I’ve been thinking about how Canada became a nation and the long line of diverse people who paved the way. Curiously enough, Canada’s early story revolves a department store—the Hudson’s Bay Company. When you think Hudson’s Bay Company, you’re probably thinking of HBC, Bay Days sales and that iconic point blanket. I think of all that, but I also see an institution with a quintessential Canadian history, that started as a multicultural startup in the 17th century.
It started with a dream. Two French Canadian trappers (coureurs de bois), Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers, were looking for the holy grail of beaver furs. They had been trading along the St. Lawrence River and making a decent living, but they had heard that the richest, thickest beaver furs could be found in the far north, and for that they needed financial backing.
There were rules as to where they could trap and licenses had to be secured. Radisson and Médard applied for a trading license from the governor of New France, the Marquis d’Argenson, to explore the upper Great Lakes. The governor declined their request, but that hardly stopped the two intrepid trappers. They gathered their gear and set off in 1659 to explore north of the Great Lakes to Hudson’s Bay.
When they returned to New France, they carried with them the best quality of furs anyone had ever seen. Laden with the equivalent of a king’s ransom, they presented the governor with a sample—likely to rub his nose in the fur, quite literally. Enraged, the governor arrested them and, worse, confiscated their furs.
When they were finally released, the two Radisson and Groseilliers were more determined to prevail. If their country would not seize on the unparalleled resource, then they would have to look elsewhere for backing. So they headed south, to the English colony of Massachusetts.
In Boston, they met a business cartel that agreed to support the venture. A ship set out in 1663 only for it to be broken up by ice sheets. Most would have abandoned the venture, but one Englishman, Colonel George Cartwright, did not let this disaster deter him. Recognizing that they needed additional resources, Cartwright took our French trappers with him to London, where he introduced them to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the first cousin of King Charles II, and 17th century poster boy.
Prince Rupert long had the reputation of an adventurer. He had cut his baby teeth fighting in his home of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. When that wrapped up, he arrived in England to help out his old uncle, King Charles I, who had a nasty civil war on his hand. Rupert’s cavalry prowess had nearly demoralized the Parliamentary side, but in the end, even his tactics couldn’t win this war for the King. After the King’s arrest and subsequent execution, Rupert led a squadron of ships and harassed the Parliamentarians in the Azores and the Caribbean. The moment he heard about this new venture in the New World, he was in.
Rupert introduced Radisson and Groseilliers to his cousin, King Charles II (who was also a bit of an adventurer himself, the scoundrel), and he readily agreed to supply two ships, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet. On June 5, 1668, the two ships left Deptford for Hudson’s Bay. Unfortunately, the Eaglet reached only as far as Ireland before having to turn back.
The Nonsuch continued on to James Bay, the little southern dip of Hudson’s Bay. There they founded the first trading fort, calling it Charles Fort, in modern day Waskaganish in Quebec. Naturally, you name it after the monarch who sponsored the trip if you have any sense. But they didn’t leave Rupert out in the cold, for they named the river that flowed through there Rupert River.
They 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.
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!
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.
Banner image attribution:
Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket: By The original uploader was Decumanus at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Skeezix1000 using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15702930
This article first appeared on Elaine Cougler’s blog on August 2, 2017. Elaine is a historical fiction author who writes about Canadian Loyalists during the time of the American Revolution. For more information about Elaine and her work, check out her website elainecougler.com.