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.
The HBC is the oldest commercial enterprise in what we now know as Canada. For much of its history, it was also a family enterprise, the survival of which depended on the labour, ingenuity, mobility and kin ties of Indigenous peoples, HBC employees, and their families. The HBC was also an imperial enterprise that facilitated the British Crown’s efforts to claim Indigenous homelands and expand its imperial reach across this continent. In direct and less obvious ways the wealth, political power and family networks that were vital to the HBC’s success supported the development of the settler colonial state that became Canada.
The work of scholars, genealogists, and public memory institutions continues to broaden our understandings of the full extent of these connections. I’m most often a historian of nineteenth century HBC families and the ways they are remembered through family stories, local history and museums. Until I started my dissertation research I didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which landscapes are involved in the work of remembering. The natural world and non-human beings were fundamental to how HBC families experienced daily life and mobility across Indigenous, settler, and imperial spaces on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, the transatlantic movement of seeds by HBC families is one way to think through and sit with the deep histories of colonialism that continue to shape our surroundings. Historian Susie Fisher has shown how plants and seeds were the focal point of a complex interweaving of myth, memory, and place-making for nineteenth-century Russian Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba, and connections between distant imperial places were also deliberately manifested in the landscape by many people who traversed Britain’s empire in the nineteenth century. HBC families were no exception.
In the 1840s, retired HBC Chief Factor Angus Cameron purchased a stately home in Nairn, a small coastal town in northwestern Scotland. Cameron spent much of his adult life working for the HBC in the area around Lake Timiskaming and his three children were born at Fort Témiscamingue to an Indigenous woman whose identity has been obscured by the patriarchal orientation of both the HBC’s written records and family historical narratives. When Cameron and his children arrived in Nairn, he planted his riverside estate with red pine seeds from the shores of Lake Timiskaming. His children no doubt drew comfort from the familiar sight and scent when strolling across the manicured estate of their new home, which came to be known locally as Firhall. The importation of seeds allowed fur trade families like the Camerons to create familiar spaces that also exposed Britons to colonial landscapes and became part of local stories about HBC families.
Similarly, after a long career with the HBC, Governor Donald Smith, the future Lord Strathcona, purchased a large estate in Scotland’s Glencoe valley in the 1890s. Smith was accompanied by his wife Isabella Sophia Hardisty (1825-1913), whose Cree, English, and Orcadian relations had longstanding ties to the HBC. In an effort to ease his wife’s homesickness, Smith hired labourers to plant a tract of forest around a lochan, or small loch, using tree species from her homeland. At great expense, the shores of the lochan were deliberately and extensively landscaped to resemble the area now known as Banff, Alberta. Today, the estate is home to a luxury boutique hotel and the lochan is the focal point of hiking trails that educate visitors about this history through an interpretive plaque.
This exchange of plant life was not one-sided. Isabella Hardisty Smith, who longed for the plant life of North America while living at her grand Scottish estate, also used British seeds while living at fur trade posts. As a young mother at an HBC post in Labrador, Hardisty Smith wrote to her mother, “I spend a great deal of my time in the garden, where we have sown all the English seeds as well as all Maria’s Orkney ones. We hope with care to have a fine show of flowers this year.” The everyday experience of gardening and harvesting plants allowed women to claim space, wherever they were. The exchange of seeds bound people and landscapes together across distances of time and space.
Isabella Hardisty Smith’s experiences speak to a certain rootlessness. Yet, by planting roots wherever she was living she gathered together the branches of her geographically wide-ranging family ties. At HBC posts she nurtured seeds both from England, which was where her father was born, and from Orkney, the home of her mother’s paternal kin. In the Highlands she strolled familiar scenes created with North American seeds. Through the roots they planted, HBC families created hybrid natural spaces that mirrored their own lived experiences. Those roots are still engaged in the work of remembering the nineteenth-century families who were central to the HBC’s survival. These roots, and the families who planted them, are also bound up with the intertwined histories of the HBC and colonialism in Canada.
The HBC recently announced that its flagship store is closing. The building has been an iconic landmark in the heart of Winnipeg, a city whose history is tied in many ways to the HBC. After the announcement, Dr. Niigaan Sinclair wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press that “the HBC’s legacy of exploitation, violence and theft is permanent”. The roots of this history run deep, connecting people and places on both sides of the Atlantic. The transatlantic lives of non-human beings, whether they are growing in soil or preserved in museum collections as scientific specimens, are just one of the many ways that the indelible impact of the HBC is still visible in the world around us.
Cover image: View of Lake Témiscamingue from the garden of the HBC fort, 1887. Library and Archives Canada, 3227553