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Hudson’s Bay Album

July 2024
4min read

Here is the Nonsuch, a ketch well named, plunging through North Atlantic waves in 1668 on her way to the founding of Canada’s most famous business enterprise

The Hudson’s Bay Company was launched in an unsurmountably upper-crust ambiance, as indicated by the quality of its first three governors: Prince Rupert (who headed the company from 1670 to 1682); His Royal Highness, James, Duke of York, later King James II (16831685); and John Churchill, later the first Duke of Marlborough (1685–1692). Although all three were men of action who fought in the wars that beset their time, they viewed Hudson Bay primarily as an investment, and none of them ever made the slightest move to go and see the fabulous property. Rupert, who died in 1682, was chief author of the charter granted to the company in 1670; James’s governorship was terminated when he mounted the throne; Churchill—who was to become one of England’s great soldiers and ancestor of the late Prime Minister—lost the job when he intrigued with the exiled James in 1692.

The first century of the Hudson’s Bay Company went meagerly recorded in pictures, for its employees were far better with axe and paddle than pen and brush. Samuel Hearne was an exception. In 1770–72 he was sent to explore the unknown country to the west and north; it was hoped that he might realize the long dream of a water passage connecting lower Hudson Bay with the Pacific. Hearne reached the disappointing but enlightening conclusion that no such passage existed. He also made some excellent sketches of the starkly beautiful country he traversed. Later he was placed in command of the company’s most imposing structure, Fort Prince of Wales, which took thirty years to build and thirty minutes to surrender when three French warships surprised—or astonished—Hearne and his small garrison in 1782. (He had not heard of the war between England and France.) The French blew up the fort, but substantial ruins are still there.

Every great successful enterprise has a moving spirit, and if any one man is qualified for that title in the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, it is Sir George Simpson. Sent over from England as an understudy to the company’s resident governor in 1820, young Simpson acquitted himself brilliantly in the fur-trade struggle with the North West Company. When the fierce competition ended in merger in 1821, he was clearly headed for the top. By 1826 he was governor-in-chief of H.B.C.’s vast territories; and that meant in effect ruling those territories as an agent of the British Crown. For almost forty years Simpson fulfilled his double task with the energy of a dynamo, driving the company to ever new heights of expansive efficiency. His organization of the great network of trappers, traders, factors, and commissioned officers has been compared both to that of the British Army and to that of the Catholic Church. He personally travelled nearly every mile of the H.B.C. trade routes, stopping overnight at all the important posts to confer with his officers in an atmosphere of businesslike conviviality. In the morning he would be up and away early, but not before a plunge in the icy water of the Saskatchewan River or Great Slave Lake, and not before a jaunty breakfast after that. Himself a bastard, he is said to have fathered numerous offspring by Indian concubines from the shores of Hudson Bay to the Pacific. He saw to it that these children were well cared for, meanwhile raising his proper family in a company mansion in a suburb of Montreal. Simpson was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1841. This was a recognition not only of his generally triumphant governorship of H.B.C. territories but also of his aid to British exploration parties in the Arctic and of his successful quasi-diplomatic negotiations with the Russians over British trade rights along the Canadian-Pacific coast and in the northwestern interior. He died in i860, while H.B.C. still held its feudal proprietorship and trade monopoly of “Prince Rupert’s Land” in undiminished splendor.

It has been said that the canoe would have made a good emblem for the Canadian coat of arms—so vital was the marvellous Indian birch-bark vessel in the exploration and development of the Canadian wilderness. The North West Company, which gave the Hudson’s Bay Company its toughest commercial fight, depended on canoes of all sizes to get its men and their loads of fur through the otherwise impenetrable forests of the Canadian Shield. One of the canoe’s chief merits was its light weight and hence its portability when it came to getting around dangerous rapids. Two ways of doing this are shown at left (in a painting by an anonymous nineteenth-century artist) and at right (as seen by Cornelius Krieghoff in the 1850’s). In its early years H.B.C. made relatively little use of canoes, instead encouraging the Indians to bring their furs to the shores of Hudson Bay for trading; later, as the company moved into the wilderness to set up posts, there was a tendency to favor the York boat, a doubleprowed bateau twenty-eight to forty feet long that borrowed its qualities of shallow draft and maneuverability from the canoe but was much sturdier and capable of heavier loads. The canoe, nonetheless, never disappeared.

From 1825 to 1846 the Hudson’s Bay Company in effect ruled all of what is now Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Two of its sturdy lieutenants there look out from these pages. Big John McLoughlin (above) established Fort Vancouver, now in Washington, as the company’s far-west headquarters and ran it well from 1826 to 1846. When the lush region around today’s Portland, Oregon, went to the United States after 1846, McLoughlin went too, quitting H.B.C. and becoming an American citizen there. He died an embittered old man in 1857, convinced that neither his old employer nor his new country had rightly appreciated him.

James Douglas, McLoughlin’s chief assistant for several years, explored Vancouver Island in the early 1840’s, and as it looked likely that the United States would eventually possess the region south of the forty-ninth parallel except the tip of Vancouver, he superintended the building of Fort Victoria there. The island was made a British crown colony in 1849, and Douglas became its governor in 1851 while remaining chief H.B.C. officer in the west. He dealt firmly with inrushing American gold miners in 1858; and with the establishment of British Columbia that same year he finally left H.B.C. to become the new colony’s governor.

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