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Hudson Bay Company

The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) is the oldest corporation in Canada (and North America) and is one of the oldest in the world still in existence. Its initials have often been farcically interpreted as "Here Before Christ". 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.

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, feeling themselves to have been victimized by the French aristocracy, approached a group of businessmen in Boston, Massachusetts to help finance their explorations. The route Radisson and Groseilliers discovered led to rich trading grounds to the north and west of Lake Superior, which they said could be reached from the north through Hudson Bay instead of over land from New France. The Bostonians readily agreed and brought the two to England to elicit financing.

In 1668, the English commissioned two ships, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet to explore possible trade into Hudson Bay. The Nonsuch was commanded by Captain Zachariah Gillam and accompanied by Groseilliers, while the Eaglet was commanded by Captain William Stannard and accompanied by Radisson. On June 5, 1668, both ships left port at Deptford, England, but the Eaglet was forced to turn back off the coast of Ireland. After a successful trading expedition over the winter of 1668–1669, the Nonsuch returned to England.

"The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay" was incorporated on May 2, 1670, with a Royal Charter from King Charles II. The charter granted the company a monopoly over the IndianĂ 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.

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

The company founded its first headquarters at Fort Nelson at the mouth of the Nelson River in present-day northeastern Manitoba. The location afforded convenient 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 centre of inexpensive manufacturing in that era. Alcohol became another payment mechanism. Native addiction to alcohol became another inducement to fur trading, with their lack of European cultural history of being innured to it and which may be related, as some claim, to a lack of a form of biological resistance to extreme drunkneness that could be exploited.

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 English company's more centralized 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 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 miles) 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 what was by then the Kingdom of Great Britain (following the union of Scotland and England in 1707) in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. After the treaty, the company rebuilt York Factory as a brick star fort at the mouth of the nearby Hayes River, its present location.


A Hudson's Bay Company post on Lake Winnipeg, circa 1884

In its trade with native peoples, the company adopted the widespread use of issuing wool blankets, called Hudson's Bay point blankets, in exchange for the beaver pelts trapped by native hunters.

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 James Sinclair and Andrew McDermot (Dermott), independent traders in the Red River Colony.

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 trial, a crowd of armed Métis men led by Louis Riel Sr. gathered outside the courtroom, ready to support their Métis 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 relinquished its ownership of Rupert's Land under the Rupert's Land Act of 1868 enacted by the Parliament of the newly formed Dominion 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 was 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 proclaimed the "Father of Oregon". The company retains no presence in the Pacific Northwest of the United States today.

One aspect of the company's operations was the Hudson's Bay Company Stores, trading posts that were established across northern Canada. Today, this is the only part of the company operation remaining, in the form of department stores under the name The Bay. Many Hudson's Bay Company stores were, until quite recently, the only stores in remote towns. More recently, stores in major downtown locations have been transformed into boutiques.

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 the company operates 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. Simpson's department stores which were acquired by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1979 were converted to The Bay stores in 1991. In the 1970s and 1980s, HBC operated a chain of catalogue stores under the name Shop-Rite. In these stores, little merchandise was displayed openly: customers made their selections from catalogues, and staff would retrieve the merchandise from store-rooms. This form of retailing, now largely disappeared, was referred to as "catalogue showroom".

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, the Bay reopened its 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.

The Hudson's Bay Company building in Montreal

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. (Note: this is not Jerry Zucker, the Hollywood producer.)

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

On March 2, 2005, the company was announced as the new clothing outfitter for the Canadian Olympic team. The $100 million deal means that the Bay will provide clothing for the 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 games.

The legacy of the HBC has been maintained in part by the detailed record-keeping and archiving of material by the Company. Prior to 1974, the records of the HBC were kept in the London office headquarters. The HBC opened an Archives department to researchers in 1931. In 1974, the Hudson's Bay Company Archives were transferred from London, and deposited in the Manitoba Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The collection was opened to public access in 1975.

In 1994, the HBC donated the Company records to the Province of Manitoba. The appraised value of the records was nearly $60 million. A foundation, funded through the tax savings resulting from the donation, was established to support the operations of the HBCA as a division of the Archives of Manitoba, along with other activities and programs. There are more than two kilometres of documents as well as hundreds of microfilm reels now stored in a special climate-controlled vault in the Manitoba Archives Building.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Hudson's Bay Company".