Audio Transcript Hudson Bay Company & The Fur Trade

Hudson Bay Company & The Fur Trade

The Hudson Bay Company is the longest lived business enterprise in Canadian history. It was formed in 1670 and takes its name from the Bay discovered by Henry Hudson about six decades before its formation. All though the company began life in London the process leading to its formation actually began in New France.

Two fur traders based in Montreal had become convinced that the cheapest way to export furs to Europe was through Hudson's Bay. Radisson and Groseilliers tried desperately to convince the French government that the wave of the future and the fur trade was to abandon the long canoe routes from Montreal to the fur bearing regions of the West and to trade directly with the Cree Indians by transporting European goods into Hudson Bay in large ships.

After the success of the initial voyage English investors quickly moved to form the Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay, the Hudson's Bay Company, or HBC. The HBC received a royal charter from King Charles II. No other English company could legally trade furs through Hudson's Bay or on any land that drained into the Bay. Furthermore, the charter of 1670 stated that the Hudson's Bay Company would be the true and absolute lords and proprietors of the entire Hudson's Bay drainage basin, which eventually turned out to be roughly one third of North America. European maps of North America extended no further West than Lake Winnipeg and no one knew how far it was from there to the Pacific Ocean.

For more than a century after the founding of the Hudson's Bay Company European explorers kept hoping that a quick shipping route from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific would be found. Competition from French Canada continually annoyed the Bay men. Despite the disadvantage of having to canoe over 1,000 miles and carry their trade goods over more than 200 portages the French traders from Montreal eventually managed to take over some of the HBC's richest trading grounds by going directly to the Native customers in their home villages. French raids from the sea also provided a great deal of excitement for the bored HBC employees. The Hudson Bay forts were captured by the French and recaptured by the English about a dozen times in the half century after they were established. Major expeditions inland to explore the interior of North America were not mounted for twenty years after the founding of the company when Henry Kelsey made it as far as the Western plains without finding any trace of the Pacific Ocean. Kelsey's explorations were ignored in England as were those of William Stuart who was sent inland accompanied by a Chipewyan woman named Thanadelthur, who acted as a guide. Stuart was sent by James Knight who was killed in 1719 on an exploration of his own, this time a seaborne expedition to explore the West coast of Hudson's Bay and find a route past North America to the Pacific Ocean. Such a route, if it had existed, would have provided an easy shipping path to the rich markets of China.

After the death of Knight there was a general reluctance to explore inland for almost four decades. Opponents of the company in England began to say rather pointedly that if the HBC did not explore the lands granted to it under the royal charter of 1670 the charter would be revoked. In addition, French competition based in Montreal was moving far inland, cutting off the HBC's main sources of furs. As a result the company sent Anthony Henday on an exploratory mission in 1753. The conquest of New France by Britain in 1760 took the pressure off and things began to look somewhat better for the HBC. In 1771 Samuel Hearn walked almost 6,000 km to prove that there was no shipping route that there was no shipping route which could directly connect Hudson's Bay with the Western Artic Ocean, destroying the century old hope that an easy passage could be found. The respite from St. Lawrence Bay's competition did not last long Scottish and American began putting heavy pressure on the Bay men, taking over where the French left off and using French methods to carry the trade inland.

In response the HBC established its first inland fort about 100 km west of what is now Le Pas, Manitoba. Cumberland House, as this fort was called, was established in 1774 by Samuel Hearn. After the American Revolution the Montreal traders formed the North West Company, NWC, and the pressure on the HBC become even more intense.