When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, it began to have an immense impact on the Indigenous cultures in what would one day be Canada. Beginning on the east coast and moving west over the century, cultures would see significant change as Europeans brought new technology and sought the furs of the continent.
For many of the Indigenous of the interior of the continent, their first interaction with Europeans would come through representatives of one of the most important companies in Canadian history, The Hudson’s Bay Company.
Today, I am looking at the interactions between the Indigenous and the company and how it changed their culture forever.
In May, I did a podcast about the Hudson’s Bay Company, which celebrates 350 years this year. While this episode does focus on the Indigenous and their interactions with the company, I am beginning with the creation of the company itself.
With the demand for beaver fur increasing as Europe fell in love with felt hats, two French traders, who had heard from the Cree about a frozen sea region that was rich in beaver furs to the north, proposed creating a trading company that would gather furs in interior of the continent, gaining access to the fur resources there. Unable to get French support, the traders went to England in 1665 and convinced Prince Rupert, and several merchants and nobles to fund them. The first ships, the Eaglet and Nonsuch launched on June 3, 1668 to explore trade in the Hudson Bay. The Eaglet was forced to turn back but the Nonsuch arrived in James Bay, the southern most portion of Hudson Bay, and Charles Fort was founded, named in honour of King Charles II. Spending the winter there and trading furs with the Indigenous, the first cargo of fur left for England on Oct. 9, 1669. This successful trade mission led to the creation of The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson’s Bay on May 2, 1670. Eventually, it would become known simply as the Hudson’s Bay Company. Between 1668 and 1717, six forts would be established in the area, with further inland posts not coming until after 1774.
The proclamation of giving all the land that drained into the Hudson Bay completely ignored the rights of the Indigenous who lived in those areas, effectively taking their land with the vast majority never realizing it. The signing of this decision across the Atlantic in 1670 would have long lasting consequences to the Indigenous that exist to this very day. The land had many names for the Indigenous groups who lived across that landscape, but to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British, it came under the name of Rupert’s Land. It covered an area of 7.7 million square kilometres, stretching from Baffin Island down to southwestern Alberta, across the prairies and through northern Ontario and Quebec. The area covered, if it was a country today, would rank it as the sixth largest country in the world, between Brazil and Australia and within this area, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous lived.
For the Indigenous, the arrival of the company would result in huge changes in their territories, trade networks and culture. The English method of trade differed heavily from the French. The French would establish inland posts at Indigenous villages and traders lived among the tribes, learning their languages and marrying Indigenous women. While the French mostly worked with the Huron people in the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company worked with the Cree and Assiniboine for the most part, using them as middlemen to get furs from tribes farther inland. Those two nations were the first in the northwest to receive firearms from Europeans, which they used to push back against other communities and expand their territories to keep the fur trade.
At the start of the fur trade and the existence of the Hudson’s Bay Company, there was resistance by the Indigenous people to assisting the fur trade. A lot of this resistance came from the traditional trading networks between Indigenous groups and the changing of their place in those trading networks. An example of this is seen in the Peel River Indigenous who were the middlemen in a trading network between the Hudson’s Bay Company and western Indigenous groups. John Bell attempted to cross the Richardston Mountains in the west to establish new posts with the inhabitants on the other side but no Peel River Indigenous would assist him. When he did find people to help him, they gave him incorrect information about the terrain and the guides would leave before he ever reached his destination. This would prevent expansion westward for several years.
Another major contribution by the Indigenous to the Hudson’s Bay Company were canoes. The Algonquin had made the birch bank canoe that we are most familiar with, which could carry many times its own weight in freight. The HBC would use two types of canoes. The first was the Montreal canoe and the north canoe. The Montreal canoe was larger, made of yellow birch and was 40 feet long, allowing for a crew of 10 to 12. The north canoe was smaller but light enough two men could carry it, allowing for a crew of eight.
For the first century of its existence, the Hudson’s Bay Company relied heavily on the Indigenous traders who served as middlemen between the Indigenous who were farther inland on the continent. The company was reluctant to travel into the interior beyond sending their explorers in to map areas.
The Indigenous guides would prove incredibly important to the company, allowing them to navigate the regions, trade with other Indigenous and survive in the wilderness of Canada. The Indigenous developed their own areas of control, keeping their rivals out and instead of trapping for food, the Indigenous who interacted with the Hudson’s Bay Company were now trapping to obtain goods from the company. While the trapping was vital for the survival of the company, without the Indigenous guides or middlemen, it is likely the company would have never succeeded.
