You can support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/craigU
No company in Canada’s history, not Eaton’s, not Molson’s, not Air Canada, has had a bigger impact on our history than the Hudson’s Bay Company. It is a company that would occupy the lands that would one day be parts of five different provinces, it would explore the west, bring settlers and change the fabric of the continent.
It was the first introduction many Indigenous had to Europeans, the forts it created would become our cities and its story is still going after 350 years.
This episode comes out on May 2, the 350th anniversary of the founding of the company and this episode is going to look at that long and interesting history.
The year was 1670 and it had been a century and a half since Europeans had been coming to the shores of what would one day be Canada. The fur trade was big business, and it was about to form the basis of the country that would come to be two centuries later.
I am going to go now to a program called Our Native Land, which ran an episode on Dec. 12, 1970, which talked about the beginning of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which includes a song about the founding from the perspective of the Indigenous people.
In that year, on May 2, King Charles would grant a charter to his cousin Prince Rupert and his associates to create the Hudson’s Bay Company as a corporate identity. The original registered name was the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay. The name was very descriptive. The governor was the chairman of the company, while the adventurers were those who owned stock as they were risking their money.
Why was the Hudson’s Bay part of the name so important? Well, under the Charter of 1670, the company was made the, and this in the words of the charter itself, “true and absolute lords and proprietors of Rupert’s Land”. Rupert’s Land, named for Prince Rupert, was the vast area of drainage into the Hudson’s Bay basin. This area consisted of 3.88 million square kilometres of northern and western Canada. Today, that area makes up 40 per cent of all of Canada. In the mind of King Charles, the land was his to give because no Christian monarch had laid claim to any of it, which pretty much ignored the Indigenous people who occupied the area for thousands of years. In exchange, the British monarch was entitled to two elk and two black beaver every time a monarch visited the continent.
Before I go further into the history of the company, I need to go back, two years in fact. It was in 1668 that the English ship, the Nonsuch, sailed into Hudson’s Bay in order to explore the potential of the bay for the fur trade. The men behind the venture purchased the ship for 298 Pounds, which would be 71,000 Pounds today. The ship set out on June 3, 1668 from England with a small crew. The ship would reach James Bay on Sept. 29 of that same year. They would establish Rupert House, which was technically the first Hudson’s Bay Company fort, despite existing two years before the official establishment of the company.
The crew would spend the winter in James Bay and in the spring they traded with the Cree for beaver pelts. In October of 1669, they arrived back in England with a ship full of furs. Due to the high amount of profit from the venture, it was decided that a company should be formed to take advantage of the vast wealth of this new continent and ensure that that wealth went to the English, rather than the French.
One year later, we had the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1968, the Hudson’s Bay Company commissioned a replica of the NonSuch to honour the 300th anniversary of the company.
Going back to the structure of the company, every year at the Annual General Court, the shareholders would elect a governor and a committee who would organize fur auctions and order the goods for trade, hire men and arrange the shipping. A governor was also chosen to act on behalf of the company in the Hudson’s Bay area. Within the Rupert’s Land territory, each trading post or factory had a chief factor who handled the day-to-day business of each fort. It was a highly efficient system that worked well for centuries.
The first governor for the company was the previous mentioned Prince Rupert, who served in the position from 1670 to 1682. In all, there have been 39 governors for the company with most serving for several years. The longest serving governor, by far, would be Sir John Henry Pelly, who served from 1822 to 1852, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The arrival of the company would begin to have an immediate impact on the Indigenous people they encountered.
Since the trading was being done with Indigenous people, and without the use of British currency at their disposal, the fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company used tokens. These tokens were the earliest currency of the fur trade and usually made of wood, ivory or shell. They had an assigned value and were supplied to trappers and the Indigenous in exchange for furs. These tokens could then be used at forts to buy goods and supplies. The token’s value was based on the value of an adult beaver pelt in prime condition, giving the token the name of Made Beaver.
