Hudson’s Bay Company, corporation that occupies a prominent place in both the economic and the political history of Canada. It was incorporated in England on May 2, 1670, to seek a northwest passage to the Pacific, to occupy the lands adjacent to Hudson Bay, and to carry on any commerce with those lands that might prove profitable. It still exists as a commercial company and is active in real estate, merchandising, and natural resources, with headquarters in Toronto. It is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.
The territories originally granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company became known as Rupert’s Land (after Prince Rupert of the Palatinate, who was a cousin of King Charles II of England and the first governor of the company). The boundaries of Rupert’s Land were never clearly defined, but the area was commonly understood to extend from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains and from the headwaters of the Red River to Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson Bay.
The Hudson’s Bay Company engaged in the fur trade during its first two centuries of existence. In the 1670s and ’80s the company established a number of posts on the shores of James and Hudson bays. Most of these posts were captured by the French and were in French hands between 1686 and 1713, when they were restored to the company by the Treaty of Utrecht. After the British conquest of Canada (1759–60), increasing competition led the company to build fur-trading posts inland, starting with Cumberland House, in 1774.
By 1783 many of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s competitors had formed the North West Company, and for nearly 40 years the two organizations engaged in bitter rivalry. Armed clashes in the early 19th century (see Seven Oaks Massacre) ended only when the British government brought about a union of the two companies in 1821 under the name and charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
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At this time the company was given an exclusive license to trade for 21 years (revived for the same term in 1838) in Rupert’s Land, in the Northwest Territories beyond Rupert’s Land, and on the Pacific slope. The company took over the fur trade of the Oregon Country (present Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). Increasing American immigration, starting in 1834 and continuing into the next decade, diminished the company’s influence in the southern part of the Oregon Country, and in 1846 the Oregon Country was divided between the United States and Great Britain. The Hudson’s Bay Company continued to control the British part of the old Oregon Country until 1858.
In 1859 the company’s monopoly was not renewed, and increasingly independent traders entered the fur trade. In 1870 the company’s remaining territories, which comprised virtually all of present-day Canada except for the Maritime Provinces and part of Ontario and Quebec, were sold to the Canadian government in exchange for £300,000, blocks of territory around its posts, and title to one-twentieth of the lands in the “fertile belt,” or habitable portion of western Canada, with mineral rights on all these lands. The company was governed solely from England until 1931, when a Canadian committee was given exclusive authority in Canada but was held responsible to the governor and committee in England.
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In the 20th century the Hudson’s Bay Company remained one of the largest fur-collecting and marketing agencies in the world but turned increasingly to retail merchandising. In the 1970s it supplemented its chain of long-established trading and fur-collecting stores in northern Canada with large chains of department and discount stores throughout Canada. The company also engaged in petroleum and natural gas ventures, remained involved in real estate, and branched out into financial services. In 1979 the Hudson’s Bay Company was bought by companies owned by the family of the late Roy Herbert Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson. The consequent heavy debt load forced Hudson’s Bay into financial straits in the 1980s, and it sold off its northern Canadian stores and its ventures in gas and oil. Despite dropping out of the fur trade in 1991, at the beginning of the 21st century it remained one of the largest business firms of Canada and continued to own many department stores in Canada.