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The Battle for Land

Setting Sail for North America | Crossing the Continent | A Company for the Future

HBC Charter
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives
ROBERT MacNEIL: On May 2, 1670, King Charles II awarded Rupert, and the syndicate of investors that he had assembled, a Royal Charter granting them control over all the lands that drained into Hudson Bay.

The charter automatically made the Company of Adventurers, as they were then called, proprietors of a territory they called Rupert's Land.

It covered roughly one and a half million square miles — almost half of what became modern Canada, as well as part of Minnesota and North Dakota.

By giving unrestricted rights to an immense continent, the charter created the one of the greatest monopolies in history.

It was deposited in Rupert's apartments in Windsor Castle for safekeeping.

Almost immediately, the Hudson's Bay Company began to lay claim to its vast and rich empire. From the very outset, the whole business of the company was to be business -- the fur trade-- not the dissemination of the British way of life, or the conversion of the native population to Christianity. It built trading posts at the mouths of the Rupert, Albany and Moose Rivers and established relationships with the local tribes. Highly structured trading rituals evolved. The trade items included knives, files, kettles, cloth and eventually the "Hudson's bay blanket," which was frequently made into clothing -- its snowy color giving hunters the ability to stalk their winter prey undetected. A series of small black stripes woven into the edge of the blanket indicated the number of beaver pelts a blanket that size was worth.

Local Native AmericansThe local population not only supplied the encampment with furs, they also brought fresh deer meat, wild fowl, sturgeon, whitefish and trout, making the experience of living on the bay more pleasant than it had been for earlier expeditions.

Nonetheless, the conditions were brutal. For nine months the sun barely rose above the horizon. The temperature plunged so low thermometers froze. - Chief Factor Edward Umfreville.

EDWARD UMFREVILLE, Chief Factor: A person exposed to the cold can resist for a moment but then after enduring great torment for a considerable time, the cold at length seizes the vitals, and the unfortunate person soon expires.

Women have been found frozen to death, with a young infant, likewise frozen, clasping its arms around its mother's neck.

ROBERT MacNEIL: A Chief Factor or trader was in charge of each post. Like all good bureaucrats these men were tireless scribes; each and every day they wrote in their journals.

FACTOR: This morning the rain froze as it fell. Two hours ago we had hail the size of a musket ball. A more miserable time I have never spent. The walls inside the house are covered with ice almost half as thick as themselves. The brandy froze, as thick as treacle.

AlcoholROBERT MacNEIL: Alcohol was used as an antidote to cabin fever, much to the consternation of company officials. Brandy that was initially shipped from England to be used in trading ceremonies with the Indians quickly found its way into general staff consumption. The company then instituted rations: Each man received a quart every Wednesday and Saturday. An official eighteenth century accounting put alcohol consumption at about 10 gallons per man per year.

Much of the routine and ritual of the Hudson's Bay Company was modeled on the Royal Navy. Changes in shift, meals and bedtimes were signaled by the sounding of ships bells.

The men brought over to staff the posts initially were recruited from the bands of urchins who roamed the London docks. Gradually, the company began hiring hundreds of teenage boys, from the Orkney Islands of Scotland, which lay on the route to North America.

Accustomed to living on land on the same latitude as Hudson's Bay's more northern posts, the Orkney Scots were well suited to brave the severe climate of bay. Although poorly paid, they were given free room and board, and few opportunities to spend their wages. After working a minimum five year stint, the bay men could return home with a guaranteed nest egg. For two hundred years, these Scotsmen would form the backbone of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Some would start families during their sojourn in North America. Official policy discouraged liaisons with women of the local tribes. However, as one outspoken Governor wrote. "Connubial alliances are the best security we can have of the good will of the natives." These ties were also advantageous to the Indians.

Blair StonechildBLAIR STONECHILD, Historian: it's well known that, that many of these Orkney men married - well maybe married is too strong a word, took Indian women as companions. Again, this was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the company and you know they looked down upon it. So many of these liaisons with what were called the country wives, you know, I guess were tolerated. Many of these men had children, mixed blood children with these wives. There were entire communities of mixed blood children who, you know, who grew up near these posts. And when the men went back to their homeland, by and often it was expected that they would simply leave the woman and their children behind and abandon them.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Beginning in 1682, for a period of almost fifteen years, wars that were being fought in Europe between England and France, influenced the balance of power in North America. The bay men found themselves involved in a series of skirmishes. French flotillas and overland raiding parties from Montreal frequently attacked and pillaged the Hudson's Bay Company's fur storehouses, or factories as they were called.

