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Manitoba History: The Fork in the Road: Red River, Retrenchment, and the Struggle for the Future of the Hudson’s Bay Company

by Scott Stephen
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 71, Winter 2013

The early years of the nineteenth century were gloomy ones for the 130-year-old Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Mounting problems at home and abroad were breaking down the Company’s well-established business practices, confidence in which had for so many decades underpinned the Company’s staunch (and infamous) conservatism. With the future looking murky at best, the time had clearly come for those within the HBC to—in modern parlance—”think outside the box.”

A corporation in crisis attracts “blue sky” thinking even without an invitation. A range of proposals was put forward by HBC directors and employees—and even by a former competitor looking for a job. Everything was on the table: pouring more resources into the fur trade, focussing on timber resources and even establishing a colony on the northern prairies. From the banks of the Thames, the HBC’s future seemed inextricably tied to two rivers little known in England: the Athabasca and the Red. We know few details of the lively debate which ensued, but the overall shape of the conversation would shape the Company—and northwestern North America—for decades to come.

Lord Selkirk. This drawing of a youthful, energetic Thomas Douglas (1771–1820), Fifth Earl of Selkirk, was contained in the 1912 work Life of Lord Selkirk, Coloniser of Western Canada by Winnipeg cleric and educator George Bryce.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities, Selkirk Thomas Douglas 5, N8755.

Dark Days for the Honourable Company

The road from London to Red River ran through Montreal. The HBC’s Montreal-based competition was claiming three-quarters of the fur trade at the beginning of the 19th century, and promised to double their efforts after the merger (or, rather, re-merger) of the North West Company (NWC) and the New North West (XY) Company in 1804. The re-invigorated NWC embarked on its ambitious “Columbia Enterprise” in 1805, and their push to the Pacific was supported by repeated strikes against the HBC east of the mountains, even in the heart of the old Company’s territories.

The HBC was equally vulnerable on the other side of the Atlantic. The fur market of Napoleonic Europe had both shrunk and reshaped itself: beaver remained dominant, but other furs like marten and bear (on which the HBC relied almost as heavily as beaver) were at times almost unsellable. Attempts in the field to extract the necessary flexibility out of the London-dictated Standard of Trade proved insufficient, and the relative value of furs in the Bay was increasingly out of line with their relative value in Europe. Furthermore, wartime conditions had pushed the price of trade goods well out of proportion to the value of furs for which they were being traded in North America. [1]

Not only was the London-based Committee unable to adapt its North American operations to the changing market in Europe, their agents in the field lacked both the information and the incentive to accomplish that for them. The intelligence and activity of men like James Bird and William Auld stood in rather stark contrast to the poorly informed and less motivated bulk of the officers and men—although their self-important acerbity appears to have been a more common commodity. To be fair to these others, they often lacked important information about European conditions: Auld reported that his traders were entirely ignorant of how much their employers were paying for trade goods. [2] The Company’s own accounting system did not even allow men in the field to calculate profit or loss.

The HBC’s oft-criticised failure to offer its leading traders a significant share in the profits encouraged timidity and corruption. Auld reported having been offered a bribe to recommend a certain manufacturer’s goods to the Committee, and estimated that every year £2,000 worth of goods was misappropriated by officers and traders for their own use. [3] Auld may have railed against Peter Fidler’s “mean and spaniel-like behaviour” in withdrawing from Ile à la Crosse with his tail between his legs in 1809, but we may wonder if the men in question would really have behaved much differently if offered a new incentive program. Contemporary observers felt that the nation’s most active and industrious men were naturally attracted to the more glamorous and potentially profitable arenas of the East Indies and the war against Napoleon, leaving the “second-rate” men to sign up for less attractive companies like the HBC. [4] And, of course, at least some of these gentlemen (like Fidler in 1809) could have served as patsies and straw men for ambitious and voluble superiors like Auld and Bird seeking to emphasise their own value, honesty and virtue.