For the Indigenous people who lived in the territory, the establishment of the company would change the entire economics of the continent. During the fall and winter, the Indigenous would conduct trapping to gather beaver pelts. This was done during those months because the beaver pelts were of the highest quality at that point. During the summer months, the Indigenous would travel to trading posts and barter furs for metal tools, food, textiles and guns. The point blanket that has become a symbol of the company was one such item often traded for by the Indigenous. By 1700, the blanket accounted for more than 60 per cent of the trade with Indigenous people. The Cree that traded at the forts would conduct the annual trading sessions by passing a ceremonial pipe. The pipe would then be left at the fort to indicate that the Cree would return the following year. An entire economic system was set up using the Hudson’s Bay Company, with Indigenous traders serving as the middlemen for trappers from communities that were much farther inland. Many Indigenous would abandon their traditional lifestyles and economy in favour of the fur trade. Some would move out of their traditional territory to search for fur-bearing animals and obtain a better position in the fur trade. Unfortunately, the addition of Europeans and the greater movement of people also helped spread diseases such as smallpox, which would devastate Indigenous communities.
So, The Hudson’s Bay Company is established and they quickly get to work setting up forts. The first fort was the previously mentioned Rupert House, followed by Moose Factory in 1873 and and Fort Albany in 1679. All three forts were established on James Bay. In 1684, York Factory would be established on the western shore of the bay, followed by Fort Severn, originally called Fort James, and Fort Churchill in 1689 and 1717 respectively. Interestingly, Fort Churchill is now Churchill, Manitoba, which many assume was named for Winston Churchill. In actuality, it was named for John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, who was the governor of the company at the time. He was also the ancestor of Winston Churchill.
The first three decades of the company were not easy ones. Not only were they venturing into new territory for Europeans, but the company also had to deal with the fact that the French were constantly trying to take over their forts. The last decade and a half of the century for the Hudson’s Bay Company would be one of war.
In March of 1686, the French sent a raiding party 1,300 kilometres to capture the company posts along James Bay. Traveling from Montreal, the trip would take 82 days and prove to be successful for the French. The expedition captured Moose Factory, Rupert House and Fort Albany, as well as a company ship.
The Hudson’s Bay Company would learn of the loss of Fort Albany in January of 1687 and appealed to the king. In 1688, the company sent five ships to Hudson Bay. Two of the ships would sail to York Factory, the only remaining fort for the company, while another would travel to rebuild Rupert House, which had been burned down by the French. The last two ships would travel to Fort Albany where they were given instructions to re-establish the English fur trade. Technically at this moment, the French and the English were at peace, so the men were given strict orders to not attack the French unless they were attacked first.
At Fort Albany, the Yonge and Churchill arrived in September of 1688 and landed 20 men, who set up a barricade. Two weeks later, 85 English sailors began to build a fort and three were shot by the French. With the truce gone, the English were open to attack but they did not even though they had higher numbers. By the winter, their ships were frozen in the water and the sailors began to die of scurvy. A truce was agreed upon between the English and French but as soon as enough English had died of scurvy, the French attacked and captured 20 men who were out cutting wood, and then attacked the main fort. The next year, the French captured the frozen ships, sailed them to Fort Rupert and captured a third British ship.
By this point, the British and French were involved in King William’s War. York Factory remained the only stronghold for the company in the area, but they would recover Fort Albany in 1693. At the time, the fort only had five French soldiers, who quickly abandoned it upon seeing the English force. York Factory would fall to the French on Oct. 14, 1694. The French were able to easily take the force thanks to the fact that the fort was mostly manned by traders, clerks and labourers. York Factory was renamed Fort Bourbon and with winter setting in, the French and their captives had to spend the winter months at the fort waiting for the ice to break up. By spring, many of the French and the captives had died of scurvy. York Factory would be recovered by the company in 1695.
Unfortunately, the company would not hold onto the fort for very long. On Sept. 5, 1697, the Battle of Hudson’s Bay would occur. It is the largest battle in the history of the North American Arctic region, and it would result in the French once again taking York Factory.
That same year, King William’s War was over and the French controlled all the forts that had once been owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company except for Fort Albany. It would remain this way until 1713, the same year that the War of Spanish Succession ended. As part of the treaty to end the war, France agreed to relinquish all claims to the English on the Hudson’s Bay, making the forts once again under the governance of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Under the treaty, all land that drained into the Hudson would be controlled by the British, while trading rights on the Mississippi River and St. Lawrence River were under the control of the French.
