The Hudson’s Bay Company

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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.