There was much at stake, and men could be forgiven for sounding defensive or sheepish in their correspondence with their employers. In 1803, the NWC had audaciously occupied Charlton Island in James Bay, and the HBC’s feeble attempt to oust them fizzled when the crew of the intercepting ship refused to attack the Nor’Westers. Yet the NWC failed to establish a foothold on the Bay: despite building trading posts at Charlton Island, Hannah Bay, and Hayes Island (Moose River), the local Cree bands showed little interest in trading with them, and the Nor’Westers withdrew in 1807. [5] The passive nature of the HBC “victory” in that theatre highlighted the Company’s general approach to the escalating competition: avoidance of conflict. “The great and first object of our Concerns is an Increasing Trade to counterbalance the very enormous and increasing Expenses of it. We do not expect returns equal to those of our more powerful Opponents but we ought to receive such returns as are adequate to the quantity of goods you are annually supplied with.” The HBC Committee maintained that it was “Not the intention or the interest of the Company to create Contentions either with the natives or the Canadians, which may produce the most serious and mischievous consequences.” [6]

Historian E.E. Rich observed that the Committee’s “ideas of a fur trade war must seem strange and “kid-gloved” in a struggle in which not only courage but some lack of the finer susceptibilities were essentials.” This was the “staid and durable chartered company which [had] achieved coherence and stability at the cost of many promising ventures, and of a conservatism which often proved frustrating.” They pursued their trade with quiet purpose and courage, and with a frame of mind that was benevolent but far from acquiescent. Their “slow and steady” approach could easily be under-estimated by their more flamboyant opponents, whose partnership was strong in personalities, and whose enterprise and individuality proved to be both a strength and a weakness. [7]

Keeping Their Heads Above Water

In this context, the NWC in 1804 offered £103,000 in Navy 5% annuities to buy access to the route through Hudson Bay. In subsequent negotiations, the NWC offered up to £2,000 in annual rent for use of the route, and was willing to withdraw from the shores of the Bay (except for a post near York Factory to facilitate inland transport). [8] The offer was both an admission that the NWC’s increasingly far-flung operations were posing significant logistical problems, which needed to be addressed, and an implicit suggestion that the businessmen of the HBC’s Committee would prefer cash in hand to an arduous and expensive struggle with a stronger rival. The HBC was in fact willing to enter into such negotiations, and may well have struck a deal with the (Canadian) devil had the price been right: their chartered privileges were arguably the most valuable asset remaining to them, and the Committee was not prepared to let those go for a song.

Although those negotiations were ultimately rejected by the HBC, the whole episode highlighted the geographic allure of the Hudson Bay route, which offered a considerably shorter and cheaper path across the continent than the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes route. The Nor’Westers’ projected Columbian enterprise had forced that Company to reconsider the difficulties presented by its long line of communications from Montreal. [9] The episode also spoke to the NWC’s ambivalent attitude towards the HBC and its Charter: they were ready, willing, and able to challenge their adversary’s chartered privileges, but much preferred the easier path of purchasing or leasing those privileges for themselves. As is often the case in business history, attitudes towards a monopoly depend very much on whether you have one.

Yet a monopoly’s value depends greatly on one’s ability to enforce it, and turning down the NWC’s offer still left the Committee with many obstacles to overcome. Competition in the field become more physical (as Fidler discovered), while in 1806/7 Napoleon and his allies effectively closed off most of Europe from British trade. By 1808, the HBC was reduced to begging for relief from the Board of Trade in England: according to their petition, they had three years’ stocks of furs on hand and had not sold a single skin for export in two years. [10]

Such a crisis in the Company’s affairs strained their established business practices to the breaking point. Previously, the Company had comfortably relied on credit from the Bank of England, drawn upon regularly each year until the fur sales began and income accumulated. Normally, the Company’s debt would stand at about £10,000 at the beginning of January, usually doubling as tradesmen and wages were paid during the course of that month. Revenue from fur sales and the Company’s own investments were usually sufficient to pay out a 4% dividend and pay off debts during the summer. The Bank was never asked for more than £20,000 credit, which was easily covered by the HBC’s assets (including its ships, posts, territorial claims, more than £40,000 in safe investments and a £50,000 insurance policy covering furs in the warehouse awaiting sale). Interest was paid regularly, debts were repaid on time, and no one ever questioned the credit-worthiness of this “unadventurous” Company of Adventurers. [11]

