Numbering Nature: HBC Accounting Records and Historical Ecology

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This post is part of 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.

Fur traders in present-day Canada were often the first newcomers to leave paper records rich in environmental description. Certainly, that was the case with Hudson’s Bay Company employees. Since its establishment in 1670, the company has left an extraordinarily detailed archive offering information pertinent to historical ecology and animal studies. And all of it is available to environmental historians in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In large measure, most historians using the HBC record turn to traders’ qualitative reports. Part of a trader’s job description was to maintain post diaries (called “Journals of Daily Occurrence”) which offer a window into the “Rupert’s Land” quotidian. They preserve an idea of local environs now significantly transformed by Canadian colonization.

But historians can turn, too, to quantitative sources in the HBC archives, particularly those within its vast accounting record. The company typically guarded its paper record under lock and key and, luckily, a lot was preserved. Following the company’s 250th anniversary in 1920, managers began organizing its records as an inventoried archive. During that decade, it sent word to the company’s posts in North America to send to London any journals and accounts that might still be on hand. In 1923, the manager of the Nelson District, for instance, sent six cases of dusty, old books and papers. However, he didn’t know what to do with some 6000 pounds of old account books, since they seemed to him to have “no historical value.” Fortuitously, the company felt otherwise and instructed him to send the books anyway.[1]

These post account books, along with district and grand ledgers, report information within the company’s business year (June 1 to May 31) and are referred to as the annual “outfit.” Company accounting records quantified the annual trade in wildlife products, primarily fur, but also a wide range of other things such as bales of feathers, whale tusks, sea lion skins, and hundred-weight casks of bison tallow.

It is no wonder, then, that natural historians, biologists, and wildlife managers have taken keen interest in HBC accounting records. Although fur traders had long noted naturally rising and falling animal populations, it was in 1921 that C. Gordon Hewitt, in the Conservation of Wild Life of Canada, used HBC records to demonstrate statistically how those populations changed. Hewitt obtained the company’s fur totals sent to London auctions from 1820 to 1914 from a former HBC fur commissioner. The statistics Hewitt generated confirmed that there were periodic and natural “fluctuations” in animal populations, and he attempted to explain them. Fur traders, many of whom were naturalists, had sometimes guessed. Roderick MacFarlane, an HBC trader in northern Canada, for instance, published his observations of Mackenzie River mammals, pointing out how they rose and fell in number. He included a common explanation at the time concerning marten and lynx populations, in part related to their migrations across far distances out of the range of posts.[2]

Hewitt dismissed this idea as “not founded on fact.”[3] He related the numbers of lynx, fox, and wolverine pelts to expanding rabbit populations, suggesting that lynx might have risen in number as rabbit increased, but they got trapped more easily by Indigenous people when the lynx’s food sources began to collapse.

Hewitt’s reading of the HBC’s aggregate numbers pointed to important observations about the interdependence of wildlife, but also about the way that humans could interfere with natural population cycles. In the case of marten, Hewitt believed that increased forest fires caused by human disturbance, especially after the 1880s, had blunted the otherwise natural rise and fall of marten populations. Hewitt, using HBC records, glimpsed the significance of the Canadian Anthropocene.

Hewitt’s work prompted others to take up the great question of what drove animal population cycles. One was Charles Elton.[4] The HBC was a willing sponsor of scientific research since it stood to gain from better understandings of the inner workings of wildlife population cycles. Elton, an Oxford biologist, first framed his pioneering population ecology in Hewitt’s records, expanding the analysis to other northern latitude wildlife populations. One of his influential papers, “Periodic Fluctuations in the Numbers of Animals: their Causes and Effects,” appeared in the British Journal of Experimental Biology in 1924. The paper offered a key explanation for such cycling. Bursts of solar energy, animating photosynthesis and plant growth, triggered increased numbers of herbivore consumers such as mice and rabbit. These then supported an increase in the animals preying on them.  Elton suggested the significance of “big climatic pulsations” such as those seen in the ice age record, but focused on the quite regular effects of sunspots (recurring every 11.2 years) that radiated the earth’s northern hemisphere. Solar radiation influenced annual temperatures, rainfall, storm cycles and intensity, and water levels, and animals registered these changes in their populations.

Elton’s paper was significant on many levels, especially in challenging the idea of a “balance of nature” in ecology, whereby animals were assumed to exist in a state of balance affected only by human interference. Elton saw natural forces coming to bear on ecological relationships, particularly climate change as a central driver of the workings of animal population cycles.[5]

Charles Elton renewing his consulting research contract with the HBC in 1928. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Development Department Files, A.94/19.

Elton then began working more closely with HBC accounting records. In 1925, his work was paid for by the HBC’s newly-created Development Department. The department was mandated to apply science and technology to improve the company’s existing products and develop new ones. Elton continued working on the company’s records in the 1930s to publish one of his most important works, Voles, Mice and Lemmings: Problems in Population Dynamics (1942). He dedicated it to Charles Sale, the governor of the HBC between 1925 and 31, and Parts III and IV of the book drew on the company’s records from Labrador and elsewhere in northern Canada.

