By Guy Fairbank in Guy the London Guide, History | 12th May 2020
In the mid 1600s two Frenchmen, the grandly named Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers (1618-1696) and his brother-in-law Pierre Ésprit Radisson (c. 1640-1710), were exploring the vast interior of what is now northern Canada. Working their way inland via the many rivers that flow into Hudson Bay, they came across a wealth of fur, in particular on a rodent with a large paddle-shaped tail and prominent teeth. “Ideal for coats,” they reported, and went to find a backer. Their fellow countrymen in Québec and France showed little interest but the English settlers were far more receptive.
The two intrepid trappers travelled to England and managed to gain an audience with the king, Charles II. He agreed to finance an expedition into the area north of Lake Superior to search for the famed fur. Chouart’s and Radisson’s trip proved a complete success: they returned with a large quantity of beaver pelts with the promise of more, along with information on potential trading routes. On May 2nd 1670 Charles II signed a Royal Charter which granted exclusive trading rights of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.” Thus the oldest trading company in North America was born.
Given the land they were had rights to was fifteen times the size of Great Britain, the Company established a series of forts along the Hudson Bay coastline. Some developed into important cities such as Winnipeg and Calgary. With those in place they could begin dealing with the local Cree, but if they assumed this would be straightforward they would be disappointed.
It took time to develop a protocol with First Nations people. Business began with the passing around of the ceremonial pipe. If the Cree left the pipe at the fort that indicated they would return the following year. Once the usual exchange of gifts was over they could begin bargaining. Firearms were what the locals wanted and not any old musket....