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 earlier history of what is now English-speaking Canada on the Atlantic coast, as already noted 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 British 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 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, 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 totaling £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.

Soon enough the majority of clerks at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s 18th century shoreline posts came from the Orkney Islands — also the last British stop for Company ships before they moved into the North Atlantic, bound for the Bay. The Company found its Orkney recruits “hardy, diligent and loyal.”

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 encounters with French Canadian traders in the region, by the fall Henday and his Cree guides had reached a point possibly 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.

* * * *

This is Part I, Chapter 5 of Randall White’s work in progress, tentatively entitled Children of the Global Village : Democracy in Canada Since 1497. For more on the project see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic, which also includes drafts of all remaining chapters in this initial prepublication format. The entire book in draft is now pre-published on this site.  A final more carefully edited and source-referenced hard-copy print edition will be published by eastendbooks in the autumn of 2024. 

Randall White has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s he worked as an Ontario public servant. He subsequently worked as an independent policy consultant for private and public sector clients at all three levels of government in Canada and the United States. He has written 11 books on Canadian history and politics, and is at work on a twelfth. In 2023 he contributes a bi-weekly column to the Loonie Politics website. His writing on history and key current issues in Canada and beyond appears intermittently on counterweights.ca and birdhop.com as well.


This is an initial dry-run at what will finally appear in a published hard-copy text, subject to further checking, correction, and editing. The order of the items here broadly matches the order of the text above. The online linkages reported are as of early Autumn 2023.

Phillip A. Buckner and John G. Reid, eds. The Atlantic Region to Confederation: A History. Eric Leinberger Cartographer, Graeme Wynn Cartographic Editor, Mitchell A. McNutt Picture Editor. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Margaret Conrad and James Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making. Toronto : Oxford University Press, 2001.

____________________________, Atlantic Canada: A History. Toronto : Oxford University Press, ?2006?, 2010, 2015.

John Douglas Belshaw, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation — “The Atlantic Colonies.”

Hudson’s Bay Company, “A Brief History of HBC.”

Canadian Encyclopedia, “Hudson’s Bay Company … The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), chartered 2 May 1670, is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.” Article by Arthur J. Ray. Updated by Nathan Coschi, Leanna Fong, Sasha Yusufali, Nathan Baker, Jessica Poulin. Published Online April 2, 2009. Last Edited
January 19, 2023.

Grace Lee Nute, Caesars of the Wilderness. Medard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, 1618-1710. St. Paul : Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1943, 1978.

Martin Fournier, “RADISSON, PIERRE-ESPRIT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/radisson_pierre_esprit_2E.html.

Canadian Encyclopedia, “Médard Chouart des Groseilliers,” Article by
C.E. Heidenreich. Published Online January 7, 2008. Last Edited March 4, 2015.

Mark Bourrie, Bush Runner : The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Windsor, ON : Biblioasis, 2019.

According to, eg, New World Encyclopedia, “Treaty of Utrecht,” John Wilkes “contemptuously described” the Treaty of Utrecht as like ‘[the] Peace of God, for it passeth all understanding’” —
Similar attribution appears in Visit Holland – The Netherlands, “Treaty of Utrecht – 300 years old” —
Other sources claim that Wilkes uttered this memorable observation about the 1763 Treaty of Paris! It may or may not be relevant that he was only born in 1725, 12 years after the Treaty of Utrecht! The New World Encyclopedia entry on the Treaty of Utrecht, however, explains that : “Indeed, later in the century the Whig John Wilkes contemptuously described it as like ‘[the] Peace of God, for it passeth all understanding.’ It may be that some definitive answer here appears in No. 45 of Wilkes’s The North Briton, published April 23, 1763, but I have not been able to discover it in a quick perusal, at HathiTrust,“The North Briton no.1-46 1762/63” —
My own ultimate view is that treating the observation as about the (unusually complex) Treaty (or Peace or treaties) of Utrecht in 1713 (and 1714) is too apt a story not to use in a book about Canada, some 260–310 years later. And for the complexities see Britannica, “treaties of Utrecht.”