Biologists have gone on to use HBC records to complicate considerably these early interpretations of animal population cycling. So have human ecologists. They have pointed out that fur returns do not directly equate to animal populations. Rather, they reflect Indigenous hunting strategies in periods of game abundance. For example, beaver trade returns probably best reflect the animal’s regional populations. Beaver was an important Indigenous food source in boreal forests, offering high-calorie fatty meats that offset the leaner quality of deer and moose venison in winter. But many other furbearing animals were not such an important Indigenous dietary staple. As naturalist M.S. Weinstein has argued using HBC data, lynx might have increased in population alongside rabbit, but rabbit was the more important dietary staple among Indigenous people. When hare populations were in their boom cycle, Indigenous hunters, often women and children, could more easily hunt them. That freed up their energy to trap lynx in greater number.[6] Bruce Winterhalder then extended this thesis. His contemporary studies of Ojibwa and Cree subsistence practices in northern Ontario suggested that even in the modern era, Indigenous hunters diverted time and energy to the fur trade when two key animals were abundant: moose and rabbit. Winterhalder proposed that these periods of abundance might explain the trapping of other furbearers: fisher, marten and muskrat.[7] Indigenous people most likely integrated fur trading into periods of abundance of key subsistence game populations.

One of William Row’s pages of auction prices of Canadian marten inserted into his copy of Richardson’s Fauna Boreali-Americana; or the Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America (1829). Here he lists prices of marten in the early to mid 18th century from various HB posts, identifying their location with references to AR (Albany River, Fort Albany), MR (Moose River, Moose Factory), YF (York Factory), and CR (Churchill River, Fort Churchill).

Another way to use HBC accounting is to follow the movement of Canadian furbearer pelts to market. The HBC over the centuries sold its North American furs at large public auctions and in private sales in London. Fur traders perceived differences in beaver, for example, from certain areas of Canada’s subarctic. Samuel Hearne, for instance, took note of the “Black beaver, and that of a beautiful gloss,” around Fort Prince of Wales (Churchill).[8]

But it was European fur buyers, dressers, and furriers who most perceived the subtle differences in furbearers coming from different regions of Canada. Climatic variations, subtle differences in habitat, the quality of forage, and even local Indigenous hunting practices could affect the nature of an animal’s fur. These differences mattered to furriers who selected furs that exhibited the best qualities: depth of colour, gloss, and thickness. Canada’s regionalism mattered in these critical assessments.

Marten from the Albany River region on James Bay, for instance, typically sold higher in price than marten from York Factory. Churchill River marten sold even cheaper. The intrinsic quality of these furs likely reflected the quality of habitat in the woodier environment in the Albany River drainage into James Bay, the higher latitude habitats at York Factory on the Hays River, and the more difficult barren Canadian shield of Churchill’s hinterlands.

Fur traders had to learn about these regional differences. It was taught to new HBC traders in the company’s Fur Grading Manual. Apprenticing in fur “grading”—assessing the traded value of a fur— required a trader to learn the difference between “prime” pelts for top prices and those trapped earlier or later in the season. But they also factored in differences in prime fur from Canada’s many regions. Prime red fox from southern Quebec was small in size but rich in colour and traded at a higher price than larger red foxes from Labrador and the Ungava district of northeastern Quebec. Eastern and Western Canadian muskrat traded at different prices: Western muskrat often had silvery bellies compared to their more uniformly dark Eastern cousins. Even within Western Canada, traders paid higher prices for muskrat from the middle latitudes of the boreal extending from Manitoba to Alberta and paid less for heavier and bushier muskrat in the Mackenzie region. Even Canadian squirrels differed remarkably in market value. Eastern Canadian squirrels were smaller and redder than those in the west, and there were further differences between the higher priced squirrels from York Factory hinterlands extending to Alberta’s mid-latitudes and those trapped either to the south in prairie sections or in the Northwest territories.

New HBC traders had to commit to memory the Fur Cycle, when most animals came in and out of prime during the season, in their Fur Grading Manual, 1942.

The HBC’s archival record, then, offers a wealth of data for environmental history. Its London directors demanded consistent qualitative and quantitative reports in post diaries and accounts, many from posts and districts over long periods of time, which can yield important insights for studies in historical ecology. Traders liked to joke about how old their company was in North America. The acronym “HBC,” they liked to say, meant “Here Before Christ.”[9] Like the company and its business practices over centuries, the HBC’s archival record offers extraordinarily deep data. The archives must be counted as one of the most important in Canada for work in historical environmental and human ecology, as well as Indigenous and animal history.


Featured image: “Interior view, showing records, of the old office in which the Northern Council of Hudson Bay Company used to meet, [Fort] Chipewyan, Alta,” Library and Archives Canada.

[1] C. Harding to HBC secretary, 14 July 1923, with J. Chadwick Brook’s reply, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, RG20/1/1.

[2] R. MacFarlane, “Notes on Mammals Collected and Observed in the Northern Mackenzie River District….” Proceedings of the US Natural Museum XIV (1892), 710.

[3] C. Gordon Hewitt, Conservation of Wild Life of Canada (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1921), 227.

[4] For more on Elton, see Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006) 93-94; 99-102.

[5] Charles J. Krebs, “Population Cycles Revisited,” Journal of Mammalogy 77:1 (1996), 8-24.

[6] Martin S. Weinstein, “Hares, Lynx, and Trappers,” The American Naturalist 111:980 (July-August 1977), 806-808.

[7] Bruce P. Winterhalder, “Canadian Fur Bearer Cycles and Cree-Ojibwa Hunting and Trapping Practices,” The American Naturalist 115:6 (June 1980), 870-879.

[8] Samuel Hearne, A Journey to the Northern Ocean: The Adventures of Samuel Hearne (Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2007), 162.

[9] Ernie Lyall, An Arctic Man: Sixty-Five Years in Canada’s North (Halifax: Formac, 1979), 47.

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George Colpitts teaches environmental history at the University of Calgary. His publications include Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882 (Cambridge University Press, 2015); North America’s Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850 (Brill, 2014), and Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (UBC Press, 2002).

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