A Company for the Future

Setting Sail for North America | The Battle for Land | Crossing the Continent

George Simpson
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

ROBERT MacNEIL: In 1821, a new governor, George Simpson, was sent out from London to York Factory to run the newly enlarged company. He would dominate it for the next four decades. An ardent expansionist, Simpson extended the company's interests across the continent, a strategy that would eventually put him into conflict with citizens of the United States. His goal was to increase profits, and to make the company operate as efficiently as possible. Within a short time, he had earned the nickname "The Little Emperor."

Simpson initiated the practice of giving the traders who supplied the company small shares in the profits. It was an effective motivational tool, promoting cooperation among employees who were stretched across a vast continent. He also slashed the company workforce from 2,000 to 800, weeding out those he considered to be less productive. He was particularly ruthless to the native population.

GEORGE SIMPSON, Hudson's Bay Company: I have made it my study to examine the nature and character of the Indians. And however repugnant it may be to our feelings, I am convinced they must be ruled with a rod of iron to bring and keep them in a proper state of subordination, and the most certain way to affect this, is by letting them feel their dependence upon us.

MARTHA SAXTON, Historian: When Simpson arrived to run the company, he was really bringing with him a racial attitude that was at its highest and most virulent form. This is really 19th century racism at its most comprehensive and it was a racial ideology that attempted to explain and justify the dominance of Great Britain and to some extent the United States over peoples of color all over the world. There had always been racial prejudice and this is true, but this mid-19th century sort of flowering of racial thought was a remarkable development and one of I think uniquely pernicious results.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Simpson moved to abandon the use of the traditional native canoes. Because canoes could only carry relatively small payloads, he viewed them as inefficient and uneconomical.

York boat
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

Where he could, Simpson substituted York boats. These sturdy wooden craft - based on an Orkney Scots design going back to the Norsemen - carried three times the payload of the northern freight canoe.

PAUL KANE: These so-called York boats are about thirty feet long and six feet beam, and go as far as York Factory. They are found more convenient for carrying goods on the Saskatchewan and Red River than canoes.

ROBERT MacNEIL: One of Simpson's greatest concerns was the Pacific. The Oregon Country was the Company's vulnerable underbelly. By the mid-1820's, independent American traders -- the infamous American mountain men -- were surging along the Platte and Snake Rivers from Saint Paul, invading the Hudson's Bay Company's western fur country.

ROBERT BOTHWELL, Historian: Well, the American mountain men are a wonderful amalgamation of American settlers, Anglo American settlers crossing the Appalachians in the late 18th century, and Franco-Americans or Franco-Canadians, French Canadians coming from the old French colonies in the Mississippi Valley and from the St. Lawrence Valley and it is simply amazing how far these people go. There are only about a thousand of them, and yet they cover a million square miles. Absolutely incredible achievement.

Robert BothwellThese are people who live by plundering the fur-bearing animals of the center and west of North America. And their time on this earth was governed by the ability of those animals to reproduce themselves before the mountain men slaughtered them. You can trace the history of the mountain men in terms of the fur bearing depopulation first of the southern Rockies, then the middle Rockies, finally the northern Rockies. But what they did was open the west, the far west to settlement and they were an invaluable aspect of the American conquest of western North America.

ROBERT MacNEIL: To drive the Americans back, George Simpson decided on a scorched earth policy. Oregon and the West would be trapped clean. Not a single beaver would be left alive.

GEORGE SIMPSON: Strong trapping expeditions should be sent south of the Columbia. These may be called the "Snake River Expeditions." While we have access we should reap all the advantage we can for ourselves, and leave it in as bad a state as possible for our successors.

Peter Skene Ogden

ROBERT MacNEIL: Simpson chose Peter Skene Ogden, an old Nor'Wester, to lead the operation. Ogden was well suited to the task. His personal credo: "Necessity has no laws."

In less than six years, operating with military precision, Ogden and his men trapped the region bare, from the upper Columbia and the Snake Rivers to the deserts of California and Nevada.

Simpson's scorched earth policy was ruthless. The mountain men succumbed to drowning, murder, frostbite, starvation and exhaustion and most of Simpson's own men died in the process.

PETER SKENE OGDEN, Hudson's Bay Company trapper: There remains only one man living of all the Snake men of 1819. All have been killed except two who died a natural death. This is certainly a most horrid life.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Simpson's campaign had delayed the American invasion of the West, by almost twenty years -- until James Polk became president, and was determined to expand the United States to the Pacific. In June 1846, in order to avert war, Britain and the United States signed a treaty setting the boundary at the 49th parallel, the same border that currently divides the United States and Canada.

Forced to retreat from land that was now considered the United States, the Hudson's Bay Company relocated their West Coast headquarters to Vancouver Island under the leadership of James Douglas.

