English-speaking Canada before 1763

Apr 10th, 2015 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Canadian history would be easier to digest if its main story-line was just that the French and Indians began the modern country in the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, and then the British monarchy and its rising global empire took it over at the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as confirmed by the Peace of Paris in 1763.

Even setting aside the higher symbolism of John Cabot in 1497, however, the practical complications begin with the still earlier history of  what is now English-speaking Canada on the Atlantic coast, as already alluded to in the case of French Acadia.

(Again: some attempt was made to settle Scots in what the British monarchy would call Nova Scotia as early as 1629. And the French monarchy finally ceded all of present-day Nova Scotia except Cape Breton Island to the British monarchy, in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.)

Newfoundland is another Atlantic complication. It probably was where Cabotto landed in 1497. And it was formally annexed by the English crown as early as 1583, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558—1603). But the main early modern business of the place was cod fishing. As on other parts of the north Atlantic coast, this attracted transient fishermen from several parts of Europe. It also dampened enthusiasm for permanent European settlement. Then there were further local struggles between France and England – until France recognized the British monarchy’s primacy in Newfoundland in the Treaty of Utrecht.

* * * *

A much more geographically vast part of the present-day English-speaking country also began to arise in northern and Western Canada, some 90 years before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

The driving force here was the unique fur-trading enterprise of the Hudson’s Bay Company – granted a royal charter by the English King Charles II as long ago as 1670, owned by US business interests in the early 21st century, but still sometimes said to be “the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.”

To add to the practical complications, the concept of exporting furs to Europe via the immense bay of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans that Henry Hudson had explored for the English crown in 1610 was actually invented by two French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers.

At first no one in Old France was interested. And in New France Francis Parkman’s Canadian absolutism had treated Radisson and Groseilliers badly, because, like others in the “domain of savage freedom” west of Montreal, they did not obey all the rules.

So the two French traders sought financial backers on the north side of the English Channel. Further down the road, France did acquire some interest. And the English and French fought several wild and improbable sub-arctic contests over Hudson Bay trading posts. Then the French monarchy ultimately left this territory to the British monarchy too, in the Treaty of Utrecht.

(Utrecht is a Dutch city, somewhat south of Amsterdam. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 was described by the English Whig politician John Wilkes as like the “Peace of God, for it passeth all understanding.” It dealt with many matters far beyond the interests of France and Britain in Acadia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Hudson’s Bay Company territories in North America. Its broadest purpose was to help end the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe, 1701—1714 – also known in England and America as Queen Anne’s War, 1702—1713. The crucial objective of this conflict was to prevent an over-mighty union of the French and Spanish monarchies, under a grandson of the French Sun King Louis XIV.)

* * * *

The creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company had some intimate monarchical connections. The crucial figure in England who took up Radisson’s and Groseilliers’ fur trade proposal was Charles II’s cousin, Prince Rupert.

Rupert was a German prince (“Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria and Cumberland, &c”) who had fought with some distinction for Charles I in Cromwell’s Civil War. He was subsequently banished from England by Parliament. But after the restoration in 1660 he returned at the invitation of Charles II, who appointed him to the Privy Council and named him Admiral of the Fleet.

Radisson and Groseilliers secured Prince Rupert’s interest in their fur trading scheme in the later 1660s. And Rupert persuaded some business partners and his cousin Charles II to back an exploratory venture. Two ships were sent from England to the bay in the late spring of 1668. At least one returned with some success in 1669. On May 2, 1670 Charles II granted a royal charter to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson’s Bay.”

Based on Henry Hudson’s claims of 1610, the charter presumptuously granted the new company a monopoly over all the land that drained into Hudson’s Bay (a quite vast territory whose full extent was then quite unclear, but which nonetheless became known as Rupert’s Land). Prince Rupert himself was appointed the first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company – a position he would hold until his death in 1682 .

Harold Innis’s 1930 fur trade classic offers some numbers which suggest just how lucrative business could be for Hudson’s Bay Company investors in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The fur trade involved the exchange of such comparatively simple early European manufactured goods as metal cooking utensils, cloth, beads, needles, awls, ribbons, and costume jewelry (and, in some cases, various forms of arms and ammunition and alcoholic beverages) for animal (and especially beaver) furs, trapped and given some initial processing by aboriginal peoples. As Innis recounts, quite early on during the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company in “1676 merchandise exported to the Bay was valued at  £650 and furs imported at £19,000.”

By the mid 1680s – just a few years after Prince Rupert’s death – a string of  trading posts had been established on Hudson and James bays.

To quote Innis again: “As a result of this expansion the Company was in a position to declare its first dividend of 50 per cent in 1684, its second dividend of 50 per cent in 1688, and third of 25 per cent in the following year; to treble its capital in 1690; and to declare in the same year a dividend of 25 per cent on the new capital.”

* * * *

With only a few modest exceptions, from 1670 down to a decade after the Peace of Paris in 1763 the English adventurers of the Hudson’s Bay Company had more limited contact with the northern North American wilderness than the French and Indian fur trade out of Montreal.

