Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The oldest company in the Prairie Provinces and one of the world's first joint-stock companies, the Hudson's Bay Company has played a major role in Plains history for three centuries, first as a fur-trading company and then as a large retailer, major landowner, and developer.

Charles II of England chartered the company in 1670, granting it exclusive rights to trade in the Hudson Bay drainage basin, a territory that became known as Rupert's Land. The company's monopoly, however, was never safe. Its envoys first visited the Plains in the late seventeenth century to invite Indians to trade at York Factory on Hudson Bay and to monitor competitors from New France. By the 1690s the company had become a major supplier of European goods to the Indigenous peoples of the northern Great Plains. These goods profoundly influenced lifestyles and patterns of trade, warfare, and diplomacy there.

From the 1690s to 1821 the company competed on the Plains with Montreal-based rivals. Like its competitors, it focused primarily on the rich furs of the subarctic, but in response to stiffening competition from Canadian opponents after 1766 the company established permanent posts on the northern margins of the Plains after 1780. This began a period of intense competition, with important implications for the Native peoples of the region. Although traders purchased furs (especially wolf and fox but also some beaver) from the Indians of the Plains, the region was also important as the source of preserved bison meat (especially pemmican) that the Hudson's Bay Company and other companies used to feed their employees in the subarctic. Cree, Assiniboine, and Métis communities supplied most of bison meat, although Blackfoot, Sarcee, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Ojibwa groups also traded directly with the company. In 1812 the company established the Red River Colony, the first permanent European American settlement in the northern Great Plains.

When the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company merged in 1821, it seemed that the Hudson's Bay Company would finally enjoy its elusive monopoly, but with the border between Rupert's Land and the United States settled at the forty-ninth parallel in 1818, the company faced growing challenges from Métis free traders and American competitors. Before 1818 and even into the 1830s, the company acquired furs trapped well south of the fortyninth parallel. After 1830, the flow of furs changed. Many Métis employees laid off by the Hudson's Bay Company after the merger settled in the Red River Colony, and the colony became primarily Métis. Increasingly, Red River Métis defied the company by trading furs from Indians and selling them to businesses in the northern United States. Also, the Columbia Fur Company and American Fur Company hired many of the talented traders (such as Kenneth McKenzie) who were released from the Hudson's Bay Company after 1821, and these men helped the American Fur Company establish trading relations with communities such as the Blackfoot and Gros Ventres of the Northern Plains. The Hudson's Bay Company was also hampered by the fact that its supply lines were expensive compared with its Missouri River-based competition, especially when the trade in bulky and heavy buffalo robes became important after the 1830s. Thus, between the 1830s and the 1870s, the competitive position of the Hudson's Bay Company weakened.

In 1870 the company reached an important milestone when it sold Rupert's Land to Canada for £300,000. As part of the agreement, the company retained one-twentieth of the land in the Prairie Provinces, much of which was destined to become prime urban real estate. As a result, the Hudson's Bay Company became a major landowner and important real estate developer. After 1870 the company's trade with incoming settlers grew. Its wholesaling, retailing, and real estate activities quickly dwarfed its diminishing fur-trading operations, and it developed a large chain of department stores across Canada. In the twentieth century, it also expanded its interests into natural resource development, including oil and gas. In 1970 it moved its headquarters from London to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The company's papers, now housed in Winnipeg, are one of the most valuable sources for historians of the Prairie Provinces and Northern Great Plains before 1870.

See also LAW: Pierre-Guillaume Sayer Trial / NATIVE AMERICANS: Métis.

Theodore Binnema University of Northern British Columbia

MacKay, Douglas. The Honourable Company. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966.

Newman, Peter C. Empire of the Bay: An Illustrated History of the Hudson's Bay Company. Toronto: Viking Studio Books, 1989.

Rich, E. E. The History of the Hudson's Bay Company 1670–1870. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960.

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