With the war done, the company set up Prince of Wales Fort in 1717, originally calling it the Churchill River Post before renaming it as the Prince of Wales Fort in 1719.
Throughout the 1700s, the company would expand on the number of forts that it had, helping to grow the company to a sizeable force within North America. During this same time, the East India Company was its main competitor, and that company controlled much of India during the same period of time. In order to have control over this competitor, the Hudson’s Bay Company invested 10,000 Pounds, or 2.5 million Pounds today.
During this century, prior to the American Revolutionary War, the Hudson’s Bay Company would begin to establish inland forts or houses to get closer to the fur traders and take more of the fur trading market available. Henley House was established in 1743 inland from Hudson Bay but it would be 20 years until it was finished. In 1740 and 1760, Split Lake and Nelson House were established and Richmond Fort was established in 1749. The following year, or thereabouts, Capusco River Fort and Chickney Creek Fort were established. During the 1770s, several houses or forts were established including Gloucester, Hudson and Wapiscogami. In 1774, Cumberland House would be established by Samuel Hearne, located in present day Saskatchewan.
It was in these years that we first begin to see the legendary explorers and fur traders who would map huge areas of the Canadian west and I would like to look at some of them because they have had a large impact on our history.
James Knight had joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1676 as a carpenter and quickly advanced to the role of chief factor of Fort Albany. By 1697, he had amassed enough wealth to buy stock in the company and when the French surrendered their captured forts in 1713, he was the one selected to receive their surrender. He would come across an Indigenous woman named Thanadelthur, who was from the Chipewyan nation and would serve as a guide and interpreter for the company for several years. She would perk up his interest in the Northwest Passage after telling him about a broad strait of water that ebbed and flowed in the north. She would also mention yellow metal and black pitch, gold and oil, that would eventually be found at the Athabaska Tar Sands. In 1718, he would organize an expedition and take the Albany and Discovery on a voyage in search of gold and the passage. He would never be seen again. Half a century later, Samuel Hearne would find wreckage of his ship near Rankin Inlet.
Henry Kelsey would work for the Hudson’s Bay Company for 40 years and would establish operations at York Fort and Fort Albany. His most notable contribution to our history though came when he made a two year journey in the Canadian Prairies in 1690, becoming the first European to see the prairies but also the bison. His journey into the prairies went as far as present day Saskatoon and Regina.
Samuel Hearne would join the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1766 and begin his first voyage to the west and north in 1769 and by the time of his third voyage in 1771, he would travel farther north on foot than any European before him, reaching the shores of the Arctic Ocean. He would eventually be in charge of Fort Prince of Wales in 1782 when it was attacked by the French, we will get to that later.
David Thompson, a man who I will do an episode on one day and who happens to be my favourite explorer, would join the company in 1784 as an apprentice at the age of 14 on a seven-year team. From 1786 to 1788, he would learn the Cree language and begin to travel through the area. On Dec. 23, 1788, he would fracture his leg at Manchester House and with his slow recovery, he would learn mathematics, astronomy and surveying. In 1790, with his apprenticeship ending, he asked the company for navigational instruments and a sextant. He would begin to survey the west for the company until 1796 when he left to join the North West Company. His years after the Hudson’s Bay Company would be when he would map roughly half of North America from the St. Lawrence to the Pacific.
Isabella Gunn, also known as John Fubbister, was a Scottish labourer who was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company beginning in 1806 during a time when company policy forbid women from being hired by the company. Isabella would disguise herself as a man and avoid detection for two years, becoming the first European woman to travel through Rupert’s Land. She was discovered when on Dec. 29, 1807 she knocked at the door of Alexander Henry in need of shelter. He would retire to his quarters but soon heard Gunn screaming. It was then he discovered that not only was Gunn a woman, but she was also pregnant and giving birth at that moment. Despite proving herself the previous two years, she was only given work as a washerwoman at Fort Albany. She eventually returned to England.
