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Stephen R. Bown: The Company; The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire

The Hudson's Bay Company the book

The Hudson Bay Company

The rascally bushrunners Radisson and Groseilliers conceived of the idea for the Company but were driven from New France and peddled their scheme to England’s King Charles II; Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville led an overland assault from New France and seized York Factory and all the accumulated furs, bedevilling the Company with his raids for over a decade; Thanadelthur brokered peace between the Cree and the Chipewyan and pioneered the trade into the Athabasca region; James Knight sailed north from Fort Churchill in a doomed search for fold and a Northwest Passage; Matonabbee and Samuel Hearne ventured inland northwest from Prince of Wales Fort searching for copper and a route to the elusive Cathay, while scouting and developing lucrative new markets thousands of kilometers to the west; Attickasish took Anthony Henday with him on his multi-year commercial circuit as far west as the Rocky Mountains, into the lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy; Alexander Mackenzie had a dream to travel to the Pacific Ocean and, once he found the path, was welcomed in the villages along the trade routes in the mountainous Interior and escorted to his destination; David Thompson, along with Charlotte Small, pioneered routes over the Rockies to the Columbia River and mapped most of western Canada and the Pacific Northwest over decades of travel; the quixotic Lord Selkirk dreamed of a colony for displaced Scottish crofters after the Highland clearances but unwisely situated it athwart the supply lines of the Nort West Company: Peter Skene Ogden explored most of the Pacific Northwest of United States while under orders to exterminate the beaver population and deter American pioneers from traveling into the region; Cuthbert Grant led Metis firebrands to the fateful battle defending their rights at Seven Oaks; Dr. John McLoughlin managed the company’s territory in Old Oregon and transformed Fort Vancouver into a thriving multicultural settlement; Pierre-Guillaume Sayer sparked the struggle for free trade at Red River; and James and Amelia Douglas presided over the growth and evolution of Fort Victoria from a fur factory into a colonial capital.


The Grand Scheme

IN 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company was a small English business. When faced with competition from traders of the North West Company coming west from Montreal in the 1780, the Company moved inland and competition intensified. The British government forcibly merged the two companies in 1821. By the time the monopoly was rescinded, in 1870, after two hundred years, and the Company’s territory transferred to the new country of Canada.

Medard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson were long-time traders with the Indigenous peoples.

Algonquian speakers lived primarily in the Quebec Valley. The Montagnais in the north of present-day Quebec and around the mouth of the Saquenay River. The Huron were an Iroquoian-speaking people.

By 1660 the entire French presence in New France was barely 3.200 people. Montreal was founded only in 1642.

In the spring of 1610, Henry Hudson was employed by a consortium of English merchants to captain a single ship and scour the northern coast of Labrador and Baffin Island for a trade route to the silk, spices and gems of those distant and mysterious land in the Orient. He has found Hudson strait.

The idea of a Northwest Passage was a preoccupation, nearly an obsession, for English merchants and the Crown.

Royal Beginning

Prince Rupert served as the head of the Royalist cavalry during the English Civil War. His interest in Groseillers and Radisson was due to strategic importance of fur business.

The expedition that he helped put together with both of them on ships started a journey to Hudson Bay on June 3, 1668.

They establish connections with the Cree people.

King Charles granted Prince Rupert and seventeen fellow a charter giving to them the “Sole Trade and Commerce” of Hudson’s Bay.

The Company was not a colonial enterprise – nothing in its charter had to do directly with conquest, but neither was it purely a business enterprise.

Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps. In Europe in 17th century, it was used primarily for hats.

Sewell Newhouse of New York State invented the spring-loaded steel leg-hold trap in 1823. Before this invention, it was not an easy task to capture a beaver.

Clash of empires

Company did not venture into inland by rivers for 100 years. They did create some outpost like Moose Factory in the south of James Bay in 1672. Fort Albany at the Albany River in 1679. Fort Severn in 1689. York Factory in 1684 at the Nelson River. The farthest north was Fort Churchill (Princ of Wales Fort) in 1717.

The first French travelers to Hudson Bay were spies.