But tens of thousands of Americans would ignore the treaty between the United States and Britain. They streamed into the Fraser Valley, in what is now British Columbia, during the Gold Rush of 1858. Shanty towns and saloons sprang up and American flags fluttered everywhere.

Digging for gold
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

An American journalist reported that "the entire population of San Francisco -- merchants, capitalists, businessmen of all descriptions as well as the ever-present gamblers -- were alike seized by the insane desire to sell out their businesses, their homes and any other property for any sum that would bring them and their outfit to the golden banks of the Fraser." The Hudson's Bay Company, represented by James Douglas was the only form of law enforcement on or near the Fraser River.

JAMES DOUGLAS, Hudson's Bay Company: I spoke with great plainness to the white miners. They were nearly all foreigners. I refused to grant them any rights to occupation of the soil. I told them distinctly that Her Majesty's Government ignored their very existence.

ROBERT MacNEIL: American public opinion was incensed. The British Government moved quickly to exert sovereignty over this now valuable land. The territories on Vancouver Island and the west coast overseen by the Hudson's Bay Company were transformed into a crown colony. Queen Victoria herself was asked for an appropriate name for the territory and came up with "British Columbia." The west coast was now firmly anchored to the Empire.

In 1867, British colonies of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia merged to form a new British dominion called Canada. But Rupert's Land, the territory initially granted to the Hudson's Bay Company by King Charles II still remained in the control of the company. Rupert's Land covered a significant part of modern Quebec and Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Rupert's LandRupert's Land had not gone unnoticed by American expansionists. "The British prairies had now become part of the American Horizon," wrote one journalist of the time. In 1868, the United States Senate passed a resolution offering $6 million for the territorial rights of the Hudson's Bay Company. However no further action was taken.

Within Rupert's Land, at the site of present day Winnipeg, lay a settlement called Red River, made up of Scottish settlers, some former trappers, and the Métis, the descendants of mixed race marriages between the British and French, and the native population. The Métis depended on buffalo hunting for their livelihood.

Although the settlement had been growing for more than half a century, Red River had never established a government. It existed on Hudson's Bay Company land, and therefore fell outside the jurisdiction of the British colonies.

In 1869, the new government of Canada pressured The Hudson's Bay Company to relinquish Rupert's land to the dominion, in return for a great deal of land and a large cash settlement. But when a team of Canadian government surveyors arrived in Red River, they encountered a firestorm. Afraid of losing their land and their homes, to which they had no official title, the Métis had organized a militia under the command of Louis Riel.

Louis Riel
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

LOUIS RIEL, Militia organizer: Only through the press did we learn that the Dominion of Canada had organized a Government for our country, as if it had jurisdiction over us, that we were to have no voice in that government.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In November 1869, the Métis seized the Hudson's Bay Company Headquarters at Old Fort Garry and set up a provisional government. Their demands included representation in the Canadian Parliament, official recognition of the French language and economic security for the Métis people.

The Canadian government, which had not yet taken possession of the territory, held the Hudson's Bay Company responsible for maintaining the peace at Red River.

Meanwhile, the American Civil War had just ended. Some of the Red River settlement's American neighbors were well aware of the uprising. They included Minnesota Senator, Alexander Ramsey.

ALEXANDER RAMSEY, U.S. Senator from Minnesota: Is there no other alternative for the people of northwest British America than to be cajoled or dragooned into this unnatural union with distant Canada?

ROBERT MacNEIL: Zachariah Chandler, a Senator from Michigan, proposed that the entire Red River area be annexed to the United States. An American agent in Red River, Oscar Malmros, pushed for the consolidation of all of Western Canada with the United States.

Child Canada taking her first steps
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

OSCAR MALMROS, American agent: One Flag! One Empire! Therein lies the future of the American Continent. This, my friends, is a vision of a grand consolidation of peoples and interests, such as can be paralleled nowhere else among all the kingdoms of the earth.

ROBERT BOTHWELL: The American annexationist threat is both real and unreal. It's real because how did the United States take over most of North America? Not necessarily by violence but by settlement. You know, Americans would move into an area, they would populate it, they would establish their homes and economy, all the rest of it, and then they would ask for the arrival of American institutions which after all were what they were used to. So that was the way the United States expanded, not really by aggression in the first instance, the troops might follow, but they wouldn't actually be the first on the ground, and that's what the question is in Red River. You know, will the Americans be able to establish links of people and links of railroads and telegraphs and so on that will tie Red River to the United States before it can be tied by settlement or by economics to Canada. It was a race.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Just as a peaceful settlement appeared to ending the rebellion, the Red River blew up again. The Métis leader of the provisional government, Louis Riel, called for the execution of an Ontario Irish Protestant, Thomas Scott, who was implicated in the murder of a Métis. On March 4, 1870, Scott was executed by a firing squad of Métis.

