Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Hudson's Bay Company

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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition
Hudson's Bay Company
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HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY is a joint-stock association formed for the purpose of importing into Great Britain the furs and skins which it obtains, chiefly by barter, from the Indians of British North America. The trading forts of the company are dotted over the immense region (excluding Canada Proper and Alaska) which is bounded E. and W. by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and N. and S. by the Arctic Ocean and the United States. From these forts the furs are despatched by boat or canoe to York Fort on Hudson's Bay, whence they are shipped to England to be sold by auction.

In the year 1670 Charles II. granted a charter to Prince Rupert and seventeen other noblemen and gentlemen, incorporating them as the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay,” and securing to them “the sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks, and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits commonly called Hudson's Straits, together with all the lands and territories upon the countries, coasts, and confines of the seas, bays, &c., aforesaid, that are not already actually possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian prince or state.” Besides the complete lordship and entire legislative, judicial, and executive power within these vague limits (which the company finally agreed to accept as meaning all lands watered by streams flowing into Hudson's Bay), the corporation received also the right to “the whole and entire trade and traffic to and from all havens, bays, creeks, rivers, lakes, and seas into which they shall find entrance or passage by water or land out of the territories, limits, or places aforesaid.” The first settlements in the country thus granted, which was to be known as Rupert's Land, were made on James's Bay and at Churchhill and Hayes rivers; but it was long before there was any advance into the interior, for in 1749, when an unsuccessful attempt was made in parliament to deprive the company of its charter on the plea of “non-user,” it had only some four or five forts on the coast, with about 120 regular employes. Although the commercial success of the enterprise was from the first immense, great losses, amounting before 1700 to £215,514, were inflicted on the company by the French, who sent several military expeditions against the forts. After the cession of Canada to Great Britain in 1763, numbers of fur-traders spread over that country, and into the north-western parts of the continent, and began even to encroach on the Hudson's Bay Company's territories. These individual speculators finally combined into the North-West Fur Company of Montreal, of which Washington Irving has given an interesting description in his Astoria. The fierce competition which at once sprang up between the companies was marked by features which sufficiently demonstrate the advantages of a monopoly in commercial dealings with savages, even although it is the manifest interest of the monopolists to retard the advance of civilization towards their hunting grounds. The Indians were demoralized, body and soul, by the abundance of ardent spirits with which the rival traders sought to attract them to themselves; the supply of furs threatened soon to be exhausted by the indiscriminate slaughter, even during the breeding season, of both male and female animals; the worst passions of both whites and Indians were inflamed to their fiercest, and costly destruction of human life and property was the result (see Red River Settlement). At last, in 1821, the companies, mutually exhausted, amalgamated, obtaining a licence to hold for 21 years the monopoly of trade in the vast regions lying to the west and north-west of the older company's grant. In 1838 Hudson's Bay Company acquired the sole rights for itself, and obtained anew licence, also for 21 years. On the expiry of this, it was not renewed, and since 1859 the district has been open to all, the Hudson's Bay Company having no special advantages beyond its tried and splendid organization. The licences to trade did not of course affect the original possessions of the company. These it retained till 1869, when they were transferred to the British Government for £300,000; in 1870 they were incorporated with the Dominion of Canada. The company, which now trades entirely as a private corporation, still retains one-twentieth of the entire grant, together with valuable blocks of land round the various forts; and these possessions will doubtless, as the country becomes opened up and colonized, yield a considerable revenue at some future time.

For further information see the Report of the Select Parliamentary Committee in 1857; The Hudson's Bay Territories and Vancouver's Island, by H. M. Martin, 1849; An Examination of the Charter and Proceedings of the Hudson's Bay Company, &c., by J. E. Fitzgerald, 1849; Notes of a Twenty-five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, by J. Maclean, 2 vols., 1849); The Great Lone Land, 1872, and The Wild North Land, 1873, both by Captain W. F. Butler.