Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba's First Company

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1970, Volume 16, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Several great trading companies played important roles in the development of the British Empire. One of the earliest of these, The Mysterie and Companie of Merchants Adventurers for the Discoverie of Regions, Dominions and Islands Unknown, sent a ship into the Baltic Sea in 1553 for the purpose of discovering a North-East Passage to the Orient. This company, which was later known as the Muscovy Company, established such a profitable trade with Russia and the Scandinavian countries that other companies, intrigued by its success, adopted its methods.

A decade later the Company of Merchant Adventurers of England were running ships across the English channel and thence by coastal waters to the North Sea and the Baltic. On these voyages they were seldom out of sight of land, so when storms arose they could usually outrun them, taking cover in nearby ports or coves if need arose. The ensuing reduction in losses at sea combined with a good margin on trade, to boot raised their profits to highly satisfactory levels. Their cross-channel trade was therefore pressed with vigor, and by the 1560s, as a direct outcome of this policy, they had secured the bulk of the trade with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourgh.

In the meantime, merchants in the western and southwestern ports were turning their attention to the New World and outfitting trading expeditions to the mainland south of Newfoundland. This sort of venture across the North Atlantic, so different from the relatively risk-free jaunts across the channel, called for sailors who knew how to fix their courses on the open sea, who were not afraid to sail beyond sight of land, and who knew that the risks, great as they were, were well worth the venture.

It also called for merchants who were willing to risk capital in joint stock companies to underwrite voyages overseas. One of these companies, The Bristol Society of Venturers, commissioned a crew of deep-sea sailors from Plymouth, Bristol, and Dartmouth, and sent it to New England to strike a commerce with the natives. The continental trade thus established was picked up later by the Virginia Company, and these successful entrepreneurs, who established Jamestown in 1609, struck a prosperous trade thereabouts. Later on, ranging farther afield, they pressed their northern trade to the point where it called for separate management. So they founded the Canada Company.

Following these pioneer ventures, other mercantile companies became interested in trade in the New World. The Dutch East India Company sent Henry Hudson across the Atlantic in 1609, and it was on this voyage that he discovered Hudson River (New York State). In the following year, sailing in the interests of a few merchants of the Muscovy Company, he was in Hudson Bay, probing for a Northwest Passage to the Orient. Two years later, Thomas Button, commissioned by the Company of Merchants Discoverers of the North West Passage, struck land at Nelson River in territory which became the Province of Manitoba. In 1630, Captain Luke Foxe, seeking a route to the east for the Bristol Merchant Venturers, and Captain Thomas James, bound on the same quest for the Body of London Merchants, met off Port Nelson.

In other parts of the world, the Muscovy Company, the East India Company, the Royal African Company, the Levant Company, and the East-land Company sent their ships wherever ships could sail. In the course of time they established ports of call on all continents and traded with the natives on the seaboards. Eventually they moved inland, planted colonies, and secured many new lands for Britain. There were literally dozens and dozens of companies - English, French, Dutch, Portugese - which operated successfully as private traders and public watchdogs, combining profit and patriotism in their far-flung ventures.

Among all these, however, none was more successful than the Hudson's Bay Company, whose Grand Seigneur, Sir Winston Churchill, posed the following tribute in 1957: "Many great merchant expeditions set out in the last four centuries from the shores of these Islands and materially altered the history of the lands to which they sailed. Of these, none was more prominent than the Hudson's Bay Company. Its resounding title, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay, aptly conveys the spirit which has imbued it from its Royal origins in the 17th century to the present day."

The Charter of the Hudson's Bay Company, issued under the Great Seal of England, was granted on May 2, 1670. It gave the company (as a corporation) certain legal rights which remained so firmly fixed in the nicety of their medieval language that they were never broken by assaults at law. The seven thousand words in the Charter take an hour and a half to read and a lot longer to understand. They remained unaltered, word for word. for over two hundred years, the first change taking place in the amendments of 1884, which was, incidentally, the year in which Manitoba lost its border war with Ontario at the hands of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Under the terms of the Charter the Company was granted: "The sole Trade and Commerce of all those Seas Streightes Bayes Rivers Lakes Creeks and Soundes in whatsoever Latitude they shall bee that lye within the entrance of the Streightes commonly called Hudsons Streightes together with all Landes and Territoryes upon the Countryes Coastes and of the Seas Bays Lakes River Creeks and Soundes aforesaid that are not actually possessed by or granted to any of our subjects or possessed by the Subjects of any other Christian Prince or State."

