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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
Selkirk, who was on his way to Red River with a guard of mercenary soldiers, retaliated by seizing the Nor’Westers’ great staging depot, Fort William, on Lake Superior. Simultaneously the traders in the fur country plunged into mutually exhausting campaigns of harassment and disruption.
The British government at Quebec sent investigators into the field. Parliament resounded with charges and countercharges. In Quebec, as well as in Montreal, the battle seemed a draw, but in the wilderness the Nor’Westers broke.
The North West Company had overextended in order to build forts in New Caledonia and to buy, during the War of 1812, John Jacob Astor’s post of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was impossible to digest that expansion while carrying on a wasteful feud. Disgusted by dwindling profits and by the unyielding belligerence of the firm’s Montreal agents, winterers John McLoughlin, a towering six feet four inches tall, and Angus Bethune led a revolt in search of peace.
The upshot, after intricate maneuvering, was a union of the two companies. Although the former winterers of the North West Company placed more of their men in responsible positions in the field than did the English company and won a profit-sharing arrangement for all principal workers, the name of the new continent-wide firm was familiar: the Hudson’s Bay Company. Management stayed in London; London appointed the resident governor. Aided by the inevitabilities of geography, the little David of the North had swallowed Goliath.
The new resident governor was pudgy George Simpson, a meticulously trained, disagreeably cocky one-time sugar broker’s clerk from London. Except for a hard winter in Athabasca during the final year of the conflict, he had had no experience in the fur trade. But he was aboil with energy, and he had a genius for organization.
He reassessed every post from Labrador to New Caledonia, let some stand, moved a few, closed several. He demanded that those in kindly climates grow enough vegetables and livestock to feed themselves. He instituted new transport systems, sending ships around Cape Horn to supply the Columbia district and using York boats out of Hudson Bay to service the posts in the interior. The colorful canoe brigades from Montreal were abandoned, a sore blow to the economy of Lower Canada but an inevitable move for a firm devoted to paring costs.
Expansion continued, more methodically now. Robert Campbell opened the Yukon. Sailing ships, and later a steamboat, plied the north Pacific coast, buying sea otter from the Indians. A trade in salmon and timber was developed with San Francisco and Hawaii. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company, managed by John McLoughlin, the benevolent chief factor of Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, was formed to provide Russian Alaska with meat, grain, and dairy products.
When American trappers sought to invade the Oregon country, they were easily held back by roving brigades under Peter Skene Ogden and, later, John Work. Settlers were something else. Spearheaded by missionaries to the Indians, they poured into Oregon during the early 1840’s, bought supplies on credit from McLoughlin, and then, seeking undivided American jurisdiction over the area (instead of joint sovereignty with Great Britain), raised loud clamors against the company’s autocratic ways. Beset by other crises in international affairs, the British government in 1846 yielded to President Polk and let the boundary between the countries be drawn at the forty-ninth parallel, save for the overlapping southern tip of Vancouver Island. There, at Fort Victoria, McLoughlin having resigned to become an American citizen, James Douglas established the company’s new western headquarters.
The filling up of Oregon was a harbinger. In 1858 discoveries of gold along the Fraser River brought a stampede of miners into British Columbia. Far to the east lumberjacks invaded the Canadian Shield and augmented their income by trapping in defiance of the company’s monopolistic rights. In the Midwest the métis of the Red River regularly left their little farms to smuggle furs to buyers in Minnesota.
The Indians, too, were retreating before the thrusts of civilization, and soon it was clear that a fur empire and population centers could not exist side by side. Suggestions began to be heard that Rupert’s Land (the Hudson Bay watershed) be annexed to Canada, a name then applied to the eastern provinces only.
The company reluctantly agreed in principle but asked £1,500,000 in payment. An impasse developed. Canada could not raise the sum, and the French of Quebec, fearing dilution of their political strength, did not want the land anyway. Expansionists tried to break through the money barrier by suggesting that the Crown, which had alienated the land long ago by giving it to the company, was now obligated to buy it back. England resisted. She did not wish to purchase a large block of land and then, if annexation failed to develop, be left to administer a treasury-draining crown colony.
The sentiment for a coast-to-coast confederation of Canada was growing, however, and it was unlikely that a monopolistic landholdingof such gargantuan proportions would be allowed to remain undisturbed. Taking advantage of the current, an investment company known as the International Financial Society startled the business world in 1863 by purchasing control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It reorganized the firm under a new set of officers, increased its capitalization, and offered stock to the public with promises of quick profits from the sale of land to settlers. The promoters then pulled out, having reaped a goodly sum from their manipulations.