The trading posts were cut off by French ships intercepting the Indians bound for the bay. To survive, the company decided to venture inland.

Henry KelseyThe young Henry Kelsey was the first of a series of pathfinders sent to explore the North American interior. He ventured to the west in 1690.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Kelsey was North America's first traveling salesman. His samples included twenty pounds of Brazil tobacco, glass beads, hatchets, a blanket and a lace coat. Kelsey recorded in his journal:

HENRY KELSEY, Salesman: September 6th. Today I revealed the pipe which the governor had given me, telling the Indians that they must employ their time in catching beaver for that will be better liked than their killing their enemies when they come to the factory. Neither, said I, was I sent here to kill any Indians, but to make peace with as many as I could.

Kelsey trading with Native Americans

ROBERT MacNEIL: Kelsey trekked west along the Saskatchewan River into lands that no European had ever seen before. He was the first European to see the great prairie buffalo hunt. At the end of two years, Kelsey returned to York Factory with a "good fleet of Indians" eager to trade.

In that journey, Kelsey saw many of the lakes and rivers, which were the ancient highways of Canada. Although the Hudson's Bay Company made no use of his discoveries, his expedition did have value.

ROBERT BOTHWELL, Historian: The bay men and women really from about 1680 to say 1750, 1760 do one great thing. They confirm that there is an awful lot of North America on the other side of Hudson's Bay which was not known at the time, and they find the great rivers that flow into Hudson's Bay where they come from, they pursue this really to the foothills of the Rockies so they add, well, hundreds of thousands of square miles to the known territory of North America. Then of course they almost "put hay," not quite, to the idea of the Northwest Passage because it's perfectly clear that the Northwest Passage is not to the south of Hudson Bay, then it turns out it's not to the west of Hudson Bay, and eventually it becomes clear that, well, it's not to the northwest of Hudson Bay either.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In 1697, the French King, Louis XIV, decided to sweep the English from the bay. Louis sent the most powerful fleet ever seen in the Arctic to eliminate the Hudson's Bay Company's headquarters at York Factory. Commanding the fleet was the thirty-six year-old Montrealer, Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville.

As the French ships tacked into Hudson Bay, they became trapped in the autumn ice floes that grind south out of the Arctic Ocean. Claude Charles Le Roy de la Pothérie was the commissary of the French fleet.

CLAUDE CHARLES LE ROY de la POTHERIE, French Fleet commissary: Nothing was more frightful than seeing oneself in this vast space where we could hardly see the water for the mountains of ice, which continually smashed, against our ships.

ROBERT MacNEIL: For three weeks the French were prisoners of the ice, until d'Iberville managed to zigzag and batter his 44-gun flagship, the Pélican, into open water. As fog closed in the rest of the fleet remained trapped in the ice.

Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Soon d'Iberville saw three sails appear on the horizon. Believing it was the rest of his fleet, the French Admiral wheeled around to meet them. He was mistaken.

He sailed straight into three heavily-armed British ships, the Hudson's Bay, the Dering and a formidable Royal Navy frigate, the Hampshire.

The battle raged for hours. At times, the Pélican and the Hampshire veered in so close that d'Iberville and the British Captain, John Fletcher, proposed toasts to one another's health.

PIERRE le MOYNE D'IBERVILLE: For two hours I had not really been able to use my battery against the wind, then, luckily, I got down wind of the Hampshire, let go a broadside with all the cannon pointed at her waterline.

ROBERT MacNEIL: The Hampshire sank with all hands on board, including the gallant Captain Fletcher. The Dering fired one final pathetic broadside and fled. The Hudson's Bay, already badly damaged, surrendered. D'Iberville had beaten the odds. By nightfall, he controlled access to York Factory. It appeared to be his for the taking.

Ship in turbulent water

Suddenly a vicious storm ripped across the bay. The Pélican, with her masts shot away and her decks and rigging coated in ice, was swept adrift by freezing gale-force winds.

When the remnants of his fleet appeared five days later, d'Iberville immediately began to organize the siege of York Factory.

By using smoke screens and spreading his sharpshooters out wide, d'Iberville created the illusion of an invading army. In fact, his men were mostly sick and wounded. The bombardment continued for several days, until the company surrendered.

On September 13, 1697, York Factory, the English Hudson's Bay Company's stronghold in North America, fell to Pierre d'Iberville. Only then did the English realize that they had been bluffed into surrendering by a starved group of shipwrecked survivors.

York Factory burns

With it, the French took over a network of trading posts that the English company had built to barter with the indigenous population. The mighty Hudson's Bay Company had been swept from the map.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, France would come to control trading posts from Montreal to New Orleans. From the mouth of the St. Lawrence and from Hudson Bay to Louisiana, the French were well on their way toward holding the heartland of North America. But this dominance would not last for long.