The Governor and Company of Adventurers were to be the "True and absolute Lordes and Proprietors" of a vast territory, containing some 1,400,000 square miles, about six times the size of Manitoba and twelve times the size of the British Isles. Traced on a current map the original grant included portions of Ontario and Quebec north of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence watersheds and west of Labrador, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, the southern half of Alberta, the North West Territories south of the Arctic watershed, and portions of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Moreover, what is not generally recognized, the grant included a smidgen of Montana, drained by a river which flows into Waterton Lake. Later on, at the height of its power, the Company held sway over approximately 3,000,000 square miles - more than twice the area of its original grant - roughly one-quarter of the North American continent.

The Company was to hold the territory "in free and common socage" - a tenure of land fixed in amount and kind or by payment of money rent only and not burdened with military service. The only duty laid upon the Company was "the payment to the Crown of two elks and two black beaver whenever the King, his heirs and successors should enter the territories so granted." The Whole Charter was, as Professor E. E. Rich, the official historian of the Company, so succinctly puts it, "a magnificent grant of rights and privileges, not a specification of duties."

Put another way, there was not a word in the Charter which obligated the Company to establish a settlement or to explore new land. Nevertheless, it was on these grounds that jealous rivals snapped at the Company during the days of its monopoly, and even today these same grounds provide anglophobes with their favorite jousting pits.

In the Charter, the grant to the Hudson's Bay Company was cited as a plantation or colony, the words being extractions from the charter of the Virginia Company. The new land was to be named Rupert's Land, after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, cousin of Charles II, and first Governor of the Company. There was also a provision in the Charter which authorized the Governor and Company to move overseas to adminster their realm and their operations. They could hold their meetings "in any place or places for the same convenient within our Dominions or elsewhere." The prospect that the entire administrative apparatus of the Company might one day move to Rupert's Land was taken into account, and legal provision was made for this eventuality, however remote it seemed at the time.

This provision came pat to hand in 1970 when instruments were signed in London and Ottawa transferring the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company from London, England to Winnipeg, Canada. The transfer was made without fuss or fanfare, but due regard was taken, nonetheless, of ancient custom and privilege. The Company was incorporated by Royal Charter; eight subsequent amendments were all by Royal Warrant; and the 1970 Charters of Transfer, from corporate status in England to corporate status in Canada, were executed by the Queen. So three hundred years after its founding, the Hudson's Bay Company became a Canadian company. with its new headquarters fittingly set in Hudson's Bay House, Main Sweet, Winnipeg, near the site of Upper Fort Garry, once the administrative headquarters of Rupert's Land.

Other articles in the original Charter had to do with the setting up of a colony or settlement; such things, for example, as "Lawes Constitutions Orders and Ordinances" were vested in the Company as well as the right to enforce them. The Company's governors and councils were given the right to examine under oath civil and criminal cases and pass judgment thereon. Appeals could be made to the courts of Britain.

The articles defining the right to exclusive trade were precise and absolute. The penalties for illegal trading were severe, "inviting the King's displeasure, the forfeit of merchandise and ship, the Crown Taking half of the forfeit, the Company the other half, the interloper to remain in custody until he had posted bail of £1,000." "The True and Absolute Lordes and Proprietors" had the right to forbid entry into Rupert's Land to anyone who did not meet their favor. If by chance someone escaped their surveillance, they could deport him.

