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The Fight for Fur!

For the week of Monday March 21, 2011

On March 23, 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), headquartered in London, England, and the North-West Company (NWC) based out of Montréal, Quebec, merged under the banner of the HBC. This union created a monopoly over the fur trade for the “new” HBC and ended decades of fierce and bloody competition for control over Canada’s first major export.

HBC coat of arms, ca. 1821. Pro Pelle Cutem is latin for “A skin for a skin.”
© The Hudson's Bay Company coat of arms is a registered trade-mark, and reproduced with the permission of Hudson's Bay Company. Image courtesy of Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba.
First established in 1670, the HBC originally operated out of trade posts located on the edge of Hudson’s Bay. Aboriginal traders, who supplied the furs, had to travel great distances in order to reach these posts. Following the fall of New France in 1763, the enterprising NWC began using and expanding old French inland trade routes, thus minimizing the distance many traders had to travel. With its business operations threatened, the HBC developed its network inland setting off a trade post building competition between the two companies. Consequently, vast territories were explored, many new partnerships with Aboriginal traders were forged, and new economic opportunities were created for many Aboriginal people.

For their part, Aboriginal traders were keenly aware of the vital importance they played in the supply chain and often did business with whom ever offered them the best price. In order to maintain their supply, both companies showered Aboriginal traders with gifts and in return, they hunted and trapped an astonishing number of fur-bearing animals to meet the companies’ demand. As the fur trade flourished, many Aboriginal people became accustomed to the use of European trade goods. 

Coat of arms of NWC's leading wintering partner, William McGillivray, ca. 1820. The word at the top reads “Perseverance.”
© Library and Archives Canada / C-008711

The fight for resources however, turned the employees of each company into bitter enemies. They even fought a bloody skirmish in 1816, known as the Battle of Seven Oaks. This economic warfare pitted an imperial corporation (HBC) against a colonial company (NWC). As long as it continued, Aboriginal traders prospered. To avoid further conflict, the two companies merged in 1821. The new company extended its monopoly over vast parts of British North America for a period of 21 years. Economic harmony was achieved, but, facing diminished competition for their wares, the cost to Aboriginals was high.

The Fur Trade was designated a National Historic Event in 1968. An important part of Canadian history, many people, sites, and events related to it have also been recognized this way. For a complete list please consult the Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance of Canada on the Parks Canada website. The Battle of Seven Oaks was designated a National Historic Site in 1920. 

For more information on the Fur Trade and the rivalry between the HBC and the NWC, read these archived This Week in History stories: Prince Rupert Heads New Fur Trading Company and The Battle of Seven Oaks. See also the web pages of the following National Historic Sites: Athabasca Pass, Fort Langely, Fort Pelly, Fort St. James, Kootenae House, Lower Fort Garry, Prince of Wales Fort, Rocky Mountain House, The Fur Trade at Lachine, and York Factory.

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