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In French, the Hudson Bay is called "La baie d'Hudson". Apparently it was originally called "mer du Nord" (North Sea) in the 1600's, the according to its french wiki page.
Now obviously, Henry Hudson was an Englishmen and there was some serious competition between English and French back then. So it is not surprising that they were known by different names.
What I want to know is, when did the Hudson Bay became known as La baie d'Hudson in the French Language?
Poking around in Google Books gives references to la Baye d'Hudson from as early as 1730, substantially predating the Seven Years' War:
The reference is from Le grand dictionnaire geographique et critique by Bruzen de la Martinière. Note that that this passage also notes the French name as "Baye du Nord" (not "Mer du Nord"):
Les François la nomment la Baye du Nord, a cauſe qu'elle eſt au Septentrion de la nouvelle France, n'étant qu'à cent lieues de Quebec, & à autant du grand Lac des Hurons.
The French call it Baye du Nord, because it is to the north of New France, being only a hundred leagues from Quebec and as far from Lake Huron.
Whether or not there are earlier references to la Baie d'Hudson in the literature, I cannot say. But it does appear that in 1730, a Spanish geographer writing in French (de la Martinière was writing for Philip V of Spain) felt a need to use both Baye de Hudson and Baye du Nord in his work.
By the way: in that same work, la Mer du Nord appears to refer to the entire Western Atlantic north of the Equator!
MER DU NORD. On appelle ainſi la partie qui lave les côtes orientales de l'Amérique, depuis la ligne équinoxale au midi, jusqu'à la mer Glaciale au ſeptentrion. Elle a été ainſi appellée par contraſte, à cauſe que la met qui baigne le Pérou & la Nouvelle Espagne avoit été appellée la mer du Sud.
MER DU NORD. This is the name given to the part which washes the eastern shores of America, from the equator in the south to the frozen sea in the north. It was given this name as a contrast, because the sea that bathes Peru and New Spain had been named the Mer du Sud [Southern Sea].
Note, though, that this latter usage may not have been common in New France at the time (as noted above, this was a work written for the King of Spain.)
When did the Hudson Bay get its current name in French? - History
King Charles II granted Radisson and des Groseilliers an audience and agreed to finance a voyage to Hudson Bay to search for the furs that they described. English commerce was moving rapidly across the world at the time. The British East India Company had been chartered and there was interest in North America the proposal from these two Frenchmen was ideal.
In 1668, Radisson set out on the Eaglet and des Groseilliers on the Nonsuch.
Convinced of the economic potential, on May 2, 1670 - with a stroke of the royal pen - King Charles II created a monopoly over 3 million square miles of land. The Hudson's Bay Company - the Honourable Company of Adventurers - was born. Charles II granted monopoly trading privileges and mineral rights to all the lands drained by the water flowing into Hudson Bay.
Company forts were established along the Hudson Bay coastline and the company conducted trade by having the Indians come to them. That strategy passed on most of the costs of transportation to their trading partners.
HBC traders developed a protocol with the natives. The annual trading sessions with the Cree began with the passing of a ceremonial pipe, which the Cree left at the fort to indicate they would return the following year.
There was a ritual exchange of gifts and then they got down to the pragmatic issues of business. The Indians were tough negotiators. "The guns are bad," an Indian trading captain complained.
"Let us trade light guns, small in the hand, and well shaped, with locks that will not freeze in the winter." The armament factories in Sheffield began to forge guns to their specifications. Large kettles that weighed fifteen pounds were dismissed by the Indians as too heavy to transport and were replaced by lighter versions.
The Hudson's Bay Company blanket, manufactured in Oxfordshire had lines woven into it, indicating price. The Indians had long had their own complex trading network, but now a new commercial relationship was established that would last almost two centuries.
Radisson and des Groseilliers weren't among the "Lordes and Proprietors" of the company they helped found those positions were occupied by armchair adventurers in London who had the ear of the king.
For five years Radisson and des Groseilliers worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, then abruptly returned to their French allegiance.
Hudson BayBecause it is swept by frigid winds and storms from the Arctic, the Hudson Bay is ice-covered for much of the year. (photo by Tim Fitzharris) The bay is generally shallow, and the land is rising steadily at around 60 cm per 100 years because of isostatic uplift (Corel Professional Photos).
It is virtually landlocked but is joined to the Arctic Ocean to the north by Foxe Channel and Fury and Hecla Strait, and to the Atlantic Ocean on the east by Hudson Strait. Baffin Island lies athwart the entrance to the bay, and Southampton, Coats and Mansel islands are lodged across the northern gap. The west coast is devoid of islands, but lying off the east is a string known as the Sleepers, Ottawa, Nastapoka and Belcher groups. The maximum length of the bay is 1500 km and its greatest width 830 km.
The bay, including Hudson Strait, is fed by numerous rivers, large and small, including, from west to east, the Kazan, Thelon and Dubawnt, flowing into the bay via Chesterfield Inlet the Hayes, Nelson and Churchill on the west the Winisk and Severn in the southwest the Grande, Eastmain, Nottaway, Moose and Abitibi, Albany, Attawapiskat and Nastapoca, flowing into James Bay and the Koksoak, flowing into Ungava Bay. The total area of the Hudson Bay drainage is about 3.8 million km 2 and the mean discharge of all the rivers flowing into it is 30 900 m 3 /s.
The bay lies in a huge saucer-shaped basin, fringed by uplands of the Canadian Shield. The basin was inundated by seawater after the retreat of glaciation some 7500 years ago. The bay is generally shallow, and the land is rising steadily at around 60 cm per 100 years because of isostatic uplift, exposing more and more of the coast. The surrounding Hudson Bay Lowland (see Physiographic Regions) is a low plain locked in permafrost and characterized by marshes, peat and innumerable ponds. Much of the hydroelectric potential of the area develops at the point where powerful rivers surge out of the Shield on to the lowlands.
An almost unnatural feature of the east coast is the great, semicircular bight, centering on the Belcher Islands, which it has been suggested was caused by a stupendous meteor strike. The west coast is generally without indentation, low and bleak up to Arviat, and increasingly broken and indented farther north, particularly at the great gashes of Chesterfield Inlet and Rankin Inlet. The shores are mostly covered with brushes, aspen, willow and dwarf birch growing among moss, lichen and grass. Cliffs of ancient sedimentary rocks are found at points on the east coast.
The climate of the region depends largely on the water surface. In January and February the bay is covered with pack ice, preventing any warming effect on the air, and temperatures are consequently very low. The ice begins to melt in May and rapidly disappears in June, when cloudiness and fog increase. The water temperature rises up to 10°C in July and August as a result of the influx of fresh water. During October and November the waters of the bay yield heat and moisture, bringing showers of rain and snow. Fog is most frequent in June, July and August, as warm air cools over the colder water. Winds are strong in all but the summer months and rise to 110 km/h and even 150 km/h in autumn.
Hudson Bay contains great quantities of nutrient salts and small crustaceans occupy the open waters, providing food for molluscs, starfish, sea urchins, worms and other invertebrates. Cod, halibut, salmon and polar plaice are the most common fish. Walrus, dolphins and killer whales live in the northern regions and polar bears migrate south to hunt seals among the ice. Some 200 species of birds including ducks, snow geese, gulls, swans, sandpipers, owls and crows gather on the coasts and islands.
Archaeological evidence has shown that the shores of the bay have been occupied for thousands of years. Many of the excavated campsites are far from the present, receding coastline. At the time of the appearance of Europeans, Algonquian groups inhabited the area around James Bay and Chipewyan groups the Churchill area, and Inuit groups were found on the north and east coasts. Norse seafarers possibly found, and even colonized, the bay, but if so their discovery was forgotten.
Martin Frobisher mistakenly sailed into Hudson Strait in 1578 but Henry Hudson was the first European we know to have braved the dangers of the strait and sailed into the bay (1610). He was followed by Sir Thomas Button (1612), Robert Bylot and Luke Fox [Foxe] (1631), and Thomas James (1631) in a futile search for a passage to the Orient. The voyages were perilous, often disastrous in 1619 only 3 members of Jens Munk's expedition survived. The mutiny of Hudson's crew passed into exploration mythology. The journals of Luke Fox found their way into Coleridge's harrowing tale, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The west coast was not mapped until the 1820s and the first detailed investigation was carried out from 1929 to 1931.
The bay played a crucial role in the early development of Canada after it was realized that it provided a direct route to the fur resources of the North-West. In 1668 Médard des Groseilliers, in the service of the English, sailed into the bay and built a small post at the mouth of the Rivière de Rupert. In 1670 Pierre-Esprit Radisson founded what later became York Factory at the mouth of the Nelson River, and the trading rights to the entire watershed of the bay were granted to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Posts were later built at the mouths of the Moose and Albany rivers and drew native traders from a vast area of the Shield, with the Cree playing an important middleman role. From 1682 to 1713, the French made a determined effort to rout the English from the bay. Temporary successes were achieved by Pierre de Troyes overland (1686) and Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in several expeditions by sea.
Primary Route to the Interior
However, after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the bay was firmly in the hands of the English, and after the HBC merger with the North West Company in 1821, it became the primary route to the interior. On the transfer of Rupert's Land to Canada in 1870, sovereignty over the bay and its watershed also passed to Canada. Since that time it has ceased to play an important role as a transportation route and it has been sparsely populated. The primary occupants continue to be Indian and Inuit bands living by fishing and hunting. The largest settlement is Churchill, Man (pop 1089, 1996c), at the mouth of the Churchill River. Churchill and Mooseonee, Ont are connected by railway to the interior, but their potential as saltwater ports is more often talked about than exploited. The bay remains much as it was it has been designated for conservation purposes - a mare clausum ("closed sea").
Indexes for North West Company records
North West Company account books (1795-1827)
- Index includes employee names, dates and notes taken from a variety of account books, including employee accounts, kept by the North West Company.
- Not included in the index but sometimes found in original records: parish/post names and details of accounts, including cash advances, payments for work and expenditures.
North West Company servants&rsquo contracts (1787-1822)
- Index includes names, dates and notes taken from contracts of North West Company employees.
- Not included in the index but sometimes found in original records: lengths of contracts terms of service (including salary and equipment to be supplied by the North West Company), positions to be held and employees&rsquo wintering posts.
The untold story of the Hudson’s Bay Company
There are many ways to tell the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which claimed and traded on some eight million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface, including large parts of Canada and the northwestern United States. It can start with Indigenous hunters, whose sustainable methods of trapping were exploited by HBC traders for a profit. It can start with European consumers, men and women desperate for the waterproof skins of the beaver, which had been hunted to near extinction in Europe. It can even start with the now-iconic Hudson’s Bay point blanket, something you’re bound to find in cottages and cabins across Canada. The English-made wool blanket — cream, with thick coloured stripes — harkens back to the 18th century, when it was the company’s most popular traded good.
