The Hudson’s Bay Company

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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.