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Chapter IV

The Great Company

The Hudson's Bay Company was in some respects the most imposing association of traders ever produced even by Great Britain. No merchant princes of Phœnicia or Venice, or even the East India Company, the other great birth of this kind in the nation of shop-keepers, had ever entered into a sphere of control so spacious, or one more pregnant with imperial destinies.

The charter granted on the second of May, 1670, by King Charles II, that merriest of monarchs, in his most genially irresponsible mood, to "the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson's Bay," conferred upon these honourable gentlemen not only an exclusive monopoly of the trading privileges in all the country drained by the rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay, with the fullest power to vindicate it by force of law against all unlicensed interlopers, but also possession "in free and common soccage." That is to say, they had absolute proprietorship, such as a man has over his own back garden, over a territory, as they interpreted their charter, comprising at least one quarter of the whole North American continent. The one duty to civilisation in general imposed upon them was that they should be active in furthering the search for the north-west passage. This part of their task, however, was never taken seriously by the Company. Its real and all but exclusive concern was the Indian trade. Except for one brief interval when an outsider, Lord Selkirk, whose aims and motives were on an altogether different plan from the Company's, introduced a larger spirit into its councils, its policy confined it strictly within the range of its famous motto, pro pelle cutem, of which, according to malicious interpreters, the English of its practice was: "We skin the Indians for peltry."1

For the first half century and more after gaining their charter the gentlemen adventurers hugged the Bay and let the Indians come to them, sometimes over stretches of a thousand miles. They were "complete tradesmen," to use the pregnant phrase of Defoe, whose forts were little more than palisaded outposts of Cheapside. They knew nothing of the territory assigned them by their charter, which could not become their own until they had made it so by exploration and occupation, and might readily in the meantime with all its wealth pass by default into the hands of others who did so without asking for any goose-quill permits. But circumstances altered their methods. French traders from New France invaded what the Company considered its preserves, establishing posts on some of the streams whose waters emptied into Hudson Bay. These traders, for the most part, French coureurs de bois and half-breeds, had much in common with the Indians, and were, besides, more liberal in trade than the officials of the Great Company; as a result the Indians ceased to visit the Hudson Bay posts and for self-preservation the Company sent its traders inland to the regions traversed by the Red River and the Saskatchewan.

With the conquest of New France by Wolfe and Amherst the officials of the Company breathed a sigh of relief. But keen traders, American and Scots, heard of the wealth of furs to be gathered in the regions west and north of the Great Lakes, and even before Canada was formally ceded to Great Britain in 1763 these men followed in the footsteps of the French traders. It was these north-westers, Canadians by birth or adoption and largely Montrealers, who first thoroughly organized the fur-trading regions, and taught the gentlemen adventurers their trade. When the Hudson's Bay Company began to give trouble by the flattery of competitive imitation, the north-westers pushed on to ground that was all their own, amid incredible difficulties and dangers, over giant mountains and down turbulent rivers, with no larder but the wilderness and no caterer but their flintlocks, into the vast untrodden regions of the Arctic and the Pacific where the Hudson's Bay Company's traders did not dare even to follow.

As a rule it takes rude manhood to do the indispensable rude work involved in all beginnings, and many advances invaluable in the end to civilization have been made by Pacific Scandal who were conspicuously lacking in the civilized virtues. California was opened up to settlement by the gold miners of 1849. The rough buccaneers of Elizabeth won the freedom of the seas. Quite in their class are these pioneer north-westers who laid our foundations by conquering the secrets of then unknown land, but did it with a violence and insolence and an elemental hunger for gain which were not lovely. The Hudson's Bay Company has a better record on this side. They did not willingly debauch the Indians. Doubtless there is truth in the taunt that "they never lost a beaver-skin by refusing a pint of rum," but on the whole their tendency was to resort to such methods only under extreme pressure. Left to themselves, they maintained a benevolent attitude towards the Indians who shewed their appreciation of it by a consistent friendship. Nor it the Hudson's Bay Company's record disgraced by stains of violence and blood. In the negative excellencies they had the best of it, but the real work was done by the wild north-westers.