This telling of the HBC starts in London, the epicentre of the British Empire. It starts there because although the story of the HBC is a Canadian story, it’s a transnational one, too. It’s the story of an English company claiming and helping to colonize huge swathes of North America, inhabited by sovereign Indigenous nations. From London parlours to Cree communities to the U.S. Senate, it’s a story that connects Canadian history to world history — to the demands of European consumers, the decisions of English officials, the aspirations of Scottish traders and the futures of diverse Indigenous Peoples. It reminds us that although Indigenous history is inseparable from Canadian history, they aren’t always the same. Well before the establishment of Canada, which was never a foregone conclusion, Indigenous actors interacted with British actors as representatives of their own communities and nations. The HBC has become a part of Canadian history. But it’s a story that predates Canada, the making of which is only one small telling. In other words, the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company is a global story for our global era.
In October 1666, King Charles II of England granted an audience to two men who had travelled a long way to see him. Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson were from New France. Brothers-in-law and voyageurs, they came to tell the king about the “great store of beaver” they’d discovered west of France’s imperial claims.
If Charles II asked why they hadn’t taken their discovery to his cousin, King Louis XIV of France, they had an easy answer. After returning from an initial expedition to the region west of Lake Superior, in which they’d learned about the potential for a fur trade from the Sioux, des Groseilliers and Radisson presented their bounty of beaver fur to New France’s governor, Pierre de Voyer D’Argenson. Expecting to be rewarded for their entrepreneurial spirit, they were instead reprimanded, arrested and fined for travelling without D’Argenson’s permission and abandoning their post. After serving their sentences, the two men travelled to New England, where they met English officials who encouraged them to take their vision of an imperial company that traded in fur to Charles II.
Sailing with Charles’ backing, on the same expedition but different ships, the men attempted a journey to Hudson Bay in 1668. But des Groseilliers was the only one to make it, after a storm damaged Radisson’s ship and forced him to return to England. Des Groseilliers set up on James Bay’s southern shores, where he traded with the Cree. Upon his return to England, in October 1669, he confirmed what they had suspected, and Charles II’s papers reported: “Beaver is plenty.”
This confirmation was important for the establishment of the HBC’s charter, but other factors motivated Charles II’s interest in the region. In addition to fur, investors hoped they would discover other natural resources, such as gold or silver. Explorers and monarchs were also eager to find the much sought-after Northwest Passage. All this motivated Charles II when he granted the charter establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company, officially “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson’s Bay,” on May 2, 1670. Characteristic of British imperial ventures at the time, the charter established a legal monopoly aimed at preventing others from doing the same.
Crucially, the charter also claimed some 1.5 million square kilometres of land inhabited by Inuit and First Nations communities. This was land connected to all of the river ways — “Seas, Streights, Bays, Rivers, Lakes, Creeks, and South” — that fed into Hudson Bay. Charles understood that he couldn’t take land that didn’t belong to him. But he reserved the idea of land ownership for Europeans, ignoring the territory’s Indigenous inhabitants. Charles baked this belief into the HBC’s charter by outlining whose land he would not claim: that of British subjects, or “the Subjects of any other Christian Prince or State.” In other words, any other European power.
As part of Charles II’s refusal to recognize Indigenous sovereignty, he granted a new name for the region: Rupert’s Land, in honour of his cousin, Prince Rupert, who served as the HBC’s first royal governor. By the mid-19th century, as the HBC’s landholdings grew, the region would encompass some eight million square kilometres and large parts of modern-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario and Quebec, as well as the northwestern and midwestern United States. From the perspective of English officials, this achievement was nothing short of extraordinary, a true marker of how British commerce could transform — or “civilize” — the globe. But parts of this region already had names. For some Indigenous communities, it was Turtle Island for others, Inuit Nunangat or Denendeh. And for the Indigenous nations who called this region home, the simple act of one man signing a piece of paper, in a candle-lit room across the Atlantic Ocean, would have profound consequences.
The basics of the HBC’s fur trade were relatively simple, even if the day-to-day operations were anything but. The company built posts, staffed by English officials and mostly Scottish traders, along rivers that connected to Hudson Bay. From there, traders waited for Indigenous trappers and their middlemen to bring them furs, which they exchanged for goods that were becoming increasingly important to the community’s survival, such as guns and wool. The furs were then brought back to Europe. To standardize the terms of the trade, the company established its own currency, known as “Made Beaver.” This currency valued goods by placing them against the standard of one prime beaver pelt, which could buy you, for example, two pounds of sugar or a pound of black lead.
The company gave the men who worked for it adventure, and in the process they helped spread British business and trade practices, as well as their culture and social values, across the region. They did the work of colonizing and nation-building, such as mapping British Columbia’s interior and charting the Arctic coast, almost always with the help of Indigenous guides.
In late 1770, for instance, Englishman Samuel Hearne reignited the company’s commitment to not just resource extraction but territorial exploration. After two unsuccessful expeditions, Hearne ventured out from Prince of Wales Fort in northern Manitoba into lands that would become Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. He did so under the guidance of the Dene chief Matonabbee, who had saved Hearne’s life on an earlier mission, as well as London governors’ orders to promote “an extension of our trade, as well as for the discovery of a North West Passage [and] Copper Mines.”
After a long and gruelling journey, accompanied by a party that included several of Matonabbee’s wives, the group reached their first destination, the Coppermine River, in the summer of 1771. From there, they walked the final 13 kilometres to the Arctic Ocean, where Hearne found a region inhospitable to company ships and nothing like the famed Northwest Passage. Although Hearne was underwhelmed by what he saw, he took a moment to erect a mark, claiming the coastline for the HBC.
Taken on its own, Hearne’s journey was noteworthy, though disappointing. He was the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean by land and had trekked more than 5,500 kilometres. But he never found the rich copper mine or Northwest Passage he and other men dreamed of. Writing after his expedition, Hearne believed his “discoveries are not likely to prove of any material advantage to the Nation at large.” But when it came to British ambitions in the region, the real value of Hearne’s expedition lay in the contributions it made to a larger system of knowledge HBC employees were amassing about the region. From des Groseilliers and Radisson onward, Hearne was one of several men whose explorations gave HBC, British and later Canadian officials invaluable knowledge on the geography of the region they were claiming — and how best to exploit it.
While the company gave men such as des Groseilliers, Radisson and Hearne adventure, and London businessmen bragging rights to large parts of a continent, its founding and dealings had the biggest impact on the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the region. Although HBC officials saw their venture as a business, many underestimated how it created a complex, often contentious web of social relations with the mostly male traders and Indigenous men, women and children.
But just as such relations were starting to form, HBC traders, like other Europeans before them, introduced and advanced the spread of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, to which Indigenous Peoples had no immunity. James Daschuk traces this history in his award-winning book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. He notes that disease killed not just individuals but also cultures and sometimes even entire communities. In Saskatchewan, for instance, disease decimated the people of Basquia and Pegogamaw Cree
communities. Elders — those who held important positions within the community and carried traditional knowledge — were particularly susceptible to contamination.
Still, the company depended on Indigenous hunters to bring them the furs they sold in Europe. The fur trade simply didn’t work without Indigenous Peoples’ labour and knowledge. A 1782 report penned by HBC official Matthew Cocking from York Factory, in northern Manitoba, epitomized this thinking: “I believe never a Letter in Hudson’s Bay conveyed more doleful tidings than this. Much of the greatest part of the Indians whose Furrs have formerly & hitherto brought to this place are now no more, having been carried off by that cruel disorder the Small Pox. This great fall is owing to our loss of Indians but what is worse, several of the Indians who brought the little we have got are since dead.” For economic reasons, the HBC took the spread of disease seriously, and started giving vaccinations not long after the vaccine was invented in 1796.
To optimize its own fur trade relations, the HBC looked to the French-Canadian traders who had preceded them for more than 50 years. There, they found men who were comfortable travelling to communities and familiarizing themselves with Indigenous cultures. “The Canadians,” HBC officer Thomas Hutchins noted, “have great influence over the Natives by adopting all their Customs and making them Companions.” How can we do the same, he and many others wondered.
Part of the answer to this question lay in marriage, which cemented traders’ ties to the Indigenous communities upon whom they relied. As historian Sylvia Van Kirk explains in Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870, Canadian traders understood that “an Indian mate could be an effective agent in adding to the trader’s knowledge of Indian life.” James Isham, an 18th-century governor at York Factory, noted that marriage to an Indigenous woman afforded “a great help in Engaging them to trade.” The only question was whether HBC officials in London would feel the same.
Long winters, supply shortages, starvation and swarms of mosquitoes. These were just some of the realities of life in the fur trade that were impossible for the company’s London-based officials to understand from more than 6,000 kilometres away. There was a tension at the heart of the company: although it relied on Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and labours in one part of the world, it was crafted and administered by the sensibilities of British men in another. And in London, there was a strict belief that the English and Scottish men employed by the company shouldn’t socialize with Indigenous Peoples. This translated into an explicit ban on intimacy between HBC men and Indigenous women. The policy differentiated the HBC from its Montreal-based competitor, the North West Company, until the two companies merged in 1821.
According to one official, the presence of Indigenous women at HBC factories was “very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires” because it gave HBC men a means of “debauching themselves,” “embezzling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions.” In other words, it just wasn’t what British gentlemen did, and it could cut into profits.
Enforcing the ban, however, proved difficult. Soon, local officers and governors, who were some of the first to “take” Indigenous wives, turned a blind eye when their employees did the same. With little control over what happened across the ocean, the company eventually relaxed its restrictions. Officials came to realize that forming kinship ties with Indigenous communities would boost men’s morale and enhance business.
By the end of the 18th century, the practice of HBC employees marrying Indigenous women was widespread. Often, these unions were formed in what was known as the “custom of the country.” Rather than strictly following European marriage customs, the relationships incorporated the woman’s Indigenous culture. They were a unique product of fur trade society, a blend of European and Indigenous cultures and, in some cases, the beginnings of a distinct Métis culture.
Some HBC men, however, seemed to believe that because these relationships weren’t solemnized with British rituals, they could abuse them. One of the most notorious examples of this was 19th-century governor George Simpson, who ruled Rupert’s Land with an iron fist. Simpson was ruthless in his “taking” and treatment of Indigenous women. From 1820 to 1830, he fathered five children with four different women, whom he often passed off to someone else, sometimes with detailed instructions. “If you can dispose of the Lady it will be satisfactory as she is an unnecessary and expensive appendage,” he wrote to one friend. “I see no fun in keeping a Woman, without enjoying her charms . but if she is unmarketable I have no wish that she should be a general accommodation shop to all the young bucks at the Factory and in addition to her own chastity a padlock may be useful.”
Other men demonstrated respect for their wives and families. Master canoeman William Flett ensured that upon his death, all his money went to “the sole use and benefit” of his “reputed wife, Saskatchewan.” Van Kirk relates the story of a Cree woman known as “Pawpitch, Daughter to the Captain of the Goose Hunters,” who fell ill in early 1771. Her husband, Humphrey Marten, recorded her passing at 2:50 a.m. on the morning of January 24. With her death, “my poor Child becomes Motherless,” Marten mourned.
These women, whose names rarely appear in the written record, and whose feelings about their marriages are impossible to know, were critical in the HBC’s development. Traders and officials relied on them to strengthen ties with male relatives who could provide furs and speak with trappers in Indigenous languages, not to mention cook, clean, care for their children and treat the furs they received.
