The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay
Company CHAPTER I - THE FIRST VOYAGE FOR TRADE
Famous Companies—"The old lady of Fenchurch
Street"—The first voyage—Radisson and Groseilliers—Spurious claim of the
French of having reached the Bay—"Journal published by Prince Society"—The
claim invalid—Early voyages of Radisson—The Frenchmen go to Boston—Cross
over to England—Help from Royalty—Fiery Rupert—The King a stockholder—Many
hitherto unpublished facts—Capt. Zachariah Gillam—Charles Fort built on
Rupert River—The founder's fame.
Charles Lamb—"delightful author"—opens his unique
"Essays of Elia" with a picturesque description of the quaint "South Sea
House." Threadneedle Street becomes a magnetic name as we wander along it
toward Bishopsgate Street "from the Bank, thinking of the old house with
the oaken wainscots hung with pictures of deceased governors and
sub-governors of Queen Anne, and the first monarchs of the Brunswick
dynasty—huge charts which subsequent discoveries have made
antiquated—dusty maps, dim as dreams, and soundings of the Bay of Panama."
But Lamb, after all, was only a short time in the South Sea House, while
for more than thirty years he was a clerk in the India House, partaking of
the genius of the place.
The India House was the abode of a Company far more
famous than the South Sea Company, dating back more than a century before
the "Bubble" Company, having been brought into existence on the last day
of the sixteenth century by good Queen Bess herself. To a visitor,
strolling down Leadenhall Street, it recalls the spirit of Lamb to turn
into East India Avenue, and the mind wanders back to Clive and Burke of
Macaulay's brilliant essay, in which he impales, with balanced phrase and
perfect impartiality, Philip Francis and Warren Hastings alike.
The London merchants were mighty men, men who could
select their agents, and send their ships, and risk their money on every
sea and on every shore. Nor was this only for gain, but for philanthropy
as well. Across yonder is the abode of the New England Company, founded in
1649, and re-established by Charles II. in 1661—begun and still existing
with its fixed income "for the propagation of the Gospel in New England
and the adjoining parts of America," having had as its first president the
Hon. Robert Boyle; and hard by are the offices of the Canada Company, now
reaching its three-quarters of a century.
Not always, however, as Macaulay points out, did the
trading Companies remember that the pressure on their agents abroad for
increased returns meant the temptation to take doubtful or illicit methods
to gain their ends. They would have recoiled from the charge of Lady
"Wouldst not play false, And yet wouldst wrongly
Yet on the whole the Merchant Companies of London
bear an honourable record, and have had a large share in laying the
foundations of England's commercial greatness.
Wandering but a step further past East India Avenue,
at the corner of Lime and Leadenhall Streets, we come to-day upon another
building sitting somewhat sedately in the very heart of stirring and
living commerce. This is the Hudson's Bay House, the successor of the old
house on Fenchurch Street, the abode of another Company, whose history
goes back for more than two centuries and a quarter, and which is to-day
the most vigorous and vivacious of all the sisterhood of companies we have
enumerated. While begun as a purely trading Company, it has shown in its
remarkable history not only the shrewdness and business skill of the race,
called by Napoleon a "nation of shopkeepers," but it has been the
governing power over an empire compassing nearly one half of North
America, it has been the patron of science and exploration, the defender
of the British flag and name, and the fosterer, to a certain extent, of
education and religion.
Not only on the shores of Hudson Bay, but on the
Pacific coast, in the prairies of Red River, and among the snows of the
Arctic slope, on the rocky shores of Labrador and in the mountain
fastnesses of the Yukon, in the posts of Fort William and Nepigon, on Lake
Superior, and in far distant Athabasca, among the wild Crees, or greasy
Eskimos, or treacherous Chinooks, it has floated the red cross standard,
with the well-known letters H. B. C.—an "open sesame" to the resources of
a wide extent of territory.
The founding of the Company has features of romance.
These may well be detailed, and to do so leads us back several years
before the incorporation of the Company by Charles II. in 1670. The story
of the first voyage and how it came about is full of interest.
Two French Protestant adventurers—Medard Chouart and
Pierre Esprit Radisson—the former born near Meaux, in France, and the
other a resident of St. Malo, in Brittany— had gone to Canada about the
middle of the seventeenth century. Full of energy and daring, they, some
years afterwards, embarked in the fur trade, and had many adventures.