The challenge to the Company’s undisputed presence in Hudson Bay come not by sea but overland from New France. It was Marine captain Pierre de Troyes in 1686. With him was also Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville, who would attack Company for next decade.


The Quiet Monopoly

In the summer of 1714 James Knight, the new governor in Hudson Bay disembarked from its ship. According to the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht signed between England and France the previous year, Company property was to be returned.

Soon the Cree were joined by Ojibwa from the south and Chipewyan from the north in being drawn into the Company’s commercial orbit.

The Chipewyan woman, named Thanadelthur, that was introduced to Knight, explain to him a story about yellow metals in the ground on the north. He sends an expedition with her in 1715. In 1718 Knight himself wanted to explore the north inland.

The chilly rim of the bay

Waterway were the true highways of transportation and travel.

Living in the Company’s outposts was hard. Cold and storms.

By 1730, the Company’s most nameless transient bayside workforce came from Lowland Scotland and Orkney Islands.

The sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. And so was drinking. French later called mixed-heritage children Metis or bois-brule (burnt wood).

Beyond the bay

 The Indigenous trading captains held an important position of responsibility as arbiters and brokers. The Cree trading captain was Wappenessew or Wapinesiw and the Chipewyan captain was Matonabbee.

The Company, and the fur trade in general, influenced the North American economy far beyond the rim of the bay where it operated its trading forts. It helped local tribes that traded with guns and tools, so they were more successful than others. The trade drew European culture farther inland. But they also brought diseases. The most significant epidemic was smallpox in 1779-83.

The Company was starting aggressively seeking opportunities inland.

Great plains and bloody falls

The biggest threat to the company’s monopoly in Hudson Bay emanated from the geographical musing and political agitations of a choleric Irishman named Arthur Dobbs.

He was actively involved in looking for a Northwest Passage. He was also actively trying to persuade the Parliament to cancel Company’s monopole and investigate all complains about Company’s merchants.

The Company was pushed to organize expedition to inlands. It was led by Anthony Henday. After that expedition Company sponsored dozens more, hoping to stimulate an increase in the trade along the Saskatchewan River.

Next step in discovery on inland was done by Matonabbee in the mid-1760s. His expedition that was conceived by Moses Norton, financed by the Company and was documented by Samuel Hearne, opened the way for others to follow. They came all the way to Arctic Ocean.


The Nor’Westers

Hearne become chief factor of Prince of Wales Port in 1776. He also founded Cumberland House. The French declared war on Britain and the three ships also entered Hudson Bay. They took over majorities of forts. Hearne went back to London in 1787.

The Montreal traders were becoming stronger and stronger. One of the important pioneers of the inland trade from Montreal was Peter Pond.

In 1779, the traders from Montreal officially became organized into an enterprise called the North West Company.

Nor’Wester Alexander Mackenzie set off on a series of expeditions that would make his fortune and change the fur business.

The great river of the north

Built by Simon McTavish in 1784, Grand Portage was a large fortified depot along the northwest shore of Lake Superior.

In 1788 Alexander Mackenzie came to Grande Portage.

Fort Chipewyan was another post for the North West Company.

Pond’s vision and ambition to find the water route to Pacifica became Mackenzie’s. In 1789 he went with eleven men to a great adventure. They traveled on what is now known a Mackenzie River. In 1792 and 1973 he went to another adventure. They were traveling on Peace River all the way to the mountains. They meet Sekani (the people of the rocks). They came all the way to the James River. And they reached McGregor River, which was easier to navigate. From there they went to Fraser River. And finally, they reached Pacific in July 1973.

The Columbia enterprise

Mackenzie contributed greatly to the European geographical and social perception of the northern territories.

Before 1818, there was no international boundary between the United States and British-held territory west of the Mississippi River.

Mackenzie understood the importance of the Columbia and urged the British government in 1801 to claim it. Thomas Jefferson also sent a military science expedition in 1803 to explore Louisiana Territory and to press over the Rocky Mountains all the way to Pacific. Spain had some imperial claims looking north from Mexico and Russia looking south from Alaska.