Such a condition of things produced an atmosphere which, to say the least, was not elevating. Read the following, written by a North West trader from Pembina: "Indians coming daily in small parties; nearly a hundred men here. I gave them fifteen kegs of mixed liquor, and the X. Y. (the rival company), gave in proportion; all drinking. I quarrelled with Little Shell and dragged him out of the fort by the hair; Indians very troublesome; threatening to level my fort with the ground and their chief making mischief. I had two narrow escapes of being stabbed by him." Or this: "On New Year's Day during the customary firing of musketry one of our opponent's bullies purposely fired his powder through my windows. I of course got enraged and challenged him to single combat with our guns. This put a check on him ever after." These were the days of the great Simon MacTavish, the head of the North West Company, a man bold and magnificent even to insolence. The weapons of attack were never allowed to cool in his hands.

It was in the first decade of the nineteenth century that the great Company awoke from its lethargy to view with alarm the inroads which were being made upon its preserves, and, with tardy activity, began to imitate the policy of its rivals. As soon as it realized that the Bay could be used not as a terminus but as a base and centre of distribution corresponding to the Montrealer's dépôt at Fort William at the north-western end of Lake Superior, its superiority for such a purpose at once became evident. The Bay was much nearer the hunting grounds than Montreal, and its traders could be on the ground a month earlier in the spring than the North West men. This gave it an immense advantage in securing furs. Never was there a case where the physical advantages were more entirely on one side; but the Montrealers undauntedly set their determination and intelligence in the balance against their rival's geographical position. Their great hope of success lay in the quality of their men, from the capitalists in Montreal down to the voyageur on the most remote western lake.

Under the pressure of the situation the North West Company worked out a very noteworthy constitution, singularly adapted to stimulate the physical and mental energy of their men to intense activity. It was a profit-sharing arrangement by which the men who did the work became direct gainers by their boldness and resourcefulness. The stock of the company was divided into a hundred shares, each share carrying with it a vote in the management of the business. These shares were held by two distinct classes of men, the "agents" and the "wintering partners." The agents were Montreal merchants who financed the undertaking, imported the necessary merchandise from England, made it up into packages for convenient transport, and stored and shipped the furs. They earned their share, for the slow travel of the day made a long time between sowing and reaping, and capital was an absolute necessity. The wintering partners were the men who actually lived in the Indian country, supervising forts and having command of the brigades of boats. Each of these partners held a share and might come to possess two; if he did he was permitted, when he retired from active field service, to keep one share as a sleeping-partner and to nominate to the other a junior, who must have served an apprenticeship of seven years. Every clerk earning one hundred pounds a year was thus provided with the sharpest spur to his zeal, while the company was doubly secure against the evils of absentee control, which affected its rival, by the number of votes possessed by the wintering partners and by the fact that most of the agents were themselves retired traders. An "annual settlement" at Fort William, where the two classes of shareholders met and discussed the affairs of the company, preserved a state of harmony between the home and field forces. The whole organization thrilled with life, and its annual export of furs seems to have been something like four times as great as that of the Hudson's Bay Company.

This rivalry between the two trading companies could not continue; clashes were of frequent occurrence between the employees, and on the distant plains more than once there were deeds of violence and bloodshed. The establishment of the Red River settlement by Lord Selkirk, who had purchased sufficient stock in the Hudson's Bay Company to give him control of it, brought the quarrel to a climax. Petty strife became open war; armed forces stood aligned against each other. The strife culminated in the tragedy of Seven Oaks. The struggle was telling on both companies and dividends were falling; indeed, in the case of the Hudson's Bay Company, they had fallen to the vanishing point. This suicidal competition had to end, and in 1821 the rivals united under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company; but in spite of the name and the flag bearing the letters H. B. C., and of the ancient motto pro pelle cutem, the old North West element counted for a good deal more in the combination than the Hudson's Bay strain. Nearly all the best parts of the country over which operations extended had been explored, mapped out, and occupied by North-Westers. The French Canadian and half-breed labourers employed in the subordinate branches of the services had been proved and utilized by them from the very first. The internal organization of the new company might be said to have been taken over bodily from the defunct North West Company. All the main factors of such efficiency and equity as it retained were their invention, especially the profit-sharing system which spurred the officers in the field to the utmost exertions. For the meetings between wintering partners at Fort William the new company substituted a governor of Rupert's Land who served as a medium of intercommunication between the officers in the field with their knowledge of the actual ever-changing conditions of the fur trade and the capitalists at headquarters in London. The London council, with its governor and deputy governor, representing the capitalists who held sixty per cent. of the total shares, was the one survival of the old Hudson's Bay Company in the constitution of the new company. There was nothing essentially new in this body; to the North-Westers it simply took the place and the same proportion of the shares which had been held by their agents, as they called them in Montreal.