Radisson was first captured by the Iroquois, and
adopted into one of their tribes. After two years he escaped, and having
been taken to Europe, returned to Montreal. Shortly afterwards he took
part in the wars between the Hurons and Iroquois. Chouart was for a time
assistant in a Jesuit mission, but, like most young men of the time,
yielded to the attractions of the fur trade. He had married first the
daughter of Abraham Martin, the French settler, after whom the plains of
Abraham at Quebec are named. On her death Chouart married the widowed
sister of Radisson, and henceforth the fortunes of the two adventurers
were closely bound up together. The marriage of Chouart brought him a
certain amount of property, he purchased land out of the proceeds of his
ventures, and assumed the title of Seignior, being known as "Sieur des
Groseilliers." In the year 1658 Groseilliers and Radisson went on the
third expedition to the west, and returned after an absence of two years,
having wintered at Lake Nepigon, which they called "Assiniboines." It is
worthy of note that Radisson frankly states in the account of his third
voyage that they had not been in the Bay of the North (Hudson Bay).
The fourth voyage of the two partners in 1661 was one
of an eventful kind, and led to very important results. They had applied
to the Governor for permission to trade in the interior, but this was
refused, except on very severe conditions. Having had great success on
their previous voyage, and with the spirit of adventure inflamed within
them, the partners determined to throw off all authority, and at midnight
departed without the Governor's leave, for the far west. During an absence
of two years the adventurers turned their canoes northward, and explored
the north shore of Lake Superior.
It is in connection with this fourth voyage (1661)
that the question has been raised as to whether Radisson and his
brother-in-law Groseilliers visited Hudson Bay by land. The conflicting
claim to the territory about Hudson Bay by France and England gives
interest to this question. Two French writers assert that the two
explorers had visited Hudson Bay by land. These are, the one, M.
Bacqueville de la Potherie, Paris ; and the other, M. Jeremie, Governor of
the French ports in Hudson Bay. Though both maintain that Hudson Bay was
visited by the two Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, yet they differ
entirely in details, Jeremie stating that they captured some Englishmen
there, a plain impossibility.
Oldmixon, an English writer, in 1708, makes the
following statement:—"Monsieur Radisson and Monsieur Gooselier, meeting
with some savages in the Lake of the Assinipouals, in Canada, they learnt
of them that they might go by land to the bottom of the bay, where the
English had not yet been. Upon which they desired them to conduct them
thither, and the savages accordingly did it." Oldmixon is, however,
inaccurate in some other particulars, and probably had little authority
for this statement.
THE CRITICAL PASSAGE.
The question arises in Radisson's Journals, which are
published in the volume of the Prince Society. For so great a discovery
the passage strikes us as being very short and inadequate, and no other
reference of the kind is made in the voyages. It is as follows, being
taken from the fourth voyage, page 224 :—
"We went away with all hast possible to arrive the
sooner at ye great river. We came to the seaside, where we finde an old
house all demolished and battered with boullets. We weare told yt those
that came there were of two nations, one of the wolf, and the other of the
long-horned beast. All those nations are distinguished by the
representation of the beasts and animals. They tell us particularities of
the Europians. We know ourselves, and what Europ is like, therefore in
vaine they tell us as for that. We went from isle to isle all that summer.
We pluckt abundance of ducks, as of other sort of fowles; we wanted not
fish, nor fresh meat. We weare well beloved, and weare overjoyed that we
promised them to come with such shipps as we invented. This place has a
great store of cows. The wild men kill not except for necessary use. We
went further in the bay to see the place that they weare to pass that
summer. That river comes from the lake, and empties itself in ye river of
Sagnes (Saguenay) called Tadou-sack, wch is a hundred leagues in the great
river of Canada, as where we are in ye Bay of ye North. We left in this
place our marks and rendezvous. The wild men yt brought us defended us
above all things, if we would come quietly to them, that we should by no
means land, & so goe to the river to the other side, that is to the North,
towards the sea, telling us that those people weare very treacherous."
THE CLAIM INVALID.
We would remark as follows :—
1. The fourth voyage may be traced as a journey
through Lake Superior, past the pictured rocks on its south side, beyond
the copper deposits, westward to where there are prairie meadows, where
the Indians grow Indian corn, and where elk and buffalo are found, in fact
in the region toward the Mississippi River.
2. The country was toward that of the Nadoneseronons,
i.e. the Nadouessi or Sioux; north-east of them were the Christinos or
Crees; so that the region must have been what we know at present as
Northern Minnesota. They visited the country of the Sioux, the present
States of Dakota, and promised to visit the Christinos on their side of
the upper lake, evidently Lake of the Woods or Winnipeg.
3. In the passage before us they were fulfilling
their promise. They came to the "seaside." This has given colour to the
idea that Hudson Bay is meant. An examination of Radisson's writing shows
us, however, that he uses the terms lake and sea interchangeably. For
example, in page 155, he speaks of the "Christinos from the bay of the
North Sea," which could only refer to the Lake of the Woods or Lake
Winnipeg. Again, on page 134, Radisson speaks of the "Lake of the Hurrons
which was upon the border of the sea," evidently meaning Lake Superior. On
the same page, in the heading of the third voyage, ho speaks of the
"filthy Lake of the Hurrons, Upper Sea of the East, and Bay of the north,"
and yet no one has claimed that in this voyage he visited Hudson Bay.
