The Hudson’s Bay Company
A TRICENTENNIAL REPORT Having worked like a beaver to overcome three centuries of plunging thermometers, recalcitrant Indians, and fierce competitors from Quebec and the U.S.A., it remains today the continent’s most durable trading enterprise
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
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.