The Fur Trade
Two centuries before Confederation a pair of resourceful Frenchmen named Radisson and des Groseilliers discovered a wealth of fur in the interior of the continent north and west of the Great Lakes accessible via the great inland sea that is Hudson Bay. Despite their success French and American interests would not back them. It took the vision and connections of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, to acquire the Royal Charter which, in May, 1670 granted the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.
Its first century of operation found Hbc firmly ensconced in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays. Natives brought furs annually to these locations to barter for manufactured goods such as knives, kettles, beads, needles, and blankets. By the late 18th c. competition forced Hbc to expand into the interior. A string of posts grew up along the great river networks of the west foreshadowing the modern cities that would succeed them: Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton.
In 1821 Hbc merged with its most successful rival, the North West Company based in Montreal. The resulting commercial enterprise now spanned the continent all the way to the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut). The merger also set the pattern of the Companys growth, being the first of a series of notable acquisitions.
The Rise of Retail
By the end of the 19th c. changing fashion tastes contributed to the fur trade losing importance. Western settlement and the Gold Rush quickly introduced a new type of client to Hbc one that shopped with cash and not with skins. With the Deed of Surrender in 1869 between Hbc and Canada, the Company yielded sovereignty over its traditional territories to the new country. The retail era had begun. The Companys focus shifted as it concentrated on transforming trading posts into saleshops, stocked with a wider variety of goods than ever before.
In 1912, following advice from one of its directors who was with Harrods department store in London, Hbc began an aggressive modernization program. The resulting original six Hudsons Bay Company department stores, in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, are the living legacy of this period.
The growth of retail spurred Hbc into a wide variety of commercial pursuits. Liquor, canned salmon, coffee, tea and tobacco were all lines that supplemented traditional fur and retail and helped to establish a thriving wholesale business. Large holdings of land negotiated as part of the Deed of Surrender took the company into real estate. The sale of homesteads to newly-arrived settlers would later evolve into a full-scale interest in commercial property holdings and development. Shipping and natural resources, particularly oil and gas, were other important sidelines.
Focus on Retail
The economic downturn of the 1980s caused Hbc to rethink its priorities and, like many other firms, return to its core business. Non-retail businesses were sold off. The pace of retail acquisition increased with takeovers of Zellers (1978), Simpsons (1978), Fields (1978), Robinsons (1979), Towers/Bonimart (1990), Woodwards (1994), and K-Mart Canada (1998) following in the tradition of Cairns (1921), Morgans (1960) and Freimans (1971).
The 21st century finds Hbc well into its fourth century of retailing in Canada. The Hbc Family of Stores the Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters and Shop.Hbc.com together provide more than two-thirds of the retail needs of Canadians. Proof positive, if any were needed, of the aptness of Hbcs proud claim:
Canadas Merchants Since 1670
Visit our history website for more information.