Hudson’s Bay Company

   A British trading company established by Royal Charter in 1670 to explore and develop northern Canada. Henry Hudson first entered the bay that was later named after him in 1610 in search of the Northwest Passage. This led to a realization of the wealth to be attained through the fur trade, which the French, based in Montreal, then held the monopoly. Two French fur traders, Médard Chouart, sieur de Groseilliers (1618–1696) and his brother-in-law Pierre Esprit Radisson (1632–1710), who felt they had been cheated in Montreal, turned to the British and argued that Hudson Bay would be a good place to establish a trading center. This argument appealed to traders and “The Governor and Company of Adventurers trading into Hudson’s Bay” (the Company) was given its charter to trade on May 2 by King Charles II. It established a monopoly of the Indian trade, especially the fur trade, in the area fed by all the rivers and streams that drained into Hudson’s Bay, 1.5 million square miles encompassing more than one-third of Canada and parts of the United States . This territory was named Rupert’s Land after Charles’s cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who became the first governor of the company. The company controlled the fur trade throughout much of North America from its headquarters at York Factory on Hudson’s Bay.
   After the Treaty of Paris of 1763, when the British acquired New France, Scottish, English and American traders arrived in Montreal to take advantage of the new opportunities. In 1784, they established the North West Company and, operating through the Great Lakes and bypassing Hudson’s Bay, the Nor’Westers became a serious rival to the company, which had established 97 trading posts in the west by 1870. The company and the Nor’Westers both built forts along the Saskatchewan River and competed for furs. Nor’Westers were the first to reach the Pacific. In 1816, Lord Selkirk of the company established the Red River colony at Winnipeg, Manitoba to compete with the North West Company. The colony was attacked by Métis on June 19, 1816, in the “Seven Oaks Massacre” when 21 people were killed. The result was that the two companies were merged by the British government in 1821 but retained the company’s name. This extended the company’s territory to the Pacific.
   George Simpson (1786–1860), who was knighted in 1841, had become the governor of the company in 1820, and he was to direct and dominate the affairs of the merged company until his death. A ruthless and efficient governor who acquired the nickname “The Little Emperor,” he reduced the number of employees from 2,000 to 800 but awarded traders a share of the profits to ensure their loyalty and productivity. He substituted Indian canoes with sturdier York boats based on an Orkney design 30 feet long. The greatest threat to the company came from the American Mountain men coming from the Oregon Country along the Platte and Snake Rivers from Saint Paul. Simpson decided on a scorched earth policy by trapping out the entire area from northern California to Nevada. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain set the boundary between the United States and Rupert’s Land at the 49th parallel, and Simpson relocated the company’s West Coast headquarters to Vancouver Island where it became the de facto government in the west.
   In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was formed and three years later the company was forced to give up Rupert’s Land to the Dominion in exchange for land, cash, and property around its trading posts. By the 1870s, the company had lost its monopoly of trade, the beaver hat went out of fashion, and furs from other areas of the world had taken over the market. The company turned increasingly to retail merchandising, especially through its department stores. York Factory finally closed its doors in 1957.
    Galbraith, John S. The Little Emperor: Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company . Toronto: Macmillan, 1976;
    Newman, Peter Charles. Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers that Seized a Continent . New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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