For the most part the English traders were content to sit in their posts at the mouths of major rivers flowing into Hudson and James bays, and let their aboriginal customers come to them. (Chiefly in the summer months, when there was no risk of freezing while traveling. Even much further south among the much-studied Huron Confederacy, as Bruce Trigger has written: “people are reported to have frozen to death every winter while traveling from one village to another.”)

One exception to the Company’s early confinement to the Hudson and James bay shorelines was two interior journeys by the youthful Henry Kelsey. The first was in 1688—90, to the north of the Churchill River in present-day Manitoba. The second, in 1690—92, is said to qualify as the first visit by a European to the Canadian prairies (with Kelsey traveling perhaps as far as what is now Battleford, Saskatchewan – or on some accounts still further west).

Especially on his second trip Kelsey was trying to break a Cree plot to serve as aboriginal middle men of the far northern fur trade, by encouraging other first nations in the region to visit Hudson’s Bay Company posts themselves.

Henry Kelsey had spent his childhood as an orphan on the streets of London. And he began his fur trade career as a cabin boy on ships that carried supplies to the Hudson and James Bay posts. He eventually spent nearly 40 years with the Company, working at various posts in North America and intermittently returning to England (where he married “Elizabeth Dix of East Greenwich on 7 April 1698”), and ultimately rising to senior positions in the firm.

K.G. Davies’ sketch in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography suggests that the fur trade was not as lucrative for Hudson’s Bay Company employees as it was for the Company’s London investors: “Kelsey’s earnings in his service to the HBC have been carefully investigated: they were not great. As an apprentice … he received £15 in gratuities and wages totalling £36. From 1688 to 1691 he was paid £15 a year, rising to £30 between 1691 and 1693; he received no reward for his exploration north of Churchill in 1689 but a gratuity of £30 for his journey to the plains, which if not the greatest ever made must surely have been one of the cheapest. By 1696 he was earning £35 a year, dropping to £30 when he went to Albany in 1698 and rising to £50 when he took over the East Main trade in 1701. From 1706 he got £100 a year and this (apart from a brief period in 1711 when he was in charge at Albany) remained his wage till he became governor in 1718 at £200 a year.” All told, “it appears that Kelsey’s lifetime of service to the HBC brought him a little less than £2,500.”

* * * *

The isolation of places that largely remain in the northern wilderness even today (along with mediocre financial remuneration?) meant that staffing Company outposts on the remote shores of Hudson and James bays raised some challenges. One eventual response was to recruit hardy men from the remote Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. Innis reports that “the policy of introducing Orkneymen was begun” in 1710.

According to the present Hudson’s Bay Company website, soon enough the majority of clerks manning the 18th century shoreline posts “came from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, the last British stop for Company ships before they put out into the North Atlantic, bound for Hudson Bay. Young Orkneymen did not sign on to be wilderness explorers in the mould of Radisson or des Groseilliers They expected only to spend several years working or trading at York Factory or Churchill or Moose Factory. In that role, the Company found its Orkney recruits hardy, diligent and loyal. The Company was getting all the furs that the London market needed, and the shareholders’ profits were steady.”

As the middle of the 18th century approached fresh problems of competition from the French and Indian fur trade out of Montreal had begun to suggest the ultimate limitations of confinement to the Hudson and James bay shorelines. In 1743 Joseph Ibbister, the “first Orkneyman to attain a governorship” in the Hudson’s Bay Company … reported that [Fort] Albany’s trade had fallen off because some Canadian pedlars had established a post about 120 miles up the Albany River at ‘the very part that all Cannoes must pass that Come Down to Albany Fort.’”

Accordingly, in June of that year “he took a small party of men to a strategic spot upstream from the Canadian post,” and  built Henley House at the junction of the Albany and Kenogami rivers in present-day Northern Ontario. This became the Company’s first inland trading post, and set a precedent that would be pursued more aggressively a generation later.

Just over 10 years later James Isham, who headed York Factory on the shores of Hudson Bay in the present-day province of Manitoba, became similarly concerned about “French traders … moving further into the northwest … usurping their English competitors in the process.” He believed “that northwestern natives could be drawn out to” his shoreline post “if they were to experience the Company’s ‘generosity’ through an appropriate emissary”

In June 1754 Isham dispatched Anthony Henday (or Hendry) to fulfill such a mission. After various encounters with French Canadian traders in the region, by the fall Henday and his Cree guides had reached a point just southeast of present-day Red Deer, Alberta – setting another precedent for the Company’s evolution, a little further down the road (or river, or aboriginal transportation technology of the canoe and portage, from one near-enough body of water to another).  And the ways in which the English in the far north were starting to bump into their more expansive French and Indian rivals, by the middle of the 18th century, would soon have more dramatic analogues much further south.


Children of the Global Village Canada in the 21st Century :

Tales about the history that matters

Randall White

eastendbooks 2015

(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)




Early English-speaking Canada on the Atlantic coast, the Hudson’s Bay Company in Early Central and Western Canada,  Prince Rupert as first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company,  Henry Kelsey’s two journeys beyond Hudson’s and James bays in the late 1680s and early 1690s, the Orkneymen after 1710 and Anthony Henday’s Western Canada journey in 1754.

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