Still, their labour was rarely rewarded by officials, whose attitudes toward Indigenous women became clear when their husband retired from the company or died. Until the early 19th century and the founding of Manitoba’s Red River Colony, HBC policy banned its contract employees, called “servants,” from settling in Rupert’s Land after they stopped working for the company. As a result, most men returned to Britain. But the company also banned employees from taking Indigenous wives or children with them.
Officials adopted this policy in the wake of the tragic story of Chief Factor Robert Pilgrim and his Cree wife, Thu-a-Higon, who retired to London in 1750 with their son. Soon after their return, Pilgrim died. In his will, he stipulated that his son should stay in England, while Thu-a-Higon was to return to her family in Churchill. While Thu-a-Higon likely agonized over the forced separation from her son, HBC officials agonized over the cost of sending her back and caring for the child. Hoping to prevent the situation from arising again, the company banned Indigenous men, women and children from travelling to Britain aboard HBC ships, “without Our Express order in Writing for so doing.” The policy sent a clear message: the HBC valued Indigenous Peoples in Rupert’s Land but considered them a hindrance any place else.
Attitudes toward Indigenous Peoples grew more disdainful by the mid-1800s, as HBC officials became more comfortable in the region and relied less on Indigenous knowledge. In 1822, Simpson wrote that Indigenous Peoples “must be ruled with a rod of iron, to bring and to keep them in a proper state of subordination.” Although he fathered children with Indigenous women, he eschewed marriage in the custom of the country and married his British-born cousin, Frances, in 1830. Simpson’s treatment of Indigenous women and Frances’s arrival to the colony marked the beginning of the end of marriage in the custom of the country. Taking a cue from their governor, other HBC men started marrying English and Scottish women. As Van Kirk notes, the arrival of white women stratified fur trade society and ushered in disrepute of the very Indigenous customs HBC employees had depended on for so long.
Back in London, the fur trade was making some men — and a few women who held shares in the company — rich. From 1738 through 1748, company imports to England from Rupert’s Land totalled more than £270,000. That’s more than £31 million in today’s currency. As historian David Chan Smith has calculated, from 1730 through 1750 this translated into more than one million beaver pelts.
English officials, Scottish traders, European consumers, Métis trappers, Ojibwe women and others from the Anishinaabeg Confederacy were just some of the people in the HBC’s fur trade, the products of which appeared on British soldiers’ belts in India, industrial machines in Liverpool and furniture in Manhattan. They were also the people who made an indelible mark on Rupert’s Land. Still, the fact that their story, and the story of the HBC, became a part of Canada wasn’t predetermined. Things could have gone differently. And some Americans were hoping they would.
By the mid-1800s, profits from the fur trade had dropped. The settler population of Canada and the United States was growing. Industrialization was spreading. The future was not in fur but in real estate, agriculture, railroads and oil and gas.
Meanwhile in Britain, public opinion was turning against the HBC. According to The Times, the company was “the last great monopoly which the improvidence and reckless favouritism of Charles II inflicted upon the commercial world.” Many Brits were eager to break down the HBC’s monopoly and open the region to settlement. Then in 1867, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec confederated, creating the Dominion of Canada. Under the leadership of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the government aimed to bring Western Canada into its fold and colonize the region. But Macdonald faced persistent and sustained resistance to this plan from Indigenous nations. And there was another challenge coming from the south.
From as early as the American Revolution, the British — and later Canadian — governments feared American encroachment. Alarm grew after the U.S. secured major territorial gains in the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1840s and purchased Alaska the year Canada confederated. Many Canadians felt entitled to the western territories, believing them to be an extension of the country’s eastern provinces. As George Brown, The Globe’s editor, wrote, Rupert’s Land was “the vast and fertile territory which is our birthright — and which no power on earth can prevent us occupying.”
While Brown and Macdonald saw the Americans as their foe, they shared a similar goal with them, as politicians such as Minnesota Senator Alexander Ramsey saw a future for their republic in Rupert’s Land. Ramsey had a history of working toward the colonization of Indigenous lands and had called for the “extermination” of local Sioux. By 1868, he was no less eager to secure Indigenous territories for American settlers, and presented a resolution to the Senate calling for the Committee on Foreign Relations to annex Rupert’s Land.
Ramsey hoped to make a deal the HBC (and U.S. Congress) couldn’t refuse. He proposed paying the company $6 million for its land claims and using that land to construct a Pacific railway and create three U.S. territories. The offer was a good deal for HBC shareholders, but it was $4 million less than what James Wickes Taylor, the U.S. Treasury’s special agent for the northwest, had proposed years earlier. It also came on the heels of added pressure from Macdonald, who had dispatched George-Étienne Cartier and William McDougall to London to discuss purchasing Rupert’s Land for Canada. In 1868, the Rupert’s Land Act was passed — an agreement to transfer the region from the HBC to Canada.
All this meant that although Ramsey’s plan was presented to the Senate, it never went anywhere. American authorities understood that the best policy was to respect earlier agreements on the U.S.-Canada border. But if shareholders were excited by the prospect of a seven-figure deal for their landholdings, they were less enthusiastic about the proposed deal with Canada. They knew they were sitting on valuable land and the brand-new Canadian government was broke. If there was any buyer who could pay a good price, it was the United States.
But the British and Canadian governments were eager to make the sale happen and keep the territory within the empire. So, the British Colonial Office pushed shareholders to accept £300,000 for the land, which the British government loaned Canada. This was a far cry from the millions Ramsey had proposed, but the British and Canadian governments sweetened the pot by promising the company title to some 10 million acres of their choosing.
The deal angered many Indigenous nations, who resisted the HBC’s transfer of their lands to a colonial power who wanted them to relinquish their claims and enter into confusing, often non-consensual treaties. At the acrimonious 1874 ceremony of the signing of Treaty 4, for instance, which covered large parts of southern Saskatchewan, Chief Paskwa of the Pasqua is reported to have said to an HBC official, “You told me you had sold the land for so much money — £300,000. We want that money.” Likewise, in an 1885 petition to U.S. President Grover Cleveland, Métis leader Louis Riel pointed out that the HBC had no right to sell the lands because it did not own them. These leaders identified a vicious irony of both the 1670 charter that created Rupert’s Land and the British legislation that transferred it to Canada. Just as Charles II had ruled on the creation of Rupert’s Land some 200 years earlier, a small group of mostly British men decided its future.
Canada’s 1870 purchase of Rupert’s Land is where parts of the HBC’s story end, even if it’s where large parts of the story of modern Canada begin. From the Canadian perspective, the purchase of Rupert’s Land was a magnificent win. Since its inception, the HBC had helped establish an English presence in the region by founding trading posts, three of which became provincial capitals: Fort Garry in Winnipeg, Fort Edmonton and Fort Victoria. These posts, and the HBC’s business activities, more broadly, helped block what would have otherwise likely been American encroachment into the region. It is in large part because of the HBC (with a little help from the British Parliament) that much of Western Canada became Canadian, not American, territories.
But from the perspective of HBC officials, things were more complicated. The sale ceased their efforts to govern the West and their claims to the region. It also ended their attempted monopoly of the fur trade. But there were benefits for those looking to make a buck, or two. As Andrew Smith, author of British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation: Constitution Making in an Era of Anglo-Globalization, writes, without the responsibility of governing, the company “was able to devote itself to the pursuit of profit” — in the form of land settlements, oil and gas and, later, retail.
While the HBC provided urban shoppers with a range of goods, many Indigenous Peoples maintained a different relationship to the company, particularly those in northern communities where the HBC trading post was the only store around. As related in The Other Side of the Ledger, a 1970 documentary produced by Canada’s National Film Board, the HBC operated some 100 stores in Indigenous communities into the 20th century. Charging the company with setting low prices for furs and high prices for their goods, a process that kept Indigenous consumers in a perpetual state of debt, narrator George Manuel, then-President of the National Indian Brotherhood, notes, “The Hudson’s Bay Company has almost complete economic control and through this power governs the lives of our people.” Ojibwe artist and scholar Duke Redbird, who appears in the documentary, says this relationship persisted until 1987, when the HBC sold its interests in Canada’s fur trade and northern trading posts to an American company.
The history of the HBC is messy and complicated. It has moments of compassion, but also competition and contention. It’s the history of global capitalism, North American colonialism and the British Empire. Although Canadians have a tendency to claim the history of the HBC as theirs and theirs alone, it isn’t just a Canadian story. In fact, suggesting the HBC story is simply a “Canadian” one glosses over much of the company’s nuance.
Today, 350 years after Charles II signed the HBC into existence, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it remains a transnational company. In 2006, U.S.-based NRDC Equity Partners purchased the company, and the HBC brand is now affiliated with a range of department stores across the U.S. and Europe.
And when you step into your local “Hudson’s Bay” store, as the brand is now known, it’s just as easy to miss the company’s long history, much of which remains relegated to history textbooks, while any indication of the company’s roots has been repackaged into a range of goods. Everything from coffee mugs to dog collars to those timeless wool blankets is adorned with the iconic green, red, yellow and blue stripes. They’re the stripes of a company that helped create Canada and connect it to the world, though this creation and this connection came at a price.
Canadian Geographic commemorates 2020 is a series of articles, funded by the Government of Canada, celebrating milestone anniversaries of significance to the country's history. See more stories in the series.
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2 or 3 pairs of used snowshoes
1 naturally air-conditioned log hut
1 small load of beaver pelts, partially exchanged for baubles, bangles, and brandy
2 large ships 4 barges 3 tugs 3 airplanes 575 trucks God knows how many snowmobiles 8 large air-conditioned department stores 25 medium-sized department stores 217 smaller stores 3 of the world’s largest fur auctions 65 million dollars’ worth of merchandise on hand, including an ample supply of Hudson’s Bay Scotch Whisky 15,000 employees, give or take a few .0017% of Canada
During the centuries-long expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout Canada, its initials, emblazoned on the flags it flew, became ubiquitous. There were even jokes about the symbols. HBC—What did that stand for? asked the tenderfoot. And the old trapper took another pull at his clay pipe before replying gravely, “Here Before Christ.”
More literally, the firm—its official name was “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay”—was granted its charter by Charles II of England three hundred years ago, on May 2, 1670. Straightway it was beset by such troubles that during its first forty-eight years it paid only four dividends to its stockholders. Although profits became steadier thereafter, it remained subject to violent attacks from opponents in the field and to scathing denunciations in Parliament. Yet always it triumphed, rich, venerable, and prestigious—the Honourable Company, as its friends sometimes described it, in simple majesty.
Doggedness rather than zest was the key. The company’s traders were still groping for the techniques that would let them survive in the windswept muskeg beside their frozen bay when they were challenged by French winterers from the St. Lawrence—audacious men thoroughly familiar with the cascading waterways that furnished the only trade routes through the armadillo shell of granite that covers most of eastern Canada. Unable to outmaneuver this formidable enemy, the English sat tight until at last war and international diplomacy eliminated France entirely from the New World.
