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The Hudson's Bay Company's Monopoly (1821-1850)

Hudson's Bay Company Tradepost

The new company faced many problems not the least of which was re-establishing a sustainable and profitable trade. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) entrusted George Simpson with the task of reorganizing its operations. Simpson, who would later earn the nickname the "Little Emperor": a reference to his short stature and expansive power, set about cutting costs. He closed dozens of posts and centralized trading activities at a smaller number of key locations. He also ruthlessly cut staff. Some former HBC and NWC employees left the fur trade, while many relocated to the Red River. Others stayed near their old posts and supported themselves and their families by hunting, trapping and doing seasonal work for the new company. Many Métis communities throughout western Canada date from this period of change in the fur trade.

By the late 1820s the fur trade was profitable again, and the new HBC had no rivals throughout most of its territories. This meant that anyone interested in exchanging furs or other products for trade goods had to go to the Hudson's Bay Company. Some historians have pointed out that this monopoly power meant First Nations and Métis hunters and trappers had few options and that they may have paid an unnecessarily high price for the goods they wanted. At the same time, without competitors some of the less attractive features of the earlier competitive trade such as violence and intimidation and the use of alcohol as a trade good were reduced.

York Boat at Fort EdmontonDuring this period from 1821 to about 1850 a number of posts throughout the North West became trade, distribution and administrative centres. Places such as York Factory, Upper and Lower Fort Garry, and in Alberta, Fort Chipewyan and Fort Edmonton, grew in size and importance. For example, maps and descriptions of Fort Edmonton in 1840s show that it included several houses of different sizes, an "Indian House," storehouses, a blacksmith's shop, a boat building shop, an ice house, a magazine, and stables. Fields and pastures surrounded the post reflecting the growing importance of gardens, grain crops and livestock in feeding post employees. By the 1850s records indicate that about 120 men, women and children lived in Fort Edmonton, with many more Métis and First Nations people settling nearby.

Literally dozens of smaller posts were supplied from these regional centres, which also produced trade goods, kept the company's records, and undertook a host of other duties. Surviving maps and illustrations of these posts show that they looked more like small towns than the fortified trading settlements from which they developed. In the case of Fort Edmonton and Upper Fort Garry, urban historians note that these posts evolved directly into the modern cities of Edmonton and Winnipeg. In other cases, such as Fort Chipewyan, the post's position declined as trade, transportation and other factors changed in the later 19th century.

the Rectory at Fort DunveganAlthough Fort Edmonton and Fort Chipewyan were the largest and most important fur trade centres in Alberta during this period, the history of other, smaller posts is also worth studying. Most fur traders and their families lived and worked at much smaller posts. In 1850 the Hudson's Bay Company operated 54 posts in the North West staffed by 492 full-time employees. The average post then had about 9 full-time employees. Even with their wives and children, most posts probably housed fewer than 25 or 30 people. Dunvegan is a good example of this kind of smaller post. In 1848, for example, 8 men were stationed at the post, including a father and his son. Despite the small number of employees, that same year trade at Dunvegan consisted of 1337 beaver pelts, 424 lynx, 226 marten, 37 wolverines, 52 fishers, 135 foxes of various types, 576 bear skins, and smaller numbers of several other types of fur as well.

The profits that fur returns from posts such as Dunvegan produced began to attract others into the trade. In particular, some former company employees - many of them Métis - in Red River saw trading furs as a way to supplement their earnings from farming, hunting buffalo, and working on canoe and boat brigades for the Hudson's Bay Company. At the site of Fort Dunvegan first the HBC did little to discourage this private trading, but in 1849 the HBC decided to respond. Four Métis men from Red River were charged with trading without the permission of the Hudson's Bay Company. Pierre Guillaume Sayer was the first to be tried. The jury found him guilty based on the Hudson's Bay Company's charter that had been granted in 1670 by King Charles II of Britain. This charter gave the HBC an exclusive right to trade in those areas where the rivers and lakes drained into Hudson Bay. Of course traders from New France and later the North West Company had never obeyed this charter.

Although the jury found him technically guilty, no punishment was recommended and the charges against the other three defendants were dropped. The Métis and everyone else, aside from some HBC officials, realized that from then on anyone could trade. The HBC's monopoly was broken. Although the company remained the most powerful business in the North West for many more years, it faced increasing competition after 1850.

Competitive Fur Trade (1850–1900)

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