I would like to look at an important person in the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Thanadelthur. Born around 1697, when she was 16 her party of Chipewyans were attacked by Crees and several people were captured, including Thanadelthur. After spending the winter with the Cree, Thanadelthur and others fled, eventually being discovered by goose hunters from the Hudson’s Bay Company a year after they fled. Reaching York Factory on Nov. 24, 1714, she met with James Knight, director of the HBC who was looking for an interpreter to convince the Cree to allow the northern Indigenous to reach bay side trading posts to trade furs with the company. The Cree at the time were a significant roadblock for the company in that regard. In 1715, Knight asked Thanadelthur to forge a peace between the Chipewyan and the Cree. As she was fluent in both languages and English, she was the perfect person to do so. On June 27, she left with 150 Cree and William Stuart to meet with the Chipewyan. Thanadelthur would translate the agreements between the company and the two Indigenous groups and a peace agreement was reached. Sadly, on Feb. 5, 1717, Thanadelthur died of a fever and would receive a ceremonial burial. In order to replace her as a translator, Knight had a great deal of difficulty and eventually spent the equivalent of 60 skins to hire someone else of her caliber. The peace agreement she helped reach would allow the Hudson’s Bay Company to expand to the north. In 2000, she was named a National Historic Person.
Another significant Indigenous person with the company was Matonabbee. He was a Chipewyan hunter and leader , who was born in 1737 and served as a trader and representative for his people at Fort Prince of Wales, which was located at the mouth of the Churchill River at Hudson Bay. He would serve as the guide for Samuel Hearne during his explorations from 1770 to 1772 while Hearne was employed with the Hudson’s Bay Company. After a smallpox epidemic raged through his people in 1782, and the loss of Fort Prince of Wales to the French, he became deeply depressed with his declined status, especially after the destruction of Churchill Factory that same year. As a main middleman between the Cree and the Hudson’s Bay Company, he had now lost everything and would hang himself that year. This makes him the earliest recorded northern Indigenous man to kill himself.
The decision not to found inland forts would lead to problems later with the founding the North West Company that sent its traders into the interior to trade with the Indigenous rather than waiting for them to come to Hudson Bay. The intense rivalry that would result between the two companies would benefit Indigenous traders because it allowed them to play the companies against each other for greater returns on their furs.
Trapping was done during the fall and winter when the beaver pelts were of the highest quality. In the summer months, the Indigenous would travel to the trading posts near Hudson Bay to barter their furs for metal tools, guns, textiles and food. This is where we get the point blanket, which has become an iconic symbol of both the company itself and Canada. The blanket was such a huge part of the trade with the Indigenous that by 1700, point blankets accounted for 60 per cent of the trade between the Indigenous and the company. The indigo stripes woven into the blanket identified its finished size, rather than its value related to beaver pelts.
The arrival of the Indigenous traders was seen as a high point for the year at the company forts, with it becoming a ritual called the Trading Ceremony, with an interaction between the Chief Trader and the leader of the Indigenous group who traded on behalf of the interior Indigenous. The ceremony would begin with the arrival of the canoes and the leader of each expedition would be received by the Chief Factor, while the furs were unloaded. The Chief Trader would then introduce the leader of the traders, and all would share the ceremonial smoking of a pipe. One of the leaders would then finally speak, relating the story of the journey, how many canoes and men took part and how much fur was gathered. The leader would then ask how the English were and state he was glad to see them. The Chief Factor would then respond, saying that he had plenty of trade goods now and was happy to see them and eager to trade with them. The pipe would then be shared once more.
Leaders of the trading groups were not always the best hunters, but were the ones most adept at communicating with Europeans and was valued for their trading skills by other Indigenous hunters. Typically, the Hudson’s Bay Company managers often gave the trappers European coats to set them apart from other trading hunters.
One of the biggest changes that would come for the Indigenous was the fact that the company changed their culture from what it was traditionally, to one that was reliant on manufactured goods and food from the company for survival.
Many Indigenous would move beyond their traditional territory to find the fur-bearing animals the company wanted, and to be in a better position to trade with the company. As a result of this, it led to some Indigenous groups getting into conflict with each other as territories began to change.
