Canada, Fur Trade (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records  by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Fur Trade[edit | edit source]

The struggle for control of the land and its resources and the search for a north-west passage to the Orient were factors in the exploration and eventual settlement of the west. For over ninety years, the French and English fought over access to and control of the fur trade.

A royal charter of 1670 incorporated eighteen subscribers as the ‘Governor and Company of Adventurers of England tradeing [sic] into Hudson’s Bay’. The charter established an English area of influence north of the French areas of control and settlement. The company established factories with permanent garrisons to which the Indians would travel from further inland with their furs to trade. These garrisons were supplied by ships bringing provisions from England.

The garrisons of the main factories at York, Albany, Churchill and Moose and a few others consisted of less than 200 men (referred to as servants) in their early days. The larger posts had several officers plus some tradesmen, labourers and seamen. Servants had contracts with the company for 3 to 5 years and were expected to return to England at the end of their terms. There were company prohibitions against relations with Indian women, private trading and excessive drinking. According to Williams, in The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Fur Trade 1670-1870, there is evidence in letters and journals to suggest that these prohibitions were often ignored.

The ban on relations with Indian women, plus the Company’s attempt to prohibit English women from accompanying their husbands to the Bay was unrealistic and indeed there were children born between Indian women and company men, and even some formal marriages.

"In the first decade after the post’s [Moose] establishment in 1730 many of the men took Indian wives, and their families often lived within the factory drawing Company goods and provisions in return for help with the annual hunts and information about the French.” (Williams 1991, 24)

Hudson’s Bay Company Inland Posts[edit | edit source]

Williams, Glyndwr. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Fur Trade 1670-1870, special issue of The Beaver, Autumn 1983, pp 38-39.

Hudson Bay Co Canada.jpg

While the English tended to trade from forts established around Hudson’s and James Bays, the French moved further into the wilderness, establishing posts as far west as central Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan River became the main route for the western fur trade, carrying traders and explorers all the way to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. This was an attempt to get to the Indians first, before they made their way to the British trading posts. The North West Company was a grouping of nine different fur-trading interests established in 1784. These Scottish-Canadian traders from Montreal lived and worked in the west and defied the monopoly rights of the English. From the beginning, the French had not accepted Britain’s claim to Rupert’s Land. Before these two companies merged in 1821, there were instances of violence, bloodshed, court actions and seizures of land and; property.

As early as 1802, Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, the third man of a triumvirate that dominated the Company’s affairs at the time, suggested the company consider a colony in the Red River Valley. By 1810 this proposal became more attractive to the Company—it was coming to see the benefit of producing some provisions locally as the high cost of sending supplies out from England was a concern. In 1811 the Hudson’s Bay Company granted Selkirk a tract of 116,000 square miles in the Winnipeg Basin for 10 shillings and the agreement to provide 200 settlers annually. This settlement posed a threat to the traders with the Northwest Company and they began a campaign of harassment against the settlements along the banks of the Red River. When Selkirk failed to obtain military support from the British for the colony, he built a private army from discharged Swiss and German soldiers from the De Meuron regiment.

Finally in 1821, the time was right for an agreement which saw the HBC and Northwest Companies join together under a new Hudson’s Bay Company model. Northwest traders had become increasingly frustrated with their Montreal agents whom they saw as enduring few of the hardships while reaping most of the benefits. Also, many of them were uncomfortable with the attacks on settler families. A royal licence granted the new organization a 21 year monopoly for the fur trade of North America excluding Upper and Lower Canada and Rupert’s Land. Rupert’s Land, a territory in British North America covering almost 4 million square kilometres, (1.5 million square miles) was a watershed consisting of all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson’s Bay. The Hudson’s Bay Company retained certain rights to this area through its original charter. (Williams, 1991 p. 49)

There’s a nice little map on the Wikipedia site which shows how far Rupert’s Land extended. Map of Rupert's Land

The Union of 1821[edit | edit source]

The union of 1821 brought peace to the troubled fur trade regions but it also created surplus personnel and posts. Senior officers were allowed to retire on favourable terms and unsatisfactory servants or those with large families were discharged.

"The expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company from a handful of Bayside factories to the post-union network of posts covering half the continent was accompanied by social as well as economic changes. The earlier period was dominated by the Company’s refusal to allow its servants to take their wives to the Bay, and by its equally firm if paradoxical insistence that they should have no contact there with Indian women.” (Williams 1991, 69)

While the first part of this policy was easy to enforce, the second proved to be more difficult. From the 1730s onwards, Williams claims that hints of contacts with Indian women occur in the records. The women worked as interpreters, were skilled at making moccasins, dressing furs, catching small game, making canoes, preserving food and harvesting rice. Williams’ examination of the records claims that by 1790, reports of traders’ native born children “appear openly in the records as Factory Boys” (p.71) Some traders made arrangements for their native born wives and children in their wills.

Among the first Red River settlers there had been some white women, and they were joined by wives of the clergy. From 1836, Chief Factors who were Justices of the Peace were allowed to conduct civil marriages and in 1845 this right was extended to all Chief Factors.

From the 1821 merger, the Hudson’s Bay Company took advantage of its monopoly with little attention or concern from outside.

"Aside from a handful of free traders, no one else was interested in the western frontier; indeed it was assumed by most people to be a frozen wasteland populated by ferocious natives. However, at mid century events conspired to bring the Hudson’s Bay Company and its regime into the harsh light of publicity.” (Francis 1982, 172)

According to Francis, the events which together combined into a strong campaign to annex Rupert’s Land to Canada included:

  • a coalition of free traders and former company employees who opposed company rule in the west made complaints to the British government.
  • railway promoters felt there was a need for the British government to join the area with Britain before the Americans moved in to claim it.
  • the fact that Ontario was running out of land for settlement.

In 1859 the Company’s licence for exclusive trade was not renewed, but it retained its territorial rights until 1869 when it agreed to surrender Rupert’s Land to the Crown, which would transfer it to the newly established Canadian confederation.

“The Company agreed to surrender Rupert’s Land to the Crown, which was to transfer it to Canada. The Dominion government, helped if necessary by a loan from Britain, was to pay the £300,000 in compensation to the Company, which would be allowed to keep its 120 trading posts with adjoining land, and could claim 1/20th of the land allocated in the next 50 years in the Fertile Belt. The transfer was arranged for 1 December 1869, though the Riel uprising delayed matters until 15 July 1870.” (Williams 1991, 81)

Fur Trade Records[edit | edit source]

In terms of records, the North West Company left little. The majority of information comes from the journals and records of the Hudson’s Bay Company.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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