of the west, on the Red river and the Assiniboine, up both branches of the Saskatchewan to the foothills of the Rocky mountains, and on the upper waters of the Churchill . From there by way of Methye Portage they carried their trade to waters that flowed into the Arctic , the Athabaska, the Peace , and the Mackenzie, and eventually to the remote Yukon. At the same time their adventurous traders had crossed the mountains and estab­lished themselves on the rivers flowing into the Pacific. Much of this, however, did not take place until after the union of the two companies in 1821.


Notable among the trading-posts of the Hudson's Bay Company were Fort Edmonton , Chesterfield House, Fort Garry, Brandon House, Rocky Moun­tain House, Carleton House, Fort George, Fort Vancouver, Fort Victoria, Fort Simpson, Fort Selkirk, Fort Yukon. Several of these were eventually to become the sites of Canadian cities. With them, and the fur-trade that centred in each, and the explorations that were incidental to that trade, were associated such outstanding names as those of David Thompson, John McLoughlin, James Douglas, Philip Turnor, Peter Fidler, and Robert Campbell.


The movement into the interior had complicated the process of bringing in trading goods to barter for furs. As London was the ultimate market for the furs, so it was largely the source of supply for trading goods. These were brought out in the Company's ships to the posts on Hudson bay each year as soon as the straits were open, and the ships returned with packs of furs. As the chain of posts extended farther and farther inland, the period between buying goods in London and delivering there the furs obtained in exchange grew more and more formidable, until eventually seven years were needed to market the returns from trading goods shipped to such a remote post as Fort Yukon. Such a factor as this, involving the tying up of a considerable amount of capital for a number of years, must be taken into account in considering the profits of the fur-trade. To argue, as has so often been done, that because the value of a pelt in the London market was many times that of the English goods for which it was exchanged, out­rageous profits were extracted from the Indian, is to leave much of the story untold.


The development of trade in the interior also led to other complications. In the early years, the company was able to satisfy the demands of the Indian by bringing out brass kettles, knives, hatchets, fowling-pieces with powder and shot, glass beads and other small trinkets, tobacco and brandy. As the native learned more and more of the ways of the white man, and the uses of his numerous commodities, his demands grew, until one finds in the later trade-lists of the company a be­wildering array of goods of every description, blankets, coarse woollen cloths, thread, twine, handkerchiefs, hats, shoes, hose, flannel goods, shawls, many kinds of hardware, flints, ver­milion, fishing tackle, and what not. One even finds such surprising articles listed as grindstones, soap, playing cards; and umbrellas. Brandy inevitably was an important factor, not so much as an article of trade as a means of getting the Indian into an agreeable frame of mind. The time came, however, when the company realized that brandy was not only bad for the Indian but bad for the fur-trade, and serious attempts were made to keep it out of the Indian country. These attempts were frus­trated for a time by the trade war with the North West Company, when both sides made free use of brandy as a means of attracting the Indian, but eventually they became effective.


Something has been said as to the interest of the Hudson 's Bay Company in exploration, and also as to its rela­tions with rival trading corporations. Another angle of the company's story has to do with its relations with Russian interests on the north-west coast, which, after becoming somewhat strained, re­sulted in an agreement by which the company obtained the right to trade in Russian territory on payment of a stated quantity of prime furs annually. The annual brigade which carried these furs to the Pacific coast furnished one of the picturesque incidents in the company's history. An even more im­portant chapter in the history of the company deals with its connection with Lord Selkirk  and the Red River settlement.


The establishment of that colony marked the beginning of the period of settlement in Western Canada , and the end of the undivided rule of the fur­trader. The movement was slow for many years, but inevitably it must eventually drive the trader into the north country, where permanent settlement was for the most part impracticable. In 1869 Rupert's Land was sold by the Hudson 's Bay Company to Canada , and out of it was immediately carved the province of Manitoba . The company retained certain plots of land throughout the region transferred to the Dominion, and as the west has become settled this land has steadily increased in value. Meanwhile the fur-trade diminished, in what are now the four western provinces, and became con­centrated at posts scattered throughout the North West Territories, from the Yukon to Labrador .


To-day, over two and a half centuries after it received its charter, the Hudson's Bay Company is still very much alive, and perhaps the most striking evidence of its vitality is the fact that, whereas it was once content with trading for furs with the Indians, it now maintains three distinct and profitable departments, one as of yore devoted to the fur-trade, a second to the sale of its extensive tracts of land, and the third to a very large and efficient system of general retail stores.


See George Bryce, The remarkable history of the Hudson's Bay Company (London, 1900), Beckles Willson, The great company (2 vols., London, 1900), A. C. Laut, The conquest of the great North West (New York, 1911), and The Adventurers of England on Hudson bay (Toronto, 1914), Isaac Cowie, The company of adventurers (Toronto, 1913), N. M. W. J. McKenzie, The men of the Hudson's Bay Company (Fort Wil­liam, Ontario, 1921), Sir W. Schooling, The governor and company of adventurers of England trading into Hudson bay (London, 1920), G. P. Scriven, The story of the Hudson's Bay Company (Washington, D.C., 1929), and R. E. Pinkerton, The gentlemen adventurers (Toronto, 1931), the last published in England under the title The Hudson's Bay Company.


[Consult the history of the Hudson Bay Company at the Canadian Encyclopedia site.]


Lawrence J. BURPEE, "Hudson's Bay Company", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur G. DAUGHTY, eds., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. III, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 396p., pp. 212-215.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College