Tag Archives: Rupert's Land

Fur Trading in Northern Canada – Part 1

Royal Charter 1.

“Have you in the past ever shopped at Morgan’s Department store in downtown Montreal or at a major department store in downtown Toronto? Maybe you ventured to New York City and made a purchase at Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord and Taylor? “

“Did you know that all these stores have a distinct connection? One company that has been in existence for many years owns these stores. Have you any idea what company that might be?”

“If you ventured a guess and came up with The Hudson Bay Company, you would be right-on.”

The famous fur traders, Medard Chouart Des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, my eighth great uncle, were both born in France and arrived in New France in the mid- 1600’s. Fate brought them together and their explorations were instrumental in developing the fur trade in the young colony. Through their efforts they were the driving force leading to the creation of the Hudson Bay Company more than 350 years ago.

The Early Beginnings of the Company

In 1660, Prince Rupert introduced Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers to his cousin, King Charles II of England who eventually received them in his court. They informed him of the “great store of beaver” in an area far north of the St. Lawrence River 2.

The explorers proposed a trading company where they would be able to access the northern interior of the continent by sailing into the waters of Hudson Bay and James Bay. Prince Rupert financed a trip for Des Groseilliers and Radisson to sail to Hudson Bay. Radisson’s ship was forced to turn back off the coast of Ireland. He managed to return to London,3 while Des Groseilliers continued to Hudson Bay and into James Bay where he traded furs with Cree hunters. He returned with a boatload filled with beaver pelts and  noted that “Beaver is plenty”.3.

A map of Hudson Bay

The Charter:

Desgroseilliers’ successful voyage led Prince Rupert to urge the King to grant a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company. (HBC) 4.

The Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company

 granted by King Charles II of England – May 2, 1679

To this day HBC is the oldest merchandising company in the English-speaking world.

“Under the charter establishing The Hudson’s Bay Company, the company was required to give two elk skins and two black beaver pelts to the English king, then Charles II, or his heirs, whenever the monarch visited Rupert’s Land.

The exact text from the 1670 Charter reads:5. 6.

“Yielding and paying yearly to us and our heirs and successors for the same two Elks and two Black beavers whensoever and as often as We, our heirs and successors shall happen to enter into the said Countries, Territories and Regions hereby granted.”

With the royal charter a legal commercial monopoly was established, prohibiting others from availing themselves of the eight million square kilometres including the 1.5 million square kilometres, lands of the Inuit and First Nations.

Today, the original Royal Charter is preserved in HBC’s Corporate Head Office in Toronto and is both the premier artifact and primary record of the Company.7

The land granted in the charter became known as Rupert’s Land, the name given to an exclusive HBC trapping area, a large expanse of northern wilderness roughly a third of today’s Canada. From 1670 to 1870, it became the exclusive commercial domain of HBC.

 For 250 years from the 17th century to the 19th century the demand for beaver pelts was most profitable for HBC. The pelts were used to make felt hats. European elite sought these hats. 8.

The Hudson Bay company established trading posts staffed predominately by British and Scottish personnel, while traders bartered with Indigenous trappers for manufactured goods, such as knives, tools, guns, blankets and foodstuffs. 9.

“The English-made wool point blanket — cream, with thick coloured stripes — harkens back to the 18th century, when it was the company’s most popular traded good”. 10.

Hudson’s Bay Company hired labourers, voyageurs, tradespeople, and professionals such as accountants, clerks and surgeons who were under contract to HBC. These people were called “servants” of the company. They were mostly men from England, Scotland and also French-Canadian voyageurs from New France who were skilled in the fur trade, along with contracts for a few women who served as cooks.11.

The contracts were usually between I and 5 years beginning June 1 and ending May 31. Free return passage was often in the contract. Those who chose to remain in the north were given 25 acres of land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The company rules banned men from marrying indigenous women, until it became apparent that local officers and governors of the company had taken indigenous women as their wives. The company revoked the ban while noting that these marriage ties with indigenous communities were beneficial. The indigenous people played a distinct role teaching the employees how to adapt to life in the north. 11.

The marriage of an employee with an indigenous woman was known as the “custom of the country” rather than the traditional European marriage custom.12.

“Until the early 19th century and the founding of Manitoba’s Red River Colony, HBC had strict policies for employees. They prevented employees from remaining in Rupert’s Land once they were no longer working for HBC.

When the employee’s contract was over many of the men returned to their homelands. The indigenous family members remained behind in their communities.

Notes:

In a recent blog for Genealogy Ensemble, (https://genealogyensemble.com/2020/03/11/allegiancesI wrote a biographical sketch  “Allegiances”. It describes the exploits of my eighth great uncle Pierre Esprit Radisson. He was an explorer involved in the fur trade in New France. His accounts are a main source of the explorations he undertook in partnership with his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart des Groseilliers who was married to Pierre’s half sister Marguerite.

In the process of researching his story my curiosity was piqued by the partnership of these explorers and their contributions which influenced King Charles II of England’s decision to grant a royal charter creating The Hudson’s Bay Company.

“Fur Trading in Northern Canada”, is the result of the research that has answered the questions arising from “Allegiances”.

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/hudsons-bay-company#:~:text=The%44 7%27s%20Bay%20Company%20(HBC,and%20the%20development%20of%20Canada
  2. Ibid
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson%27s_Bay_Company#17th_century
  4. . https://www.hbcheritage.ca/things/artifacts/the-royal-charter
  5. . https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/hudsons-bay-company#:~:text=The%44 7%27s%20Bay%20Company%20(HBC,and%20the%20development%20of%20Canada
  6. . https://www.google.com/search?q=beaver+hats+fur+trade&rlz=1C1YT UH_enCA1032CA1032&oq=beaver+hats&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j0i512l2j0i20i263i512j0i512l6.8034j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#imgrc=AMzUgiB_WH6tTM
  7. . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson%27s_Bay_Company
  8. Ibid
  9. .https://www.google.com/search?q=HBC+and+indigenous+marriages&rlz=1C1YTUH_enCA1032CA1032&oq=HBC+and+indigenous+marriages&aqs=chrome.69i57j0i546l3.13967j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
  10. .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson%27s_Bay_Company
  11. .https://www.gov.mb.ca/chc/archives/hbca/name_indexes/understanding_servants_contracts_index.html#:~:text=Hudson%27s%20Bay%20Company%20servants%27%20contracts,women%20who%20served%20as%20cooks
  12. .https://www.google.com/search?q=HBC+and+indigenous+marriages&rlz=1C1YTUH_enCA1032CA1032&oq=HBC+and+indigenous+marriages&aqs=chrome.69i57j0i546l3.13967j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8