Unfortunately, such a system left the HBC with relatively little capital on hand with which to finance significant expansion of its operations, as was clearly necessary in the face of virile opposition from Montreal. Furthermore, when wartime fur sales fell (at the same time as fixed costs and customs duties were rising) the Company’s lack of fluid resources was cruelly exposed. Although the overall returns were actually rising – from 64,711 Made Beaver (MB) in 1804 to 81,007 MB in 1807 – much of that was not beaver and only beaver was selling. [12] In 1807, the HBC asked the Bank of England for an unprecedented £50,000 credit and yet by the following year was still reduced to liquidating some of its outside investments to raise cash. At the same time, they were asking for a six-month extension on paying customs duties: previously the customs duties paid on furs imported from North America were partially offset by a refund on the duties for those furs subsequently re-exported, but Napoleon had effectively cut off much of Britain’s legitimate trade with the Continent. The Company was only able to carry on thanks to contributions from individual Committeemen, a situation common enough in the early days of the 1670s, but beyond the experience of any living shareholder. At the beginning of 1809, the HBC’s bank balance stood at a paltry £101.1.0. [13]

No Shortage of Advice

Now was the time for all good men to come to the aid of their company. William Auld quickly emerged as the loudest and most respected voice in Rupert’s Land. Having entered the service as a surgeon in 1790, he was soon appointed Second at Churchill (1793) and then Inland Trader from that factory (1795). His bustling (though largely ineffective) activity inland, including several attempts to overcome internal competition with York Fort, earned him an appointment as chief factor at Churchill in 1802. He went to London in 1809 to personally persuade the Committee to adopt a more energetic approach in the field. [14]

Auld also sponsored a younger man, whose arguments would eventually overshadow his own. Scotsman Colin Robertson was a former apprentice hand weaver, who found his way into North West Company service via the New York retail sector. Any ambitions he may have had—and evidence from his later life suggests that he probably had quite a few—were soon curtailed by the 1804 merger between the NWC and XYC. Many junior officers felt that this merger limited or even closed the avenues to promotion, which had previously been available. [15] Aggressive behaviour, towards the First Nations and/or towards HBC servants, seemed the best way to attract the attention of one’s superiors in the “new” NWC, and Robertson declared himself unwilling to follow such a path.

“When among wolves, howl!” This was the personal motto of flamboyant fur trader Colin Robertson (1783–1842), who held posts throughout HBC territory, including a term at Red River during the early days of the Selkirk Settlement.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, copy negative C-104181.

He made this declaration in 1809 to William Auld, ironically at a time when Auld had convinced himself that only armed force could dislodge the Nor’Westers from HBC lands. Robertson praised the HBC’s “Candour and Generosity” in its dealings with Aboriginal traders, although the NWC itself was candid and generous in its testimonial to Robertson later that year: “On your taking leave of the North West, it is but bare justice in us to bear testimony to the Zeal and Fidelity with which you have served the North West Company during a residence of six years in the Indian Country. We could have wished that prospects had been more favourable in that country, so as to induce your persevering, but your determination being different, we shall sincerely rejoice to hear of your success in life.” [16] His former employers were obviously unaware that Robertson’s next move would be to London, with a £20 loan and letter of introduction from his auld enemy, Auld.

Robertson was not the only old Nor’Wester interested in the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1808, when HBC stock appeared to be in free-fall (the price of a £100 share dropping from £250 to below £60), Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Edward Ellice became involved in buying it up. The former, at least, intended to gain control of the Company and use it to realise his long-held ambition to expand the fur trade not just to the Pacific coast, but across the ocean into China. William and Simon McGillivray were also involved, though in the background and not necessarily placing their complete trust in their old friend and enemy, Mackenzie. The plan was for some neutral or at least innocent person to purchase the stock (for fear that word of Mackenzie’s involvement would drive up the price) and later sell it to Mackenzie et al. The chosen stooge was Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, who (as we shall see) later derailed the whole scheme by embarking on a scheme of his own. [17]

Auld and Robertson approached a Committee which was ready and willing to consider even radical changes. In 1809, it became painfully apparent that, for the first time since Lapérouse had sacked Churchill and York in 1782, the Company was in no position to pay its shareholders a dividend. [18] This was the proverbial straw that broke the corporate camel’s back, and the entire situation was up for re-evaluation. There was obviously nothing that the HBC could do to break Napoleon’s Continental System and re-open the major European markets to British commerce, but the HBC could at least become more effective in acquiring the one commodity that still sold well in the fur markets still available to them: beaver. Auld and Robertson appealed directly to those Committee members who took this view.