There was no surcease beside the bay, however. The famed North West Company, a belligerent union of Highland Scotsmen and American colonists, stepped into the shoes of the French and resumed a trade war that soon spread across the Rockies to the Pacific. But the Honourable Company outlasted their furious energy, too, and took over the entire northland. With two centuries of such experience fortifying them, the new overlords of the wilderness had little trouble turning back a brief challenge from American trappers in the Pacific Northwest. Settlers, however, were something else. They could outstay even the Honourable Company. With unfailing resilience the traders turned to serving the newcomers rather than fighting them. So the flag with its ubiquitous initials stayed aloft, as familiar now as breathing to thousands of people who never heard of the old, dashing enemies from Montreal.
Curiously enough, the inevitabilities of geography that let the English acquire their first stubborn foothold in Canada were first appreciated by two outlawed French traders. And they reached their conclusions without even laying eyes on the vast bay that was the key to the situation.
The elder and leader of the pair was Médart Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers. The other, his brother-in-law, was Pierre Esprit Radisson.
Groseilliers came to Canada from France as a youth about 1640, when prospects in the little settlements along the St. Lawrence River were bleak. The fur trade, the only business of consequence in the colony, was dominated by a legally created monopoly that held its favored position by financing the government. All independent trading in furs was forbidden.
In an effort to make the interdiction effective, the monopolists sought to confine the trade to a handful of rendezvous points scattered along the St. Lawrence River. Each year hundreds of Indians came to these sites in fleets of fur-laden canoes. They picked up cloth, iron tools, “guns, and ammunition from the legally licensed traders and carried the articles back into the wilderness. There they traded the goods to more distant tribes. Since the role of middleman was profitable, rivalries developed among the Indians. By seizing control of the rugged transportation routes that led from the French settlements to the upper Great Lakes, the Huron tribes became dominant.
Meanwhile Dutch and English traders were pressing northward along the Hudson River. They, too, worked through Indian middlemen—the confederated tribes that made up the Iroquois nation. When the Iroquois sought to handle pelts that otherwise would have been traded by the Huron, explosive wars broke out.
The whites joined the rivalry. They armed their Indians and provided them with early-day technical advisers—bold young men who lived with the tribes, cajoled them into resisting the blandishments of the other side, and helped them in their battles. Associated with the emissaries from the St. Lawrence were Jesuit priests, who joined the trading groups in order to live with the heathens they hoped to convert.
In 1646 young Médart Chouart (he had not yet become Sieurdes Groseilliers) travelled with a group of Jesuits to Huronia, on the shores of Georgian Bay, the northeastern bulge of rock-bound Lake Huron. He learned firsthand the staggering difficulties of toiling in a canoe up the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, of portaging around the rapids while black flies and mosquitoes devoured him, and of slogging through fetid marshes in order to cross the low divide near Lake Nipissing. He learned, too, that the Huron were starting their long slide into defeat. In 1648 and again in 1649 Iroquois raiders swept through the Huronia villages, killing and ravaging. The shattered Huron fled west to new homes around Lake Michigan and south of Lake Superior.
The dispersal left the French settlements in desperate straits. The trade on which they depended had ceased to exist. In 1652 not one beaver pelt reached the warehouses at Montreal.
The next year hope revived. Via roundabout northern routes three canoes slipped into the village of Trois Riviâres, below Montreal, with reports that a new Indian trading fair was being organized far to the west. Simultaneously an Iroquois delegation approached Quebec with an offer of peace.
Groseilliers undertook to find the new Huron villages and persuade the Indians that it was again safe to bring furs to the St. Lawrence. With a companion he spent the winter of 1654–55 at Green Bay, a western arm of Lake Michigan. The next summer, while prowling through what is now northern Wisconsin to spread the good news, the two men picked up reports of an enormous wealth of unexploited beaver around Lake Superior. The following year they led a flotilla of richly laden canoes back over the long waterways from Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence.
Montreal rejoiced. Rewarded with a part of the furs, Groseilliers settled with his wife on a seigniory near Trois Riviâres. There he took to swapping tales with Madame Groseilliers’ half brother, Pierre Radisson.
Radisson’s career had been equally strenuous. In 1651, aged fifteen, he had been captured by Mohawk and adopted by one of their families. For attempting to escape, he was bound in such a way that he could contemplate his own coming punishment by watching the torture of fellow captives. He witnessed the slow disembowelment of a pregnant Frenchwoman and the pouring of molten lead into the wounds of other victims. As for himself, he wrote later, a Mohawk warrior ” run through my foot a swoord red out of the fire and plucked several of my nails.” But, he added, his foster parents intervened to keep things from growing really rough.
As soon as he could walk, he made another break, reached the Dutch in upper New York, and returned to Canada by way of France. Shortly thereafter he joined a mission that the Jesuits were preparing to send among the Onondaga in response to the Iroquois peace feeler of 1653. He traded on the side, and when he returned to Trois Riviâres in 1657, still only twenty-one, he was a seasoned veteran.
Fired by their own talk, Groseilliers and Radisson decided to tap the fur supply of the Lake Superior region. When they applied to Governor d’Argenson for licenses, he imposed conditions that would have made him a secret, nonworking partner in the venture. Unwilling to pay so high a price, the brothers-in-law impulsively decamped overnight with a group of westbound Indians, confident that if they achieved a success like Groseilliers’ in 1656 their illegality would be forgiven.
They survived a starving winter at Chequamegon Bay, on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. When the ice broke in the spring of 1660, they chanced to meet a party of wild, shy Crée Indians from the north. These Crée had with them, for trade to Huron or Ottawa middlemen, the glossiest beaver pelts that the French traders had ever seen. Eagerly the two entrepreneurs inquired about the source of the furs. As an incident to the answers, they heard of massive rivers that rose beyond a nearby divide of ice-scoured granite (the high part of the Canadian Shield) and ran northward to an inland sea of salt water. The journey to that sea, the Cree went on, was neither long nor laborious.
The implications were startling, for the foaming waterways that the Frenchmen had followed through the Shield from Montreal were both long and extraordinarily difficult. Now it seemed that there might be an easier way.
One can imagine them scratching lines into the earth with twigs so as to bring into focus such geography as they knew. Though ill-informed about early sea explorations to the north, they somehow guessed, wildly but accurately, that the Crée salt water was Hudson Bay. Speculation leaped. Would the government finance them on a scouting trip to learn whether it was possible for a ship to creep into the bay at the beginning of each brief summer, lure the Indians to a trading rendezvous at the mouth of one of the rivers, and then leave with the furs before the ice closed in? If developments were favorable, would they be granted a monopoly?
True, they were currently operating outside the law. In view of the circumstances, however, their small dereliction about licenses surely would be overlooked.
Hopefully they returned to tradestarved Montreal at the head of a fleet of Indian canoes “that did almost cover ye whole river.” But the axe fell anyway. After imposing the normal 25 per cent tax on the portion of furs that Groseilliers and Radisson considered their own, Governor d’Argenson added fines that were all but confiscatory, and pocketed the bulk of the proceeds for himself. He also declined to hear talk of a route through Hudson Bay. Why should he listen? Opening a rival path to the interior would dilute the monopoly of the St. Lawrence.
Outraged, Groseilliers hurried to Paris to protest the fines and to ask for help in reaching Hudson Bay. He was brushed aside. But the thought of those wonderful furs kept the brothers-in-law from admitting defeat. Twice they hired ships in the hope of reaching the bay on their own, and twice they failed. Persisting still, they went to England. There, after long delays occasioned by outbreaks of plague, war, and London’s great fire, they gained audiences both with King Charles II and with the King’s cousin Prince Rupert. After more delays the prince eventually assembled half a dozen or so men who were willing to underwrite the explorations the Frenchmen proposed.
Two diminutive ships were loaded with trade goods—the Eaglet , forty feet long, of fifty-four tons burden, and the Nonsuch , a ketch thirty-seven feet long and of forty tons burden. Although Radisson and Groseilliers supervised most of the preparatory details, they were not allowed to take charge of the expedition. They were Frenchmen. In case of war between France and England, there might be problems of loyalty. Furthermore, if the adventure did result in notable discoveries, there would be protection for England in having it done under the aegis of a British citizen. Command, therefore, was given to Zachariah Gillam of Boston, Massachusetts, an experienced seaman who was also captain of the Nonsuch . Radisson and Groseilliers—whom the English insisted on calling Mr. Gooseberry—would go along as consultants.
The two ships sailed from Gravesend, on the Thames, on June 3, 1668. In mid-Atlantic a storm engulfed them. The Eaglet , with Radisson aboard, was damaged so severely that she had to turn back. The Nonsuch , on which Groseilliers had sailed, continued through Hudson Strait and turned along the flat eastern shore to the nipple at the southern end, James Bay.
Gillam beached the Nonsuch inside the mouth of a river that he named the Rupert. Close beside the ship the crew built Fort Charles, a hut of logs erected picket style. Though they lived well enough on wild fowl and fish, they were appalled by the six months of almost unimaginable cold.
News of their presence spread from Indian to Indian. Hundreds appeared at the spring thaw to exchange beaver pelts for the inestimable boon of tools, metal cooking utensils, cloth, and bright, cheap jewelry. Obviously trade could succeed in the bay. Delighted with the prospects they had opened, the adventurers hurried back to London, arriving October 9, 1669.
The lush furs caused a sensation. During the ensuing winter Prince Rupert easily persuaded eighteen men (he and the original backers included) to invest an average of three hundred pounds each toward forming a company for developing the trade. On May 2, 1670, King Charles granted this group a royal charter authorizing it to carry on commerce in “Furrs, Mineralls and other considerable commodityes.” On parchment, at least, H.B.C. had come into existence.
The charter also granted the company title to the entire watershed of Hudson Bay. In time surveyors would calculate the area at 1,486,000 square miles, or ten times the extent of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland combined. The document then went on to describe the legal mechanics whereby colonies, or “plantations,” complete with administrative officials and law courts, could be established in the area.
All this was a gambit in international chess-playing. In 1670 not Charles II, Groseilliers, Gillam, or anyone else could have had the least notion about the extent of the territory involved. Amounts did not matter. The real purpose was to counter in advance any conflicting claims that France might try to assert on the plea that her citizens had settled Canada first. By declaring an intention to plant a colony where no Frenchman (except Groseilliers) had yet set foot, the English might be able to contain their rivals within the granite-cramped bounds of the St. Lawrence.
Management of the new company was placed in the hands of a governor (Prince Rupert was the first) and a committee of seven. Although they were called “Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay,” none of the English shareholders had the least intention of risking either the icebergs or the Indians. Supervision of that work was entrusted to a resident director, also called governor. The first one was Charles Bayly, a dour Quaker who had played with King Charles as a lad but had later been clapped into the Tower of London for his all but seditious criticism of the lax ways of the court. Bayly evidently considered exile at Hudson Bay preferable to confinement in the Tower, and Charles obliged him by foisting him off onto the Honourable Company.
Aided primarily by Radisson and Groseilliers, Bayly soon established three posts on the southern perimeter of James Bay: Fort Charles, enlarged with brick and mortar Moose Factory at the mouth of Moose River and north of Moose Factory, Fort Albany. Because each post offered better blankets, hardware, and guns than did the French traders from Montreal, Indians flocked to them. The Crée, who lived to the south, and the Assiniboin, who lived to the southwest, began jockeying for position as middlemen. Abruptly the French awoke to therealization that thousands of pelts that once would have worked their way through aboriginal trade routes to the St. Lawrence were now being diverted to the Bay.