Wikipedia, “Prince Rupert of the Rhine … shaped the political geography of modern Canada: Rupert’s Land was named in his honour, and he was a founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

In 21st century Canada Prince Rupert’s name also survives in the City of Prince Rupert, BC : “Established as a municipality in 1910, Prince Rupert is located on Ts’msyen territory — an area rich with history. What’s now called Prince Rupert harbour was long an intersection of trade and commerce for First Nations people dating back to time immemorial. Our City is tucked in between impressive mountains and the 3rd deepest natural harbour in the world.”

Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation, “The Royal Charter … Hudson’s Bay Company’s Royal Charter served as the original articles of incorporation of HBC and established the framework of the Company’s governance … Granted by King Charles II of England on May 2, 1670.”

Canadian Encyclopedia, “Rupert’s Land.” Article by Andrew McIntosh, Shirlee Anne Smith. Updated by Richard Foot, Andrew McIntosh. Published Online February 7, 2006. Last Edited August 18, 2022.

Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada : An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1930, 124; Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1956, 120.

Bruce Trigger, The Huron : Farmers of the North. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc, 1969, 8. “Such clothing … offered considerable protection against the cold. In spite of this, people are reported to have frozen to death every winter while traveling from one village to another.” Wadsworth Pub Co, 1990.

K.G. Davies, ““KELSEY, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003.

John Warkentin, ed., The Kelsey Papers. Regina : University of Regina Press, 1994.

Innis, Fur Trade in Canada. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1930, 130 ; Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1956, 126.

Canadian Encyclopedia, “Orkneymen.” Article by John S. Nicks. Published Online February 7, 2006. Last Edited March 4, 2015.

Bruce Cherney, “Link to Orkney Islands — reliable source of recruits for Hudson’s Bay Company.” Winnipeg Regional Real Estate News, 09 / 02 / 2005.

Wikipedia, “Orkney” … “Orcadians formed the overwhelming majority of employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. The harsh climate of the Orkneys and the Orcadian reputation for sobriety made them ideal candidates for the rigours of the Canadian north. Today, many of the Métis people of western Canada trace their history to the Orkneys.

Sylvia Van Kirk, “ISBISTER, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/isbister_joseph_4E.html.

Canadian Encyclopedia, “Hudson’s Bay Company … In 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht, France acknowledged England’s claim to Hudson Bay. For the next 60 years, the HBC erected posts only at the mouths of major rivers flowing into the bay, with the single exception of Henley House, a small outpost erected in 1743 on the Albany River, 200 km from the coast.” Article by Arthur J. Ray. Updated by Nathan Coschi, Leanna Fong, Sasha Yusufali, Nathan Baker, Jessica Poulin. Published Online April 2, 2009. Last Edited January 19, 2023.

____________________, “Albany River … Henley House, the HBC’s first inland post, was erected in 1743 at the confluence of the Albany and Kenogami rivers … The Albany River is one of the few remaining pristine rivers in Ontario.” Article by Gail Kudelik. Published Online February 7, 2006. Last Edited July 27, 2015.

Alberta Online Encyclopedia/AlbertaSource.ca, “Anthony Henday … along with several Plains Cree who were making a return trip to the northwest, departed from York Factory on 26 June 1754 … Henday, having recently gained inland travel experience on a reconnaissance to Spirit Lake, volunteered and was accepted for the mission. He would be charged with infiltrating deep into the territories in order to make contact with the Archiethinue — the Gros Ventres and Blackfoot of what we now know as southern Alberta.”

Clifford Wilson, “HENDAY, ANTHONY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003.

Barbara Belyea, ed., A Year Inland: The Journal of a Hudson’s Bay Company Winterer. Waterloo, ON : Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Wikipedia, “Anthony Henday Drive.”

Travel Alberta, “Anthony Henday Campground.”

Anthony Henday Business Park

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