Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of the Hudson Bay Company

After Henry Hudson, many English explorers sailed for Hudson's Bay seeking the North-West Passage. They suffered much and learned little. Then, as if weary with the cruel struggle with ice and snow, these bold adventurers ceased their voyages for a time, and not for forty years did a British ship steer its way among the icebergs of the great inland sea. Then again adventurers sailed to the Far North. But this time they came not to explore, but to trade.

Prince Rupert, the dashing cousin of King Charles II., helped to fit out the expedition, and himself became the governor of the new land which was now claimed by the British. And this land was called after him Prince Rupert Land.

The adventurers received a charter or writing from King Charles, giving them leave to trade and found colonies wherever they would around the shores of Hudson Bay. The company was called the "Honourable Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay," and later it became famous as the Hudson Bay Company.

Soon a British fort was built upon the barren shore, and the red flag of St. George fluttered out in the lonely waste. But the French were ill pleased that any man should set foot in the land they wished to own. So the next year the French king sent a gentleman named De Lusson to take possession of the great North-West. This gentleman did not trouble to go to the North-West, but upon a hill at the Saulte St. Marie, where the three great lakes meet, he held a solemn ceremony.

Here many tribes of Indians were gathered together hideous with paint of various colours, bedecked with feathers and wampum. They were feasted, they danced and played games and smoked the pipe of peace. And at last one sunny day in June they climbed the hill, and upon the top, with much pomp and little understanding what it meant, set their names to a paper. In this paper the great White King claimed the whole of North America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the coast of Labrador as far west as land might be, for then the west was but a pathless wilderness, no man knowing how far it might reach.

It was a wild and strange scene. Gay Frenchmen in bright uniforms, priests in rich robes, half-naked savages gaudy in paint and feathers, all were there. When the paper was signed, a great cross blessed by the priests was raised, and planted near it was a post carved with the lilies of France. Then kneeling around the cross with bowed bare heads, the Frenchmen sang a Latin hymn—

"The banners of Heaven's King advance;

The mystery of the Cross shines forth."

Prayers were said. Then with drawn sword in one hand, and a sod of earth in the other, De Lusson claimed all the countries, rivers, and streams, both those which were discovered and those which at any time might be discovered, for his most Christian Majesty, the King of France. And as he ceased, the silence was broken, the air rang with cries of God save the King, mingled with the roar of gunshot and the savage yells of Indians.

A priest then spoke to the Red Men. He told them that powerful though their chiefs might be, they were as nought to the great White King, whose riches were untold, who walked in the blood of his enemies, and who had slain so many in battle that no man might number them. This he told them to strike awe into their hearts, and greatly marvelling at the power of this fearful unknown white lord, the Red Men scattered to their homes again, uttering wild yells or grunting hoarsely as they went.

So once more France and Britain clashed, and France claimed what Britain had taken. Still for some years the Company built forts, traded with the Indians, and grew rich, undisturbed by the French. Then the French too formed a fur-trading company called the Company of the North, and trouble began. Again and again the British forts were attacked and destroyed. Again and again with dogged courage the British returned to them, and rebuilt them.

Even when they were not fighting, the French did all they could to prevent the Red Men trading with the British. But the Red Men soon found out that the British gave them more in exchange for their furs than the French, and so, of course, were glad to trade with them.

Nowadays, if we wish to buy anything, we must give money for it. But to a savage, money is of no use, for he has no shops to which he may go to buy things. So in exchange for furs the traders gave the Redskins tobacco, guns, beads, hatchets, gay clothes, and blankets. During the winter the savages would hunt and trap the wild animals and gather great stores of skins, then when spring came, and the frozen rivers melted, they would load their bark canoes and paddle away to the Company's forts. They had often to travel hundreds of miles, and the journey was full of difficulties and dangers. In those days, through the wilderness of the Far North, there were no roads at all. The rivers and lakes were the only highways. But upon the rivers there were rapids where the waters rushed in white foam over the river bed. So clever were the Indians in managing their canoes that sometimes they could shoot these rapids, that is row over them. But at other times, when the rapids were more dangerous, they would land, unload their canoes, and carry them and their goods along the river banks, and launch again in the smooth water below the rapids. This was called making a portage. Portage comes from the French word porter, to carry. Sometimes, too, when a river no longer flowed in the direction in which the traveller wished to go, he would unload and carry his canoe over the portage to another river which did flow in the right direction, and there launch anew. Sometimes a portage might only be a few yards, sometimes it was several miles.

Often the difficulties of travelling were so great that the Indians, worn with hunger and fatigue, became too weak to carry their loads. Then, before they reached the trading fort, they would throw away many of the skins which they had gathered with such skill and care during the winter months, thus losing the reward they had hoped to gain for their labour.

But the fort at last reached, all difficulties and dangers of the journey were forgotten. With shouts and firing of guns the Indians landed. Leaving the women to unload the canoes and do the other hard work, the chiefs marched to the fort. There they were received by the white men, and sat in state, while pipes were passed round the circle. Then followed days of drinking and feasting, sometimes of fighting too. For the Redskin, alas! loved the "fire water" of the white man, and when the heat of it warmed his blood, he cared not what he did.

At length came the great day. Dressed in a red coat trimmed with cheap lace, brave in many coloured stockings and feathered hat, the chief and his warriors gathered to smoke the pipe of peace. Its long stem was decorated with bears' and eagles' claws, and bright with feathers, and as it passed around the circle each took a whiff. Then when the tobacco burned low in the bowl, speech began. With much flowery talk, and many flowing words, the furs were exchanged for tobacco and guns. It was a long business, but at length the barter was done. Then the Redskins paddled away again, once more leaving the fort to its wonted stillness, and the traders to pack and store the furs ready to be sent off when the next ship from home should arrive.

Such were the beginnings of the great company which for a time ruled a large territory, and which still exists to this day. It was no easy or safe life, for the French looked upon the whole land as their own. Again and again they attacked the company's posts and swept them away. Again and again the British returned, strengthened their outposts, and pushed their conquests farther and farther into the wilds. At last they gained such a firm footing that neither the rage of the Frenchmen, nor the wiles of the Indian, could dislodge them.

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