In spite of its monopoly and its sweeping rights and powers, the Company had an amazing record of innovation and achievement. It stayed at its posts on Hudson Bay and took the trade that came to it there, and so long as it was making a profit and its trade was not being challenged, it stood pat where it was, just as any other company would have done under similar circumstances. When, however, the Hudson's Bay Company was forced to awaken from "its comfortable sleep on the shores of Bay," it woke with a vengeance, struck quickly inland, absorbed its great rival, the North West Company, and forged in the new coalition a stronger and greater unit.

During two centuries as ruler and trader, the Hudson's Bay Company started many new projects in Manitoba. Enterprises such as transportation, manufacturing, and commissariat were essential to the fur trade, but the Company also had a hand in auxiliary enterprises such as agriculture, mining, surveys, exploration, schooling, medicine, mail, settlement, law and order, missionary and church work.

The first farmers in Manitoba were traders of the Hudson's Bay Company. They pioneered in the planting of root, cereal, vegetable and forage crops, and in the raising of cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry. These early trader-farmers, laboring in the bleak, windswept lowland of Hudson Bay, coaxed the reluctant clay to yield a meagre increase. There also, in response to their crude husbandry, cattle were brought through the winter on locally harvested hay.

As early as 1671, the London Committee was confident that vegetables could be grown on the western mainland. They were sure that at Nelson and Churchill garden seeds would come to head and mature as early as in Norway and Sweden. They cautioned, however, that it might be necessary to plant hedges to protect the tender shoots from the frigid northern blasts.

Gardens were planted at York Factory shortly after its founding in 1685, and plantings followed at Fort Churchill in 1688 and at Prince of Wales Fort in 1717. The first ledgers relative to the operation of these posts contain entries for scythes and spades and for seeds - peas, carrots, onions, spinach, turnips, kidney beans, cabbage, wheat and oats. Much later the Company started experimental farms at Red River, and it went to considerable expense to import cattle and sheep, to plant grain and vegetables, and to hire a succession of farm managers. The Company's work in agriculture at Red River, though well intentioned on several counts, was, however, never as successful as that of the Selkirk Settlers.

In a completely different field, the Company had the exclusive right to "trade" in minerals, and in harmony with this privilege it issued instructions to its first governor in Rupert's Land "to have regard for the possibilities of trade in copper and other minerals as supplements for furs." In 1690, Henry Kelsey was instructed to be diligent in his search for minerals, but there is no evidence to suggest that the discoverer of the prairies followed these instructions. Two years later the Company tried a more direct approach and sent out a German miner, Gottlieb Augustus Lichteneger, "to make inspections into Minerials." He was the first "professional" miner to probe the crust of the Precambrian Shield, but nothing came of his employment.

Many fur traders crossed the mineral-bearing terrain of Northern Manitoba, but their singleness of purpose - the quest for furs - turned them from the greater wealth which lay beneath their feet. Few took heed of the Company's directive "to be assiduous in the development of Minerals," and none of those who carried "crucibles and borax wherewith they might treat whatsoever metals they should find" made a significant discovery.

From the time the Company was founded in 1670 to the time of its surrender to the Crown in 1869, no profit was received from minerals although many thousands of pounds were spent on the search. The Company's mining ventures added nothing to the development of the industry in Manitoba. When, however, preliminary discussions were being held with the Imperial Government for the transfer of Rupert's Land to the Crown, the Company was still hopeful that revenue might be derived from minerals. And so it suggested, as one of the conditions of the transfer, "that a quarter of all revenues to be got from duties on gold and silver exports or from leases to gold and silver mines accrue to the Company."

In the realm of transportation, the Company was also a pioneer. The launching of the first York Boats at Cumberland House by George Sutherland in 1794 was probably the first great technological breakthrough in the fur trade. It foreshadowed the ascendancy of the Hudson's Bay Company over the North West Company, and the running of these sturdy craft between York Factory and the inland posts, at a critical stage in the rivalry between the two companies, gave the Hudson's Bay Company a distinct economic advantage which helped them to secure thereafter dominance in the fur trade.

Other major developments, the coastal schooner service between York and the other posts on Hudson Bay and James Bay, the use of sailing craft on large inland lakes and rivers. and the ultimate operation of steamboats on Red River, Lake Winnipeg, and Saskatchewan River were parts of a transportation system which was generally a pioneer enterprise.