The officials in Quebec were in a quandary. Choice northern beaver skins, as contrasted with poorer pelts from farther south, were still the lifeblood of the colony’s economy. The English traders had to be checked—but, unhappily, France and England were currently yoked together as uneasy allies against the Dutch. Fearing that an overt attack on the posts at the bay would bring thunder from Paris, the unhappy men at Quebec decided to tiptoe around the dilemma.
One move was to assemble representatives of fifteen Indian tribes at a great council beside the roaring cataracts—the Sault of St. Mary’s River, the link between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. There, on June 4, 1671, with the assent of the Indians, who hardly understood what was happening, a bewigged and bespangled representative of the King of France proclaimed French sovereignty over all the lands roundabout, as far as the western, northern, and southern seas. Mere words, of course—but to French minds as good as the words in the charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In marked contrast to this pomp were two spying missions undertaken for Montreal by a remarkable Jesuit, Father Albanel, who travelled to the bay by foot and canoe with small parties of Indians. On his second trip, in 1674, Albanel struck Governor Bayly as being altogether too friendly with Groseilliers, who was wintering there. In the spring Bayly sent the pair under suspicion to London, where the embarrassed committee quickly apologized. This was not enough for Radisson and Groseilliers, however. They felt underpaid at best. Their brains had been well picked, and as the need for their advice had declined, they had found themselves treated with increasing disdain. Aroused by this last indignity, they followed Albanel to France and there sought to interest the French court in backing a competitive invasion of the bay.
Paris declined to respond. Years passed before the brothers-in-law made contact with a wealthy merchant of Quebec, Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye, who, in spite of frowns from the governor, had been trying to set into motion exactly the sort of enterprise that Radisson and Groseilliers were proposing. He was delighted to obtain their know-how.
Loading two small ships with goods, the trio sailed in 1682 from Quebec to a low, marshy point of land between the Hayes and Nelson rivers, on the western shore of the great bay. To their astonishment two other parties appeared almost at once. The first was a group of Bostonians led by Benjamin Gillam, son of Zachariah Gillam of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Shortly thereafter along came Zachariah himself, in charge of the company ship Rupert . With Gillam was a new resident governor, John Bridgar, big with plans for building a factory at the point.
There were many Indians about, and during the winter the rival groups did not dare weaken themselves with quarrels. As it was, there were casualties enough. Winds swept the Rupert out to sea, where she was crushed by ice. In the disaster Zachariah Gillam and several hands perished.
At the first sign of spring, while the others were off guard, Chesnaye, Radisson, and Groseilliers pounced. They made prisoners of everyone. After constructing one sound ship of their two winter-battered craft, they loaded aboard it all the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company except Governor Bridgar and sent them to the posts at James Bay. Smugly the Frenchmen then appropriated the New England ship, the Batchellor’s Delight , and both parties’ furs for themselves. Leaving Groseilliers’ son in charge of Port Nelson, as they called their post, they sailed to Quebec, taking the New Englanders and Governor Bridgar along as prisoners.
The governor in Quebec promptly released the captives and restored their ship to them. In spite of the conciliatory gesture, the Hudson’s Bay Company charged piracy, asked heavy damages, and sought to use the incident as a means of obtaining French recognition of their claims to the entire watershed of Hudson Bay. Although the French government refused the demands, it did disavow the action of the traders and ordered them to apologize.
At some point during the dispute Groseilliers died. On his own now, disgusted by what he considered French abjectness, and influenced by his wife, who was the daughter of one of the Honourable Company’s original shareholders, Radisson returned to English service. Sailing to the Nelson River in 1684, he captured from the French the fort he had built there and persuaded young Groseilliers also to switch allegiance to the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was Radisson’s last notable service for the firm he had helped originate.
That same year the company declared its first dividend, a thumping one of 50 percent. Not all was well, however. The French were growing aggressive. Stung by Radisson’s defection, mariners of the Quebec firm that once had employed him seized a Hudson’s Bay Company ship in 1685 and carried it as a prize to the St. Lawrence. There a new governor greeted the raiders not with reprimands but with congratulations. The next year the same governor sent thirty soldiers and seventy voyageurs overland to James Bay. Surprise was total—and, anyway, the English cannon pointed toward the sea. The French captured the three southern posts. Only Port Nelson remained in English hands.
A first the losses caused surprisingly little hurt. The Nelson River, more than the streams of James Bay, tapped the heartland of the north, and Indians flocked down it with their furs. In 1690, flushed with euphoria, the London directors voted a three-for-one stock split and then declared a 25 per cent dividend on the augmented total.
The move was premature. At the bay trade had already slacked off. The persistent French had at last pushed through the granitic Shield into the heartland and were diverting part of its furs to the St. Lawrence.
The breakthrough was a triumph in environmental adaptation. Even as recently as the days of Groseilliers the colonial fur monopoly had continued to urge the Indians to sell their furs at controlled rendezvous sites along the St. Lawrence. As the white population grew, however, increasing numbers of unlicensed coureurs de bois took to breaking the pattern. They smuggled goods to distant Indian villages, picked up the furs on the spot, and smuggled the pelts back to illegitimate market places.
In an effort to meet this shadowy competition, the monopoly began sending its own traders among the Indians. A race began. Building on years of experience, the aggressive French learned how to take their birch-bark canoes westward to the region north of Lake Superior, near Lake Nipigon. They managed to arrive just as the Indians of the area were starting their trips to Port Nelson, soon rechristened York Factory. But why make the journey when the French were at hand? The Indians bartered as many of their finest pelts to the newcomers as the traders could handle in their canoes, and then let the surplus, mostly coarser, cheaper furs, go down the rivers to York.
The English reaction was stodgy but firm. The traders at Hudson Bay lacked the long experience with Indians that their rivals possessed. They were afraid of the vast, silent lands of the interior. Moreover, they could not find on those barren coasts the birch bark and cedar necessary for building canoes. In the face of these difficulties it would be better, the directors decided, not to compete in the interior but to step up efforts to bring more Indians to York Factory. After all, the English, too, had advantages. The quantity of merchandise that the French could carry over the long canoe routes from Montreal was limited. York Factory, by contrast, was stocked by ocean ship with an abundance of superior cloth, ironware, and tasty Brazilian tobacco. If a qualified emissary were sent among the Indians to urge these truths, the flow of trade would surely resume.
The messenger chosen for the promotional trip was Henry Kelsey, aged twenty. Kelsey had come to Port Nelson about the same time as Radisson, in 1684. He had accepted the new world with a boy’s wide-eyed delight. Unlike most of his fellows, he preferred the nomadic camps of the Indians to the boredom of the more comfortable trading posts. Carefree journeys along the bleak shores of the bay soon brought him a reputation as a traveller, and when the matter of a selling trip among the Crée and Assiniboin arose, he actually wanted to go.
He wandered joyously for two years. He kept a record of sorts, partly in doggerel. (“In sixteen hundred and ninetyth year / I set forth as plainly may appear …”) It is not possible to tell from his meager descriptions exactly where he did go, but he certainly reached the Saskatchewan River, followed it westward a distance, and then turned south into the Great Plains, country that the French had not yet touched.
In 1692 he brought back to York Factory “a good fleet of Indians” and the first written description of the Canadian interior. Nothing came of it. During his absence France and England had declared war. Trade stagnated. Now and then warships of one nation or the other slid into the bay—the different posts changed hands repeatedly—and in 1697, during a climactic naval battle, Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d’Iberville, sank a fiftytwo-gun English man-of-war and captured one of the supply ships she was escorting. The price of Hudson’s Bay Company stock crumbled from £260 to £80. For twenty-seven years, from 1691 through 1717, there were no dividends.
In Europe, English arms were more successful. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) recognized the fact by confirming English sovereignty over the Hudson Bay drainage system and returning to the company the posts held by the French. The long work of rebuilding then began.
One new post, massive Fort Prince of Wales, was erected at the mouth of the Churchill River, far north of York Factory. The purpose was as conservative as ever—to lure in Indians, this time the Chipewyan, who lived around the icy shores of Great Slave Lake. Why do more? A postwar depression had slowed the French, and trade was dropping by default into English hands. Costs of less than twenty thousand pounds a year produced annual profits ranging from four thousand to ten thousand pounds, to be distributed among fewer than a hundred stockholders.
It was a false security. The French, too, recouped. From Montreal, North America’s greatest family of adventurers, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, his three sons, and a nephew, launched a new drive into the heartland. First they created a staging depot at Grand Portage on the western shore of Lake Superior, so that goods could be stored there during the winter and then rushed ahead as soon as the ice went out of the rivers. Because food was always a major problem for the hurrying boatmen, the Vérendryes built supporting posts at Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, where their men raised crops and bought wild rice from the Indians. They improved the arduous portage trails and used missionaries to help bring peace to the warring tribes. Their wilderness diplomacy sometimes backfired. Hoping to woo the Crée away from York Factory, La Vérendrye let one of his boys march with a Crée war party against the Sioux. In vengeance the Sioux later massacred twenty-one Frenchmen, including La Vérendrye’s eldest son. The French wanted beaver? Very well, here was some—and the Indians wrapped the decapitated heads of the slain men in beaver pelts for La Vérendrye to find.
In spite of such shocks La Vérendrye kept pushing west. By the middle of the 1740’s the family combine had posts south and west of Lake Winnipeg. Unlicensed coureurs de bois kept pace with them, and soon the number of choice pelts reaching York Factory dropped by one third.
Attacks at home were added to those in the field. Arthur Dobbs, SurveyorGeneral of Ireland and the company’s most dedicated critic, urged the abrogation of its charter because of neglect of duty. He pointed out that the company was not searching for the Northwest Passage from Hudson Bay to the Pacific. It had allowed the French to establish themselves in its own territories, thus sacrificing trade that would have stimulated employment in English factories. And on and on, until Parliament, squirming under the goad, first offered a reward of twenty thousand pounds to whoever found the passage—Dobbs promptly tried with two ships, but failed—and next, in 1749, ordered a full-scale investigation of the company’s activities.
In answer to the hostile inquiries, the company cited the trips its men had made—Kelsey’s to the plains, and sporadic ventures along the bay’s north coast, during one of which the resident governor James Knight and the crews of two small sloops had died horribly in the ice. In 1743, furthermore, Joseph Isbister of Fort Albany had countered French activity north of Lake Superior by building Henley House at the forks of the Albany River. Henley was a meager place, only about one hundred and forty miles from salt water, but historic nevertheless, for it was the company’s first inland post.
The charter survived. Unfortunately, victory in Parliament restored complacency in North America. When Anthony Henday was sent to the foot of the Rockies in 1754, it was in furtherance of the old bankrupt policy: find new Indians and bring them to the bay. He failed. The horse-riding Blackfeet whom he met told him that they did not understand canoes and, furthermore, that they hated fish, which they would have to eat if they left the plains. They would rather stay in their own country, feast on buffalo meat, and buy such goods as they needed from the Cree and Assiniboin, middlemen who traded with the French to the east.