Again, elsewhere, Radisson uses the expression, "salted lake" for the
Atlantic, which must be crossed to reach France.
4. Thus in the passage "the ruined house on the
seaside" would seem to have been one of the lakes mentioned. The
Christinos tell them of Europeans, whom they have met a few years before,
perhaps an earlier French party on Lake Superior or at the Sault. The lake
or sea abounded in islands. This would agree with the Lake of the Woods,
where the Christinos lived, and not Hudson Bay. Whatever place it was it
had a great store of cows or buffalo. Lake of the Woods is the eastern
limit of the buffalo. They are not found on the shores of Hudson Bay.
5. It will be noticed also that ho speaks of a river
flowing from the lake, when he had gone further in the bay, evidently the
extension of the lake, and this river empties itself into the Saguenay.
This is plainly pure nonsense. It would bo equally nonsensical to speak of
it in connection with the Hudson Bay, as no river empties from it into the
Probably looking at the great River Winnipeg as it
flows from Lake of the Woods, or Bay of Islands as it was early called, he
sees it flowing north-easterly, and with the mistaken views so common
among early voyageurs, conjectures it to run toward the great Saguenay and
to empty into it, thence into the St. Lawrence.
6. This passage shows the point reached, which some
interpret as Hudson Bay or James Bay, could not have been so, for it
speaks of a further point toward the north, toward the sea.
7. Closely interpreted, it is plain that Radisson had
not only not visited Hudson or James Bay, but that he had a wrong
conception of it altogether. He is simply giving a vague story of the
On the return of Groseilliers and Radisson to Quebec,
the former was made a prisoner by order of the Governor for illicit
trading. The two partners were fined 4000/. for the purpose of erecting a
fort at Three Rivers, and 6000l. to go to the general funds of New France.
A GREAT ENTERPRISE.
Filled with a sense of injustice at the amount of the
fine placed upon them, the unfortunate traders crossed over to France and
sought restitution. It was during their heroic efforts to secure a
remission of the fine that the two partners urged the importance, both in
Quebec and Paris, of an expedition being sent out to explore Hudson Bay,
of which they had heard from the Indians. Their efforts in Paris were
fruitless, and they came back to Quebec, burning for revenge upon the
Driven to desperation by what they considered a
persecution, and no doubt influenced by their being Protestant in faith,
the adventurers now turned their faces toward the English. In 1664 they
went to Port Royal, in Acadia, and thence to New England. Boston was then
the centre of English enterprise in America, and the French explorers
brought their case before the merchants of that town. They asserted that
having been on Lake Assiniboine, north of Lake Superior, they had there
been assured by the Indians that Hudson Bay could be reached.
After much effort they succeeded in engaging a New
England ship, which went as far as Lat. 61, to the entrance of Hudson
Straits, but on account of the timidity of the master of the ship, the
voyage was given up and the expedition was fruitless.
The two enterprising men were then promised by the
shipowners the use of two vessels to go on their search in 1665, but they
were again discouraged by one of the vessels being sent on a trip to Sable
Isle and the other to the fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Groseilliers and Radisson, bitterly disappointed, sought to maintain their
rights against the shipowners in the Courts, and actually won their case,
but they were still unable to organize an expedition.
At this juncture the almost discouraged Frenchmen met
the two Royal Commissioners who were in America in behalf of Charles II.
to settle a number of disputed questions in New England and New York. By
one of these, Sir George Carteret, they were induced to visit England. Sir
George was no other than the Vice-Chamberlain to the King and Treasurer of
the Navy. He and our adventurers sailed for Europe, were captured by a
Dutch ship, and after being landed on the coast of Spain, reached England.
Through the influence of Carteret they obtained an
audience with King Charles on October 25th, 1666, and he promised that a
ship should be supplied to them as soon as possible with which to proceed
on their long-planned journey.
Even at this stage another influence came into view
in the attempt of De Witt, the Dutch Ambassador, to induce the Frenchmen
to desert England and go out under the auspices of Holland. Fortunately
they refused these offers.
The war with the Dutch delayed the expedition for one
year, and in the second year their vessel received orders too late to be
fitted up for the voyage. The assistance of the English ambassador to
France, Mr. Montague, was then invoked by Groseilliers and Radisson, now
backed up by a number of merchant friends to prepare for the voyage.
Through this influence, an audience was obtained from
Prince Rupert, the King's cousin, and his interest was awakened in the
enterprise. It was a remarkable thing that at this time the Royal House of
England showed great interest in trade. A writer of a century ago has
said, "Charles II., though addicted to pleasure, was capable of useful
exertions, and he loved commerce. His brother, the Duke of York, though
possessed of less ability, was endowed with greater perseverance, and by a
peculiar felicity placed his chief amusement in commercial schemes whilst
he possessed the whole influence of the State." "The Duke of York spent
half his time in the business of commerce in the city, presiding
frequently at meetings of courts of directors."
