Anthony Henday was, perhaps, an unlikely explorer of the northwest for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). In 1750, Henday, who came from the Isle of Wight off the English coast, was hired by the HBC at York Factory as a general labourer and net-maker - despite the fact that he had been blacklisted as a smuggler just two years earlier. Moreover, HBC officials in London would later criticize his cartographical skills and methods as haphazard, at best.
Initially the HBC had been satisfied with localized trade, enticing the local native populations to bring their pelts to trade at their posts on the Hudson Bay, showing little interest in the vast lands to the west - despite the charter giving them claim to the territory. However, as French traders began moving further into the northwest during the 1740s, usurping their English competitors in the process, the Company's attitude quickly changed. James Isham, who headed York Factory, responded to the situation by reasoning that northwestern natives could be drawn out to the fort if they were to experience the Company's "generosity" through an appropriate emissary. Henday, having recently gained inland travel experience on a reconnaissance to Spirit Lake, volunteered and was accepted for the mission. He would be charged with infiltrating deep into the territories in order to make contact with the Archiethinue - the Gros Ventres and Blackfoot of what we now know as southern Alberta.
Anthony Henday, along with several Plains Cree who were making a return trip to the northwest, departed from York Factory on 26 June 1754. However, the journey nearly ended before it could wind its way onto the Saskatchewan River. On 22 July French traders, who Henday had previously worried might suspect him of spying, threatened to capture the party and send him to France. Nevertheless, he was ultimately allowed passage. Some historians speculate that the impressive number of Cree guides in his camp may have provided sufficient help to prevent the caper.
Upon reaching the prairies, the party abandoned their canoes and joined-up with the Cree who had travelled overland. They crossed Saskatchewan, reaching the present-day Battleford area. From this point the precise route the expedition took is confused, largely due to the fact that Henday's original journal has not survived, and that details from at least four copies have proven contradictory. Yet, in works such as J.G. MacGregor's Behold the Shining Mountains, some historians have been able to piece together what they feel is a close approximation. It is believed that Henday travelled into central Alberta via the southern portion of the Battle River Valley, trading with the native peoples such as the Assiniboine, that he met along the way. The Archiethinue, however, engaged in the fall hunt, were proving elusive. Finally, on 15 October 1754, Henday and his party encountered the main Blackfoot camp, approximately 18 miles southeast of the present-day site of Red Deer.
Henday was greeted by the chief and 20 elders, who invited the explorer to smoke the pipe and indulge in delicacies such as Buffalo tongue. Ultimately, however, Henday failed in securing any of the band's numbers for the return to York Factory. The chief was not convinced that his men could survive such a journey because they did not use canoes or have sufficient provisions.
In January, after having spent part of the winter near the Rocky Mountains, Henday, and those of his Cree guides who remained, travelled northeast. They camped at the confluence of the Sturgeon and North Saskatchewan Rivers, about 20 miles east of Edmonton where they constructed canoes and prepared for the journey to York Factory. They departed on 28 April, arriving back at the Hudson's Bay Company post on 23 June 1755.
While still employed with the Hudson's Bay Company, Anthony Henday made several return trips to the northwest, although many of them proved abortive due to ill health. He did succeed in June of 1759, departing with Joseph Smith and a small number of Archiethinue who had arrived at York Factory to trade. Henday and Smith returned in June of 1760, along with a flotilla of some 61 canoes. Henday would quit the HBC two years later, largely due to his frustration of not being sufficiently rewarded for his accomplishments.
Anthony Henday's 1754-55 expedition would eventually change the shape of the Hudson's Bay Company. While his superiors had assumed that their goods could draw many native people from great distances, in harrowing journeys across prairie, rivers and lakes, Henday's experiences indicated otherwise. He found that the Cree "middlemen" began to snap-up his goods in order to trade directly with the Archiethinue themselves. He also found that the French posts, such as Fort Saint-Louis, were doing impressive business and forging strong relations with the native peoples. This led Henday to comment: "they have the advantage of us in every shape." The Hudson's Bay Company, thanks to the observations of those such as Anthony Henday, would soon conclude that it could not affect a monopoly over trade in the northwest by remaining isolated from the balance of its customers.