It was a royal kingdom that the newly organized Hudson's Bay Company entered into 1821. All that is now known as Canada east of the Rocky Mountains was under its sway except the little colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick along the Atlantic seaboard and a small part of what is near Quebec and Ontario. All of what is now called "New Ontario" and the whole of the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far west as Tadousac fell within its domains. Beyond the Rockies the Company reigned without a rival from Alaska to California. For convenience in administration this vast territory was divided into four departments, called respectively by the names Montreal, Southern, Northern, and Western or Columbia.

The Montreal department reached up the Ottawa and Mattawan to their sources on the one hand; on the other along the north shore of the St. Lawrence by Tadousac, Isle Jèrèmie, Seven Islands, Mingan, and so along the coast of Labrador to Rigolet and North-West River. Lachine, a short distance above Montreal at the head of the rapids on the St. Lawrence, was its dépôt and headquarters. In the days of the French traders and of the North West Company Lachine had been a place of primary importance, but after the amalgamation, except for an occasional light canoe bearing officers of the Company, the route up the Ottawa to the great plains was deserted. Hudson Bay and Straits were now the main avenue of communication with England for furs and merchandise. The country included in the Montreal department, though extensive, was as a whole no longer very rich in furs, and this department had ceased to be of first rate importance except as the official headquarters of the governor of Rupert's Land and the centre of book-keeping.

The Southern department included the posts on James Bay at the south-eastern end of Hudson Bay. This was the original trading ground of the Company, and stretched south to take in the posts along the north shore of Lake Superior. Moose Factory was its dépôt.

It was the Northern and Western departments, so closely connected with each other and so separated from the rest as to form almost a distinct system of their own, that produced by far the largest quantity and the best quality of furs. It was there, too, that the destinies of Canada were slowly taking shape. There, under the scanty wings of this fur-trading corporation, rather an ostrich-like mother, the eggs of empire were hatching. Of the two departments, the Northern was by far the more important, and more will be said of it later. There remains only the Western department, or Columbia which stretched southward west of the Rockies from New Caledonia to the borders of the Mexican republic (for it was not until 1846 that the forty-ninth parallel came to form the boundary), and included within its territory the site where now stands San Francisco. So far afield were the Company's activities that under this department there was an agency in the Sandwich Islands. The Western department was rich in other things than furs. But the advance of civilization forced the Hudson's Bay Company out of the territory it occupied in what is now the western United States. Its headquarters were transferred from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Fort Camosun (Victoria) on Vancouver Island. Secluded behind its mountain barrier it tended more and more to grow self-contained and independent, and the inrush of settlers and gold-seekers resulted in the establishment of an organized British province, and the Company reluctantly surrendered its authority west of the Rockies—an authority it was in no way entitled to under the terms of its charter.

Over the vast region in which the Hudson's Bay Company operated there were in 1838 some one hundred and twenty posts in all. But the number varied from time to time, increasing and decreasing with the harvest of furs to be gathered. These posts were called forts, but only two were worthy of the name—Fort Garry and the Stone Fort in the Red River settlement. The majority of the posts were protected only by wooden pickets, defences that could easily have been rushed or set on fire by any hostile band of Indians. Some of the posts were without the slightest pretense at defence. At the larger trading centres there were stationed permanently from thirty to forty men; at the others, smaller numbers, in some instances only two in addition to the trader in charge. These defenceless posts with their handful of traders speak well for the rule of the Great Company. For nearly two hundred years it had been operating in the Indian country, but so upright had it been in its dealings with the aborigines who visited its posts or who were visited by the traders that, through the wide stretch of its territory, there was no need of an armed force to guard its interests. Its brigades went hither and thither between the Rockies and Fort Nelson, between the Mackenzie River and Montreal without fear of attack from ambushed savages; its employees at their isolated posts went about their duties never dreading the terrifying war-whoop and the murderous tomahawk.

