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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

The Company's Indian policy—Character of officers—A race of hunters —Plan of advances—Charges against the Company—Liquor restriction—Capital punishment—Starving Indians—Diseased and helpless—Education and religion—The age of missions— Sturdy Saulteaux—The Muskegons—Wood Crees—Wandering Plain Crees—The Chipewyans—Wild Assiniboines—Blackfeet Indians—Polyglot coast tribes—Eskimos—No Indian war—No police—Pliable and docile—Success of the Company.

From time to time the opponents of the Company have sought to find grounds for the overthrow of the licence to trade granted by the Government of Britain over the Indian territories. One of the most frequent lines of attack was in regard to the treatment of the Indians by the fur traders. It may bo readily conceded that the ideal of the Company's officials was in many cases not the highest. The aim of Governor Simpson in his long reign of forty years was that of a keen trader. A politic man, the leader of the traders when in Montreal conformed to the sentiment of the city, abroad in the wilds he did very little to encourage his subordinates to cultivate higher aims among the natives. Often the missionary was found raising questions very disturbing to the monopoly, and this brought the Company officers into a hostile attitude to him. Undoubtedly in some cases the missionaries were officious and unfair in their criticisms.

But, on the other hand, the men and officers of the Company were generally moral. Men of education and reading the officers usually were, and their sentiment was likely to be in the right direction. The spirit of the monopoly—the golden character of silence, and the need of being secretive and uncommunicative—was instilled into every clerk, trapper, and trader.

But the tradition of the Company was to keep the Indian a hunter. There was no effort to encourage the native to agriculture or to any industry. To make a good collector of fur was the chief aim. For this the Indian required no education, for this the wandering habit needed to be cultivated rather than discouraged, and for this it was well to have the home ties as brittle as possible. Hence the tent and teepee were favoured for the Indian hunter more than the log cottage or village house.

It was one of the most common charges against the Company that in order to keep the Indian in subjection advances were made on the catch of furs of the coming season, in order that, being in debt, he might be less independent. The experience of the writer in Red River settlement in former days leads him to doubt this, and certainly the fur traders deny the allegation. The improvident or half-breed Indian went to the Company's store to obtain all that he could. The traders at the forts had difficulty in checking the extravagance of their wards. Frequently the storekeeper refused to make advances lost he should fail in recovering the value of the articles advanced. Fitzgerald, a writer who took part in the agitation of 1849, makes the assertion in the most flippant manner that to keep the Indians in debt was the invariable policy of the Company. No evidence is cited to support this statement, and it would seem to be very hard to prove.

Blood Indians and Assiniboins

The same writer undertakes, along the line of destructive criticism, to show that the Hudson's Bay Company does not deserve the credit given it of discouraging the traffic in strong drink, and asserts that "a beaver skin was never lost to the Company for want of a pint of rum." This is a very grave charge, and in the opinion of the writer cannot be substantiated. The Bishop of Montreal, R. M. Ballantyne, and the agents of the missionary societies are said either to have little experience or to be unwilling to tell on this subject what they knew. This critic then quotes various statements of writers, extending back in some cases thirty or forty years, to show that spirituous liquors were sold by the Company. It is undoubted that at times in the history of the fur trade, especially at the beginning of the century, when the three Companies were engaged in a most exacting competition, as we have fully shown, in several cases much damage was done. On the Pacific Coast, too, eight or ten years before this critic wrote, there was, as we have seen, excess. At other times, also, at points in the wide field of operations, over half a continent, intoxicating liquor was plentiful and very injurious, but no feeling was stronger in a Hudson's Bay Company trader's mind than that he was in a country without police, without military, without laws, and that his own and his people's lives were in danger should drunkenness prevail. Self-preservation inclined every trader to prevent the use of spirits among the Indians. The writer is of opinion that while there may have been many violations of sobriety, yet the record of the Hudson's Bay Company has been on the whole creditable in this matter.