There are many more explorers I could cover, and I may touch on more later in this episode but it would be very easy to be bogged down in biographies of employees rather than the company.
So, back to Prince of Wales Fort. It was 1782, the American Revolutionary War was being fought with the French aiding the revolutionaries and the British fighting against them. It was then that a French squadron would journey to the fort on secret orders, taking both it and York Factory with little resistance. At Prince of Wales Fort, the French took 7,500 beaver skins, 4,000 marten pelts and 17,000 goose quills. These goods were worth 14,000 Pounds, or several million Pounds today. The men attempted to destroy the fort but were only able to destroy the gun mounts. They then travelled to York Factory and upon its surrender, burned it to the ground.
This would have long-lasting consequences for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Chipewyan used to trade with the forts and with the forts gone, and a smallpox epidemic raging, the Indigenous did not have provisions and roughly half would die. The company was unable to trade with the Chipewyan for the next two seasons, which would drive the Chipewyan to trade with fur traders in Montreal, who would soon set up the North West Company.
The North West Company would soon become the main rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. I won’t go into incredibly deep detail on that company or its relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company because I did an extensive episode on the North West Company last year.
Needless to say, the North West Company would have a huge impact on the Hudson’s Bay Company, not the least of which was taking some of their best surveyors and explorers like David Thompson.
While the Hudson’s Bay Company insisted that the Indigenous come to their forts to trade, the traders with the North West Company would journey to the Indigenous themselves. This allowed the North West Company to get far more furs than the Hudson’s Bay Company, and by 1795, the HBC was only getting 20 per cent of the furs that their rivals were getting. The company had to build more forts inland to compete with the new rival company. Typically the patterns as that the North West Company would build a fort, and then the Hudson’s Bay Company would build a fort adjacent to that fort. Many forts would be built during this period including Fort Edmonton and Fort Calgary.
As can be expected, the two companies would not get along and it would culminate in the Pemmican War, fought between in the 1810s and would even result in the Battle of Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816, also called the Seven Oaks Massacre. It would occur in what would one day Manitoba and involved a group of 60 Métis under the authority of Cuthbert Grant, a North West Company employee. They would plunder various posts and stop near Fort Douglas, at Seven Oaks. Fort Douglas was a Hudson’s Bay Company and Robert Semple, the Governor of the colony and the company’s governor-in-chief in North America came out with 25 soldiers to parlay with the Métis. A fight would break out and Semple and 20 of his men would be killed, while Grant lost one man.
By 1821, in an effort to stop the conflict, the British government decreed that the North West Company would merge into the Hudson’s Bay Company. Of the 175 posts and forts between the two companies, 68 of which were under the banner of the Hudson’s Bay Company, only 52 would be kept open in the name of efficiency. The closer of these forts would have a major impact on the Indigenous people, who were not reliant on trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The merger would also result in the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company extending form Hudson Bay in the east, to the Arctic Ocean, out to the Pacific Northwest and Fort Vancouver. Its trade area would now cover 7.7 million square kilometres. The company was also given an exclusive licence to trade for 21 years.
Also in 1821, the York boat became the main mode of transportation for the company. The first York Boat had been built in 1749, and its use would increase with time as the fur traders went farther and farther inland. It would get its name because all the boats eventually ended up at York Factory. The boats were much better than canoes since they could carry three tons, more than three times what a typical canoe could carry. Flat-bottomed, the boats could also easily journey along shallow rivers deep into the continent. With parts that measured six metres long, manned by six to eight oarsman, the boats could move quickly as well. The journeys were far from easy of course. When the river was too shallow, the boat was poled along but if the river was too fast, then the boat was towed by the men from shore. Nonetheless, the boats were extremely versatile. When there was wind from behind, the York boat would have a square sail to catch the wind and when out on open water the boats had a mast. The boats went through a lot of abuse and most would need to be replaced every three years. The boats also made portaging extremely difficult. Prior to the York boat, canoes would be loaded up and hauled by the men as they walked through the land to get to the next river access point, or to bypass rapids. While the York Boat’s heavy structure made it safer in rougher water, it still had to be portaged sometimes. Since it was so heavy, the crew would have to cut a large path through the bush and then put the boat on poplar rollers and roll the boat overland. For those who made up the crew of a York Boat, it was not always an easy life. As Sir John Franklin would relate, the York boat life was “unending toil broken only by the terror of storms.”
