How Hudson’s Bay Fur Company Shaped North American History
History of the Hudson’s Bay Company.From it’s beginnings as the largest land owner in North America, to it’s role in the French and Indian War, to providing two thirds of all the needs of Canadians.
A headstrong adventurer and explorer, Henry Hudson undertook four major expeditions in his lifetime that would guide his followers through the New World. In his search for a passage from Europe to the Orient, Hudson inadvertently drew European attention to the vast resources of North America and helped set the stage for a century of exploration.
Hudson undertook a third northeast voyage in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company. While he received orders and supplies in Amsterdam, he heard rumors of a northwest route to the Pacific through North America. When his northeast path was again blocked by ice, Hudson ignored his agreement to return to Holland and sailed west toward the New World. Months later, Hudson found a large waterway in what is now New York — the modern-day Hudson River — that he thought could be his ticket west, but he concluded near present-day Albany that the river would not take him to the Pacific.
He was commissioned by the British East India Company to sail further north than his last voyage, in an area earlier explorers said could hold the key to the fabled Northwest passage. In 1610, Hudson sailed through the strait that now bears his name and into the giant Hudson Bay. Hugging the bay’s eastern coast, Hudson sailed deep into its southernmost extremities, spending months sailing aimlessly through its vast expanse. With winter setting in and no passage to the Pacific in sight, Hudson’s crew grew restless. They grew weary of prodding the North American coast, and suspected their captain of hoarding rations. Finally, fed up with Hudson’s leadership, the crew mutinied in 1611, forcing the explorer, his son, and those sick with scurvy onto a small lifeboat and setting them adrift in the bay. Hudson’s crew returned to England, but Hudson was never heard from again.
Henry Hudson sails into Hudson Bay
Nothing whatever is known of him until 1607, when London merchants employed him to search out a route to the Far East round the north of Russia. He found lots of whales and tried again in 1608, when two of his crew saw a ‘mermaid’. Hudson switched to finding a way to Cathay round the north of Canada. In Dutch service in 1609 he sailed up the Hudson River (discovered by Verrazano in 1524) from today’s New York City to Albany. In 1610 an English consortium financed him to make another attempt on the Northwest Passage.Hudson set off from London in April in the aptly named Discovery with a crew of 22, including his son John. They reached the coast of Greenland in June. In July they entered what is now the Hudson Strait, which Martin Frobisher had discovered in 1578, and sailed on into Hudson Bay, which Hudson thought must be the Pacific. Whether Sebastian Cabot had found it before, on his voyage in 1508-09, is disputed.
Mapping the eastern coast, Hudson and his men were increasingly encumbered by ice and in November they found themselves frozen in and forced to winter in the bay. They had enough food in store for nearly six months and they caught fish and birds, but scurvy broke out and though Hudson was a good navigator, he was a poor leader of men. He had experienced serious difficulties with his crews before and he could not cope with the mounting alarm on Discovery as the men were reduced to eating frogs and moss.
Hudson eventually lost all control and the bulk of the crew resolved to give up exploring and go home. On June 22nd, 1611, with the ice at last breaking up, they seized Hudson, John and six others who were either loyal or scurvy-ridden, put them in a small boat and gave them some provisions (or so they said later) before casting them adrift and sailing away in Discovery.
Nothing more was ever heard of Hudson and the other castaways. The mutineers returned across the Atlantic and some reached London, where far from being hanged, as threatened, they were employed in further attempts to find the elusive Northwest Passage. When, at last, four survivors were tried for murder in 1618, they maintained that they had mutinied only when faced with starvation and were acquitted.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine
Prince Rupert (1619-1682), Count Palatine of the Rhine and Duke of Cumberland and Bavaria.
Born in Prague he was a son of Frederick V, sometime King of Bohemia and his wife Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the “Queen of Hearts”, daughter of James I of England.
The family had to flee to Holland and later Rupert and his brother came to England at the invitation of their uncle Charles I. Rupert became a very successful cavalry commander, as well as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was also a talented artist, scientist, founder Fellow of the Royal Society and governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Prince Rupert (1619 – 1682)
Two centuries before Confederation a pair of resourceful Frenchmen named Radisson and des Groseilliers discovered a wealth of fur in the interior of the continent – north and west of the Great Lakes – accessible via the great inland sea that is Hudson Bay. Despite their success French and American interests would not back them. It took the vision and connections of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, to acquire the Royal Charter which, in May, 1670 granted the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.”
Almost immediately upon receiving its charter, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to lay claim to its vast and rich empire. From the very outset, the whole business of the Company was to be business — the fur trade — not the dissemination of the British way of life, or the conversion of the native population to Christianity.
It built trading posts at the mouths of the Rupert, Albany and Moose Rivers, and established relationships with the local tribes. Highly structured trading rituals evolved. The trade items included knives, files, kettles, cloth and eventually the “Hudson’s Bay blanket,” which was frequently made into clothing — its snowy color giving hunters the ability to stalk their winter prey undetected.
Hudson’s Bay Company
Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur-trading enterprise headquartered in London, began operations on the shores of Hudson Bay in 1670. During the next century and a half, it gradually expanded its network of trading posts west across Canada. In 1821, it merged with its prime rival, the North West Company out of Montreal, thus acquiring several posts in the Pacific Northwest. Under the leadership of Governor George Simpson (1787-1860) and Chief Factor John McLoughlin (1784-1857), the company dominated the land-based fur trade in the Northwest for the next four decades. After the Oregon Treaty of 1846 settled the international boundary at the 49th parallel, the company gradually phased out its operations in Oregon and Washington territories and moved its Northwest headquarters to Vancouver Island.
In 1659, two of these French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710) and Medard Chouart (1618-1696), Sieur Des Groseilliers, had traveled quite a distance north when they met Cree Indians carrying a large quantity of unusually rich pelts. When questioned, the Crees explained that they had captured the prime furs on an inland sea some distance northwards. The Frenchmen deducted that this must be Hudson Bay, the vast body of water that had been partially explored by a series of European mariners.
Upon their return to Quebec, Radisson and Groseilliers tried to interest the French governor in sponsoring a trading expedition to Hudson Bay to exploit the rich fur sources spoken of by the Crees. When he refused, they traveled to Boston in search of financing, and there they met a well-connected Englishman who invited them to London and presented them to King Charles II (1630-1685) in 1666. The king’s cousin, Prince Rupert of Batavia (1619-1682), sponsored an exploratory trading mission in 1668. This proved so successful that the prince organized a group of 18 investors to form the Hudson’s Bay Company, also known as The Governor and Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay. In 1670 Charles II awarded a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, granting it the rights to all the commerce of the bay’s entire drainage. Known as Rupert’s Land, the area encompassed 1.5 million square miles, stretching west to the Rocky Mountains and south into present-day Minnesota and North Dakota. The charter vested control of the company in a governor, deputy-governor, and a committee of five directors chosen by stockholders at an annual meeting in London. The London directors appointed a representative, the Governor of Rupert’s Land, to oversee operations in North America. The London office forwarded instructions and directives across the Atlantic on a ship that left London each spring, delivered supplies and trading goods to the posts on the bay, and picked up furs and detailed reports and accounts.
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives – HBC Fur Trade Post Map