Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 171-75.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Transportation was a prime consideration in the business policies of the Hudson's Bay Company from its inception. Although the company legally enjoyed the position of monopoly by virtue of the Royal Charter of 1670, which granted to the Hudson's Bay Company the Canadian territory called Rupert's Land, this privilege had to be defended from commercial intruders. From the earliest days the company developed its own transportation network in order to maintain a competitive edge over its opponents. During its first century, when business ventured hardly beyond the shores of the Hudson Bay, the company perfected its transatlantic shipping. Later, when competitors from Montreal moved into the western interior, the Hudson's Bay Company countered by opening several inland rivers, developing a unique wooden craft, the Yorkboat, and constructing rollered passage ways around several rapids. The efficiency of its transportation system enabled the company to defeat all challengers, including the Montreal traders, who were absorbed in 1821. Starving the competition by slashing prices, trading liquor, and deploying its best servants to critical areas were other tactics the company employed to preserve its fur empire. The principal means by which the Hudson's Bay Company defended its trade monopoly, nevertheless, was to maintain an efficient transportation system into Rupert's Land.

By the 1850s the company's policy of controlling access to its fur preserve faced an entirely new and potentially fatal challenge. Settlement, with technology based on an expanding agricultural-industrial economy, was rapidly approaching the undeveloped plains. The economic activities of this encroaching civilization foretold death for the fur trade. Several fur empires in other parts of North America had already yielded to the relentless advance of settlement; company officials knew that theirs would also eventually succumb. As early as 1849 Peter Skene Ogden, the chief factor in Oregon, wrote George Simpson, the resident governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, "You are I presume fully aware that the fur trade and civilization can never blend together and experience teaches us that the former invariably gives way to the latter."

Understanding that the fall of the fertile portion of Rupert's Land to agricultural settlement was inevitable, the Hudson's Bay Company developed a strategy to retain its hold over the fur trade wherever possible and to dominate the commercial potential of the new economic order. Accessibility was the key to the survival plan; realizing that transportation was the vanguard of the new civilization, the company once again decided to control this technology within its domain and to develop it to the company's own advantage.

The most obvious legal threat to the company's charter came from the province of Canada. This British colony could claim historical, imperial, and juridical ties with Rupert's Land. During the 1850s, however, the provincial government did not press claims to the territories. The editor of the Toronto Globe, George Brown, tried to rally his readers to the cause of western annexation-for years his strident editorials praised the Northwest as a panacea for the stagnating economy of Upper Canada-but his proposal remained a minor issue even in his own Clear Grit party and was dismissed as unimportant by the Montreal press. In 1857 a legislative committee, established to investigate the worrisome emigration of young Canadians to the United States, completely ignored the prairies as a haven for prospective farmers and urged instead that they be retained in Canada by means of a vigorous industrialization policy. That same year Canada's position at the British parliamentary inquiry into the Hudson's Bay Company license was timid and noncommittal. Canada simply could not afford to buyout the company's charter and trading rights nor could it finance the administration of such a vast domain.