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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
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.