Convinced that the cultural patterns of the Plains Indians could not be changed, Henday urged his employers to change theirs. They declined to take him seriously. He was not a reliable observer, they decided. He said that he had seen Indians on horseback, though everyone knew there were no horses in the western wilderness. Besides, the French were finished. A new war had erupted. In 1759 Quebec fell to Wolfe and in 1763 the Peace of Paris removed France entirely from North America. At last the field was clear—or so it seemed.
Disabusement came swiftly. Into the vacuum left by the French rushed a new horde of exploiters—Scotsmen, English, and men from the American colonies. At first the chaos of the invasion hid the extent of its threat. The newcomers struggled ferociously with one another for supremacy. They lived hand-to-mouth on shaky credit, debauched the Indians with drink, raided one another’s posts, and occasionally killed one another.
The London committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company sniffed at the rabble as “Pedlars,” but their traders in the field were alarmed. The Pedlars might be at each other’s throats, but among them they were getting even more furs than the French had. The time had arrived when the company must exploit its shorter trade routes from the bay and move into the interior ahead of the enemy.
London finally agreed. New outposts were scattered from Henley House southward toward Lake Superior. More vitally, in 1774 Cumberland House was built well up the Saskatchewan by Samuel Hearne, a young explorer who had recently achieved renown for his harrowing overland trip to the mouth of the Coppermine River on the Arctic Ocean. Now let the Pedlars come!
They did, in dismaying force. A league of Montreal merchants strong enough to command ample credit in London linked themselves to the traders, who were called “wintering partners.” Ruthlessly this group stamped out internal competition and emerged as the famed North West Company of Canada. Aggressiveness was fostered by giving key field men shares in the firm, a profit incentive that the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company lacked.
Nowhere did the zest produce more spectacular results than in the new company’s transportation system. Canoes forty feet long, aided later by tiny sailing ships, carried cargo to the distribution center of Grand Portage on the west side of Lake Superior. (After Grand Portage was found to be in American territory, the center was shifted forty miles northward to Fort William on the Kamanistiquia River.) There the bales of merchandise were reloaded onto smaller canoes for transport over hundreds of miles of white water to posts as far away as Athabasca and, somewhat later, New Caledonia, beyond the Rockies.∗∗ The Athabasca country lay in what is now northern Alberta Province and stretched west to the Rockies. New Caledonia became British Columbia.
One essential to the system was the skill and staying power of the singing French-Canadian voyageurs from the St. Lawrence. Another was concentrated food for sustaining the paddlers on their heroic journeys. West of Rainy Lake they relied chiefly on pemmican made of dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and mixed with melted fat. The center for the preparation of pemmican was the prairie land south and southwest of Lake Winnipeg, along the Red River and its tributaries.
By keeping this far-flung network operating smoothly, the Nor’Westers grew into a giant combine that each year exported six or seven times as many furs as the Hudson’s Bay Company. And yet the headlong expansion bred its own problems, including a host of young clerks clamoring for a share of the profits, a demand that could be met only by further growth. At that point the fragile canoes showed their limitations. Additional posts in the Canadian west could not be serviced from Montreal.
A search for a usable river outlet to the Pacific began. After a false cast to the Arctic in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie finally managed, in 1793, to traverse the formidable mountains of today’s British Columbia and reach salt water at Bella Coola Sound. Although a tremendous feat of exploration, it solved no problems the canyons that Mackenzie travelled would never do for boat transport. And so a fight began to force the Hudson’s Bay Company to share the river ports of its jealously guarded inland sea.
At the outset of the struggle the English company appeared much weaker than its opponent. Though it had developed shallow-draft overgrown rowboats equipped with sails for quiet water—York boats, they were called—and had imported sturdy Orkneymen from Scotland for manning them, its traders generally reached the Indians half a jump behind the rampaging Nor’Westers. The bulk of the choicest lightweight furs still went to Montreal, leaving the company to barter for the heavier, coarser pelts—skins difficult to market during the dislocations of the Napoleonic wars.
There was one strength, however. The company’s stockholders did not have to live on their dividends, as the Nor’Westers did. They had waited out trouble before, and they did so now. Unable to stampede them by public attacks on their charter, Mackenzie next sought, with the financial backing of Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, to buy control of the company. That effort also failed, mainly because of a clash between Mackenzie and Selkirk over policies to be followed in the event of success.
After the collapse of the venture Selkirk found himself with considerable company stock on hand. Promptly he set about familiarizing himself with the business. One weakness struck him hard—that ancient charter. How could its validity be established against future attack?
He devised an extraordinary plan. He was already committed to setting up colonies in Canada where impoverished Highlanders from Scotland might begin their lives anew. The company charter allowed the formation of colonies on company land. Very well, then. He would obtain a tract from the company, and by planting a colony on it would help his Highlanders while affirming the charter. There would be other benefits. The colonists would grow food for the company’s posts and boat crews. They would furnish a pool of manpower on which the company would draw.
The area he selected lay south of Lake Winnipeg. The first colonists, travelling with great hardship through Hudson Bay, reached the site of their intended village near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers (Winnipeg stands there today) in 1812. (See “The Boy Artist of Red River” in the February, 1970, AMERICAN HERITAGE .) It was a choice spot, but it lay in the heart of the Nor’Westers’ pemmican country. No matter what Selkirk said about his humanitarianism, to the North West Company the colony looked like a flagrant attempt to disrupt their provisioning routines and thus cripple their transportation system. They reacted explosively.
In 1815 a gang of métis, the half-breed buffalo hunters of the North West Company, burned the colony’s huts and trampled its crops. The terrified settlers fled toward York Factory. On the way they met flamboyant Colin Robertson, a onetime Nor’Wester who had deserted to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Defiantly Robertson brought the fugitives back to Red River. During the tense winter that followed, he imprisoned Duncan Cameron, the “wintering partner” in charge of the Nor’Westers’ nearby Fort Gibraltar. Later the governor of the Selkirk colony, Robert Semple, razed the structure itself.
As soon as spring made travel possible, the Nor’Westers began gathering to free Cameron. Before they reached the settlement, however, the métis struck again—the infamous “Massacre of Seven Oaks.” During the carnage Semple and twentyone settlers died.
Selkirk, who was on his way to Red River with a guard of mercenary soldiers, retaliated by seizing the Nor’Westers’ great staging depot, Fort William, on Lake Superior. Simultaneously the traders in the fur country plunged into mutually exhausting campaigns of harassment and disruption.
The British government at Quebec sent investigators into the field. Parliament resounded with charges and countercharges. In Quebec, as well as in Montreal, the battle seemed a draw, but in the wilderness the Nor’Westers broke.
The North West Company had overextended in order to build forts in New Caledonia and to buy, during the War of 1812, John Jacob Astor’s post of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was impossible to digest that expansion while carrying on a wasteful feud. Disgusted by dwindling profits and by the unyielding belligerence of the firm’s Montreal agents, winterers John McLoughlin, a towering six feet four inches tall, and Angus Bethune led a revolt in search of peace.
The upshot, after intricate maneuvering, was a union of the two companies. Although the former winterers of the North West Company placed more of their men in responsible positions in the field than did the English company and won a profit-sharing arrangement for all principal workers, the name of the new continent-wide firm was familiar: the Hudson’s Bay Company. Management stayed in London London appointed the resident governor. Aided by the inevitabilities of geography, the little David of the North had swallowed Goliath.
The new resident governor was pudgy George Simpson, a meticulously trained, disagreeably cocky one-time sugar broker’s clerk from London. Except for a hard winter in Athabasca during the final year of the conflict, he had had no experience in the fur trade. But he was aboil with energy, and he had a genius for organization.
He reassessed every post from Labrador to New Caledonia, let some stand, moved a few, closed several. He demanded that those in kindly climates grow enough vegetables and livestock to feed themselves. He instituted new transport systems, sending ships around Cape Horn to supply the Columbia district and using York boats out of Hudson Bay to service the posts in the interior. The colorful canoe brigades from Montreal were abandoned, a sore blow to the economy of Lower Canada but an inevitable move for a firm devoted to paring costs.
Expansion continued, more methodically now. Robert Campbell opened the Yukon. Sailing ships, and later a steamboat, plied the north Pacific coast, buying sea otter from the Indians. A trade in salmon and timber was developed with San Francisco and Hawaii. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company, managed by John McLoughlin, the benevolent chief factor of Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, was formed to provide Russian Alaska with meat, grain, and dairy products.
When American trappers sought to invade the Oregon country, they were easily held back by roving brigades under Peter Skene Ogden and, later, John Work. Settlers were something else. Spearheaded by missionaries to the Indians, they poured into Oregon during the early 1840’s, bought supplies on credit from McLoughlin, and then, seeking undivided American jurisdiction over the area (instead of joint sovereignty with Great Britain), raised loud clamors against the company’s autocratic ways. Beset by other crises in international affairs, the British government in 1846 yielded to President Polk and let the boundary between the countries be drawn at the forty-ninth parallel, save for the overlapping southern tip of Vancouver Island. There, at Fort Victoria, McLoughlin having resigned to become an American citizen, James Douglas established the company’s new western headquarters.
The filling up of Oregon was a harbinger. In 1858 discoveries of gold along the Fraser River brought a stampede of miners into British Columbia. Far to the east lumberjacks invaded the Canadian Shield and augmented their income by trapping in defiance of the company’s monopolistic rights. In the Midwest the métis of the Red River regularly left their little farms to smuggle furs to buyers in Minnesota.
The Indians, too, were retreating before the thrusts of civilization, and soon it was clear that a fur empire and population centers could not exist side by side. Suggestions began to be heard that Rupert’s Land (the Hudson Bay watershed) be annexed to Canada, a name then applied to the eastern provinces only.
The company reluctantly agreed in principle but asked £1,500,000 in payment. An impasse developed. Canada could not raise the sum, and the French of Quebec, fearing dilution of their political strength, did not want the land anyway. Expansionists tried to break through the money barrier by suggesting that the Crown, which had alienated the land long ago by giving it to the company, was now obligated to buy it back. England resisted. She did not wish to purchase a large block of land and then, if annexation failed to develop, be left to administer a treasury-draining crown colony.
The sentiment for a coast-to-coast confederation of Canada was growing, however, and it was unlikely that a monopolistic landholdingof such gargantuan proportions would be allowed to remain undisturbed. Taking advantage of the current, an investment company known as the International Financial Society startled the business world in 1863 by purchasing control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It reorganized the firm under a new set of officers, increased its capitalization, and offered stock to the public with promises of quick profits from the sale of land to settlers. The promoters then pulled out, having reaped a goodly sum from their manipulations.
The company’s new board of directors soon realized that the tide of immigration was not yet as strong as they had been led to believe. As its new stockholders grew increasingly indignant over the failure of the land to move, the directors became more and more anxious to sell to either Canada or England—but not at just any price. And so the three-way dickering went on: Who should pay, and how much?