Another major impact would be the infectious diseases that the European traders brought with them, that the Indigenous had no immunity to. Smallpox and tuberculosis would rage through Indigenous communities, not just killing individuals but altering the entire culture and wiping out entire communities. Those who carried traditional knowledge and occupied important positions in the community were often hit the hardest, resulting in the death of vast amounts of cultural knowledge and the creation of power vacuums within Indigenous nations. In addition, early on fur traders introduced alcohol into Indigenous communities, which had a terrible effect on these communities. It was not until the mid-1800s that the company under Governor George Simpson attempted to prevent alcohol being used in the fur trade.
When the fur trade and the company arrived in British Columbia in the 19th century, the population of what would be the province was about 200,000 to 400,000 Indigenous. By 1900, there were 25,000. The first epidemic to hit the future province in the 1770s was smallpox. In 1782, 60 per cent of Indigenous in one nation were killed by smallpox. In the 1840s, measles spread in many Indigenous B.C. communities. In 1882, 70 per cent of the Indigenous in British Columbia were killed in the last major smallpox epidemic.
The issue for the company was that the fur trade and their company itself, could not operate without the help of the Indigenous. Their knowledge of the land and its animals was vital to the profits of the company. The company knew that it had an impact on the Indigenous, and the deaths of the Indigenous from diseases were noted in company reports. In 1782, Matthew Cocking in York Factory wrote about the diseases killing the Indigenous, writing quote:
Eventually, in 1796, the company started to take the disease impact on the Indigenous seriously and gave vaccinations as soon as the vaccine was invented in 1796.
To work with the Indigenous, the Hudson’s Bay Company also started to look to the French. Thomas Hutchins, an officer with the HBC, would write, quote:
“The Canadians have great influence over the Natives by adopting all their customs and making them companies.”
James Isham, a governor of York Factory in the 1700s, would note in his writings that the marrying of an Indigenous woman was a great help to engaging them to trade, often called the custom of the country. The leaders of the company, headquartered in England, did not see it this way and there was a complete ban on any sort of intimacy between the men who worked for the company and Indigenous women. The rationale of the leaders of the company in preventing intimacy was that it was not what British men should do and that it would impact profits.
Of course, even with the ban, enforcement was minimal and most officers and governors turned a blind eye to traders interacting with Indigenous women. Eventually, the company relaxed its restrictions as it saw the benefits of allowing groups to mix together. Unfortunately, many of the men saw their relationships with Indigenous women as just something for a time and not legal in any way. Governor George Simpson, one of the most important governors in the history of the company, was a terrible example of this. From 1820 to 1830, he would father five children with four different Indigenous women, often pushing one woman aside because he had found another that attracted his eye. In one case, he gave the following instructions to the people he passed the women off to, saying quote:
“If you can dispose of the lady it will be satisfactory as she is an unnecessary and expensive appendage.”
In writing to a friend he would write, quote:
Not all traders acted this way. My favourite explorer, David Thompson, was married to Charlotte Small, a Metis woman for 58 years. They travelled together, mapping millions of square kilometres, and had 13 children together. Thompson is a good example with his marriage considered to be the longest documented marriage in Pre-Confederation Canada. Thompson always insisted that his wife be named in all his reports and they would pass away within only a few months of each other.
Other men saw their Indigenous wives as their true wife. William Flett, a master canoeman with the company, left all his money to his Indigenous wife. Van Kirk also relates the story of a Cree woman named Pawpitch, who was married to Humphrey Marten. When she passed away on Jan. 24, 1771, he was gripped with sadness stating “my poor child becomes motherless”. David Harmon married his Cree wife Elizabeth in 1805, writing in his diary, quote:
“The union that has been formed between us has been cemented. We have wept together over the early departure of several children, and especially, our beloved son. We have children still living, who are equally precious to us both.” Interestingly, Harmon was English but he spoke to his children in Cree and his wife in French.
The company, while allowing the relations between traders and Indigenous women, still made things difficult for maintaining a relationship. Workers for the company were banned from settling in Rupert’s Land until they stopped working for the company. As a result, most went back to England and the company also banned employees from taking their Indigenous wives and children with them. The company also banned all Indigenous people from traveling on their ships to England.
Women in the fur trade provided an immense benefit for many reasons, as Matonabbee, a Dene guide to Samuel Hearne would state, saying quote:
“One of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night, and in fact, there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country, without their assistance.”
