Monday, November 7, 2011

Era of the Hudson’s Bay Company

Until the amalgamation of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the inland fur-traders made little attempt to enter the maritime fur trade. After 1821, however, a change in this policy was made. Sir George Simpson, the energetic governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, strongly recommended that decisive steps be taken to wrest the maritime fur trade from their Boston competitors and also from the well-established Russian posts farther north. To gain this end, two methods were devised. Trading-posts, similar to the inland ones, were to be built at strategic spots along the whole coast from Oregon to Alaska. In addition, trading-vessels were to travel from village to village collecting furs and carrying them to the central depot.

Beginning in 1825, trading-posts were established at advantageous points all along the coast. No trading post was built at any time on Haida Gwaii. The company officers, knowing the Haida to be fearless and inveterate travellers, expected that they would bring most of their furs to these two Mainland posts and that regular visits to the Islands by trading-vessels would suffice to gather up the residue of the fur harvest.

The first Hudson's Bay Company ship to offer direct opposition to the Boston traders was the little "William and Ann," sent north in 1825. A British vessel, she had sailed from Gravesend, July 25th, 1824, and reached Fort Vancouver April 7th, 1825. On June 1st she left the Columbia for Haida Gwaii and called at Cumshewa and Skidegate, the two most important trading centers on the Islands. After a summer of trade in which she collected 400 sea-otter skins, the "William and Ann" left for London from the Columbia on September 20th, 1825. On a later voyage to the Pacific in 1829 the little pioneer in the Hudson's Bay marine fur trade was wrecked on the fatal Columbia Bar and all hands were lost.

Other ships to enter the Company's employ over a period of years were the "Cadboro," the "Eagle," the "Dryad," the "Vancouver," and the "Llama." The coming and going of all these vessels, as well as the news of the fur returns, fill many pages in the letter books and journals kept so faithfully by the officers of the Company during their lonely vigils in their isolated posts. References to visits to Haida Gwaii are scattered through their records.

John Work, who was in charge of Fort Simpson for a number of years, gives a full report of a trading trip to the Islands in 1835. This was made in the Llama under Captain W.H. McNeill. They left the west coast of Vancouver Island on the first day of May, arriving in Cape James across from Haida Gwaii.

One report shows how the species of fur being traded had altered, ". . . we traded 29 beaver, 16 land otters, 60 marten, and 74 minks." No mention of sea-otter is made. By May 10th, in spite of baffling winds, the "Llama" managed to make Skidegate Harbor. Here a number of canoes came off to trade "fish, bear-skins, and some marten skins." It was noticed that the Haida seemed shy of coming on board and Work soon realized the cause:"Their shyness arose from the loss of the schooner, Vancouver, last year, as they are connected with the people who inhabit where she was lost, and who plundered her." The people who did come to trade, however, informed Work that twenty-five canoes had gone to Simpson to try and make up for the wrong and had also taken most of the furs, hence the scarcity of trade. The Llama, therefore, moved farther up the sound to good anchorage and here they not only obtained some more furs but also bought some potatoes.

It is by such glimpses in these journals, that we get a picture of how the Hudson's Bay Company adapted themselves to changing conditions. When furs fell off in numbers, they turned to other articles of trade, produce as well as manufactured goods, until the trading-post were stocked with a great variety of merchandise--a forefunner of the department store of today.

The loss of the schooner, Vancouver, reputed to have been the first vessel built on the Columbia, which Work referred to in his journal, happened on the low and dangerous sand-bar, Rose Spit, at the north end of Graham Island, in 1834. She was on a trading expedition under the command of Captain Alexander Duncan, who was exonerated of all blame and later placed in command of the Cadboro. The Massett people, whose village was not far from the scene, plundered the wreck and carried off considerable property before the ship broke up. A letter of John Work's reveals the Company's policy regarding such happenings, although the plan ended up as to not notice the affair for the present, and eventually no action proceeded.

The Steamer "Beaver" 1887
It was not long before the officials of the Hudson's Bay Company realized that sailing vessels were severely handicapped by the many intricate channels they had to navigate on their northern trading voyages. The London Committee of the Company therefore sent out from England the staunch little steamer "Beaver", the first to ply the North Pacific. She arrived at the Columbia River in April, 1836, and soon began her work of carrying supplies and trade goods from the southern depots to the northern forts. For several years the official letters of the Company are full of orders and reports dealing with the "steamer" as she was always referred to. The Beaver had visited Haida Gwaii many times on her rounds.

The Hudson Bay Company has often been accused of making a free use of liquor in their barter with the North-west Coast peoples. When the force of the opposition made it imperitive, they did apparently do so, as more than one trader admits, but most of the officials deeply deplored the practice and would have gladly seen it stopped, for liquor and trade simply did not go together. If the North-west Coast peoples had free access to rum, they did not hunt and then there were no furs to barter. Thus, in the interests of the trade alone, the Company sought at all times to curb the sale of rum. This prohibition was to have an ill effect on the Company's returns, as the people demanded rum in return for their furs. When they could not get it at the fort, they took their furs either to the Russian posts to the north or carried them to Fort Victoria where they claimed they could barter them for rum--probably in "bootleg" markets. []