Cover Story

From fur traders to take-over kings

Warren Gerard December 25 1978
Cover Story

From fur traders to take-over kings

Warren Gerard December 25 1978

From fur traders to take-over kings

In 1611 Henry Hudson, his young son John, five men with scurvy and a loyal ship’s carpenter were cast off the Discovery in a small open boat into the freezing waters of James Bay, never to be seen again. Victims of a mutiny, Hudson and the rest died unaware of his accomplishment. It took others, and through them the founders of the Hudson's Bay Co., to reveal the value of the English navigator’s discovery for the fur trade. He had found the northern forest, the richest beaver domicile in the world, a fur trader’s El Dorado.

The Hudson’s Bay Co. (the common designation of “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay”) was incorporated in 1670 and received a grant of a “plantation or colony" to be called Rupert’s Land in honor of Prince Rupert, first governor of the company. The grant covered Hudson Strait and the drainage basins of Hudson and James bays, and as far east as Ungava, south to the Red River Valley and west to the valleys of the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan River, some 1,486,000 square miles, 38.7 per cent of Canada’s present area.

The Bay’s early history paralleled frontier Canada. The company negotiated its

way through Indian wars and survived decades of British battles with France, suffering the loss of forts, trading posts, ships and men. In 1821, the Bay took over the North West Co., made up of Montreal merchants and hardy wilderness men, flourishing as never before. Over the next few decades both public sympathy and political support for monopoly lessened and in 1870 the Bay sold Rupert’s Land to Canada for £300,000, retaining a claim to seven million acres of land.

While fur continued as the backbone of the Bay’s business, â land department was created, a wholesale operation became a new distributing unit, a chain of large retail stores was built and cities grew around old trading posts. During the First World War the company was the shipping agent for the French government and the rest of the 20th century has seen diversification of interests into oil and gas companies, including Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas Co. Ltd.

Today, traditional trade in wild fur is less than three per cent of the company’s business, replaced by merchandise sales in the more than 250 urban and northern stores from Newfoundland to the Yukon. Since Donald McGiverin became president in 1972, 31 new stores have been opened, the company has entered the catalogue stores business under the name Shop-Rite with 63 stores in Ontario, and gained control of the Zeller’s Ltd. chain of stores. Now, McGiverin and the Bay want to add Simpsons, Ltd. to its historic shelf. It’s a long way from Henry Hudson.

Warren Gerard