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Setting Sail for North America

The Battle for Land | Crossing the Continent | A Company for the Future

York FactoryROBERT MacNEIL: In this frigid wilderness, the foundation of modern Canada was laid. The shrewd merchants and bold explorers of the Hudson's Bay Company tamed a wilderness and opened up the heart of a vast continent.

Once, many years ago, a vast empire was managed from this desolate place.

This building, called York Factory, was once the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company -- a trading network that encompassed nearly three million square miles of North America, from the Arctic Ocean to San Francisco, from Labrador to Hawaii. It is here, in this frigid wilderness, that the foundation of modern Canada was laid.

The story of this empire spans three centuries of wars and spoils, of exploration and exploitation, of intrigue and sheer human endurance.

Hudson's Bay Company workers
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

The Hudson's Bay Company was built by Englishmen, Frenchmen, Irishmen, Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans. They were princes and paupers, explorers and bureaucrats. Admirals and indigenous leaders, Quebec voyageurs and Jesuit priests, Huron trappers and brave young men from the wind-swept Orkney isles.

The official name of this empire, given its Royal Charter in 1670, was the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay -- but better known as The Hudson's Bay Company. This is the story of how its merchants and employees tamed a wilderness and opened up the heart of a continent.

In 1665, two backwoodsmen from New France, the French colony in the St. Lawrence valley in what is now Canada, sailed to London to have an audience with King Charles II. The two adventurers, Sieur de Groseilliers and his younger brother-in-law, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, were seeking the backing of the English King for an expedition to explore Hudson Bay, a far northern region of North America, rumored to be rich in beaver furs. Beaver pelts were some of the most valuable commodities of the time. They were used to make the felt hats that had become the rage in Europe. Beaver hats were worth so much that they were willed by fathers to eldest sons.

Radisson and GroseilliersSix years earlier, the two men had traveled north of Lake Superior, and had returned laden with furs. The native Huron and Cree Indians, with whom they had been trading, told them about an even richer area that lay between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. But when they returned to New France, the governor confiscated their bounty, and refused to grant them permission to explore. It left them little choice but to try their luck with the English.

They couldn't have picked a worse time to promote their ambitious expedition.

In 1665, England was at war with the Dutch and the bubonic plague was raging in London.

With perfumed handkerchiefs crushed to their nostrils, Radisson and Groseilliers were rowed up the Thames past the stricken city. The stench of putrefaction drifted across the water from the "plague pits" where thousands of corpses were dumped.

Beyond London, into the open and peaceful country, Radisson and Groseilliers were rowed to the university town of Oxford. There Charles II and his court had taken refuge from the plague.

After a decade of puritan rule, court life under King Charles was anything but puritan.

The Court was dominated by the king's thirty-nine mistresses. The theatres had reopened, and for the first time women strutted on stage and starred in a series of risqué comedies.

The King met the two French backwoodsmen and was immediately enthusiastic. He saw in their plan a way to exploit the assets of the new continent without needing to establish costly permanent colonies.

Sailors arriving at the North American coast
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

PIERRE-ESPRIT RADISSON, Explorer: The King gave good hope that we should have a ship ready for an expedition for the next spring. And he granted us 40 shillings a week for our maintenance.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Charles II knew just the man to sponsor such a project -- his cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a Renaissance man, a warrior, artist and scientist, credited with inventions that included forerunners to the machine gun and bulletproof glass.

An enterprise to expand British trade into Hudson Bay, and thereby outflank the French, held great appeal for Rupert. He was eager to challenge the French hold over the fur trade and was also intrigued by the prospect that the country beyond Hudson's Bay might yield not only fur, but also great mineral wealth that would further enrich the Crown.

Under Rupert's patronage, a syndicate was formed to back the two Frenchmen. But with one delay after another, it was two years before an expedition set forth.

For more than a hundred years, European monarchs had been commissioning expeditions to seek lucrative landfalls beyond the setting sun.

As the English adventurer, poet and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh wrote: "Whosoever commands the seas, commands the trade, whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself."

Many explorers took up Raleigh's challenge. In June of 1576, the ambitious British mariner Martin Frobisher set out to find the prize of the high seas: a Northwest Passage to the Pacific, which he believed would lead to the fabulous riches of the Orient.

Robert BothwellROBERT BOTHWELL, Historian: The Northwest Passage is something that never existed. The Northwest Passage is the route from Europe to Asia, it is the pathway of riches, the pathway of glory, the pathway of religion, and it never happened. But it tempted 300 years of European explorers to reach out behind North America.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Frobisher's expedition struggled in the treacherous northern seas. Off Greenland, one of his ships sank, and another was swamped by a storm. The captain of the second ship was so unnerved, he turned back. Frobisher continued on alone, discovering a broad passage off Baffin Island, which he believed was the passage to the South Sea.