The Red River Cart service between Fort Garry and St. Paul, between Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton, was an important carrier of trade goods inland and furs and hides outward. The Hudson's Bay Company got the Red River Cart from the North West Company and used it to advantage both before and after the union of 1821. It was not until after the St. Paul, Minnesota, and Manitoba Railway was joined with the Canadian Pacific Railway to St. Boniface in 1878 that the Red River Carts brigades were withdrawn from the Pembina Trail and the Crow Wing Trail.

They continued to grind along the Carlton Trail for another decade or so, and they did not fall into general disuse on the prairies until branch lines running north from the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s and 1890s put them out of business. Nonetheless, before they were withdrawn altogether from service, they had rolled into the 20th century, serving isolated posts in the foothills of the Rockies and in the tablelands of the Mackenzie District.

At one point in the career of the Red River Carts, the Hudson's Bay Company put in hand the building of a winter road between Norway House and York Factory, over which it was intended to run them. This road was never finished, but the men who were brought in to build it left the name of their homeland on the trading post which sits on one of the loveliest points in all of Manitoba.

Lines of communication in the winter were first kept open by "runners" who carried mail from post to post. Their major responsibility was to carry the Company's official correspondence from headquarters such as York Factory and Fort Garry to inland posts. Sometimes, when running confidential letters through territory occupied by opposition traders, the runners would sew them into the lining of their capotes.

The first runner of whom there is note is Henry Kelsey. He set out in the winter of 1687 from York Factory to New Severn with important letters which called for replies. After thirty days of travel he was back at York, having made the round trip of 400 miles without misadventure. Later on, when the Company had many trading posts throughout the west and the northwest, the winter runs, which became known as Winter Packets, were made by dog trains or teams. The one which left Upper Fort Garry in December with mail for the posts in Mackenzie District did not reach its final point of call until the middle of May.

Another element in the vast transportation network of the Hudson's Bay Company was a railway - the first railway in Western Canada. It was situated at the Grand Rapids of the Saskatchewan and provided a three and a half mile link between Lake Winnipeg and Cedar Lake. Boats and cargoes were loaded on four flat cars and taken around the steep portage. This may not have been much of a railroad, but it was a far better operation than the old one which called for the boats to be rolled over the portage on logs - the only power being manpower. It also had the distinction of being in operation a few months before the first train from the south arrived in St. Boniface on December 7, 1878, and so it can claim title as the first western railroad.

In addition to operating the first transportation system in the province, The Hudson's Bay Company was also the first manufacturing concern. Its factory was York Factory and it made goods of various kinds at this place for over two hundred years. Issac Cowie's report indicates that "many different articles were made at York - axes, ice-chisels, fish and muskrat spears, boats, ironwork for boats, nails and tacks. Everything made of tin for the service and the trade was turned out by the tinsmith at York - half-pint and one-pint drinking pots (known as porringers), round and oval pans, open and covered kettles of various sizes, all made so that the smaller ones nested inside the larger ones to conserve space. There was also a cooper who made kegs for the allowance of liquor, rice, raisins, currants, etc., also firkins for butter. So York was really a factory ..."

In quite another field altogether, in a realm which the Company itself called "Moral and Religious Improvement," it issued resolves: "For the moral and religious improvement of the servants, and more effectual civilization and instruction of the families attached to the different Establishments, and of the Indians, that every Sunday divine services be publicly read, with becoming solemnity, once or twice a day, to be regulated by the number of people and other circumstances, at which every man, woman and child resident, will be required to attend, together with any of the Indians who may be at hand, and whom it may be proper to invite. Resolution No. 2 contained other good instructions: "That in the course of the week due attention be bestowed to furnish the women and children such regular and useful occupation as is suited to their age and capacities, and best calculated to suppress vicious and promote virtuous habits."