The charges of executing capital punishment and of neg lecting the Indians in years of starvation may be taken together. The criticism of the people of Red River was that the Company was weak in the execution of the penalties of the law. They complained that the Company was uncertain of its powers and that the hand of justice was chained. The marvel to an unprejudiced observer is that the Company succeeded in ruling so vast a territory with so few reprisals or executions. In the matter of assisting the Indians in years of scarcity, it was the interest of the fur company to save the lives of its trappers and workers. But those unacquainted with the vast wastes of Rupert's Land and the Far North little know the difficulties of at times obtaining food. The readers of Milton and Cheadle's graphic story or our account of Robert Campbell's adventures on the Stikine, know the hardships and the near approach to starvation of these travellers. Dr. Cheadle, on a visit to Winnipeg a few years ago, said to the writer that on his first visit the greatest difficulty his party had was to secure supplies. There are years in which game and fish are so scarce that in remote northern districts death is inevitable for many. The conditions make it impossible for the Company to save the lives of the natives. Relief for the diseased and aged is at times hard to obtain. Small-pox and other epidemics have the most deadly effect upon the semi-civilized people of the far-off hunter's territory.

The charge made up to 1849 that the Hudson's Bay Company had done little for the education and religious training of the Indians was probably true enough. Outside of Red River and British Columbia they did not sufficiently realize their responsibility as a company. Since that time, with the approval and co-operation in many ways of the Company, the various missionary societies have grappled with the problem. The Indians about Hudson Bay, on Lake Winnipeg, in the Mackenzie River, throughout British Columbia, and on the great prairies of Assiniboia, are to-day largely Christianized and receiving education.

The Saulteaux, or Indians who formerly lived at Sault Ste. Marie, but wandered west along the shore of Lake Superior and even up to Lake Winnipeg, are a branch of the Algonquin 0jibeways. Hardy and persevering, most conservative in preserving old customs, hard to influence by religious ideas, they have been pensioners of the Hudson's Bay Company, but their country is very barren, and they have advanced but little.

Very interesting, among their relations of Algonquin origin, are the Muskegons, or Swampy Crees, who have long occupied the region around Hudson Bay and have extended inland to Lake Winnipeg. Docile and peaceful, they have been largely influenced by Christianity. Under missionary and Company guidance they have gathered around the posts, and find a living on the game of the country and in trapping the wild animals.

Related to the Muskegons are the Wood Crees, who live along the rivers and on the belts of wood which skirt lakes and hills. They cling to the birch-bark wigwam, use the bark canoe, and are nomadic in habit. They may be called the gipsies of the West, and being in scattered families have boon little reached by better influences.

Another branch of the Algonquin stock is the Plain Crees. These Indians are a most adventurous and energetic people. Leaving behind their canoes and Huskie dogs, they obtained horses and cayuses and hied them over the prairies. Birch-bark being unobtainable, they made their tents, better fitted for protecting them from the searching winds of the prairies and the cold of winter, from tanned skins of the buffalo and moose-deer. For seven hundred miles from the mouth of the Saskatchewan they extend to the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains. Meeting in their great camps, seemingly untameable as a race of plain hunters, they were, up to the time of the transfer to Canada, almost untouched by missionary influence, but in the last thirty years they have been placed on reserves by the Canadian Government and are in almost all cases yielding to Christianizing agencies.

North of the country of the Crees live tribes with very wide connections. They call themselves "Tinné" or "People," but to others they are known as Chipewyans, or Athabascans. They seem to be less copper-coloured than the other Indians, and are docile in disposition. This nation stretches from Fort Churchill, on Hudson Bay, along the English River, up to Lake Athabasca, along the Peace River into the very heart of the Rocky Mountains, and even beyond to the coast. They have proved teachable and yield to ameliorating influences.