[drawing of Fort Garry]
Interior of Fort Garry, 1885
From an original drawing in the Public Archives of Canada

The service was thoroughly organized and the governor of Rupert's Land from his headquarters at Lachine was as much in touch with every detail of the Company's business as is a commander-in-chief with his army. There is indeed a striking similarity between the organization of an army and that of the Hudson's Bay Company. Rank and file, lieutenants, captains, majors, colonels, and brigadier-generals might all be said to have their equivalents in the different grades in the service of the Company. The organization is admirably given by R. M. Ballantyne, who was a junior clerk almost contemporaneously with Donald A. Smith.

"There are," he writes, "seven different grades in the service. First, the labourer, who is ready to turn his hand to anything; to become a trapper, fisherman, or rough carpenter at the shortest notice. He is generally employed in cutting firewood for the consumption of the establishment at which he is stationed, shovelling snow from before the doors; mending all sorts of damages to all sorts of things, and, during the summer months, in transporting furs and goods between his post and the nearest dépôt. Next in rank is the interpreter. He is for the most part an intelligent laborer, of a pretty long standing in the service, who, having picked up a smattering of Indian, is consequently very useful in trading with the natives. After the interpreter comes the postmaster; usually a promoted labourer, who, for good behaviour or valuable services, has been put upon a footing with the gentlemen of the service, in the same manner that a private soldier in the army is sometimes raised to the rank of a commissioned officer. At whatever station a postmaster may happen to be placed, he is generally the most active and useful man there. He is often placed in charge of one of the many small stations, or outposts, throughout the country. Next are the apprentice clerks—raw lads, who come out fresh from school, with their mouths agape at the wonders they behold in Hudson Bay. They generally, for the purpose of appearing manly, acquire all the bad habits of the country as quickly as possible, and are stuffed full of what they call fun, with a strong spice of mischief. They become more sensible and sedate before they get through the first five years of their apprenticeship, after which they attain to the rank of clerks. The clerk, after a number of years' service (averaging from thirteen to twenty), becomes a chief trader (or half-shareholder), and in a few years more he attains the highest rank to which anyone can rise in the service, that of chief factor (or share-holder)."

Such was the army in which Donald Alexander Smith enlisted. He began at the lowest round of the ladder among the gentlemen of the Company. He signed articles with a thorough knowledge of the conditions. The life before him was one of hardship. It was a wilderness life with little prospect of a return to civilization until, like his uncle, he had long passed middle age. Whither he would be sent he knew not, but he did know that his comrades would be rough traders and savages. Throughout the immense stretch of country occupied by the posts of the Company there were not at this time "more ladies than would suffice to form half-a-dozen quadrilles." And what was to be his reward? He no doubt thought that in time, if he persevered—and "perseverance," the motto of his later years, was ever his guiding star—he might become as great as John Stuart and be able in his old age to return to Forres an honoured chief factor. He was to go much higher than that; to reach the topmost rung of the ladder and achieve a distinction that no other trader of the Company ever achieved, the governorship; a right to sit in the seat formerly occupied by men like Prince Rupert, the Duke of York (James II), and the Duke of Marlborough.

He was to achieve this distinction by his innate ability. It is true he came to George Simpson with introductions, but all he owed to them was a position in the service. Simpson gave him no helping hand. This vain, crotchety little martinet who ruled in all the wide territory from Hudson Bay to Fort Vancouver was to throw him into the ocean of trade and to leave him to swim for himself. In fact, as we shall see, he gave him the hardest tasks in his gift, sending him to posts where advancement seemed impossible. But young Smith was of the right stuff. He was one of those rare mortals who can be content with their lot wherever they are placed, but never satisfied. What he found at hand to do, he did thoroughly; no mere routine official, but a man with initiative and foresight.

1 What the Company meant was not "skin for skin" as the general ignorance of the Latin language renders it: "We risk our skins for a beast's hide"; like the Scottish fishwives: "Lives of men for herring."

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.