The step from religion to education was officially taken as early as 1823 when the Council of the Northern Department adopted what might be called the first statement of policy for education in Manitoba. This policy was endorsed from year to year until in 1839 it became part of the Standing Rules and Regulations. The resolution rings with current interest: "As a preparative to education, that the mother and children be always addressed and habituated to converse in the vernacular dialect of the father, and that he be encouraged to devote part of his leisure hours to teach his children their A.B.C. and Catechism together with such elementary instructions as time and circumstances permit." A peremptory appendage read: "That Chief Factors, Chief Traders, and Clerks in charge of Districts or Posts be directed to take proper measures for carrying these regulations into effect among the Company's Servants families and Indians attached to their respective charges."

In addition to this Resolve, the Company provided direct aid to education in the form of grants to church schools. In 1857 Sir George Simpson testified before a Select Committee of the Imperial Parliament that the HBC made an annual grant of £300 to the Anglican Bishop of Red River, £100 being for schools; a like amount going to the Roman Catholic Bishop of St. Boniface and to the Wesleyan Mission in Rupert's Land. These grants to churches, though ostensibly general contributions, were in reality ex gratia payments in recognition of the work of the missionaries as chaplains and schoolmasters among the Company's officers, servants, and families.

It may be brought forward, however, that the Hudson's Bay Company demonstrated an interest in schooling long before these specific resolves were drafted. Evidence of very early informal schooling attaches itself to Henry Kelsey who began teaching the Cree language to the young servants in the early 1700s. The Cree dictionary which he had been laboriously putting together during his own time at night was sent to London to be printed. Then, when the Company had it published, they sent him copies under cover of the gentle charge: "You doe well to Educate the men in Literature but especially in the Language that in time we may send them to travell if wee see it convenient ... We have sent you your dixonary Printed that you may better instruct the young Ladds with you in ye Indian language."

In all the foregoing undertakings as well as in exploration, surveys, settlement, law and order, and medicine the Company made outstanding contributions to the development of Manitoba. And if it took these things in hand solely as a business concern, interested chiefly in profit, (it went for 28 years between 1690 and 1718 without declaring a dividend); if it launched or supported this or that enterprise with the Company's interest or protection foremost in mind, does this denigrate their character or lessen their significance?

Hundreds of "Company Men," a few known but most unknown to history, created the conditions in which the basic elements of civilization were already firmly established when Manitoba became a province in 1870. They ruled at the height of their power a quarter of the North American continent with one-half as many employees as it takes to currently operate the services of the Manitoba government. They administered their entire operations in this province with one-sixtieth the strength of the provincial civil service.

They ruled an empire and, according to their lights, they ruled it well. They were proud and arrogant, benevolent and harsh, acquisitive and possessive; they were men of courage, integrity, loyalty, and high devotion, and throughout their entire operation there ran a broad band of paternalism which was at once both good and bad. "Had they been a motley crew of unscrupulous men without a soul above a beaver skin," they would have lost their realm and its perquisites at an early date. They would have lost their hold on all of Western Canada; it would have fallen most likely before the northward expansionism of the United States. If it means anything anymore to anyone, the Hudson's Bay Company was the greatest single factor in keeping Western Canada British - and ultimately Canadian. It was the greatest single factor in keeping the Indians at peace.

"I suppose there never yet was another purely commercial concern that so fully realized the moral obligations of its great power, or that so uniformly did its best for the people it ruled." This was Ernest Thompson Seton's tribute to the Company in the days when "Fur Was King." On the other side of the ledger there is the statement - half praise, half indictment - which runs through the substantives: "pageantry, daring, zeal, imperialism, bloodshed, murder, robbery, ambition, and glory aplenty," which fell from the pen of a Winnipeg Free Press writer when reviewing a book on the Company a good many years ago.

Finally, on November 19, 1869, by a legal instrument known as a Deed of Surrender, the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay released their hold on what was left of Rupert's Land - Western Canada and the North West Territories - for £300,000. So, "when it was not to be desired that they should rule forever what they had won," they stepped aside as temporal rulers and became instead what they were originally intended to be - traders and merchants - today The Bay.

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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