Probably the oldest and best known name of the interior of Rupert's Land, the name after which Lord Selkirk called his Colony of Assiniboia, is that belonging to the Wild Assiniboines or Stony River Sioux. The river at the mouth of which stands the city of Winnipeg was their northern boundary, and they extended southward toward the great Indian confederacy of the Sioux natives or Dakotas, of which indeed they were at one time a branch. Tall, handsome, with firmly formed faces, agile and revengeful, they are an intelligent and capable race. These Indians, known familiarly as the "Stonies," have greatly diminished in numbers since the time of Alexander Henry, jun., who describes them fully. In later years they have been cut down with pulmonary and other diseases, and are to-day but the fragment of a great tribe. They have long been friendly with the Plain Crees, but are not very open to Christianity, though there are one or two small communities which are exceptions in this respect.

Very little under Hudson's Bay Company control were the Blackfoot nation, along the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains, ear the national boundary. Ethnically they are related to the Crees, but they have always been difficult to approach. Living in large camps during Hudson's Bay Company days, they spent a wild, happy, comfortable life among the herds of wandering buffalo of their district. Since the beginning of the Canadian r6gime they have become more susceptible to civilizing agencies, and live in great reserves in the south-west of their old hunting grounds.

A perfect chaos of races meets us among the Indians of British Columbia and Alaska, and their language is polyglot. Seemingly the result of innumerable immigrations from Malayan and Mongolian sources in Asia, they have come at different times. One of the best known tribes of the coast is the Haidas, numbering some six thousand souls. The Nutka Indians occupy Vancouver Island, and have many tribal divisions. To the Selish or Flatheads belong many of the tribes of the Lower Fraser River, while the Shushwaps hold the country on the Columbia and Okanagan Rivers. Mention has been made already of the small but influential tribe of Chinooks near the mouth of the Columbia River.

While differing in many ways from each other, the Indians of the Pacific Coast have always been turbulent and excitable. From first to last more murders and riots have taken place among them than throughout all the vast territory held by the Hudson's Bay Company east of the Rocky Mountains. While missionary zeal has accomplished much among the Western Coast Indians, yet the "bad Indian" element has been a recognized and appreciable quantity among them so far as the Company is concerned.

Last among the natives who have been under Hudson's Bay Company influence are the Eskimos or Innuits of the Far North. They are found on the Labrador Coast, on Coppermine River, on the shore of the Arctic Sea, and on the Alaskan peninsula. Dressed in sealskin clothing and dwelling in huts of snow, hastening from place to place in their sledges drawn by wolf-like dogs called "Eskies" or "Huskies," these people have found themselves comparatively independent of Hudson's Bay Company assistance. Living largely on the products of the sea, they have shown great ingenuity in manufacturing articles and implements for themselves. The usual experience of the Company from Ungava, through the Mackenzie River posts, and the trading houses in Alaska has been that they were starved out and were compelled to give up their trading houses among them. Little has been done, unless in the Yukon country, to evangelize the Eskimos.

The marvel to the historian, as he surveys the two centuries and a quarter of the history of the Hudson's Bay Company, is their successful management of the Indian tribes. There has never been an Indian war in Rupert's Land or the Indian territories—nothing beyond a temporary emeute or incidental outbreak. Thousands of miles from the nearest British garrison or soldier, trade has been carried on in scores and scores of forts and factories with perfect confidence. The Indians have always respected the "Kingchauch man." He was to them the representative of superior ability and financial strength, but more than this, he was the embodiment of civilization and of fair and just dealing. High prices may have been imposed on the Indians, but the Company's expenses were enormous. There are points among the most remote trading posts from which the returns in money were not possible in less than nine years from the time the goods left the Fenchurch Street or Lime Street warehouses. With all his keen bargaining and his so-called exacting motto, "Pro pelle cutem," the trader was looked upon by the Indians as a benefactor, bringing into his barren, remote, inhospitable home the commodities to supply his wants and make his life happier. While the Indians came to recognize this in their docile and pliable acceptance of the trader's decisions, the trader also became fond of the Red man, and many an old fur trader freely declares his affection for his Indian ward, so faithful to his promise, unswerving in his attachment, and celebrated for never forgetting a kindness shown him.

The success of the Company was largely due to honourable, capable, and patient officers, clerks, and employes, who with tact and Justice managed their Indian dependents, many of whom rejoiced in the title of "A Hudson's Bay Company Indian."

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