The York Boat would fade from existence as steamships were used more by the company.
It was also during this time in the 1820s that the company would come under the guidance of a new governor, Sir George Simpson, who would watch over the company during its greatest period from 1826 to 1850.
He is such an important figure in the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company that we need to take a trip over to his life.
Born in Scotland, Simpson would begin working with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1812 and over the course of his career with the company he would become known for being an excellent traveller, able administrator and someone whose knowledge of the fur trade was never equaled. In 1820, he would take charge of the the Hudson’s Bay Company and following the merger with the North West Company, he would become the governor of the Northern Department, followed five years later as the governor of both the northern and southern territory. In 1828, he would take an overland trip to the Pacific with his dog, mistress and personal piper, journeying from York Factory. The canoe trip, which would amount to 8,000 kilometres in all, would be the longest North American canoe journey ever recorded in one season. In 1841, he would conduct what many consider the first circumnavigation of the world by land, and five years later he would negotiate the Oregon Treaty to establish the Oregon boundary with the Americans. His work in building administration in the west would help with the eventual Confederation of Canada and he would be instrumental in building the Hudson’s Bay Company up after its war with the North West Company, and he ensured that employees would benefit with the company having a monopoly in the fur trade.
Under Simpson, chief factors would get two shares in the company, while chief traders would get one chair. Clerks would receive 75 to 100 Pounds in pay, while an apprentice clerk received 25 to 27 Pounds. The Postmaster would receive 40 pounds to 75 pounds, while guides and interpreters were paid 30 to 45 Pounds. As for servants such as labourers, tradesmen and boatmen, the pay was 16 to 40 Pounds per year.
Thanks to Simpson, the company would have total control of trading operations in the Pacific Northwest throughout the 1820s and 1830s. With this immense stranglehold on the area, the company pretty much forbade any settlement in various regions to ensure that things would not change. In 1834, the company would establish Fort Boise in future Idaho to compete with Fort Hall, which the Americans owned. Three years later, the company bought Fort Hall and since it was on the Oregon Trail, they displayed the abandoned wagons of discouraged settlers as a way to keep others from wanting to continue moving west along the trail.
During the 1820s and 1830s, Hudson’s Bay Company trappers would begin to make their way down to Northern California, exploring the area and reaching as far as the San Francisco Bay and even operating a trading post there.
Several other changes would come to the company during those two decades. In 1820, the Hudson’s Bay Company issued its own paper money, in pounds sterling, that were printed in London and issued out of York Factory, Fort Garry and the Red River Colony. The Hudson’s Bay Company notes would be used for 50 years until 1870.
The company also began to build steamships, beginning in 1835 with The Beaver. Over the course of the next 150 years, 12 steamers would be used by the company, with The Distributor being the last to operate when it was sold in 1948. The Beaver for its part was used by the company to serve the trading posts between the Columbia River and what would one day be Alaska. The steamer would be instrumental in helping various communities on Vancouver Island get their start including Nanaimo and Fort Victoria. She would be sold in 1874.
In 1843, when the first wagon train reached Oregon, the monopoly on the area by the company ended. Within a few years, thousands of people began to flood into the Oregon area and in 1846, the United States took full authority south of the 49th Parallel. Ironically, John McLoughlin had been the chief factor of the Columbia District had been the one to discourage any settlement but after 1846, he welcomed settlers and today is considered to be the Father of Oregon.
The 1840s would see the monopoly ending thanks to a man by the name of Guillermo Sayer in 1849. Sayer, a Métis trapper, was accused of illegal trading in furs. He was brought to trial before a jury of HBC officials and supporters. During the trial, a crowd led by the father of Louis Riel, Louis Riel Sr., gathered outside the courtroom. Sayer was found guilty of illegal trade and evading the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. No fine or punishment was put against Sayer. Outside the court, the yelling of “Trade is free” and slowly from this point, the Métis began to loosen hold the company had on courts, and with that came less enforcement of the monopoly in the Red River area.
