Hudson’s Bay Company

It is one of the ironies of history that the British owe the beginnings of the famous Hudson’s Bay Company to their traditional enemies in North America: the French. Pierre-Esprit Radisson (who posthumously gave his name to the famed modern hotel chain) and his older brother-in-law, Médard Chouart, sieur des Groseilliers, were two of the famed French coureurs de bois, or “runners of the woods,” who began the trade in beaver skins.

In 1659, the hoard of pelts that Radisson and des Groseilliers brought to Quebec was so great it aroused the greed of the governorgeneral of New France, Pierre de Voyer, the vicomte d’Argenson. He had arrived in Quebec on July 11, 1658, to serve as the fifth governor-general of the colony.

Charles II, enjoying a fortunate beginning to his reign, was never one to miss the opportunity of seeking riches, in part because the British parliament sought to limit his power by the amount of money it voted him each year. According to Empire of the Bay, Radisson wrote, “The King gave good hope that we should have a ship ready for an expedition for the next spring. And he granted us 40 shillings a week for our maintenance.”

Queen Elizabeth I had made her mark by chartering the Honorable East India Company in 1600, and King Charles II had decided to do the same by chartering a company to trade with New France. However, before committing his limited royal funds to outright backing for what would become known as the “Empire of the Bay,” Charles II first commissioned an exploratory voyage.

On June 3, 1668, des Groseilliers and Radisson headed back to New France, this time on two English vessels, the Eaglet and the Nonsuch. The mission was so urgent that Charles sent the ships in 1668, barely a year after the end of the Second Dutch War, a naval conflict with the Netherlands.

Fierce Atlantic storms off the west coast of Ireland buffeted the ships, and the Eaglet was forced to return to England. However, the Nonsuch continued its voyage successfully to New France. To Charles II, the voyage had proved the worth of the dreams of des Groseilliers and Radisson.

The king formally chartered the Governors and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay, forever known as the Hudson’s Bay Company. To oversee the company, he appointed his relative, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had served his father, Charles I, as a commander of cavalry in the English Civil War.

Hudson Bay Company trading post
Hudson Bay Company trading post

However, it would not be long before the French in New France took action against this new British threat along the remote shores of Hudson’s Bay. In 1686 and 1697, the French mounted combined land and sea assaults that effectively broke the back of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

With the British main effort in the New World fixed on protecting the colonies on the East Coast of the Americas, little could be spared for the outposts in the frozen north. Besides, the French attacking from New France had far less distance to travel to attack the forts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The main Hudson’s Bay posts, York Factory, Rupert House, and Albany Fort, fell into the hands of the French.

Throughout the 18th century, a series of wars was fought between England and France for the control of New France and the vast wealth in fur in the interior. Called the French and Indian Wars in the United States, the conflicts saw French and English pitted in savage battles along the eastern coast of North America; both sides generally ignored the frozen north of Hudson’s Bay.

On September 13, 1759, a French army under Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm, was soundly defeated outside Quebec by a British force under General James Wolfe. Both men were killed from battle wounds, but the battle marked the decisive defeat of the French in North America. Although the British later lost a battle outside Quebec, the French were finally forced to surrender at Montreal in 1760. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, all of New France became part of the British Empire.

The leaders of the Hudson’s Bay Company felt they could exploit the great wealth of the fur trade, free from the raids of the French and their Indian allies. The French alliance against England in the American Revolution, however, brought war again to Hudson’s Bay.

The company’s first great explorer, Samuel Hearne, was forced to surrender Fort Prince of Wales to a French squadron under Jean-François de Galoup, comte de La Pérouse. After the Treaty of Paris ended the war, however, Hearne was able to return to open a new post at Churchill. But a new threat came from an unexpected corner: from within the British Empire in North America.

By the 1770s, rival fur traders began to appear to contest the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Formally chartered in 1779 as the North West Fur Company in Montreal, the newcomers determined to wrest control of the fur trade from the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers by any means necessary.

The North West Fur Company proved much more aggressive than the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose long monopoly had bred in it a spirit of complacency that the “Nor’westers” were quick to exploit. As a result of this competition, exploration and the expansion of trade moved into the interior of the continent.

The North West Company was much more flexible than the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company; while Hudson’s Bay’s men had to defer to their distant management, the partners in the North West Company were in the field and met every summer on the Lake Superior shore to determine trapping and harvesting strategies for the coming season.

Spurred on by the enterprising spirit of the Nor’westers, the company produced two of the greatest explorers in all of North American history: David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie. Significantly, Thompson had first signed on the roster of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1784, moving to the North West Fur Company in 1797.

During his tenure, he charted the course of the Columbia River, located the source of the Mississippi River, and explored throughout the Missouri River area. He retired in 1812, having logged nearly 55,000 miles in the wilderness by canoe and on foot.

Alexander Mackenzie would equal Thompson in the annals of North American exploration. In June 1789, Mackenzie began with a party of Indians to explore for the Arctic Sea, seeking the Northwest Passage to the Orient, which had lured English mariners since the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

On July 14, 1789, Mackenzie found the Arctic Sea. The Scotsman would crown his exploring career with a search for an overland route to the Pacific. He began this trek in May 1793 and with the aid of the Bella Coola tribe reached the Pacific on July 22.

The great explorations of Thompson and Mackenzie opened more territory to the Canadian West for the North West Company at a time when the original territory worked by the trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company was now suffering from diminishing animal population; the hunters were trapping to the brink of extinction.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was being encircled by the new fur trading posts, and the Nor’westers were moving into the United States as well. In his 1806 expedition to claim the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase for the United States, the U.S. army explorer Zebulon Pike staked his claim on a North West Company post by having his soldiers shoot down the British flag and raise the American one.

The climax came when Thomas Douglas, the fifth earl of Selkirk, bought a controlling interest in Hudson’s Bay Company. The company awarded the earl a massive tract of land—which was right in the middle of the western territory now being exploited by the North West Company. In 1812 Scottish immigrants arrived in what became known as the Selkirk Settlement.

Many of these were Scots dispersed during the Highland Clearances, when their own lords expelled them from their ancestral “crofter” farms to make room for the raising of sheep. Immediately, the Nor’west Company began a guerrilla war against the newcomers, its ranks filled with métis, the offspring of French Canadians and Native Americans.

The climax came at Seven Oaks, in modern-day Winnipeg, on June 19, 1816. Robert Semple, with a force of Hudson’s Bay men, met a force of Nor’wester Métis under Cuthbert Grant. In the skirmish that followed, Grant and his Nor’westers massacred Semple and the Hudson’s Bay men.

Despite this, the odds were in favor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The buccaneering tactics of the North West Company frightened off staid City of London investors, and the Hudson’s Bay Company still held the Royal Charter of 1670.

Finally, London stepped in to end the hostilities, essentially giving title of the North West Fur Company to the Hudson’s Bay Company. This gave the Hudson’s Bay Company a tract of nearly 3 million square miles—most of North America. Today, the company still operates, supplying goods and services for remote settlements in western Canada.