However, an alternative school of thought shied away from re-inventing the Company’s business practices and using capital which it did not have to go toe-to-toe with an experienced and intimidating rival, in a titanic struggle for furs which the Company would not be able to sell anywhere other than London or New York. George Hyde Wollaston was all in favour of streamlining or “modernising” some aspects of the Company’s operations, but he became the Committee’s leading advocate of an entirely different approach to the problem. Why not withdraw from the fur trade entirely for a period of time? British victory against Napoleon (whenever it came) would dramatically improve the export market, but in the meantime, the Company could make use of the few assets which it still possessed, namely a geographically advantageous route to the continental interior via Hudson Bay and the wonderfully flexible royal charter upon which that geographic claim was based. The Company’s charter in no way committed them to the fur trade, but left them free to pursue whatever branch of trade circumstances might render profitable. [19]

On 6 April 1809, Wollaston presented the Committee with his “Observations” on the trade, weighty words from one who had served on the Committee for several years and who had a better understanding than most of the Company’s situation. Later that month, he introduced his colleagues to Alexander Christie of Glasgow, who discussed the possibility of exporting timber via Moose Factory. Further discussions at the sub-committee level led to Christie’s engagement in HBC service at £500 per annum: new men for the fur trade operations would not be forthcoming, but Christie was to start with four assistants and ten labourers. On 17 May 1809, the Committee recorded its intention “to promote, as much as possible, the Importation of those Articles which meet a ready Sale, for home Consumption. So far from increasing the number of Servants, it is a great Object to retain those only who can prosecute to Advantage that Branch of Trade which alone can answer under the present Circumstances.” The market in furs would be allowed to recover, and in the meantime, the HBC would attempt to supply the market in masts, spars, and other naval timber, which had been opened up by the loss of Britain’s Baltic trade. [20]

Debating the Company’s Future

Wollaston had not yet won the day, however. In November 1809, William Auld appeared before the Committee to urge them to action in prosecuting the fur trade. His conversations with Robertson and his own discouraging experiences in the field were still fresh in his mind, and in December, he followed up his verbal arguments with written documents outlining the situation in Rupert’s Land. Although Auld later felt that his opinions had been too easily dismissed, he in fact precipitated considerable debate within the Committee: the minutes of 3 January 1810 recorded that most of the day was taken up with “Consideration” of “the state of the Company’s affairs and their Trade in general”, an apparently lively discussion which was to be continued after an upcoming interview with a gentleman “lately arrived from Canada,” Colin Robertson.

Robertson’s plan assumed that the Company’s resources were more extensive and more fluid than they really were, but coming so hard on Auld’s heels, he held the Committee’s attention. He was invited to submit his ideas in writing, which he did on 10 January 1810. [21] He emphasised the NWC’s advantage of controlling the beaver-rich Athabasca country and urged the HBC to make better use of its own natural advantage, the supply route via Hudson Bay. He estimated that the NWC, if unopposed, could easily reap profits of £20,000 per annum from the Athabasca, plus perhaps another £10,000 from English River and Lesser Slave Lake. These regions were “the richest in Furs that has as yet been discovered, and lies so contiguous to one of your principal Factories, say Churchill, that it can be established from there at one third of the expence which it costs the North West Co. … the Canada Merchant performs a voyage of four months to purchase Beaver at the threshold of your doors.” [22]

Robertson’s geographical recommendations undoubtedly warmed the cockles of Auld’s heart. Robertson proposed a unified and concerted HBC push into the Athabasca under the supreme command of the chief factor of Churchill (who just happened to be William Auld), who would eliminate “those jealousies between your officers inland which have been so prejudicial to your interests”—precisely the argument which Auld had just put before the Committee himself. Once Athabasca had been penetrated, it was to be given its own establishment, and was to be supported by all of the Company’s other operations, in the form of guides, fishermen, food, and transport. [23]