The Palliser Expedition was also launched in 1857, running for three years until 1860 and led by Captain John Palliser. I did a podcast episode about this a few weeks ago and its impact on showing the west as a place for agriculture rather than fur trading would push settlers out to the future areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and it would topple the myth put forward by the company that the west was not suitable for agriculture.
By the 1860s, the company was moving out of focusing solely on the fur trade and more into the economic development of the west. In 1863, the International Financial Society would buy the controlling interest in the company, which would begin a shift in the company’s focus.
In 1869, two years after Canada’s Confederation, the company rejected the $10 million offer from the Americans for Rupert’s Land. Today, that would be worth $189.8 million and the offer came just after the Americans had bought Alaska from the Russians. Instead, the company returned Rupert’s Land to Britain and the British government then gave the land to Canada, while also giving the new country 300,000 Pounds to compensate the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the deal, the company received five per cent of the fertile land to be opened up for settlement. In 1870 the Deed of Surrender came into force. This territory that had once been Rupert’s Land would then become the North West Territories. On the same day that the deed came into force, July 15, 1870, the province of Manitoba would be admitted into Confederation.
By this point, the company had been moving into a more retail experience in Canada. In 1857, the company would open its first sales shop in Fort Langley, with sales shops following in 1859 in Victoria, 1881 in Winnipeg, 1884 in Calgary, 1887 in Vancouver, 1890 in Edmonton and 1898 in Yorktown.
By 1900, the company was 230 years old and was continuing to go through changes. With competition from companies such as Eaton’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened up its first department store in Calgary in 1913, followed by stores in Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
The First World War would delay some of the changes the company had planned, but once the war was over the company began to diversify its operations even more, including by getting into the oil business. It would sell its oil operations in 1982.
The Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas Company would be founded in 1926 and the company would expand this operation in the 1940s and 1950s and by 1967 the company was the sixth-largest Canadian oil producer.
In 1919, the company would commission a film called The Romance of the Far Fur Country to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the company. The film, which can be considered the first full-length documentary in history. Two cameramen were hired from New York City to come to the Arctic Circle and film the fur trade and the Inuit people over the course of nine months, producing 75,000 feet of film. The techniques used in that film, released in 1920, would actually influence the documentary Nanook of the North in 1922, which itself claims to be the first documentary.
Beginning in the 1960s, the company started to expand its retail operations and in 1965 the department stores were rebranded as The Bay.
In 1970, on the 300th anniversary of the company, the headquarters were moved from England to Canada. This was done thanks to a new charter issued by Queen Elizabeth II, who revoked most of the original provisions from the 1670 charter and transferred the company formally from England to Canada. At the time, its headquarters would be in Winnipeg before moving to Toronto. In 1978, Zellers attempted to buy the Hudson’s Bay Company but the company turned the tables and bought Zellers instead. Through the next decade and a bit, the company continued to buy up other brands including, Zellers and Fields, the Simpson’s Department Stores and Towers Department Stores.
One of the biggest changes for the company, considering its history and how it was founded, came in 1991 when it was announced that the company would stop retailing fur in response to complaints from those opposed to the fur trade.
In 1997, the company reopened its fur salons based on demand from its customers. As the company entered into the 21st century, it was clear that times were changing for the retail experience thanks to the Internet and online shopping. In 2008, Anita Zucker would become the first female governor of the company it its history after she succeeded her deceased husband Jerry Zucker, serving for just that year. In 2011, the company began to downsize its Zellers chain of stores, with the last of the stores closing in 2020 and in 2018 it was announced several Bay stores were closing to put the company on more solid financial footing. In March of 2020, the company would be delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange and the company became a private company after a vote by stakeholders.
The company has come a long way from its beginnings 350 years ago and it has changed many times. While it may not be the same company it was three centuries ago, the impact of the Hudson’s Bay Company on our country’s history is immense and without the company, it is likely Canada as we know it would not exist.
Information comes from the Government of Manitoba, the Canadian Encyclopedia, HBC Heritage, Wikipedia, CBC, First Peoples Of Canada, Encyclopedia Britannica,