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Manitoba History: Review: Deidre Simmons, Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

by Robert Coutts
Parks Canada

Number 57, February 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives by Deidre Simmons Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, 360 pages. ISBN 9780773532915, $80.00 (cloth).

“World class” is a term one hears frequently these days. To their promoters, cities are “world class” as are museums and even sports and entertainment facilities. Many Winnipeggers , however, are unaware that for over three decades their city has been home to a truly “world class” resource, the business records of the Hudson’s Bay Company. With documents dating back to the late 17th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) is one of the oldest and most complete archival repositories in the world. Its detailed and voluminous records chronicle, not only one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the world, but a history of the land, people and economic and social relations of over half a country. Almost every major city in western Canada had its origins as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. Historians, writers, geographers, climatologists, genealogists, and those simply interested in history, have made use of the HBCA for decades, and the vast number of books, articles and television shows based wholly or in part upon these treasures are a testament to their importance in documenting the history of Canada. Deidre Simmons’ Keepers of the Record is fair testament to this legacy and is an informative chronicle of the process of record keeping over three centuries of “trading into Hudson Bay.”

The significance of Keepers of the Record rests on how it meticulously (perhaps over meticulously for some readers) documents the documentation – detailing the sheer volume of Company records, who kept them and why, and the way that the HBC’s almost fanatical penchant for record keeping influenced company policy making, and by inference, how the fur trade – and later such things as land sales – affected the evolution of the Canadian west over three centuries. Much of Simmons’ story is nicely contextualized within the broad history of the period and the great sweep of business, political and social themes that helped define England and North America over three centuries. Few details escape the author’s attention, from the earliest documentation set within the context of late 17th century business record keeping, to the way that the records were unpacked and shelved after their transfer to Winnipeg in 1974. Some 2000 meters of documentation containing thousands of London Committee minute books, letter books, account books (York Factory records alone contain almost 2000 account books), servants’ records, post journals, ships’ logs, and diaries, make the HBCA a treasure trove for researchers. In addition, the archives boasts a library of rare books, approximately eight thousand maps and atlases, five thousand architectural drawings, 130,000 photographs, a documentary art collection, as well as sound and moving images.

The oldest records in the HBCA date to almost the founding of the Company in 1670, and as early as 1683 the HBC’s governing committee directed the factors at its posts on Hudson Bay to keep daily journals. From storage in a locked iron-bound chest carried to committee meetings at Garraway’s Coffee House in the 17th century, to the shelves of Hudson’s Bay House in 19th century London, Company records were generally neglected. It was only with the 250th anniversary of its founding in 1920, and a growing sense of its own historical significance, that the Company set the stage for a more or less formal archives for its now vast collection of records. The Company’s first archivist, Richard Gower, was appointed in 1931 and while it recognized the growing scholarly interest in the historical value of its records, the HBC continued to maintain tight control over who was given access to its archives. And while these restrictions gradually subsided over time, especially with the move of the archives to Canada in 1974, the HBC and its archivists have, until recent decades at least, remained vigilant over the use of its records for historical research.

Keepers of the Record is a very detailed book. Simmons chronicles the history of record keeping through the Company’s transition from a small, and generally unprofitable, joint stock fur trading concern to its incarnation as a large (and occasionally still unprofitable) retail chain. The nature of its records, the creation of every major type of record and record keeping system, as well as the policies and procedures developed by the Company are discussed in great detail, especially through the book’s first six chapters. Unfortunately, it is this level of dense detail, and the occasionally plodding nature of the presentation, that will restrict the appeal of this book to archivists and perhaps a small number of scholars who have used the HBCA in their researches.

While Keepers of the Record provides considerable information on early archival documentation, the final two chapters, covering the period from 1930 to 1974, have little to say about the creation of twentieth century records. Instead, they focus upon the establishment of the Archives and its use by early fur trade historians, as well as the promotion of Company history through the creation of a publication program. Of the many researchers who have been given access to the HBCA over the years, Simmons highlights two who have written histories of the Company: E. E. Rich’s two volume history published in the 1950s and known for its thoroughness and scholarship, and Peter C. Newman’s three volume hash published between 1985 and 1991. That these two authors are mentioned by Simmons in the same sentence is indeed puzzling. While Rich spent hundreds of hours sifting through many yet to be catalogued records, Mr. Newman, it is reported, spent a total of one afternoon touring the Archives.

The substance of Keepers of the Record ends with the transfer of the Archives to Winnipeg (and here Simmons provides considerable information about how that story unfolded) leaving it to a postscript to discuss the collection of modern records such as photographs, film and audio recordings. Unfortunately, short shrift is given to the enormous work that has taken place over the last thirty years in developing conservation techniques, microfilming records, improving the catalogue, and creating scores of new record groups. Simmons does, however, chronicle the donation by the HBC of its Archives to the Province of Manitoba in 1993 and the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation using the millions in tax savings realized by the Company through its donation.

Although well illustrated, many of the photos that appear in Keepers of the Record are poorly reproduced, a problem when one is attempting to depict centuries-old journals and letters, and the visual quality of the book is further compromised by the pedestrian quality of the paper. The appeal of this book would have been enhanced considerably if the publisher, McGill-Queen’s University Press, had seen fit to accompany the manuscript with attractive colour reproductions of select HBCA materials on high quality paper, perhaps in a coffee table format.

That being said, Keepers of the Record is a significant work and Simmons has provided readers with a competent archival history. And if the presentation is at times tedious, one does occasionally catch whiffs of the dust jacket’s evocation of “the slightly musty smell of leather and crisp vellum and the ghostly presence of the people who created the pristine script, writing by candlelight in unheated … dwellings in the wilderness of Hudson Bay or in the centre of London.”

HBCA sampler.
Items from the voluminous collections of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives were on display at the Archives of Manitoba on 22 November 2007 as part of a ceremony commemorating inclusion of the collection in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

Page revised: 8 June 2014

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