But the place was just one of the many Arctic dead ends that would frustrate so many future explorers. Frobisher would make two more attempts, neither successful.

Four decades earlier, in 1535, a French adventurer, Jacques Cartier, had had also set out to discover a northern passage to the Orient. He was convinced he'd found it until he encountered the native population. In fact, he had been traveling up the St. Lawrence River.

On the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cartier recorded the first transaction in what became the North American fur trade.

JACQUES CARTIER, Explorer: Crossing the bay we caught sight of two fleets of Indian canoes, which numbered in all some forty or fifty canoes. The Indians set up a great clamour and made frequent signs for us to come on shore, holding up to us some furs on sticks. They showed a marvelous great pleasure in obtaining iron wares and other commodities, dancing and going through many ceremonies, and throwing salt water over their heads.

They bartered all they had, and all went back naked without anything on them. They made signs to us that they would return on the morrow with more furs.

ROBERT MacNEIL: But Cartier failed to find the passage to China that he had been seeking.

ROBERT BOTHWELL: There was a lot of discussion as to where the proper way to get to Asia might be. And initially the English who got the short end of the stick went north, and they ended up in some very inhospitable deadly places. But in the 16th century, in the late 16th century they started moving south. They started moving down into more temperate climes and into what is now Virginia, which of course is named after Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. And the idea is that somewhere, oh, just beyond Washington or oh, I don't know, maybe eventually behind Pittsburgh or St. Louis or somewhere, the Northwest Passage would be lurking. So the first part of the Northwest Passage might be a bit of a hike but just on the other side of that next hill there would be water, salt water leading to China once again.

Henry Hudson

ROBERT MacNEIL: One of the most tenacious explorers was a moody, enigmatic Englishman named Henry Hudson, the first European to navigate the river that runs through what is now New York state. In April 1610, Hudson set out on the most lavishly financed single-ship expedition of his day in search of the Passage.

In London, presented with some of the most qualified seamen, Hudson instead recruited a devil's brew of ill-assorted malcontents: among them the mutinous reprobate, Henry Greene, described as "preferring the company of bawds, panders, pimps and trollops."

Also on board was Abacuck Pricket, an agent of Hudson's financial backers assigned to write a report of Hudson's journey.

Hudson sailed farther north and west than any European before him, zigzagging along the coast of mainland North America. As Abacuck Pricket reported in his journal.

ABACUCK PRICKET, Financial Agent: Our Master brought forth his chart and showed all his crew that he had entered the strait more than 300 miles farther than anyone ever had.

ROBERT MacNEIL: A few weeks later, the coast suddenly opened to the south. Hudson was convinced he had reached the Pacific.

But soon the shore dropped away to the south, then to the southwest, then, due north. With dawning horror, Hudson realized that he had sailed not into the Pacific, but into the bottom pocket of a huge bay.

Arctic waterfallThen the arctic winter set in. Because they thought they were heading to the South seas, few members of the crew had adequate clothing. Trapped in the bay without food or shelter, the men suffered the agonies of frostbite, scurvy and near starvation.

In the spring, as the ice was breaking up, a lone Indian appeared.

ABACUCK PRICKET: Our master gave him a knife, a mirror, and some buttons, which were thankfully received, and the native made signs that after he had slept he would come again, which he did.

ROBERT MacNEIL: The Indian then returned with a sled carrying two deerskins and two beaver pelts. Here was the real treasure of the bay.

ABACUCK PRICKET: The native had a pouch under his arm out of which he drew those things the master had given him on his first visit. He took the knife and laid it upon one of the beaver skins and the mirrors and buttons upon the other, then removed them, putting them back in his pouch and gave the skins to our master.

Hudson and a Native American traderROBERT MacNEIL: Eighty years earlier, Cartier had inaugurated the French fur trade. And now Hudson, in this one small exchange, had just given birth to the English fur trade.

Obsessed with his quest for a route to the Orient, Hudson refused to head for home. Fed up with the conditions they had endured, his sailors mutinied.

On June 22nd, they seized Hudson and bundled him into the Discovery's small boat. Eight others, including Hudson's teenage son and all those sick with scurvy joined him.

Rampaging through the ship, the starving mutineers discovered a secret cache of food and beer that Hudson had been saving for himself. Just as they began gorging themselves on their bounty, the crew caught sight of their former commanding officer.

ABACUCK PRICKET: Then the mutineers noticed that the shallop had again come into sight, so they set the mainsail and topsails, and flew away as though from a ghost.

