Early Trading Relations with the Hudson Bay Company

Sir George Simpson Receiving a Deputation of Indians in York Factory. Not an image of Fort Churchill but reflective of trade with First Nations.

The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established a post at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1717. This site was selected because the HBC had known Jens Munk to winter there in 1619 when they went in search of the Northwest Passage. It was understood that Inuit had a camp at this site and frequently came to the Churchill to hunt whales. Chipewyan Indians also reported being ambushed by Inuit who came into this area. The purpose of the post was to engage Inuit in order to discover the source of native copper (a task that Samuel Hearne was given in 1771) and to discover the Northwest Passage. It was felt that in order to be successful in both these endeavours, information from the Inuit would be necessary. However, Inuit did not come to the post, perhaps because they feared the Chipewyan Indians (the “Home” Indians of the HBC) and also the Cree. Home Indians were those who stayed at the post in order to hunt and provide for the HBC staff and the Cree came in regularly to trade. Neither group was eager for Inuit to build a relationship with the HBC.

As a result, the HBC decided to send trading sloops north along the Hudson Bay coast to initiate trade with Inuit. Between 1718-1722, six trading ships were sent up the coast. The Inuit that were encountered, seemed quite indifferent to trade with the Europeans. When they encountered the ships, groups of Inuit traded whale oil and walrus ivory for metal knives and cutting tools. They traded from what they had in surplus and did not seek out the trade ships as was expected. As a result the trade ships stopped making these voyages until they resumed again in 1739 when the HBC interest in finding the Northwest Passage was reawakened.

Between 1730-1744, four HBC ships were sent up the coast from Churchill. They traded oil, blubber, baleen and ivory mostly for knives, awls, ice chisels and glass beads. Some years they did not come to their coastal camps. Most of the Caribou Inuit spent time up the several river systems harvesting caribou and fish. They were self-sufficient and well provided for. Their general disinterest in trade caused the ships to stop coming again between 1744-1750. In 1750, the encounters with Inuit along the coast were very different from previous years. In this year, large numbers of Inuit met the ship along the coast, but all encounters were very aggressive, with Inuit threatening the sailors and threatening to board the ship.

The groups of Inuit that were encountered numbered between 100-300 in each of the stops at Knapp’s Bay, Dawson Inlet and Whale Cove. All were aggressive which indicated that Inuit had communicated between their camps and organized an opposition to the HBC ships. In 1753, trade with Inuit was friendly. The unfriendly events of 1750 have never been fully understood. However, in 1755 a massacre occurred at Knapp’s Bay when Chipewyan Indians attacked the Inuit who had traded with the ship, killing the entire camp. A truce eventually marked a new era of peace in 1762. It might be that Inuit hostility to trade was in fear of the possible repercussions from Indians in the area.

After this time, HBC traders began to invite young Inuit boys to go to Churchill in order to learn English and to teach the traders Inuktitut. This training was supported by Inuit families who saw this as an opportunity for their children to learn about firearms and to bring this knowledge back to their camps. This was critical both for protection from the Indians who had been armed by the HBC years earlier, but also because the Indian groups were harvesting large quantities of caribou. The gun (flint-lock muskets) made this critical hunt much more efficient and Inuit saw this as the single most important factor that could contribute to improving their survival rates. Trade for firearms and ammunition became a motivating factor for Inuit to seek out contact with traders. By 1800 almost every Inuk family possessed a gun.

James Knight

James Knight was born in England. He joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a carpenter, but his suitability to the HBC soon saw him promoted to Chief Factor in 1682 of the Fort Albany post on James Bay.

Knight was given the job of rebuilding the company after the many years of war between England and France. During this time, the HBC had lost four of its five trading posts to the French. The company was in debt and its prospects in the new world were not very favourable.

In 1714 Knight reclaimed York Fort from the French and began to rebuild and turn the Fort back into a prosperous trade centre.

During this time, Knght encountered Thandahar, a Chipewyan interpreter who told him stories of a water route to the north that had rich mineral resources (Coppermine River). Knight was convinced that this was the Northwest Passage and he set about to convince the HBC directors in England to allow him to search for this new route.

In 1719 Knight and his crew set sail along the western coast of Hudson Bay in search of the Northwest Passage. They had two ships, Albany and Discovery. They only made it as far as Marble Island when a storm forced them onto shore. They mistakenly entered the wrong harbour and were trapped by the tides. All the crew perished. A search party was never sent to find them and the shipwreck was not found until 48 years later. This is an indication of how the HBC felt about exploration. They were interested in trade with a good profit margin. Exploration was costly and did not guarantee returns.

Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne was born in England. He joined the navy when he was only 12. In 1766, he joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a ship's crewman. He spent winters at the trading post Fort Prince of Wales on Hudson Bay were he became familiar with the “Homeguard Indians” and their hunting and traveling techniques.

Hearne’s skills in this area were put to use in 1769 when he was put in charge an expedition to the Coppermine River. He made several starts on this jouney, but was abandoned by his First nation guides and left to return on his own. Matonabbee, a leader of the Chipewyans who hd worked for the HBC for many years finally served as his guide to the Coppermine River in 1771. It was during this expedition that Hearne’s party ambushed and massacred a group of Inuit and at Bloody Falls.

Although Hearne never discovered the copper that First Nations and Inuit harvested in this area, his expedition took him further north than any other European and provide maps of an unknown area.

Hearne continued to work for the HBC and in1774 he opened Cumberland House, the first HBC inland trading post, which marked the beginning of a new era in trade. He retired in 1787 and returned to England.

John Rae

At the age of 20, John Rae joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a physician aboard one o the HBC ships. On his first voyage, the ship never reached home and was forced to winter near Moose Bay. Rae spent an important winter time exploring his wilderness environment and trying to keep the crew alive in the face of scurvy. He was offered and accepted a job to stay on as surgeon and clerk.

In 1837-9 Dease and Simpson had started to chart the Arctic coast but had not been able to establish if Boothia was a peninsula or island. In 1843, Sir George Simpson asked Rae to complete this survey. It was believed that this was the key to the Northwest Passage.

Rae’s first Arctic expedition to survey and map this stretch of coast was very significant. Rae prepared himself by snowshoeing 700 miles back to Moose Factory and to learn how to use a sextant and the techniques of surveying. In June 1846 he left from York Factory with 10 men and two boats. He traveled to Repulse Bay across from what became known as the Rae Isthmus into Committee Bay. Here he surveyed the entire coast into the southern part of the Gulf of Boothia. He discovered that Boothia was a peninsula and not an island eliminating this as a possible Northwest Passage.

Initially, Rae had built a stone house, but soon discovered that the iglu the Inuit constructed was warmer and more convenient. During this expedition, Rae studies the winter hunting, traveling and survival techniques of Inuit, adapted Inuit clothing and learner the skills which would lead him to become one of the most successful Arctic explorers.

Later, in 1848, Rae was asked to lead a search expedition with John Richardson to look for Franklin survivors. Rae made five separate trips to map and search new areas of the Arctic coastline. In March 1854, Rae’s went back to the Boothia Peninsula to complete the survey of the northern coast and identified that King William Land was an island and that what has become known as Rae Strait was the last stretch of waterway to connect a Northwest Passage.

During this trip, Rae the fate of the Franklin expedition discovered from Inuit hunters. He obtained several artifacts including silver cutlery, buttons and a gold hat band from the Inuit that were clear evidence that Franklin’s expedition had perished in this area.

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