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  • Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives
  • George Colpitts (bio)
Deidre Simmons . Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives. McGill-Queen's University Press. xvi, 360. $80.00

Deirdre Simmons's Keepers of the Record sheds light on the history of the Hudson's Bay Company's nearly three thousand linear metres of archival holdings that span some three hundred years. She provides 'an account of how the Company kept its records' and an engaging 'history of the people who were responsible for making and keeping those records.' A convergence of business practices at the time of the company's founding in 1670 and support for 'intellectual and experimental endeavours' in the England of Charles II helped begin the company's long tradition in detailed record-keeping. But so did the company's reliance on precarious charter rights and its vulnerability to foreign and domestic merchant competition. Almost from its beginning, London committees insisted that employees keep records that could defend their shareholders' rights in court or help the business compete against commercial interlopers in North America. But Simmons's history, too, presents the company's 'voluntary' actions that fortuitously prompted its staff to squirrel away many of its now cherished vellum books, account ledgers, and letters sent between Hudson Bay and London that might otherwise have been trashed. Simmons's accounting, then, highlights both the context and the personalities of importance. They range from the overworked bayside scriveners to the imposing directors, all of whom contributed to the remarkable 'provenance and original order' of the company record. Noteworthy individuals include the late-eighteenth-century governor Samuel Wegg, whose pushing of the company's affairs inland from Hudson Bay necessitated careful mapping and new orders of record-keeping; Andrew Wedderburn, the committeeman reforming business and accounting practices in the critical years of competition; and, of course, George Simpson, whose dominance over the company coincided with its nineteenth-century trade monopoly over a vast extent of North America. Simmons has well-managed the difficult task of assembling this history. She traces largely forgotten paper trails that in some cases [End Page 565] take on a life of their own. These include the interplay of interests joining Radisson and Des Grosseillier with the company's first shareholders. There were the intrigues of Arthur Dobbs, who, in his bid to undermine the company's monopoly in the mid-eighteenth century, seems to have thieved some of the company's critical documents, including the important Kelsey papers. Most welcome above all, however, are Simmons's histories of secretaries, warehousemen, and clerks, many the 'blue-coats' drawn from charity schools, whether Christ's Hospital or the Grey Coat School, who found service in North America. Even there, the quality of their accounting and 'flourish' of their handwriting did not escape the scrutiny of the London Committee. Simmons then follows the history beyond the Transfer of Rupert's Land in 1870 and the new shuffle of papers in an era of land sales and shopkeeping within the new dominion. There is a consistent theme connecting the fur trade and modern eras: inevitably, tension mounted as the company's secretive record-keeping traditions ended up preserving documents of ever-greater historical value. In the 1920s, directors nearing their company's 250th anniversary became more conscious of the importance of its records to Canada and its historians. Steps were taken in the interwar period to formally establish a company archive with better organized documents, and, in 1938, make more accessible some of the journals and correspondence in publications of the Hudson's Bay Record Society. In 1950, the company supported the ambitious project to microfilm many pre-1870 records, a boon to Canadian researchers. Finally, momentum growing in the late 1960s to move the company's archives to Canada led to talks between the company and the British and Canadian governments. Eventually, the move took place in 1974, when six twenty-ton containers were dispatched from England - the records divided up between two ships as a safeguard in the event of shipwreck. Their placement in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is rightfully underlined for its importance in...


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