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THE DIFFICULTIES OF THE HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY'S PENETRATION OF THE WEST TWO hundred years ago Joseph Robson accused the Hudson's Bay Company of "sleeping at the edge of a frozen sea,"x to the neglectof vague but glowing opportunitiesfurther afield, and his biting phrase has becomeone of the standing clich•s of Canadian history. It is matched by the generally accepted doctrine which Chester Martin expressedperhaps as concisely as anybody when he wrote "in the conflict between the River [St. Lawrence] and the Bay almost every natural advantage for the fur trade was found on the side of the Hudson's Bay route."• There is often truth in a widely acceptedopinion, and this one is true to the extent that the river routes from the Bay to the fur country were far shorter than those from Montreal. Of these shorter routes the Hudson's Bay Company long failed to make effective use, as Robson complained; it attempted no inland settlements in the best fur country till it was forestailed there by traders who had come all the way from Montreal, and, in spite of its apparent advantages, had lost its monopolyof the fur trade. And why did it thus to outward appearance sleep beside the frozen sea? The explanation most often implied is (to put it in its very crudest and thereforeclearestform) that its servants were Englishmen and, being English, lacked energy, drive, courage,and every othervirtue demandedby the fur trade. But even if some of the most successful Pedlars from Montreal had not also been English, the attempt to explain the triumphs of the Company's rivals on "racial" grounds should commend itself to no intelligent person. In fact the Company's troubles are explained by difficulties of transport which did not affect the men from Montreal and are often overlookedtoday. So far from "almost every natural advantage for the fur trade" lying on the side of Hudson Bay rather than the St. Lawrence, the River, on the contrary, providedeverything that was wanted for reachingthe fur country, the Bay nothing. The things required were three---canoes,men, and skill in inland navigation. In the forestsby the St. Lawrence the splendidwhite birch, whosebark was essential for canoes, abounded; on the shoresof the Bay it •J. Robson,An Accountof Six YearsResidence in I-Iudson'sBay, (London, 1759), 6. •C. Martin, Simpsoh'sAthabasca Journal (Toronto, 19138), xvii. 24O THE DIFFICULTIES OF THE HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY 241 did not grow.a On the banksof the St. Lawrencelived an already large white population, who had been bred up to all the arts of canoemanship,and whose surplus manpower gladly enlisted in the fur trade. In dreary contrast to the teeming Frenchmen by the River, the Bay's solewhite inhabitants werethe impermanent and quasi-monasticservantsof the Hudson'sBay Company, numbering barely 200 all told, by Andrew Graham's censusof 1771,4 and scattered among half a dozen widely-dispersed forts where all were fully employed. They mostly came from the Orkney Isles, and were not an effeminatecrew, but they had no knowledge of canoesand on the rapids of Canadian rivers were as uselessas the Quebechabitant would have been in an open boat among the wild tides and gales of the northern seaswhere the Orkney fisherman won his living. Nor, as will be seen, couldeven theseunskilledEuropeansbe recruitedin the numbers required when the Company had most need of them. Lackingmen, skill in canoemanship, and eventhe raw material of which to make canoes,the Company's servants at the Bay faced heavy disadvantagesindeed; how they struggledto overcome them is our subject here. Canoeswere the first need. In 1778 the Company's London committeemen knew the resources of the Northland better, perhaps, than some recent Canadian writers and were perfectly aware of the impossibility of producing canoesat York. When they sent Samuel Hearne inland in 1774, they accordingly instructed him to procure as many birchrind canoesas possible in the interior where birchesgrew;*and if the spectacleof traders on the coast, with goodsto move inland, seekingtransport at their destination rather than their base smacksof putting the cart beforethe horse,it was still the only way the botany of the North permitted the craft to be obtained...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-1093
Print ISSN
0008-3755
Pages
pp. 240-254
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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