The other radical aspect of Robertson’s proposal—in some respects, the most radical part of the whole scheme—was his proposed reliance on Canadian rather than Orcadian labour. Slow and steady had manifestly failed to win this race, he argued: the Athabasca campaign must be manned with Canadian voyageurs, commanded by officers who could manage them in their own French language. Thus, some kind of Montreal Agency would be necessary, and Robertson’s discussion of that revealed what was in all of this for him: he proposed himself and “a Colleague [Henry McKenzie]…who has been brought up to the business in Montreal” to manage the Montreal Agency. He also proposed that colleague’s brother (Donald McKenzie) as a prospective manager for the “Interior department, having resided many years in Athabasca,” and mentioned that “I have a number of Under-Clerks in view, who will embrace the cause as soon as it is set on foot.” [24] In other words, Robertson proposed that the HBC should storm the NWC’s citadel with its own former servants, all of whom would look to Robertson as their patron and friend.

Radical though some of his proposals might have been, there was actually little in Robertson’s letter that was entirely new. The possibility of establishing a Montreal Agency had been discussed before and rejected as expensive and impractical; while both expansion into Athabasca and the best route to get there had been the subjects of heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic for a generation. What Robertson brought to the table was a unified plan, the support of a senior and respected officer (Auld), and his own vigorous and persuasive personality. However, at this pivotal moment, vigorous and persuasive personalities do not seem to have been in short supply within the Company’s council chambers.

On the very same day that Robertson wrote that letter, the Committee resolved to put Wollaston’s proposal into action. “[T]he Standard of Barter of European Articles for Furs or Peltries” was to be “abolished,” along with the “present system of prosecuting the Trade in the interior of Hudson’s Bay, on Account of the Company.” Goods henceforth sent to the Bay would be on the traders’ own accounts, and they were to be responsible for conducting their own trade in their own way (provided the Company still made a reasonable profit from them). [25] Selkirk and some other shareholders were sceptical, arguing that under such circumstances the inland traders would soon detach themselves from the Company and become more trouble than they were worth. In particular, such divestiture jeopardized the Company’s chartered privileges: one independent trader’s successful legal challenge of the HBC’s claim to exclusive navigation in the Bay would be enough to open up that route to everyone. [26]

These resolutions were still being discussed later that month, when the London sugar merchant Andrew Wedderburn (later Colvile) was elected to the Committee. His sister had married the Earl of Selkirk in 1807, and he had helped re-orient Selkirk’s thinking about the HBC away from Mackenzie’s scheme. Wedderburn and his cousin John Halkett (who later married another of Selkirk’s sisters) started buying stock and building support in the HBC in 1809.

The newcomer wasted no time in making his presence felt, leading the opposition to both Wollaston’s and Robertson’s proposals, and offering (in a suspicious, “I just happen to have made a few notes,” kind of way) his own plan “for the management of the Trade within the Bay.” Robertson was rejected on 21 February 1810, on the same day that Colvile was asked to enquire about potential recruitment in the western isles of Scotland. The terms of such recruitment are important, for Colvile was authorised to offer not only good wages (£18 per annum for three years) but also land: 30 acres of it in the Red River valley upon satisfactory completion of a three-year service contract, plus an extra 10 acres for every further year of service given to the Company. Clearly visible here is the influence not only of Colvile himself, but his more illustrious brother-in-law, the Earl of Selkirk.

Selkirk’s passion for emigration and colonisation projects is well known, at least in its broad outlines. However, the core of Colvile’s proposal was not colonisation, but continued and more energetic pursuit of the fur trade. [27] Although traders would be given considerable latitude in setting their own local “standards of trade,” the overall trade would remain firmly under the Committee’s control. Accounting methods would be significantly overhauled, expenses vigorously trimmed, and profits shared between the Company and its senior traders. Posts would be encouraged (not for the first time) to rely more on local food sources than on imported provisions. Rupert’s Land was to be reorganised into two departments (Northern and Southern) and several districts, helping to streamline the Company’s hierarchy in North America. Recruitment in the highlands and islands of Scotland would be strongly encouraged. A colony to be established at Red River could also provide recruits down the road, but in the short term it offered more immediate assistance in the form of agricultural produce (to replace at least some of the provisions currently imported from Britain at considerable expense).

