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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

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Frenchmen go to Boston—Cross over to England—Help from Royalty—Fiery Rupert—The King a stockholder—Many hitherto unpublished facts—Capt.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 Macbeth,—

"Wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win."

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 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."


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 Saguenay.

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 Christinos.

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.


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 rapacious Governor.

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 profitable schemes.

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 name.

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 activities.

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