The Hudson's Bay Company

by

Marilyn Weir

 

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Red RiverValley was a running place for game, Indians, and of course, the Red River.It was then a much different place than it is now. The barren land was agreat contrast to the bustling Valley as we know it today. The Hudson'sBay Company was one of the main factors that opened up the Valley to therest of the world.

"The Red River of the North has its source at thejunction of the Otter Tail and Bois de Sioux Rivers of Minnesota and flows545 miles to empty into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba" (1) The fur trappersworking for French companies were already at work in this area in the 1660's.Occasionally these men would take their loads of furs to Montreal, Quebec.Here, in this predominately French city, they would sell them to firms tobe sold later to other companies. Although the individual trappers eachgot a small commission on each load, it was the country of France and itsleaders that really made the money.

One day some of these voyageurs were arrested by Montrealpolice for illicit trading and most of their money was seized away fromthem. This caused many hard feelings and bitter attitudes. Many thought,"Why should we work for such a dishonest country as France?" Thishappening was the one that made many of these men make the change over fromthe French corporation and go to England for help. There, they made an appealto the reigning body which was then headed by King Charles II. As couldbe expected, at first he had his doubts about such a new and different undertaking.A trial run was decided upon so he sent two ships, one led by Sieur de Groseillersand the other by Pierre Radisson. These two men were brothers-in-law whohad the reputation of being intelligent and competent explorers. They alsocontributed a great deal to the history of Minnesota with their expeditions.Radisson's trip was storm-tossed and dangerous but Groseiller's got to Canadasafely and returned with many furs. At this time, a great deal of moneycould be made in the fur trade business and a great deal was made on thisexpedition.

Once the King's confidence was obtained, he authorizedfor his country to purchase the land stretching from Hudson's Bay southinto Minnesota following the Red River. The land was purchased in the year1670. The formal name of the colony was "The Governor and Company ofAdventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay" (2), a long namefor a new company. Since this organization even owned the land it helpedencourage the settlement of the Valley.

The new area, of course, needed a set of rules to follow.The Hudson's Bay Charter, drawn up by King Charles, provided this. Thischarter included the right to become proprietor of the soil and to carryon trade in the region. The validity of this document was at first argued.Some of the lawyers in England, Canada and the United States were skepticalabout the ideas expressed. But, as in all controversial subjects, therewere also men who came to its defense. One of them was British secretary,Earl Gray. He wrote John Polly of England a letter supporting his ideason the Charter.

Once the land was officially purchased and most of thedetails worked out, the really serious settling began in the Red River Valley.The Earl of Selkirk bought a tract of land from the Company where he plannedto start his own colony. This land was on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. ThisBritish nobleman was to become one of the most important men in the Company'sactivities. He had much to do with the future of this area.

Geographically, the Hudson's Bay Company includes the entirelength of the Red River. The Americans claimed the land up to the town ofPembina and the Canadians had everything not included in that territory.Through several instances in the course of history the land south of theborder was lost to the colony. The present area stretches from Lake Winnipegto the border area.

Of all the factors involved in the success of the Company,the men who actually did the work were among the most important. To encouragethe settling of the area, several measures were taken to attract workers.At one point, the law was lifted that said a trapping license was requiredto legally kill game. It was all free for a time to attract people wishingto trade.

Several tribes of Indians occupied the area at the timeof the Company's first appearance. Since the leaders of the organizationwished to be as fair as possible, an agreement was made concerning the rightsof all involved. Although several things were discussed, the main thingswere decided upon. The Indians could stay in the area as long as the treatywas kept intact. A quit-rent is a rent paid by the Indians in place of workingin the service of the Company. In this case, it was one hundred pounds ofsaleable tobacco from each of the two major tribes in the area.

The Hudson's Bay Company had an arch rival in the North-WestCompany. This rivalry often flared into bloodshed. This disagreement betweencompanies worsened when Lord Selkirk bought land from the Company to forma colony. This area is much of the present province of Manitoba. In 1886,and the years around that time, some especially bloody one man on anotherbattles took place near Pembina. One such battle was the one where severalsalesmen for a company in Montreal banded together with some half-breedsand attacked. The governor of the colony, Mr. Semple, recruited an armyof his own to defend their territory. Their first try was futile as thegovernor himself and half of the men were killed. Lord Selkirk helped hiscolony out by sending soldiers.

The fur trade business owed quite a bit to the Indians.Of course, there were times when they needed supplies but had nothing totrade for them. In these cases, a credit system was set up where the buyerswould get their winter's supplies and then turn in enough furs to squarethe deal in the spring. The furs used could in turn be used by the Companyas merchandise to sell.

Anyone who lives in the Red River Valley knows full wellthe frigid sub-zero temperatures and raging blizzards of the winter months.These terrible spells of weather brought hardships to traders and Indiansalike. People back in this time in history didn't find the warm houses andhandy foods very easy to come by. The cold wintertime held problems notfaced in the other seasons of the year. Wolves were one of the main rebelsof the winter months. They got worse with the appearance of the white manbecause the buffalo population went down drastically. In their desperationfor food, the wolves attacked hogs, cattle, and sheep. The young of theseanimals were in particular danger. These domestic animals were often thestaff of life for the traders in the wintertime. In order to protect theirlivestock, the Company men tried all means of extermination. These men eventried trapping, hunting, and poisoning to get rid of the pests. Others triedrunning over them with their wagons. All this went on because a sizablebounty was put on for the wolves capture and death. These animals oftenfollowed the fur carts back from their trips because it made the food easierto obtain when man was close at hand.

