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Company Life

Hudson's Bay Company

Hudsons Bay Company PostThe Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was granted a royal charter on, 2 May 1670, by King Charles I. The King granted the HBC sole right to trade in almost half of North America, an area known as Rupert’s Land. Rupert's Land was an area of about 1,244,160 km that encompassed all the land that was drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay -- in short, much of what is now western and northern Canada. 

The HBC established a network of posts around the shores of the Hudson’s Bay. Unlike the French, the British were not concerned with developing a colony. They focused on trade instead. They began by planting 'factories' in the inlets along the southern portion of the Hudson’s Bay.  These settlements were meant to be places of industry and commerce, places where men went to make money for themselves and for the Company. The Cree acted as middlemen, purchasing furs inland and bringing them out to the Bay by way of a long, exhausting canoe trip. By the mid 18th century, the HBC had some posts and staging points just a few days upriver from the factories. Cumberland House, the first main inland post, was built in 1774, with Samuel Hearne in charge.

North West Company

The Royal Proclamation (1763), was an outcome of the terms of settlement of the Seven Years War, and it granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a monopoly over lands that were previously dominated by French traders. It also preserved territory for Aboriginal tribes.

This was the environment in which The North West Company (NWC) began in 1779. It was led mainly by a group of merchants (composed of mostly Highland Scots), who migrated to Montreal after 1762 and sought to challenge the monopoly that the HBC held over trade.  One thing that distinguished the North West Company from the HBC was that their workforce relied heavily on French-Canadians who had settled in the fur country and had developed relations with local Aboriginal tribes. Under the guidance of its new English-Canadian owners, the company economically dominated the trade. However, the workers who formed its core were mostly of the French-Canadian population or of the Great Lakes Métis. The rise of the NWC in the closing decades of the century marked a pivotal change in trade. The policies of the NWC demanded aggressive pursuit of trade, and they started to become a serious threat to the HBC’s policies and practises.

The HBC soon found that they were forced to pursue a more active approach to trade, using tactics similar to the NWC, when for almost one hundred years they had been content to let the Aboriginal people come to them. The Hudson’s Bay Company had set up posts virtually on the doorstep of their competition.  Eventually competition with the HBC became too strong and by 1821 the NWC was amalgamated by the HBC.

Company Men

Hudsons Bay Company PostAfter 1821, the HBC was re-organized to include some NWC partners and engagees. The resulting culture was based on the HBC structure and expectation of loyalty and dedication, but added some of the culture of the more relaxed NWC employees. There was one additional element: whereas before the HBC was the total boss of all of its factories and brigades, now it held the power of monopoly over the North West. In addition, the HBC constituted the only European-style legal authority between the Canadas and the Pacific. The company officers in the trading posts were the arbiters of judgment over the post and the community around it as well as the fur trade employees wherever their work took them.

One result of the domination of the HBC was the strengthening of the culture and development of the Company Man. The tendency to combine self-interest with company interest was strengthened by the distribution of a certain number of HBC shares to their officers. Before re-organization, both the HBC and NWC had developed clusters of men who were inter-related by virtue of their marriages or lineage. For these men, their own welfare and that of their families, communities and trade were deeply interwoven.

Company men often based their identity on their position within the hierarchy of HBC. Some of the fifty-three traders who became partners (shareholders in the Company) began to identify their interests with those of the HBC. The partners were not the only men loyal to the HBC. There were families who developed in the fur trade, who always had someone working for the Company, and who based their identity on family and work. They called themselves the Hudson’s Bay People.

 


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