ROBERT MacNEIL: This was the last anyone saw of the great explorer. Henry Hudson disappeared into the frigid mists of the enormous bay, which would bear his name.

Five weeks later, at the entrance to the Bay, the mutineers went ashore to barter for food with the Inuit. As trading started, the Inuit suddenly attacked. Five of Hudson's former crew were savagely murdered.

For almost four decades, no Europeans ventured into the bay. Its real value would remain shrouded in darkness and ice. It would be Radisson and Groseilliers who would discover its riches fifty years later.

While Henry Hudson was making his abortive journey into Hudson Bay, Samuel de Champlain was seeking a base for the French on the St. Lawrence River. Champlain followed the same route navigated by Jacques Cartier seventy years earlier.

SAMUEL de CHAMPLAIN, Explorer: I looked for a place suitable for our building but could not find any more suitable or better situated than was the point of Québec, so called by the natives, which was covered with nut-trees and vines. The first thing we made was the storehouse, to put our supplies under cover and it was promptly finished.

The Huron NationROBERT MacNEIL: Then, Champlain pushed inland to the powerful Huron nation with whom he hoped to establish trading relations. Champlain spent the winter with the Huron.

SAMUEL de CHAMPLAIN: Their life is wretched by comparison with ours, but happy for them, since they have not tasted a better and believe that none more excellent can be found.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Soon French traders and Jesuit missionaries settled among the Huron and developed interlocking trading networks with them. In no time, great fleets of Huron canoes came to the new French trading posts carrying a fortune in furs.

European trade revolutionized native life. But it also radically shifted the balance of power between the tribes.

The Iroquois now demanded access to the Huron's fur trapping territory north of the Great Lakes.

BLAIR STONECHILD, Historian: When the Iroquois perceived themselves as being threatened by the French and by the type of the activities that were going on, the Iroquois felt that the territory was in some sort of danger and when they decided to act the Hurons became the victims of that process.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In a series of raids across the Great Lakes into Ontario, the Iroquois decimated the Huron nation.

Martha SaxtonMARTHA SAXTON: People have described Iroquois wars with the Huron as having to do with the control of the beaver trade, but it seems very reasonable to assume that much of the ferocity of these wars --and these were terrible wars -- much of the ferocity came from the effort to replace the dead. In the 1630s and the 1640s, the Iroquois suffered tremendous losses from smallpox. They lost about half their population in this period. As you can imagine, the disruption, the social disruption and the pain was overwhelming. And indeed, in some villages after, after the Huron wars were over, the Iroquois had replaced them with as many as 75 percent Huron captives. So in some villages, Hurons actually outnumbered Iroquois. So these could be also thought of as mourning wars.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In Europe, there was also an unstable balance of power --between the English, Dutch and French empires. The ongoing competition among them helped fuel interest in the expedition of Radisson and Groseilliers. In 1668, almost three years after they had arrived in London, the two adventurers were ready to set sail.

The window of opportunity was narrow. To succeed, they would have to journey to Hudson Bay in the summer, survive the long sub-Arctic winter in the bay, trade with the Indians in the spring, and escape from the bay before autumn storms and ice floes trapped or crushed the ships.

They traveled on separate ships. The plan was for first ship, the Eaglet to winter on Hudson Bay while the second, the Nonsuch returned to England carrying the pelts from the first summer's trade.

But four hundred leagues off the coast of Ireland, a storm almost swamped the Eaglet and she was forced to turn back.

ROBERT BOTHWELL: What you're looking at of course is a very long voyage, frequently two, three months across the Atlantic. And you have to leave early in the year so that you're going to run across icebergs, you're going to run across unfavorable winds. If you are delayed too long, run out of supplies and you have to turn back or of course you could starve, that was the choice.

The "Nonesuch"
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

ROBERT MacNEIL: Groseilliers knew that his ship, the Nonsuch, faced being crushed by ice, swamped by a gale or smashed on uncharted reefs. But he persevered and anchored in Hudson Bay in August, almost three months after leaving England.

By the spring of the following year, Groseilliers and his company had created what he called a "league of friendship" with the local chief and he reported "formally purchasing" the land. His company engaged in brisk trade in British muskets, scrapers, needles and trinkets, which they exchanged with the local tribesmen for the valuable beaver pelts.

Fifteen months after originally setting out, the Nonsuch slid up the Thames to a dock in London. She was laden with furs and not a single man had been lost. The expedition was a complete vindication of Radisson and Groseilliers' claim that England could profitably trade for furs through Hudson Bay. Prince Rupert's gamble had paid off.

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