It will be seen that the circumstances were very
favourable for the French enthusiasts who were to lead the way to Hudson
Bay, and the royal personages who were anxious to engage in new and
The first Stock Book (1667) is still in existence in
the Hudson's Bay House, in London, and gives an account of the stock taken
in the enterprise even before the Company was organized by charter. First
on the list is the name of His Royal Highness the Duke of York, and, on
the credit side of the account, "By a share presented to him in the stock
and adventure by the Governor and Company, 300/."
The second stockholder on the list is the notable
Prince Rupert, who took 300/. stock, and paid it up in the next two years,
with the exception of 100/. which he transferred to Sir George Carteret,
who evidently was the guiding mind in the beginning of the enterprise.
Christopher, Duke of Albemarle— the son of the great General Monk, who had
been so influential in the restoration of Charles II. to the throne of
England, was a stockholder for 500/.
Then came as stockholders, and this before the
Company had been formally organized, William, Earl of Craven, well known
as a personal friend of Prince Rupert; Henry, Earl of Arlington, a member
of the ruling cabal; while Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, the versatile
minister of Charles, is down for 700/, Sir George Carteret is charged with
between six and seven hundred pounds' worth of stock; Sir John Robinson,
Sir Robert Vyner, Sir Peter Colleton and others with large sums.
As we have seen, in the year 1667 the project took
shape, a number of those mentioned being responsible for the ship, its
cargo, and the expenses of the voyage. Among those who seem to have been
most ready with their money were the Duke of Albemarle, Earl of Craven,
Sir George Carteret, Sir John Robinson, and Sir Peter Colleton. An entry
of great interest is made in connection with the last-named knight. He is
credited with 961. cash paid to the French explorers, who were the
originators of the enterprise. It is amusing, however, to see Groseilliers
spoken of as "Mr. Gooseberry"— a somewhat inaccurate translation of his
Two ships were secured by the merchant adventurers,
the Eaglet, Captain Stannard, and the Nonsuch Ketch, Captain Zachariah
Gillam. The former vessel has almost been forgotten, because after
venturing on the journey, passing the Orkneys, crossing the Atlantic, and
approaching . Hudson Straits, the master thought the enterprise an
impossible one, and returned to London.
Special interest attaches to the Nonsuch Ketch. It
was the successful vessel, but another notable thing connected with it was
that its New England captain, Zachariah Gillam, had led the expedition of
1664, though now the vessel under his command was one of the King's ships.
It was in June, 1668, that the vessels sailed from
Gravesend, on the Thames, and proceeded on their journey, Groseilliers
being aboard the Nonsuch, and Radisson in the Eaglet. The Nonsuch found
the Bay, discovered little more than half a century before by Hudson, and
explored by Button, Fox, and James, the last-named less than forty years
before. Captain Gillam is said to have sailed as far north as 75° N. in
Baffin Bay, though this is disputed, and then to have returned into Hudson
Bay, where, turning southward, he reached the bottom of the Bay on
September 29th. Entering a stream, the Nemisco, on the south-east corner
of the Bay—a point probably not less than 150 miles from the nearest
French possessions in Canada—the party took possession of it, calling it,
after the name of their distinguished patron, Prince Rupert's River. Here,
at their camping-place, they met the natives of the district, probably a
branch of the Swampy Crees. With the Indians they held a parley, and came
to an agreement by which they were allowed to occupy a certain portion of
territory. With busy hands they went to work and built a stone fort, in
Lat. 51° 20' N., Long. 78° W., which, in honour of their gracious
sovereign, they called "Charles Fort."
Not far away from their fort lay Charlton Island,
with its shores of white sand, and covered over with a growth of juniper
and spruce. To this they crossed on the ice upon the freezing of the river
on December 9th. Having made due preparations for the winter, they passed
the long and dreary time, finding the cold excessive. As they looked out
they saw "Nature looking like a carcase frozen to death."
In April, 1669, however, the cold was almost over,
and they were surprised to see the bursting forth of the spring. Satisfied
with their journey, they left the Bay in this year and sailed southward to
Boston, from which port they crossed the ocean to London, and gave an
account of their successful voyage.
The fame of the pioneer explorer is ever an enviable
one. There can be but one Columbus, and so for all time this voyage of
Zachariah Gillam, because it was the expedition which resulted in the
founding of the first fort, and in the beginning of the great movement
which has lasted for more than two centuries, will be memorable. It was
not an event which made much stir in London at the time, but it was none
the less the first of a long series of most important and far-reaching
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