John Jacob Astor was also looking how to use the Columbia River route as a gateway to Orient.

The great river of the West

The Columbia could be the only viable route to the Pacific.

David Thompson worked for both Company’s and he produced a detailed map of western North America. Thompson first trekked over the Continental Divide in 1807. He traded along Columbia with the Kutenai, Interior Salish and the Snake. He traveled through Athabasca Pass. The pass was out of range of the Piegan. And it connected the Columbia River system with the Athabasca River system. When he finally reached the Columbia River and flow down on it, he discovered that Americans already set up a post called the Fort Astoria.

The war between American and British was settled by signing the Treaty of Ghent in 1812. With the convention of 1818, they agreed on a border along the 49th parallel east of the Rocky Mountains. But they did not extend further west.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California, and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the US.

Companies at war

Both companies the North West and Hudson Bay were competing aggressively.  Soon there were so many posts that all Cree and Chipewyan agents were driven out of business.

Soon the commercial war became an actual war.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, both companies used liquor as a means of bringing people into their establishments.

By the 1840s, bison had supplanted beaver as the most important fur for trade. From the estimated sixty million bison in 1600, the population declined to forty by 1830 and the were nearly extinct by the 1880s.

In August 1812, governor Miles MacDonell and the first eighteen Red River settlers faced a hard life once they arrived at their not so utopian destination of Assiniboia, what is now the city of Winnipeg. They were fighting with the North West Company and with the Metis. The Pemmican war.  They lost and The North Company controlled the region again, but with all the violence, the war was hurting both companies.


The little emperor

Everything was about the change at York Factory in the summer of 1821.

The companies merged and George Simpson was named the leader in 1824. The British government wanted one financially secure British company to counter American expansionism. When the details of the contract between the two fur entities became known, eyebrows were raised. It was clearly favorable to the Company.

Simpson was traveling around a lot.

The Company eventually would have posts as far away as Hawaii.

Simpson think of the Indigenous peoples in a proprietary sense. His rule was the beginning of the end of their autonomy.

The king of old Oregon

Dr. John McLoughlin was ruling Old Oregon for the Company. He did have his share of conflicts with Simpson. Especially due to the department of Columbia being stretch between Americans and British in 1840s.

McLoughin presided over the region for two decades.

William Ashley and American entrepreneur gathered a company of 100 men and set on fur trade expedition inland from St. Louis. With him was a young man named Jedediah Smith. He mapped and take notes on the country west of the Snake River, that was full of wealth.

Loss of an appendage

Americans from Boston went on Oregon trail and started settlements. One of them was Fort Hall. Also, when new settlers arrived to Fort Vancouver, and were not pro-British, the Company’s authority began to erode.

In 1841 Simpson visited Fort Vancouver and he and McLoughlin decided to send James Douglas to create new more northern fort, he created Fort Victoria in 1843, and it became new Company’s central pacific depot.

The region was moving close to US. They send candidates to congress and in 1845 Congress ended the joint-occupancy with Britain. In 1846 the agreement was accepted by both sides and formalized under the Oregon Boundary Treaty.

Two faces of the Company

James Douglas was the Governor of Vancouvers Islands, governing one of Englands last Colony’s in North America.

The Monopoly dies

In 1858 the American sidewheeler Commodore came to Fort Victoria. The seekers of fortune from US doubled population in one afternoon.

The company’s licence was up for renewal in 1859. It was not renewed.

Douglas was now focusing on supporting gold seekers from America and he died as one of the richest men in British Columbia in 1877.

Throughout the 1860s, the eastern British colonies were negotiating their merger into a new country called Canada.

In 1867 Russia sold Alaska to U.S.. In 1869 Company surrender its land rights to the British Crown, which would then transfer them to Canada.

On July 15, 1870, the entire remaining territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company became part of the new nation of the Dominion of Canada.

The Dust of Empire

A company is nothing other than a legal entity for tax and accounting purposes. It has no life of its own. It is a bloodless thing, an imaginary construct that can unify and motivate people to a common endeavor. The Company was nothing other than its people and their stories; everything else is now dust.

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