Updated: May 15, 2022
"An Expedition for Hudson's Bay in the North-west Part of America, for the Discovery of a new Passage into the South Sea, and for the finding some Trade for Furs, Minerals, and other considerable Commodities, and by such their Undertaking, have already made such Discoveries as do encourage them to proceed further in Pursuance of their said Design, by means whereof there may probably arise very great Advantage to Us and Our Kingdom."
Hudson's Bay Company charter, 1670
We can only imagine what King Charles II of England was thinking when two Frenchmen appeared at his court with an interesting proposal. Whatever it was, he could not afford to pass up such an opportunity. The two Frenchmen, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, were fur trappers from New France. Unhappy with how they had been treated by their government, despite their successes as trappers, the pair now sought a deal with the British. For King Charles II, this meant gaining a foothold in the fur trade within what is now Canada, and it meant challenging the French for control over much of northern North America. In 1670, the king officially chartered the Hudson's Bay Company. The Hudson's Bay Company would be a dominant player in the fur trade through both the 18th and 19th centuries. They would also have a significant impact on the exploration and development of Canada and the relations with the indigenous people.
The fur trade in the region began as a side gig for the cod fishermen working the Grand Banks off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. The fishermen needed to dry their catch, and this could take several weeks. They developed good relations with the indigenous tribes. The Indians traded beaver fur and fresh meat for metal and cloth goods. The fishermen found a profitable market for the beaver in Europe. The demand for beaver fur increased tremendously at the turn of the 17th century. The soft underfur was ideal for the production of felt hats which had become widely popular throughout Europe. To better exploit this trade, permanent settlements were formed, including Quebec, in 1608. During the first few decades, the competition was fierce among the trappers. By mid-century, the French crown desired to impose some order. It granted monopolies to specific individuals. In exchange, these monopolies had to help maintain French claims to territory and assist in the missionary effort to convert the native population to Christianity. Many of the early French Catholic missions in New France were directly funded by the fur trade profits.
Under the French government, the fur trade became highly specialized. At the top was the merchant in France who imported furs and other goods such as sugar and tobacco. His point-of-contact in New France would be the merchand-equipeur. This person was responsible for organizing a trading expedition, purchasing the equipment, hiring a crew, and recruiting investors. The merchand-voyageur was the licensed trader who bought from and negotiated with the Native trappers. The crew was the engages - paddlers, porters, and other laborers. When the British took control of the region, these would be called voyageurs. There would also be interpreters and clerks who kept records of all the transactions.
Grosellliers and Radisson were known as coureur des bois -"runners of the woods." These were the independent trappers who ventured out into the backwoods of the interior parts of Canada, developed contacts with the native populations, and trapped beaver. They worked without a permit from the French government, and integrated themselves into tribal communities, often taking Native women for wives. Many were considered outlaws by French officials. Grosselliers earned some notoriety in 1654 when he seized upon an opportunity to explore west of Lake Huron. He spent two years trapping around Lake Superior and returned with a significant amount of furs. On this trip, he heard about the rich beaver territories north and northwest of Lake Superior. In 1659, he partnered with his brother-in-law Radisson and made a second incursion to Lake Superior and northern Wisconsin. Both men were arrested for illegal trapping despite returning to Montreal with many canoes and a fortune in furs.
Frustrated by the French crown, Grosselliers decided to seek out the English, first in Boston and then London. After several years of coming up empty-handed, he finally found a backer for an expedition to the shores of Hudson Bay. This patron was Prince Rupert of the Rhineland, a cousin of King Charles II. Grosselliers spent the winter of 1668/1669 in the area around the mouth of what is now the Rupert River, located on the eastern side of Hudson Bay. He returned to England with a rich cache of pelts proving the economic potential of this untapped territory. Impressed, King Charles II, in 1670, chartered the creation of the Hudson's Bay Company, officially known as "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson's Bay." The charter granted the company rights to all the waterways -"Seas, Streights, Bays, Rivers, Lakes, Creeks, and South" - that drained into Hudson Bay. In all, the company staked a claim to over 1 million square miles (1.5 square kilometers) of territory, which was home to Inuit, Cree, Obijawa, and other indigenous people. The vast region was dubbed "Rupert's Land" after Prince Rupert who became the company's first governor.
The Hudson's Bay Company was a joint-stock company whereby the shareholders elected a governor and a committee. This was done at an annual meeting called the General Court. The London-based governor and committee were responsible for setting company policies. The committee oversaw the arrangement of fur auctions, the hiring of men, and the outfitting of ships. In addition to this, the General Court appointed a governor who acted as the company representative in North America. The company established a series of trading posts along the shores of the bay. These posts, known as factories, were overseen by a chief factor (a trader) and a council of officers. Most of the day-to-day operations were conducted at the factories.
The indigenous people played a crucial role in the fur trade. The Indians would trap during the fall and winter months. In the summer, they traveled to the trading posts. They bartered pelts for tools, guns, and textiles. Nearly 60% of bartered goods were blankets. These were known as point blankets, derived from the French word empointer, meaning “to make threaded stitches on cloth.” The points were usually thin black lines at a corner of the blanket. They indicated the size of the blanket, and though they had no value in themselves, merchants used them to set prices for blankets. Many tribes served as middlemen obtaining furs from further west and south of the Hudson Bay region. Over time, much to their detriment, the native populations would become overly dependent on European goods for their survival. Many moved from their traditional homelands to seek better fur-producing territory or position themselves with better trading opportunities. Such movement of people and increased competition created more conflict among the various indigenous groups.
The Hudson's Bay Company standardized the trade among the different posts within its territory. They introduced a new currency called the Made Beaver. All furs and manufactured goods were valued against this currency. One Made Beaver was equivalent to the value of one prime male beaver pelt.
Up until the Treaty of Paris that ended the French-Indian War in 173, the French had been the major rival of the Hudson's Bay Company. The company had not established posts in the interior of its claim. French trappers exploited this by trekking into the interior sections and dealing directly with the Indians. Native traders also took advantage of the rivalry to maximize their return. After 1763, the French were replaced by another competitor, the North-West Company based in Montreal. This proved to be a formidable business opponent, and the two companies would come in conflict, sometimes violently, over the expansion into the Pacific Northwest. The two companies would eventually merge early in the 19th century, and Parliament would reaffirm Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly on the Canadian fur trade. With the founding of the United States, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company would present another challenger to the British fur empire, especially in the northern tier of states.
Today the Hudson's Bay Company is a retail conglomerate. But its history as a fur trading company had a profound impact on the development of Canada. The exploration of fur trappers and traders paved the way for further exploration and settlement across the continent. They spread the British language and culture. The fur trade was a critical part of the colonial North American economy. And they influenced the relations with the indigenous peoples, whose effects are still felt today.
The Fur Trade In Canada: Harold Innis
The Untold Story of the Hudson's Bay Company: Melissa Gismondi (Canadian Geographic)