HBC at 350: An Introduction

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This post is the introduction to a limited series called HBC at 350, which focuses on the environmental history of the Hudson’s Bay Company in light of the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1670.

In addition to a global pandemic and social, economic, and political upheaval, 2020 also marks the 350th anniversary of the British crown granting a trading monopoly to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The company celebrated this milestone in May with a webpage reviewing previous anniversaries; by selling commemorative coins, blankets, and yoga mats; and by facing questions about its ability to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

For folks unfamiliar with the HBC, in 2016 Carolyn Podruchny and I summarized its creation:

“By the middle of the 17th century, the European fur trade had penetrated well into the Great Lakes and Mississippi regions and both companies and monarchs were interested in pressing farther into the continent. Two Frenchmen who had spent most of their lives in North America, Médart Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers and his brother-in-law Pierre- Esprit Radisson, proposed exploiting a northerly sea route into Hudson Bay first to the English, switched into service for the French, and then returned to the English. Their explorations and machinations contributed to the foundation in 1670 of the HBC, based in London, which quickly became a dominant force in the North American fur trade and the only historic fur trading company to persist continuously to the present.”

Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper, “Fur Trades.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (November 2016). doi 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.308: 13.

Throughout November and into December, join us as this rollercoaster of a year concludes with NiCHE’s HBC at 350 series of posts that engage with some of the ways environmental history and the history of the HBC intersect around themes of land and resources, culture and consumerism, and the interconnectedness of Indigenous and settler experiences.

The trading monopoly granted to the HBC in 1670 was in part for trading animal furs, a business reliant on access to North American lands and harvesting of natural resources. As a business, the HBC struggled to get going, moved through mergers and changes within the company and the global economy, and persists to this day.[1] In this series, George Colpitts articulates the influence of HBC business practices on the study of the North American environment and peoples possible, in part, because of the voluminous records left by those interacting with the company. Ted Binnema writes on the HBC and scientific networks to dig into the ways the HBC supported scientific endeavors in the service of public relations.

In 1912 the HBC began shifting away from the fur trade, diversifying its holdings, and continuing to influence representations of Canadian culture by incorporating Canada’s natural environment, or imaginings of a “Canadian” environment into commodities sold to convey Canadianness. Lauren Walker’s post shares with us the environmental, cultural, and economic impacts of this shift through the commodification of hockey as a sport. Walker’s post incorporates the Micmac hockey stick as an object of study, providing a timely connection to Mercedes Peters’s recent work and the ways Mi’kmaw and settler histories in Canada are intertwined.

Also engaging with the role of the HBC in constructions of Canadian culture and commemoration for the HBC at 350 series, Jon Weier reflects on his time as a costumed interpreter at Lower Fort Garry. The HBC may be best known today as the retailer for Canadian Olympic Team gear and memorabilia and Weier’s post ponders the role that representations and commemorations of the company play in cultural and community understandings of Canadian history and identity.

Relationships between the HBC and Indigenous peoples has been complicated, often deeply problematic, and always part of Canada’s colonial history. The monopoly granted 350 years ago was for all lands draining into Hudson Bay, an enormous amount of land inhabited by many Indigenous people who were not included in the decision to grant the monopoly. Most furs collected for European markets that the HBC served were harvested by Indigenous people.[2] HBC families comprised of Indigenous and Euro-North American members in networks of kin stretched around the world. Krista Barclay shares a glimpse into her research on the transplantation of plants between Rupert’s Land and Scotland by and for Indigenous HBC wives, connecting North American and European environmental histories. Moving westward, John B. Zoe, with Jess Dunkin’s collaboration, weaves together the history of the HBC in Tłı̨chǫ territory with his family history, including some personal images.

As a fur trade history geek, I am so excited about this series and I invite you to join me in my geeky enthusiasm. I hope you enjoy this opportunity to engage with new scholarship from folks studying and writing about the history of the HBC with curiosity, creativity, and humanity.

Cover image: Men and child (possibly Dene or Métis) seated outside at Hudson’s Bay Company post at Liidli Kue, c. 1901. Library and Archives Canada.

[1] Elizabeth Mancke, A Company of Businessmen: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Long-Distance Trade, 1670–1730 (Winnipeg: Rupert’s Land Research Centre, 1988).

[2] Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); Bruce M. White, “The Woman Who Married a Beaver: Trade Patterns and Gender Roles in the Ojibwa Fur Trade,” Ethnohistory 46.1 (1999): 109–147.

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Stacy Nation-Knapper is Director of Year One Programs at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she teaches in the History and Sociology & Anthropology departments. Her research focuses on the memory and commemoration of the North American fur trade.

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