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Hudson's Bay Company

The Hudson's Bay Company building in Montreal
The Hudson's Bay Company building in Montreal

The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) is the oldest corporation in Canada and is one of the oldest in the world still in existence. From its longtime headquarters at York Factory on Hudson Bay it controlled the fur trade throughout much of British-controlled North America for several centuries, undertaking early exploration and functioning as the de facto government in many areas of the continent prior to the arrival of large-scale settlement. Its traders and trappers forged early relationships with many groups of First Nations/Native Americans and its network of trading posts formed the nucleus for later official authority in many areas of western Canada and the United States. In the late 19th century its vast territory became the largest component in the newly formed Dominion of Canada, in which the company was the largest private landowner. With the decline of the fur trade, the company evolved into mercantile business selling vital goods to settlers in the Canadian West. Today the company is best known for its department stores throughout Canada.



Early years

Rupert's Land, controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company
Rupert's Land, controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company

In the 17th century the French had a monopoly on the Canadian fur trade. However, two French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers defected to the English and told them of a route to the rich trading grounds to the north and west of Lake Superior, which could be reached from the north through Hudson Bay instead of over land from New France. The English sent a successful expedition there in 1669, and the Hudson's Bay Company was incorporated on May 2, 1670, with a Royal Charter from King Charles II. The charter granted the company a monopoly over the Indian Trade, especially the fur trade, in the region watered by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay in northern Canada, an area known as Rupert's Land after the first director of the Company, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. This region constitutes 3.9 million km² (1.5 million square miles) in the watershed of Hudson Bay, comprising over one-third the area of modern-day Canada and stretching into the north central United States, but the specific boundaries were unknown at the time.

The company founded its first headquarters at Fort Nelson (later renamed York Factory) at the mouth of the Nelson River in present-day northeastern Manitoba. The location afforded convienent access to the fort from the vast interior waterway systems of the Saskatchewan and Red rivers. Other posts were quickly established around the southern edge of Hudson Bay in Manitoba and present-day Ontario and Quebec. Called "factories", these posts operated in the manner of the Dutch fur trading operations in New Netherland. During the spring and summer First Nations traders, who did the vast majority of the trapping itself, travelled by canoe and were received at the fort to sell their pelts. In exchange they typically received metal tools and hunting gear, often imported by the company from Germany, the center of inexpensive manufacturing in that era. The early coastal factory model contrasted with the system of the French, who established an extensive system of inland posts and sent traders to live among the tribes of the region.

The conservative nature of the company's factory system frustrated the company's founders, Radisson and Des Groseilliers, who urged bolder explorations of the continental interior. In 1674 they switched their allegiance back to France and in 1682 they founded La Compagnie du Nord to directly compete with the company. After war broke out in Europe between the France and England in the 1680s, the two nations regularly sent expeditions to raid and capture each other's fur trading posts. In March 1686 the French sent a raiding party under Chevalier des Troyes over 1300 km (800 mi) to capture the company's posts along James Bay. The French appointed Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, who had shown extreme heroism during the raids, as commander of the company's captured posts. In 1697, d'Iberville commanded a French naval raid on the company's headquarters at York Factory. On the way to the fort, he defeated three ships of the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Bay , the largest naval battle in the history of the North American Arctic. D'Iberville's depleted French force captured York Factory by a ruse in which laid siege to fort while pretending to be a much larger army. York Factory changed hands several times in the next decade. It was finally ceded permanently to the English in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, after which the company rebuilt it as a brick star fort at mouth of the nearby Hayes River , its present location.

19th century

In 1821, the North West Company of Montréal and the Hudson's Bay Company merged, with a combined territory that was extended by a licence to the North-Western Territory, which reached to the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Although the HBC maintained a monopoly on the fur trade during the early-mid 19th century there was competition from independent traders in the Red River Colony named James Sinclair and Andrew McDermot (Dermott). One major event that lead to the demise of the HBC's monopoly in Rupert's Land was the Guillaume Sayer Trial in 1849. Sayer, a Métis trapper and trader, was accused of the illegal trading of furs and brought to trial by the Court of Assiniboia, which was heavily stacked with either HBC officals or HBC supporters. During the trail, a crowd of armed Metis men gathered outside the courtroom, ready to support their Metis brother peacefully or by force if necessary. Although found guilty of illegal trade by Judge Adam Thom, no fine or punishment was levied - many reports state it was due to the intimidating crowd gathered outside the courthouse. With the cry, "Le commerce est libre! Le commerce est libre!" ("Free Trade! Free Trade!"), the HBC no longer could use the courts to enforce their monopoly on the settlers of Red River. In 1870 the trade monopoly was abolished and trade in the region was opened to any entrepreneur. The company also relinquished its ownership of Rupert's Land, which was sold to the government of Canada.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s the company controlled nearly all trading operations in the Oregon Country, based out of the company headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. Although authority over the region was nomially shared by the U.S. and Britain through the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, company policy, enforced through Chief John McLoughlin of the company's Columbia District, was to actively discourage U.S. settlement of the territory. The company's effective monopoly on trade virtually forbade any settlement in the region. In the early 1840s it established an outpost at Fort Hall in present-day southeastern Idaho along the route of the Oregon Trail, where the outpost director displayed the abandoned wagons of discouraged settlers to those seeking to move west along the trail. The company's stranglehold on the region wss broken by the first successful large wagon train to reach Oregon in 1843, led by Marcus Whitman. In the years that followed, thousands of emigrants were pouring into the Willamette Valley and in 1846 the U.S. acquired full authority of the most settled areas of the Oregon Country south of the 49th parallel. McLoughlin, who had once turned away would-be settlers as company director, now welcomed them from his general store at Oregon City and was later proclained the "Father of Oregon". The company retains no presence in the Pacific Northwest of the United States today.

Modern operations

One aspect of the company's operations was the Hudsons Bay Company Stores, trading posts that were set up across northern Canada. Today this is the only part of the company operation remaining, in the form of department stores referred to as The Bay. Many Hudson's Bay Company stores were until quite recently the only stores in remote towns. More recently they have transformed into boutique stores in their major downtown locations.

The company's stock trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol HBC.

Today there are three main retail divisions: the Bay, Zellers, and Home Outfitters. In addition, there is a chain of 105 smaller Fields general merchandise and apparel stores that operate in Western Canada. Northern stores are no longer operated by HBC, but by a corporation organized in 1987 under the name The North West Company.

In December of 2003, Maple Leaf Heritage Investments, a Nova Scotia based company that was created to acquire shares of Hudson's Bay Company, announced that it was considering making an offer to acquire all or some of the common shares of Hudson's Bay Company. Maple Leaf Heritage Investments is a subsidiary of B-Bay Inc., whose CEO and chairman is American businessman, Jerry Zucker, the head of The InterTech Group Inc., a conglomerate that is the second-largest private firm in the State of South Carolina.

On August 13, 2004, a report in the Globe and Mail raised rumours that part or all of HBC may be purchased by the American Target chain (Reuters). Such rumours have been raised before and have never come to fruition.

In 1991, the Bay agreed to stop selling fur in response to complaints from people opposed to killing animals for this purpose. However, in 1997 they reopened their fur salons to meet the demand of consumers desiring to buy fur. Animal rights groups such as Freedom for Animals have been campaigning to get the Bay to once again stop selling fur.

See also: British East India Company, Dutch East India Company, Dutch West India Company, John McLoughlin and British colonization of the Americas.

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45