As if wolves and rivalry attacks weren't enough, the dreadstarvation hit the Valley. The area around the small town of Pembina washit the hardest. People found their food supplies to be rapidly dwindlingand their stomachs were more and more left empty. For this reason, the governorof the colony sent a group of men down to another place where the food problemwas not so bad. Here, these men would pick up supplies and bring them backfor the Company personnel. These provisions were to be sent to the areaup north of Pembina by sled and dog team. Some concerned individuals sentsupplies of their own to aid the men who had to go on trips hunting forCompany furs. These expeditions were long, cold ones where the men wouldneed proper nourishment.

The most disastrous year ever encountered by the tradepeople was 1826. December brought a blizzard that killed many people anddamaged much of the Company property. Food and furs were scarce becausethe small animals had all gone way down south to a warmer place. Peoplewere known to eat their horses, dogs, raw hides, leather, and even theirvery shoes to keep alive. A great many people were found frozen in theirhouses. Sometimes people were frozen so badly that their bodies were completelyencased in a solid block of ice. The best relief station was found in Pembina.

As might be assumed, the spring brought floods to the area.In one day, the water rose a startling nine feet. Many people took refugeat Sturgeon Creek further up the Red. The main reason for all this floodingwas because the year before had been exceptionally wet and the ground wassaturated. Red Lake, Otter Tail Lake, Lake Traverse, Lake Winnipeg, andthe Red River all overflowed their banks.

The Company owned several granaries in the Valley to storeand protect the grain grown in the area. Dried meat was stored in the granariesto be sure to keep it frozen. But this year the meat was improperly storedand the results were disastrous. It all became a frozen compound of wheat,smut, icicles, dried meat, mice, and mice nests. As can be imagined, thesmell was unbearable and the taste was worse. This grain was sent to othertrading posts and this was a very embarrassing situation for the Hudson'sBay Company.

At this time, the Company land was under Lord Selkirk'srule so the laws were made in step with his beliefs. The colony men helda meeting to decide a set of rules to follow. Six points were decided: (1)Sixty officers and privates would be ready if called on for duty, (2) Thecolony was to be divided into four districts, (3) The courts would havefinal say in trials, (4) Courts may appeal some cases to a higher body,i. e., Court of the Assiniboine, (5) Courts would meet on the third Thursdayin February, (6) A court house was to be erected on the fork of the Redand Assiniboine Rivers.

Many people wonder the Earl had decided to take interestin such a barren, frigid area as the Valley. Four main reasons were considered.The first one was to spoil the trade chances of the rival East-West Company.The Red River provided a good means of transportation and it might haveproved to be the factor that made the Hudson's Bay Company more successful.It was part of a network of water that would make passage to all over theworld easy. The second possibility could be to provide a place for retiredCompany workers to spend the rest of their lives. Here, these men couldspend their retirement years within their own home boundaries. Another reasonwas to spread civilization into the wilderness and make it productive. TheEarl thought all land should be put to use. The final reason, and probablythe most obvious, was the fact that the white men always wanted to teachthe natives. They also wished to teach them the Christian faith. No matterwhat the real reason was, the Earl's idea proved to be a good one.

Today the Company is changing right along with the times.The furs have many destinations. Some go by canoe or small steamboat toports on Hudson's Bay to go in northern or easterly directions. Others goby railway to go to Atlantic seaports for shipment. Although the Companylost most of its privileges in 1869, it is still allowed an allotment offorts, certain tracts of land, and 1,500,000 dollars. Today it is stillvery important to the City of Winnipeg. Here they have a very large andimportant Hudson's Bay Store. In 1970, the "Bay" celebrated its300th birthday with special deals and sales. In this store, the people canbuy the latest fashions, records, appliances, and household goods. One ofthe biggest and most important buildings in Winnipeg, it sits in the downtownsection of the city. Grand Forks, North Dakota, can also boast of a Companypost. The first store in this city was built in the year 1871 at Third Streetand Kittson. At the present time, this is the location of the J. C. Penneystore. At the same time, the Company also built a steam saw mill. This isnow the site of the North Dakota Milling Company mill and elevator.

The present main things in the Hudson's Bay Company arethe trading posts. These posts have their location very far north. The postitself is very much like the ones of the old - they are a store in one partand a home for the proprietors's family in the other. They do business withthe people who pass by. There are also men who periodically come and pickup some to send to other places that need them. There are two hundred ofthese posts presently.

The Red River Valley would have undoubtedly become settledand prospered if there had never been a Hudson's Bay Company. But, it wasstill this organization that helped build up the Valley economically, culturally,and census-wise. Everyone in the Valley today and yesterday has at one timeor another felt the effects of the great Hudson's Bay Company.

 

(1) Information Please Almanac, New York, NY, Simon andSchuster, 1970, p. 202

(2) Ross, Alexander, The Red River Settlement, c. 1957,by Ross and Haines, Minneapolis, Minnesota, pp. 2-19

 

Bibliography

 

1. Blegen, Theodore C., Minnesota-A History of the State,c. 1963, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, pp. 38-39,80-81, 92-93, 136-139.

2. "Hudson's Bay Company", Compton's PicturedEncyclopedia, Volume 6, c. 1939, F.E. Compton Co., Chicago, Illinois, p.350

3. "Hudson's Bay Company", Compton's PicturedEncyclopedia, Volume 6, c. 1939, F.E. Compton Co., Chicago, Illinois, p.513

4. Information Please Almanac, New York, New York, Simonand Schuster, 1970, p. 202

5. Ross, Alexander, The Red River Settlement, c. 1957,Ross and Haines, Inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota, pp. 2-19, 34-35, 99-107, 120-124,172-185

 

  York, Simonand Schuster, 1970, p. 202

5. Ross, Alexander, The Red River Settlement, c. 1957,Ross and Haines, Inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota, pp. 2-19, 34-35, 99-107, 120-124,172-185