Despite their impact on the fur trade, forging relations between Indigenous groups and helping the company expand, the names of the Indigenous women were rarely recorded. From these relationships though, a new culture was created, the Metis, who are often called the children of the fur trade. The Metis would begin living as trappers by the end of the 1700s, selling furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company and the American Fur Company. From these early trappers a definite and strong culture would emerge that exists to this day.
With the increased competition from these companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned its approach of securing Indigenous custom within Rupert’s Land in 1774, and began to build forts inland, reducing the power and reliance on the Indigenous, causing severe ramifications for many Indigenous communities.
In 1821, following the Pemmican War, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company merged. Many of the forts in the interior that the companies had operated were then closed because they had become unprofitable. This would lead to a terrible impact on the Indigenous who were now reliant on the fur trade for their survival. The coming decades would see massive declines in the power of the Indigenous in the interior of the continent, as the Hudson’s Bay Company declined in influence, and the Canadian government began to push for the land the Indigenous once occupied. The HBC at this time also became more disdainful of the Indigenous as they grew more comfortable in the inland regions of the continent and relied less on Indigenous knowledge. The aforementioned Simpson would write in 1821 that the Indigenous, quote:
“must be ruled with a rod of iron, to bring and to keep them in a proper state of subordination.”
In the past, the Indigenous would gather furs in the winter and then work as boatmen and canoemen in the summer months. When the company began to convert to steam powered freighters, all those jobs were lost. As well, game began to be depleted, making it harder for the Indigenous to make a living with the company.
The detrimental impact of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Indigenous would be seen by the wider world during a 1927 Arctic trip taken by Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson and his friend and the co-discoverer of insulin, Sir Frederick Banting. They began to realize that the crew and passengers on board the Hudson’s Bay Company paddlewheeler, the SS Distributor, were spreading the influenza virus down the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers, devastating the Indigenous populations of the north. Upon returning back to Montreal, Banting spoke with a reporter at the Toronto Star under the agreement that his statements about the Hudson’s Bay Company be off the record. Instead, the conversation was published and reached to Australia and Europe. Banting was extremely angry about this as he had promised the Department of the Interior that he would make no statements to the press without clearing them first.
In the interview, Banting told the journalist, C.R. Greenaway, that the fox fur trade in the north always favoured the company and not the Indigenous. The article would say, quote:
“For over $100,000 of fox skins, he estimated that the Eskimos had not received $5,000 worth of goods.”
Banting would go on to trace this treatment to health, which was consistent with reports made by RCMP officers that suggested the Inuit were only eating flour, biscuits, tea and tobacco, provided by the company in trades for furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade commissioner at the time called the remarks false and slanderous and the governor of the company met with Banting a month later and demanded a retraction. Banting said that while the reporter had betrayed his confidence, he would not retract the statement because he did feel the company was responsible for the deaths of Inuit through supplying the wrong kinds of food and introducing diseases into the population. In his report to the Department of the Interior, Banting would state that infant mortality was high because of the undernourishment of the mother before birth, that the foods of the traders was causing decay in Indigenous teeth and that the gravest threat to the Inuit was the transfer of his culture from the race-long hunter to that of a dependent trapper, stating, quote:
“White flour, sea biscuits, tea and tobacco do not provide sufficient fuel to warm and nourish him.”
Well into the 20th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company operated 100 stores in Indigenous communities. These stores set low prices for furs and high prices for goods, which kept the Indigenous inhabitants of the communities in a constant state of debt.
Today, the point blanket is considered part of Canadian culture, but for the Indigenous people it represents something else, colonization. Kent Monkman, a Cree artist, uses the point blankets in a series of paintings called Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, with the blankets representing, quote:
“the imperial powers that dominated and dispossessed Indigenous people of their land and livelihood.
Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore created a video art piece called The Blanket, which features Winnipeg dancer Ming Hong rolling down a snow covered hill in the blanket. Belmore states regarding the piece that the blanket, quote:
“is an object of beauty, a collector’s item that belongs to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s history. It is for many Indigenous peoples, still viewed as a trade item that once contained the gift of disease.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Geographic, Wikipedia, FirstPeoplesOfCanada.com, BC Learning Network, Indian Trappers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Macleans, HBC Heritage, Indigenous Peoples Atlas Of Canada, Waskaganish.ca, Shaping Canada, the Hudsons Bay Company: Royal Charters, Rivalries and Luxury Hats In The North American Fur Trade,