ROBERT MacNEIL: To Protestant English-speaking opinion in Ontario, he became a martyr. The newspapers screamed: Riel was a rebel, a murderer, a madman. Even worse - he was French and Catholic.

The Canadian government sent in troops to restore the peace. Riel was banished into exile, with the help of the Hudson's Bay Company. He fled to Montana but remained alive in the consciousness of the followers he left behind in the Red River.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Meanwhile, work was afoot to build a railroad across Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railway was the national dream. It was the ribbon of steel that would bind the country together, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. The railroad was an immense undertaking: although it would serve a population of only just over 4 million, it was built to span a vast continent, almost five thousand miles of track. The muskeg and rock of the Canadian Shield and the mountains further west thwarted construction at every mile.

As they raced to push the railway west - laying up to a miraculous 4 miles of track a day - the buffalo herds disappeared. Starvation and scurvy decimated the native population of the western prairies. - A Manitoba Free Press reporter.

REPORTER: The bodies of the dead were strung up in trees as is the Indian custom. Spring found some fifty or more ghastly corpses dangling from limbs of trees surrounding the teepees of the remaining members of the band. Warm weather increased the number of deaths alarmingly. Each day increases the toll.

ROBERT MacNEIL: The railroad brought with it an influx of new settlers into the Canadian West, including the area around Red River. The Métis, fearing that their land, and their livelihood would disappear on account of the railroad, petitioned the government for help. Although some accommodations were made, the Métis did not receive the attention that they had hoped for. A delegation set off for Montana to find their former leader, Louis Riel.

In 1884, fourteen years after his exile, Riel returned from the United States. He attempted to negotiate with the Canadian government, but was unsuccessful. He began to organize another rebellion.

On March 26, 1885, an armed group of Métis stumbled into a battle with a volunteer force and a detachment of North West Mounted Police at a place called Duck Lake. Twelve policemen and volunteers were killed and eleven wounded. Five Métis died.

Violence spread. Local Hudson's Bay Company posts were looted and burned. The northwest Rebellion threatened to engulf the whole west. Troops were sent out once again, this time on the railroad.

Two months later, a four-day battle ended in total defeat for the Métis. Their military leader, Gabriel Dumont, fled to the United States, eventually joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Louis Riel, tired of running and exile, surrendered. Riel was found guilty of treason at a trial at which Judge Hugh Richardson presided.

Louis Riel
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

JUDGE HUGH RICHARDSON: It is now my painful duty to pass the sentence of the court upon you . . . that you be taken and . . . be hanged by the neck till you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul.

ROBERT MacNEIL: While Louis Riel was still awaiting his sentence, on November 7, 1885, a grand ceremony was held at Eagle Pass, deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The two lines of the Canadian Pacific Railway, one coming east from Vancouver and the other coming west from Montreal were joined together, sixteen years after the American transcontinental railroad was completed.

Donald Smith -- the Hudson's Bay Company man who sixteen years earlier had handed over Rupert's Land to Canada -- stepped forward to drive home the final spike. Nine days later, Louis Riel wrote a last letter to his wife.

LOUIS RIEL: Dearly beloved Marguerite, I am writing to you early in the morning. It's scarcely 1:00 A.M. It is a remarkable day. I send you my best wishes. Take good care of your little children. Your children belong more to God than to you. Take heart. Sometimes life appears sad, but the times which seem the saddest are sometimes those which are the most agreeable to God. I am yours, Louis "David" Riel, your husband, who loves you in our Saviour.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In the morning, the sheriff came for Louis Riel.

The fur trade had been North America's first transcontinental enterprise. But by 1885, the year the trans-Canadian railroad was completed, the fur trade was already in decline. The once popular beaver hat was no longer fashionable. Different furs from other parts of the world had taken over the market.

Hudson's Bay Company land sales
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

The Hudson's Bay Company was forced to change its corporate practices and to find new lines of business. Traders were stripped of their participation in the profits, ending what had been a unique corporate arrangement in its time. The company now moved into land sales, parceling out the huge tracts of Western real estate that it had received when it ceded Rupert's Land to Canada.

The farmers who bought their land formed a new captive market. From land sales, the company turned to retail, supplying merchandise to the new settlers. The Hudson's Bay Company opened trading posts across the west, which eventually evolved into more sophisticated retail outlets, such as the Vancouver store, which opened in 1887.

After 1900, as millions of immigrants from Europe arrived on the prairies, the shops became urban department stores. The Hudson's Bay Company had found a way to retain a place for itself in modern Canada -- a nation that it had helped to create.

York FactoryToday, the Hudson's Bay Company is the oldest continuous commercial enterprise still in existence anywhere in the world. For the greater part of three and a half centuries, York Factory remained its headquarters and chief base of operations in North America. Its doors would finally close in 1957. Now, this great building is little more than a haunted memorial, to the fur trade and to a great empire that began here.



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