Fundamental to Colvile’s scheme was the same truculence which Robertson and Auld had advocated. The Nor’Westers had consistently used physical and emotional intimidation against the Bay men, and turning the other cheek had not achieved much more than matching bruises and a widespread reputation for being “nice guys.” Since the Nor’Westers showed no signs of being won over by this approach, a more robust strategy appeared to be necessary. As the Committee reminded its servants later that year, “We expect you will defend like men the Property that is entrusted to you; if any person shall presume to make a forcible attack upon you, you have arms in your hands, and the Law sanctions you to use them for your own defence.” [28] Such a challenge to their masculinity and their courage must have struck the officers in the field as somewhat disingenuous, however: it can be difficult to screw your courage to the sticking place when you are outnumbered as much as ten to one.

Jean Baptiste Lagimodière confronts Lord Selkirk, 1815. On 17 October 1815, Lagimodière was sent to Montreal by Colin Robertson of the HBC to report the destruction of the colony at Red River. According to a popular account, Lagimodière arrived during Selkirk’s New Year’s Eve ball and forced his way in to deliver the message. In fact, Lagimodière did not arrive at Montreal until March 1816.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, HBC Calendar Art, P-398, 1934.

Choosing the Path Forward

Colvile won the day by the force of his personality and his general business acumen, as well as by playing on some of his colleagues’ reluctance to willingly withdraw from the fur trade. Colvile’s knowledge of that trade, and indeed of the HBC itself, was considerably less than that of Auld and Wollaston, or even of Robertson. Colvile himself recognised this, and borrowed liberally from their opposing plans. His profit-sharing scheme was taken from Wollaston. His recruitment scheme was similar to that of Auld and Robertson, even though his proposed source of more active servants was different; and he was much less sanguine than Robertson about the feasibility of competing with the NWC in Montreal itself. What Colvile himself (probably with considerable input from Selkirk) brought to the table was business sense, new accounting methods, a colonisation scheme, and a sense of moderation: his proposal was more proactive than Wollaston’s, yet more cautious than Robertson’s and Auld’s. The assault on Athabasca was to be postponed until the Company had set its house in order: “we shall be more likely to succeed in a contest in Athabasca, when the home territory of the Company is fully occupied, by numerous and powerful establishments, conducted by active servants, whose interests are assimilated with those of the Company.” [29]

A NWC proposal dated 7 November 1810 renewed the offer of purchasing or renting the Hudson Bay route, but included more concessions than had been on the table in 1804–1805. Instead of giving up a few recently established posts on the Bay, the NWC was now willing to vacate the Nipigon country and the region east and north of Lake Winnipeg, as well as the valleys of the Rat, the Red, and the Assiniboine, and the “South Side of Saskatchewan” (South Saskatchewan River?). This represented 17 posts employing six partners and more than 150 officers and men, and annual trade valued at more than £13,000. Yet this, too, was rejected as insufficient remuneration. [30] By this time, Colvile’s plan had been accepted by the Committee and Wollaston’s rejected. New orders had been sent to officers in the field that spring, exhorting them to trim their fat, tighten their belts and roll up their sleeves. [31]

A land grant to Selkirk was debated and ultimately approved in the early months of 1811. Although this is usually depicted as the fulfillment of a long-standing personal vision, Selkirk’s own version of events attributed the initiative to the HBC. He later insisted that the idea for the Red River Settlement was originally a Company plan to provide for retired and redundant personnel and their families: with their plates already more than full reorganising the operations, the directors approached Selkirk to handle the settlement business, and to recruit new servants while he was about it. Selkirk’s biographer, J. M. Bumsted, argues that this “actually makes more sense and fits better with the surviving evidence….Selkirk’s first interest was in the Hudson’s Bay Company and its reform, and Red River colonization was imposed upon him as a neat and tidy solution to a whole series of problems.” [32]

Mackenzie, Ellice, and their supporters among the shareholders tried to block the land grant, but to no avail. They argued (among other things) that the sale of 116,000 square miles of HBC territory should be handled by auction, but there was more at stake in this historic land grant. Not only was it an expression of the Selkirk-Wedderburn ascendancy within the HBC, it was also a strategic move based on the legal opinions obtained after the NWC landed on Charlton Island in 1803: that the practical strength and security of the HBC charter lay not in a monopoly of trade, but in a claim to the soil. [33]