The situation grew intolerable. The American Midwest was filling with settlers, and Canadians feared a northward thrust by their acquisitive neighbors unless defensive measures were taken by someone stronger than the company. At the same time demands were increasing for a cross-country railroad, which, of course, could not be built through privately held land. Abruptly, in 1869, the British government solved matters by imposing terms that the company’s board of directors did not like but that they accepted rather than face a long legal battle. Under this settlement, called the Deed of Surrender, the company retained its trading rights but sold nineteen twentieths of Rupert’s Land, the socalled Fertile Belt, to Great Britain for £300,000. H.B.C. kept one twentieth—part of the Fertile Belt in the west—to sell for settlement. Britain then allowed Canada, which had become a confederated dominion in 1867, to annex the entire area.
As its land commissioner to sell off the reserved one twentieth of its former holdings (some seven million acres), the directors chose lean, hard, bushy-browed Donald A. Smith, a one-time fur trader in Labrador and former manager of the company’s Montreal district. He had scant success at first. Immigrants preferred the better-advertised fields of the American West. To help turn the tide northward (and to reap profits for himself, an activity that always commanded his exuberant attention), Smith became one of the prime movers of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Meanwhile he acquired enough stock in the Hudson’s Bay Company so that in 1889, when he was sixty-nine, he was able to have himself elected governor in London. He was the first field man ever to attain that exalted rank.
At the turn of the century, when the arable lands of the United States were finally filled, the long-awaited rush into south-central Canada began. Millions of acres of company land sold at such fine prices that in 1906–07 stock dividends approached 50 per cent for the first time since 1688. The success was so great, indeed, that for a time it blinded Smith to another source of income inherent in the headlong growth of the Canadian West—the turning of one-time trading posts into retail stores. The company’s sagging forts and the town lots it was offering for sale were almost completely surrounded by aggressive merchants who were making good profits. Finally the board jarred itself awake, and in 1910 it started a series of studies designed to transform primitive systems of bartering into the sophisticated routines of modern retailing.
The company’s first two block-sized department stores, both several stories high, were built in 1913 in Vancouver and Calgary. A few months later, in January, 1914, Donald Smith, honored now as Lord Mount Royal and Strathcona, . died at the age of ninety-four. In the long span of his governorship his company once again had managed, as so often before, to catch up with its competitors.
The First World War interrupted the building program—but at no loss to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which used its international trading organization to purchase and transport mountains of supplies for France and Russia. When the conflict ended, land sales boomed again. This time the company matched the population growth with a swift expansion of its retail and mail-order facilities. In 1931 supervision of the chain of stores was shifted from London to a subdirectorate with headquarters in Winnipeg.
Surprisingly, the changes did not bring about as dismal a drop in fur-trade revenues as Smith himself had once predicted. Using light planes for swift communication and tractors and snowmobiles for pulling trains of sleds, the company today has pushed its trading posts to the edges of the Arctic Ocean and has developed a flourishing commerce with the Eskimos. Radisson and Groseilliers would have approved. After all, in the three hundred years since they launched the company, that has been the one unswerving goal—finding and pleasing the customers, whether in wigwams, igloos, or modern apartment houses.
Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket: A Brief History
Recently I had the opportunity to bring my mother a gift. I was really struggling with the perfect offering but when I came across a Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket, I knew my search had ended. Was there anything more Canadian? Growing up, I was always familiar with the multi-stripe pattern of this iconic blanket. One of my most treasured possessions now is a baby picture of my husband crawling around on one. However, I came to realize that after giving the newly acquired gift to my mother, I didn’t understand much of the blanket’s history.
It was time to look further into the iconic status of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. First commissioned by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1800, the multi-stripe design lives on as a testament to our shared Canadian heritage. Throughout the 18th century, wool blankets were among the most popular trade items in the Canadian fur trade, accounting for more than 60% of all goods exchanged by 1700. Although blankets had been a trade good offered for some time, it was not until 1779 that the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket came to life.
French fur-trader Germain Maugenest is thought to have advised the HBC to introduce point blankets. As part of his service of employment to HBC, he offered several suggestions for improving the growing inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. One of his suggestions was that the company should regularly stock and trade “pointed” blankets.
Points were identified by the indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A full point measured 4–5.5 inches (10–14 centimetres) a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1-point blankets was: 2 feet, 8 inches (81 centimetres) wide by 8 feet (2.4 metres) in length with a weight of 3 pounds, 1 ounce (1.4 kilograms) each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.
They allowed a blanket’s size to be easily determined even when folded – (Oh, how I wish all blankets and sheets came marked like this! Lord knows a system such as that found on Point Blankets would serve my current linen closet well…!) The point system was invented by French weavers in the mid-1700s since then, as now, blankets were shrunk as part of the manufacturing process. The word point derives from the French empointer, meaning “to make threaded stitches on cloth.”
The number of points on a blanket represents the overall finished size of the blanket – not its value in terms of beaver pelts, as is often thought.
Although some sources suggest there is some meaning to the stripe colours or order, the truth is that nothing intentional was meant by the design. The four traditional colours of green, red, yellow, and indigo were simply colours that were popular and easily produced using good colourfast dyes at the time (around 1800). They are sometimes referred to as Queen Anne’s colours, since they first became popular during her reign (1702–1714).
The 1974 Calgary Stamped Royalty. Happy Barlow, Karin Kraft, Sis Thacker.
Interestingly enough, HBC did not roll out its first commercially available Point Blanket coat until 1922, although fur traders, voyageurs and Indigenous peoples had already been making them into coats for almost 200 years by then. These too, come with a long, interesting history.
What I love most about the HBC Point Blankets are their rich history and the fact that back in the early days of fur trading, they were well suited for cold Canadian winters. I had a Grandfather who tried to make an early living out of the trapping of beaver pelts. I can almost picture him traveling by dogsled with his young wife (my Grandmother) draped in a Point Blanket, deep into the wilderness of Canada.
Today, the blankets still hold their iconic status and warmth and as such, are used in a multitude of ways for home decor or fashion.
As seen in Vogue Australia. Source: Pinterest.
With their pops of color, these blankets make Canadiana statements wherever you look. From couch throws, to mugs, to the patterns on towels at a cottage retreat – the HBC Point Blanket pattern has inspired many a home. The pattern has also made appearances on special edition Canadian Olympic blankets, snowboards, Barbies, and milestone anniversary Canadian gifts.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rowell of Rowell Photo
Often duplicated, all genuine HBC Point Blankets come with authenticity labels. This has been done since 1890, as point blankets of similar quality were being sold by HBC competitors. In April 2017 HBC updated the label, rotating it from portrait to landscape, making it is easy to have English and French on either side of the crest. It was also enhanced with red on the flag. To celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017, HBC added an additional label which was a picture of voyageurs in a canoe, with CANADA on the top, to the blanket.
With such an elaborate history dating back to the early days of fur traders and settlers in Canada, I believe we’ll start to see more of the HBC Point Blanket influence in western lifestyle culture too, as our younger generations begin to understand its importance to our early beginnings. To me, it’s a symbol of early pioneering. A good that was crafted into a need and helped forge early Canada. It goes hand in hand with a wood-burning stove and a love of the past. What’s more western than that?
Hudson’s Bay Company Announces Division to Redevelop Real Estate Assets
Hudson's Bay, Queen Street, Toronto - Photo by Hudson's Bay
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The Hudson’s Bay Company has announced the launch of a real estate arm to capitalize on assets at a challenging time for the company. The division, called HBC Properties and Investments, will look to convert some of Hudson’s Bay’s real estate into mixed-use developments.
The Hudson’s Bay Company owns or controls (either entirely or with joint venture partners) about 40 million square feet of gross leasable area across North America, including retail banners Hudson’s Bay in Canada, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks OFF 5TH. As part of the HBC Properties and Investments initiative, the company is utilizing the 40-year-old large-scale US-based property development company Streetworks Development, which HBC acquired last year, to create “transformative multi-use environments” that marks a milestone in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s shift to a holding company structure with distinct portfolio businesses that operate “at the intersection of retail and real estate”.
“This is an exciting phase of our company’s transformation and provides us with a significant opportunity to unleash the full potential of our real estate and investments business, said Richard Baker, CEO and Executive Chairman of the Hudson’s Bay Company. “Under this new organization, we will build upon our strong foundation of valuable real estate assets in key demographic areas.”
“We will also continue our strong track record of maximizing our portfolio and generating value from these assets, as we did through the sales of the Lord + Taylor flagship building (on 5th Avenue in New York City) and our interest in European real estate assets,” said Baker. “With the team’s deep expertise and forward-thinking approach to capitalizing on the intersection of retail and real estate, HBC Properties and Investments is well-equipped to further elevate and increase the value of our portfolio.”
Ian Putnam has been appointed as President and CEO of HBC Properties and Investments — he previously served as President, Real Estate and Chief Corporate Development Officer of HBC. Putnam will lead the real estate portfolio and investments including Streetworks Developments.
Real estate veteran Kenneth Narva, Chairman and Chief Development Officer at HBC, will direct the Streetworks Development team in the planning and execution of projects that modernize properties to “unlock value-enhancing opportunities across the company’s real estate assets”. The new division will focus on creating multi-use spaces that feature a range of services and experiences across the workplace, retail, residential and entertainment categories.
Mr. Putnam said, “With HBC’s valuable portfolio of real estate and investments, including marquee flagship properties in prime metropolitan markets, coupled with Streetworks Development expertise, HBC Properties and Investments is well positioned to succeed in today’s landscape. As consumers continue to change the way they live, shop, and work, we are committed to capitalizing on these shifts while maximizing the productivity of our properties, including the physical locations of HBC’s retail operating companies”.
RENDERING OF A RENOVATED HUDSON’S BAY STORE IN MONTREAL, SANS TOWER. PHOTO: HUDON’S BAY
“At the end of the day, this is a strategic play to split real estate assets from retail operations. Is the intent to launch a REIT or sell off real state that’s more valuable than the retail operations?” said George Minakakis, CEO of Inception Retail Group. “There is no way to be certain in this climate. However when the virus gets under control you want to be in a position to dispose of underperforming assets or develop real estate for additional uses that would create more value. I believe it’s about ensuring you are prepared to exit. But as a holding company the only reason you make these releases is because you have a bigger plan,” he went on to say.
“The viability of Department Stores as a ‘species’ of retail has been in question for many years, first with the advent of enclosed malls, more recently with the vast array of brands selling directly to shoppers,” said David Ian Gray, Principal and retail strategist at Vancouver-based DIG360. “The DIG360 2017 study of Department Stores in Canada highlighted the rocky footing of The Bay in the wake of the demise of Sears Canada. This was in the face of the tremendous success of Winners and the growth of Nordstrom, La Maison Simons and the threat of Nordstrom Rack. HBC failed dramatically with Saks in Canada and has not overcome the gap in shopper experience between a few flagships and the suburban stores. More importantly, the ongoing erosion of easy to find, well-trained service staff means a reduced advantage over those selling similar fashions online.”
He went on to say, “For a number of years the mantra from the financial sector has been ‘HBC is a real estate play’. Is this move another signal that Mr. Baker is throwing in the towel on retailing? If so, this chain still represents a substantial dollar value and volume of apparel across the country in a ‘normal’ year. Large reductions in its footprint would mean a lost option for the older demographic that was continuing to patronize The Bay, even if less frequently. Of course, this would have a disruptive impact on vendors.”