The year is 1748: An ambitious councilor from Richmond, Virginia, Thomas Lee, has just signed the incorporation documents of the Ohio Company.

What Lee wanted was two hundred thousand acres of land centered on the Ohio River. To the French, this colonization of the Ohio Valley was nothing short of a land grab by an American upstart that posed a mortal threat to French trading routes.

A fleet of canoes and bateaux stormed down the Ohio River from Montreal and took possession of the valley. The French anchored their presence by building a chain of forts south from Lake Erie to the headwaters of the Ohio River.

The British answered by sending Redcoats and Virginia volunteers, led by Colonel George Washington, under the overall command of General Edward Braddock.

In the battle that followed, Braddock was killed. Although Washington survived, he and his men were driven back into Virginia by the French and Indian forces. It was a defeat the future first President of the United States would never forget. But the constant threat from the American colonies left the New World French forces weakened and vulnerable to future British attacks.

In June 1757, William Pitt the Elder became Britain's prime minister. A brilliant orator and strategist, Pitt had one principal objective: to destroy New France.

Robert BothwellROBERT BOTHWELL: William Pitt's idea was to cut the French empire at a vulnerable pressure point. And Pitt was notably successful at that; he understood that the key to the French empire in North America was the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the city of Quebec. If you cut Quebec, if you hit Quebec you cut off all the supplies from France on which the French colonies depended. And it would not matter then, that France had hundreds and thousands of square miles in the interior or North America. The French wouldn't be able to get to it and eventually it would shrivel.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In 1758, Pitt set out to destroy three crucial outlying French strongholds: Louisbourg - the French "Gibraltar" on Cape Breton, which guarded the St. Lawrence. In 1745, the fortress had been captured by a force of New Englanders including the young Paul Revere. But it was then returned to France by treaty.

In 1758, a huge British force took it again. Then they took Fort Duquesne -- on the site of present day Pittsburgh -- the anchor which secured the Ohio; and last, Fort Frontenac - the hinge which linked the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence. Now that the limbs of New France had been amputated, Pitt took aim at its heart: Quebec City.

In 1759, Pitt dispatched more than 200 ships with 22,000 sailors, marines and soldiers, up the St. Lawrence, deep into French territory. The commander in charge was Major-General James Wolfe, a man with a reputation for being brilliant, high-strung and reckless.

View of Quebec City
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

Wolfe's army came ashore, unopposed on the Ile d'Orleans, in view of the fortified city of Quebec.

On the evening of June 28th, two days after their enemy landed, the French deployed a flotilla of hulks and barges upstream from the sleeping Britons. Soaked in tar and carrying a cargo of bombs, grenades, and old cannon, these darkened "fire ships" drifted slowly and silently down on the anchored British fleet.

Suddenly torches were lit; the river was ablaze. The British fleet, the French hoped, would be consumed in a towering inferno of flame. John Knox was part of the 43rd regiment.

JOHN KNOX, British sailor: They were certainly the grandest fire-works that can possibly be conceived, every circumstance having contributed to their awful, yet beautiful, appearance; the night was serene and calm, there was no light but what the stars produced, and this was eclipsed by the blaze of the floating fires, issuing from all parts, and running almost as quick as light up the masts and rigging.

ROBERT MacNEIL: The British artillery opened fire on the city. As the British noose tightened, the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, skillfully evaded an open fight, which he knew General Wolfe would win. But by a stroke of luck, the British troops found a path leading up to a plateau behind the city called the Plains of Abraham.

On September 13th , almost three months after they had landed, British troops scrambled, undetected, up the narrow, twisting path. By dawn, the British army was deployed on the plains, ready to conquer Quebec City.

Marquis de Montcalm
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

Montcalm was now obliged to make the first move in the battle he'd been determined to avoid. Despite the ferocity of the French advance, the British line held its fire. In the fight that followed, the British were victorious, although their leader, General Wolfe died on the battlefield.

His French counterpart, the Marquis de Montcalm, died the following day of wounds to his stomach and thigh. On the 18th of September 1759, Quebec City surrendered. Montreal was captured a year later.

France's reign in the New World had ended.

ROBERT BOTHWELL: The American colonists were intensely proud of what had been done because it was partly an American achievement too, as part of the British empire. And we find, you know it's funny you see in American cities today there's Wolfe Street, along with King Street and Queen Street, which reminds us that these were Englishmen transplanted to the New World and they were very proud of being contributing independent members of the British empire.

 

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