A book concentrated on the 350-year history of one company may not sound like a thrilling page turner, but The Company by Stephen R. Bown is more than just a company profile. It relates the story of the Canadian Far North as well as The Hudson’s Bay Company and its pivotal role in Canada’s development as a country. It was founded in 1670 by two French fur traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart des Groseilliers, who turned to the British after having been denied a charter (monopoly) by the French government. With the help and investment of English aristocracy, they secured a charter for the entire area that drains into Hudson’s Bay — an immense territory encompassing 1.5 million square miles and approximately one third of all Canada.
In its beginning, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up posts along the southern and western shores of the bay and traded with the Indigenous people, primarily the Cree. The Hudson’s Bay Company tapped into an extensive trading system already in place throughout the Canadian North. Manufactured goods such as steel implements, clothing, and trinkets brought over in great ships were exchanged for beaver pelts that were taken back to Great Britain to be made into hats and other clothing.
The French attacked the trading posts and captured some during several wars with Great Britain, including the American Revolution. After each occurrence, the posts were retaken. During the first few decades of the company’s existence, the Cree came to the trading posts so the people of the Hudson’s Bay Company did not have to travel inland. Competition from the French and later the North West Company, however, changed this dynamic, and the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced inland. Fur traders for the company, such as David Thompson and Samuel Hearne, became great Canadian explorers traversing the Pacific Northwest decades before Lewis and Clark. These traders canoed hundreds of miles inland in very large canoes carrying a dozen people or more as well as heavy cargo. The cargo had to be portaged multiple times with the men carrying the immense weight of the goods.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were fierce rivals, attacking each other with immense brutality when the opportunity presented itself. Eventually, the government put a stop to it, and the two companies merged under the Hudson’s Bay Company name. From the 1820s to 1860s, George Simpson ran the company and ruled the Canadian North as if it were his own personal fiefdom. The owners back in Great Britain and the royal government did not care as long as Simpson produced profits, which he did in abundance. In the 40 years of his administration, Simpson constantly traveled by canoe throughout the area checking on the trading posts and employees. He also became the first person to circumnavigate the world by land.
As Americans, we have been taught about the early explorers and pioneers of our country. The Company is a fascinating read that fills the void of what went on in Northwest Canada. This is the remarkable story of a company still in existence today and its profound effect on our neighboring country.