Already, development applications are being made to transform some of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s storefronts in Canada. A recent proposal to the City of Montreal to modify the historic 655,000-square-foot downtown Hudson’s Bay flagship store could result in the building of a massive office tower along with a reduction in the footprint of the retail space within in the building. What would result is a real estate asset that would feature substantially more office space than retail space.
The proposal seeks permission to demolish the unattractive circa 1964 back-end of the Bay building facing onto Blv. Maisonneuve (intended at one time to become a 200,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue) and replace it with a 400-foot-tall office tower with 25 floors. The total office space, including levels five to eight of the retail store as well as the new tower, would span 678,000 square feet. The retail space in the building would be downsized to five levels (basement up to level four) spanning about 295,000 square feet.
1890S RENDERING OF COLONIAL HOUSE, THE FIRST NAME OF THE MORGAN’S DEPARTMENT STORE ON STE-CATHERINE ST. W. IN MONTREAL IMAGE VIA HBC ARCHIVES
The Sainte-Catherine Street side of the Bay building, referred to as ‘Colonial House’, is proposed to be restored as well as to see the addition of a public terrace overlooking Philips Square. The new grey glass and aluminum-clad office tower would feature a staggered design at floors nine, 14, and 20. A green roof is proposed as well.
The Montreal Bay store was built between 1891 and 1964, with the oldest part of the store facing onto Ste-Catherine Street. It was built as an upscale Henry Morgan department store which catered to the carriage trade (Macleans in 1953 referred to it as “most courtly department-store keepers in Canada”). Morgan’s expanded into Ontario before going into decline and being acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1960. In 1972 the Ste-Catherine Street Morgan’s store was converted to the current Hudson’s Bay store.
A French language report in La Press noted that the Montreal Hudson’s Bay building had been for sale through brokerage CBRE, as was the Vancouver Hudson’s Bay flagship store recently. The Hudson’s Bay Company still owns some of its stores, though in years past some assets have been sold including the flagship Queen Street Hudson’s Bay building and adjacent office tower in Toronto which Cadillac Fairview bought in 2014 for $650 million. The Hudson’s Bay Company exited European operations in markets including the Netherlands and Germany last year and also shut down its Canadian Home Outfitters division, among other recent moves.
Hudson’s Bay stores are currently unprofitable according to Mr. Putnam. Store shutdowns in March of this year created a major financial issue for the company which began canceling and downsizing orders from some vendors while extending payment terms. Now that stores have reopened, consumers are still hesitant to return to Hudson’s Bay stores or to shop at all for that matter. Some have complained that Hudson’s Bay had not done enough to ‘COVID-proof’ stores which feature credit card point-of-sale devices requiring manual password entry, for example.
The fall in sales during pandemic shutdowns were massive at some locations according to recent court filings by Cominar REIT which is suing the Hudson’s Bay Company for outstanding rents with threats of eviction. Cominar said that HBC hasn’t paid rent since April at Rockland Centre in Montreal (monthly rent $86,200), Mail Champlain in Brossard (rent $110,200/month), and at Centre Laval in Laval (rent $20,500/month). Notices of default were sent in June and notices of termination followed last month. In total, damages and unpaid rents claimed amount to $3.68 million for Rockland Centre, $26.95 million for Mail Champlain, and $2.21 million for Centre Laval. All three Bay stores in those malls are currently open.
HUDSON’S BAY STORE IN MAIL CHAMPLAIN. PHOTO: MAIL CHAMPLAIN
Oxford Properties is suing HBC for more than $2.29 million in unpaid rents at two shopping centres including Galeries de la Capitale in Quebec City (monthly rent of $220,000) and Promenades Gatineau near Ottawa ($145,900/month rent). Litigation documents noted that HBC had not paid rents for eight of the 11 Oxford-owned malls in Canada containing Hudson’s Bay stores.
The Hudson’s Bay Company claimed that the Oxford-owned malls are no longer “first class” and are not doing enough to attract shoppers. As a result, HBC says it is withholding rents. It wasn’t revealed which of the three Hudson’s Bay stores’ rent was paid, though one might guess that Toronto’s Yorkdale location and Square One were likely included given past sales numbers and the overall importance of those stores.
In April, at the worst of the pandemic, the number of transactions at the Promenades Gatineau Bay store near Ottawa fell by 99.1% (from 16,090 to just 149) compared to the same month of the previous year. Sales were down a whopping 99.5% (from $1.07 million to $ 7,926). Five months later, in September, transactions were still 35% lower than a year earlier (9,962 versus 15,337 12 months earlier). Sales were down nearly 29% (from $1.07 million to $759,000) over the same period.
The return to previous sales numbers were even slower at the Galeries de la Capitale near Quebec City, with sales in September being 39% lower than a year ago (from $1.73 million to $1 million). As for the number of transactions, it was down 43% from 22,425 to 12,684 over the same period.
In Quebec as well, Dorval Property Corporation, a Toronto real estate company that owns the Les Jardins Dorval shopping centre in Montreal, is suing HBC for unpaid rents amounting to almost $ 660,000.
Larco, owner of Park Royal in West Vancouver, is suing HBC for outstanding rents estimated to be about $365,000 and growing. Hudson’s Bay’s monthly rent is about $61,000 at Park Royal.
Hudson’s Bay is said to be in material default for its remaining shuttered real estate once occupied by home furnishings retailer Home Outfitters.
In the United States, 24 Lord & Taylor and 10 Saks Fifth Avenue locations are the target of a US $846.2 million foreclosure lawsuit by Wilmington Trust. Hudson’s Bay held the Lord & Taylor locations despite selling the retailer to Le Tote last year. The complaint alleges the borrowers missed the April 1 payment on a $846.2 million loan and have failed to make payments since. The April payment was the first one due after the COVID-19 outbreak caused widespread shutdowns.
Saks Fifth Avenue stores targeted for foreclosure under the loan include the following locations:
- Tysons Galleria near Washington DC in McLean, Virginia,
- Phipps Plaza in Atlanta,
- Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas,
- Dadeland Mall in Miami,
- Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station, New York,
- Chicago Place (700 N. Michigan Avenue) in Chicago,
- Beverly Hills, California (9600 Wilshire Blv.),
- Somerset Collection near Detroit in Troy, Michigan,
- North Star Mall in San Antonio, Texas, and
- Beachwood Place near Cleveland in Beachwood, Ohio.
Employees from HBC’s offices in Brampton Ontario are being moved to offices on Lawrence Avenue in Toronto. The company notes that it’s part of a “new way of working” as the world shifts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest continuously operating corporation in North America. It once owned much of Canada’s land mass and is now a retailer with 89 stores across Canada as well as an e-commerce site. Recently Hudson’s Bay announced that it would shutter stores in downtown Edmonton and in downtown Winnipeg, marking the end of a history where the Hudson’s Bay Company founded those communities and anchored retailing for decades.
Hudson’s Bay Blanket coats
Made from Hudson’s Bay point blankets, these striped coats are iconically Canadian. The blanket design was introduced in the late 1700s by the HBC, and the material was soon adapted into coats by fur traders. Point blanket coats remained popular in Canada, first as utilitarian garments, later as fashion. The true Hudson’s Bay blankets were made in England. Some were tailored for and sold by the Bay, others, while they bear the fabric tag showing they were made from Hudson’s Bay blankets, were made into coats by and were retailed by third party companies, as is the case with the red Maine Guide coat pictured below.
Right from the start, there were competitor companies with their own striped trade blankets, like Early’s Witney Point, Horn Brothers, Trapper Point, or Ayers. The list went on, each with their own variation on the basic striped scheme. Many of these also made their way into the production of coats and jackets. The classic 20th century point blanket coat is a double breasted, belted mackinaw style, though the fabric has been tailored into everything from a “perfecto” style motorcycle jacket to a pullover hoodie.
Recreation of HBC trading post, featuring point blanket capotes at left.
Hudson’s Bay Company Gallery, Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg
Examples from my collection
1950s Hudson’s Bay: The classic cut and colors. Interesting in that the orientation of the stripes is reversed from the usual
1960s Hudson’s Bay: Men’s shirt style. Also commonly seen in a women’s version.
c.1950s/1960s Mac Mor: Company founded in 1951, based out of North York, Ontario.
c. 1960s Gleneaton. Made of Ayers blanket. Milium insulated
1930s Hudson’s Bay. Very old one, with buttoned belt. Had buttons under collar for a hood
1940s Hudson’s Bay/ Maine Guide. Tailored by Maine Guide from HBC blanket
1960s Lakeland: Designed by Jeffrey Banks. 1949 union label. Same style blanket as the Buckskein, but reversed orientation
1950s Buck skein: Duffle coat style. “Thermalized” lining
The bold patterns and bright colors of these blanket coats put them squarely into the “love it or hate it” category of vintage menswear, and outside of their native Canadian habitat can seem a bit out of context. While they can seem a bit flashy by modern menswear standards, these coats came from a rugged outdoor tradition.
Photo from LIFE magazine photo archive
Men’s striped blanket coats are still available from a variety of makers, but they seem to have shied away from the traditional vibrant colors, opting instead for more subdued earth tones and shades of gray. While the Hudson’s Bay Company still retails their blankets (they now sell between $370 and $580), in an odd twist, their former competitors in the camp blanket market are now working with them. The material used in their current production blanket coats is made by Pendleton Woolen Mills. The blankets are distributed in the US by Woolrich Woolen Mills.
Henry Hudson’s Search for a “Northeast Passage”
Though little is known about Hudson’s early life, it seems he studied navigation and earned widespread renown for his skills, as well as his knowledge of Arctic geography. In 1607, the Muscovy Company of London provided Hudson financial backing based on his claims that he could find an ice-free passage past the North Pole that would provide a shorter route to the rich markets and resources of Asia. Hudson sailed that spring with his son John and 10 companions. They traveled east along the edge of the polar ice pack until they reached the Svalbard archipelago, well north of the Arctic Circle, before hitting ice and being forced to turn back.
Did you know? Knowledge gained during Henry Hudson&aposs four voyages significantly expanded on that from previous explorations made in the 16th century by Giovanni da Verrazano of Italy, John Davis of England and Willem Barents of Holland.
The following year, Hudson made a second Muscovy-funded voyage between Svalbard and the islands of Novaya Zemlya, to the east of the Barents Sea, but again found his way blocked by ice fields. Though English companies were reluctant to back him after two failed voyages, Hudson was able to gain a commission from the Dutch East India Company to lead a third expedition in 1609.
You've only scratched the surface of Hudson family history.
Between 1941 and 2004, in the United States, Hudson life expectancy was at its lowest point in 1946, and highest in 2001. The average life expectancy for Hudson in 1941 was 38, and 73 in 2004.
An unusually short lifespan might indicate that your Hudson ancestors lived in harsh conditions. A short lifespan might also indicate health problems that were once prevalent in your family. The SSDI is a searchable database of more than 70 million names. You can find birthdates, death dates, addresses and more.