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How We Commenced Business

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1964, Volume 10, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

From The Nor'Wester, Tuesday, 28 February 1860

(To the Editors of The Nor'Wester.)

Gentlemen:- Believing that a few particulars with reference to the importation of merchandise here by the first settlers, would prove interesting to many of your readers, I send you some jottings. During the first thirty-six years of our existence as a settlement, all the foreign articles used here were brought from Great Britain - the greater part being forwarded by an agent from London, while the balance was obtained from merchants residing in Edinburgh and Glasgow. These merchants did not - nor do they now - charge any commission, yet the outfits obtained from them are scarcely cheaper than those of equal quality forwarded by the London agent who charges five per cent. commission.

For the first few years, goods were sent out to this country by the Earl of Selkirk, and a store was kept by his agents in this place, for the purpose of supplying articles of European manufacture. These articles were sold at extortionate prices, and the business generally was managed in a way which injured rather than benefited the poor settlers. After the coalition of the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies in 1821 the latter undertook to supply the Settlement with merchandise; but for many years the supply was inadequate to meet the demand, as might be inferred from the fact that before the end of the first month after the general sale commenced, the whole year's out-fit was disposed of. This evil, however, like some others, brought about its own remedy. Enterprising individuals who had money saw that it might be safely and advantageously invested in goods, and that while they would be enriching themselves, they would be benefiting their fellow-settlers. And thus the number of private importers, which was at first very small, soon increased - the ready sale and handsome profits realized by the first few being strong inducements to all who had a little spare cash at command, to invest in the same line. For some years past, several have imported largely for the purpose of selling; a still greater number have imported small quantities - their object being merely to supply family wants. Thus the demand for goods has been supplied and the supply has moderated the price.

Some of your foreign readers might, perhaps, wish to know how we manage to transmit the cash for these outfits. In the Fall of 1823, the Hudson's Bay Company introduced a paper currency into the country, consisting of one-pound, five-shillings, and one shilling notes, payable at York Factory, in a Bill of Exchange on the Governor, Deputy Governor, and Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company London, at sixty days' sight. The agents for the Company at first refused to grant bills at any post except York Factory, unless the holders of the notes paid five per cent premium. This gave rise to considerable feeling, and finally the restriction was removed - all being now at liberty to draw bills at Upper Fort Garry.

It may be difficult to state the exact amount of our annual imports. For some years past they have exceeded £20,000 stg. - rather more than half being the Hudson's Bay Company's. Let it be understood that in mentioning this sum I speak only of the prime cost. The expense of freight from London to York Factory, on Hudson's Bay, has varied at different times. The Hudson's Bay Company once professed to charge £5 stg. per ton; afterwards, £8 per ton. There is, however, good reason to believe that instead of £8, the settlers have paid from £10 to £20 per ton. Once landed at York Factory, the goods are conveyed from thence to the Settlement in boats or barges made expressly to suit the shallow and rapid rivers through which they have to pass. They carry from 75 to 85 pieces each, which in general cargo might be equal to 100 or 110 pieces of 90 lbs. each - this being the standard weight of a piece.

The navigation from London to York Factory is difficult and dangerous. After crossing the Atlantic, you meet with huge icebergs on the shores of Labrador, a collision with which, when the ship is running before the wind, would prove disastrous. And although the vessel should escape these icebergs without injury, she must encounter the pack-ice in the Straits, where some seasons she remains immovably fixed for weeks and is in the most imminent danger of being broken to pieces or sunk by the pressure of the huge floes. Nor is the danger over when the straits are passed. The ice in the Bay rushes from one quarter to another during the months of July and August and when ships are so unfortunate as to become entangled in this drifting ice, they are so much retarded that their voyage from Britain becomes one of three or four months, seldom reaching York before middle of Au-gust, and sometimes after the 24th of September. But notwithstanding all the danger here expressed and implied, we have no instance during the last fifty years, of any ships having been lost on this voyaging, except one in the summer of 1849, and one (the Kitty) last summer. Almost all the property indented for, last year, by the settlers, was on board the Kitty, amounting to nearly £10,000. Those who imported largely had their property insured, but few or none of the small importers had theirs.

Yours,
DONALD GUNN.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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