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Hearne Builds Cumberland House

For the week of Monday May 24, 1999

On May 29, 1775, Samuel Hearne left Cumberland House, the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) earliest inland trading post, with its first shipment of fur-trade goods. Hearne established the post on the Saskatchewan and Churchill river systems to tap into the furs available in the region. Cumberland House remains the oldest settlement in Saskatchewan.

Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne
© LAC / C-20053

Since 1670, the British HBC possessed a vast area of land extending out from Hudson Bay. Ships carried furs to England and brought back supplies to trade with the native inhabitants. As the HBC monopolized the area, it expected the First Nations peoples to bring their furs to the Company posts near the Bay, thus avoiding sending staff inland.

The HBC had chosen British-born Hearne to head a challenging survey of the Bay's interior in order to advertise the Company to distant trading people. More important, the HBC sought a North West passage to Asia, as well as rich copper mines. On Hearne's first two expeditions, his First Nations guides robbed and deserted him. On his third attempt, Hearne took the respected First Nation leader, Matonabbee, as a guide. They traveled endless barren lands, and survived snowstorms, food shortages and an Inuit massacre. Hearne lost his toenails from frostbite. Although no North West passage nor mines were found, Hearne became the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean overland.

Explorations of Samuel Hearne

Explorations of Samuel Hearne
© Canadian Encyclopedia
McLelland & Stewart Publishing

Hearne was then asked to establish the HBC's first interior post, Cumberland House. There, the HBC could compete with the Montréal-based pedlars who had begun spreading westward in the 1760s, cutting the HBC's profits by trading directly with the Aboriginal peoples of the interior. Many other HBC inland posts followed, allowing the HBC to respond to the growing North West Company (which comprised many of the former Montréal pedlars). The two companies merged in 1821.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized Cumberland House as the HBC's first inland trading post, and Samuel Hearne was designated as its founder. Hearne's discovery of the Coppermine River, and his later governorship of the HBC Fort Prince of Wales are also recognized.

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