Friday, May 8, 2020

The Hudson's Bay Company

by Cryssa Bazos

The Hudson’s Bay Company recently celebrated their 350-year anniversary, which is a considerable achievement, but HBC (also called The Bay) is more than just a Canadian retail store. Its history is entwined with the formation of Canada.

Our story starts in the 17th century, a time of exploration and early colonization. France and England were establishing settlements and carving out the eastern part of North America, with France taking what is Quebec today and England establishing the New England colonies. With the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, England sandwiched France by establishing a foothold in the north through a vast stretch of land that is approximately a third of the size of Canada. Ironically, this win for England was only made possible by two Frenchmen.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson
Wikimedia Commons 
[Public Domain]
Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers were fur traders (coureurs de bois) and explorers as well as brothers-in-law. Radisson arrived in New France around 1651 and settled in the Trois-Rivières area with his sisters, one who eventually married Groseilliers. Radisson’s early life was one harrowing adventure after another. He spent years with the Mohawk, learning their culture and traditions, and had been fortunate to escape death after being captured by the Iroquois.

Groseilliers emigrated to New France several years earlier than Radisson and initially became a lay person at a Jesuit mission, but his passion was exploration. He travelled from New France, westward to the Great Lakes and spent time with the Huron peoples.

During this time the fur trade had become a highly lucrative business, in particular the trading of beaver fur. Wealthy Europeans were mad for the thick, warm, and waterproof furs. French traders concentrated their trapping along the St. Lawrence waterway, but having explored north and west of New France, Groseilliers was aware that the thickest beaver furs could be found to the north, around Hudson’s Bay.

In 1659, Radisson and Groseilliers applied for a trading license from the governor of New France, the Marquis d’Argenson, to explore the upper Great Lakes. The governor initially declined the request but then agreed provided that the expedition included several cronies and friends. Radisson and Groseilliers agreed, but at the first opportunity, they struck out on their own, leaving the governor’s people behind. During this trip, they travelled north of the Great Lakes, trapping far superior furs than they had found before.

When they returned to New France, the furious governor fined them, seized their furs and imprisoned Groseilliers. Rather than dampening their taste for adventure, the experience further inflamed their desire to reach Hudson’s Bay. They realized that their best chance was to do so from the water as opposed to undertaking a long arduous journey over land. For this, they needed financial backing.

They did attempt to find investors in France, but they found no interest. Eventually, they turned their attention to the English colony of Massachusetts, where in Boston, they met Colonel George Cartwright, a commissioner of King Charles II of England. Cartwright immediately saw the potential and together with Radisson and Groseilliers they travelled to London and presented their opportunity to the king in 1665. Charles II was a forward-thinking monarch who was eager for exploration. There in London, the king’s cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was brought in. Being at heart an adventurer, Rupert was eager for the venture and invested £270 on the expedition. 

Prince Rupert of the Rhine
Wikimedia Commons
After a few years of not being able to get their venture off the ground (caught between a perfect storm of plague and war against the Dutch), they finally secured two small ships to travel to Hudson’s Bay, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet. On June 5, 1668, the two ships left Deptford for Hudson’s Bay.

Unfortunately, Radisson aboard the Eaglet never made it across the Atlantic. The vessel experienced crippling damage during a gale and was forced to turn back to Ireland.

Groseilliers was more successful. The Nonsuch arrived at James Bay, the little southern dip of Hudson’s Bay. There they founded the first trading fort, calling it Charles Fort, which is modern day Waskaganish, Quebec (although it was better known as Rupert’s House) and named the major river that flowed into James Bay as Rupert River.

The company trapped and traded the winter of 1668 and when fall arrived the following year, the Nonsuch returned to England carrying a prized cargo of beaver furs. The value of the pelts was valued at £1,233, the equivalent (at that time) of a laborer’s lifetime wages. Even still, the first venture did little more than cover costs.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was officially incorporated on May 2, 1670 by royal charter granted by King Charles II with Prince Rupert named as its first governor. The company had control of the entire area around Hudson’s Bay known as Rupert’s Land, spanning approximately 1.5 million square miles!

Rupert's Land via Wikimedia Commons
en:User:Decumanusderivative work: Themightyquill / CC BY-SA )

Over the next two centuries, the Hudson’s Bay Company became synonymous with exploration and solidified British interests in Canada. Its founding is truly a Canadian story, only possible as a multicultural joint venture thanks to an English King, a German Prince and a pair of French trappers.


Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and 17th-century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award (historical fiction), a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards (historical romance) and a finalist for RNA Joan Hessayon Award. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and has been shortlisted for the 2019 Chaucer Award.

For more information, visit her Website or connect through Facebook or Twitter.

Traitor's Knot is available through Amazon
Severed Knot is available through all Online Retailers 

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