The HBC’s experiment with lumbering was not entirely forgotten: they had, after all, signed a contract with Alexander Christie. The first shipment of timber from Moose in 1810 was badly chopped and sold poorly, but Christie was ordered to erect a sawmill in 1811 and as many as twenty new men would be sent to assist. A steam engine was sent out in 1812, but there was no one who could set it up or operate it. By this time, Christie had (at the Committee’s instructions) set up his base of operations on Charlton Island, where he was expected to combine his lumbering activities with cattle farming. [34] Although neither of those ventures amounted to much, Christie stayed with the Company, supervising the whale fishery on the Eastmain before entering the fur trade proper: nearly forty years later, he was a chief factor and Governor of Assiniboia (Red River).

The Athabasca campaign did not commence until 1814, at which time Colin Robertson was called upon to lead it. In the meantime, William Auld was named Superintendent of the newly created Northern Department and charged with implementing Colvile’s Retrenching System (or New System). He soon proved out of step with the Company’s “modernisation” and decidedly unsympathetic to the Red River Colony, whose creation he had strongly opposed. “Increasingly, Auld felt that the committee’s policies and directives reflected ignorance of local circumstances and did not take into account the advice of knowledgeable experienced officers such as himself.” [35]

Auld was too good a servant—and had too good an opinion of himself—not to implement the wishes of his employers. Yet he was deeply frustrated at how the eventful winter of 1809–1810 had turned out, having seen his own and Robertson’s proposals, grounded in personal experience of the fur trade on both sides of the competition, taking second place to an uninspiring scheme offered by a mere ingénue, whose only previous experience with the HBC was selling rum to it. Even as Auld accepted his new assignment, he did not hesitate to express his lack of confidence in the new approach. For instance, he felt that men hired on three-year contracts could hardly be expected to do battle with the Nor’Westers when they already had half an eye on their future farms by the banks of the Red.

In the strongest terms I am capable of using I conjure you to believe me that no triennial apprenticeships will qualify for the perilous duty of ascending and descending the cataracts, which interrupt the navigation of every river in this country. Your local ignorance (forgive me Honble. Sirs. I call God to witness the purity and sincerity of my respect) of the nature of these dreadful interruptions while you can make no allowance for the shortness of our year—you calculate by your own—we reckon by a very different method.

The Committee’s plan to inflict upon him “a regular and immense number of new men annually to carry on your trade” filled him with “consternation and affright.” [36] Auld resigned in 1814: he was kept on in the London office, but a final acrimonious split came the following year.

Robertson was no more enamoured of the Company’s new direction, and railed against both the Committee men who had decided upon it and the officers who were implementing it. Auld (who, after introducing Robertson to the Committee, had little else to offer him) was criticised as being more concerned with cutting expenses than with fostering the trade, and Robertson blamed him for driving 60 of York Factory’s best hunters into the arms of the Canadians at Cumberland. Ironically, Auld himself would have agreed: his letters to London are full of pessimism and foreboding. Soon, Auld was depicting the Company’s trade as being in a “wretched state,” “not worth any one’s attention and it would be infinitely better to abandon it altogether.” In his depressed state, he had come round to the same conclusion that Wollaston had two years earlier. [37]


Colvile’s scheme has generally been accepted as a key element in the HBC’s long-term viability, and the NWC certainly felt as though they were facing a new and more energetic foe. Yet historians E. E. Rich and R. Harvey Fleming argued that his ability to gain acceptance of his plan “is in itself proof of the incompetence of the Committee to manage the Company’s fur trade.” [38] A. S. Morton was both more generous and more jingoistic: “The Governor and Committee were characteristically English in being slow to convince themselves that their system was antiquated but when the unpleasant fact began to dawn upon them they were truly English in the courage with which they faced it, in the earnestness with which they sought to understand the true situation and in the practical wisdom of their final determinations.” [39]

Some elements of the scheme betrayed a relative ignorance of the fur trade, or at least a naive assumption that changes in governance and in bookkeeping could revive the fortunes of a large and established trading company. The emphasis on cost-reduction was poorly received by First Nations traders and HBC officers alike, the incorporation of colonisation and the fur trade was poorly thought out, and no significant effort was made to unify or co-ordinate any of the Company’s operations. As Auld phrased it, the Company’s establishments and enterprises “like the froth and driftwood on the Lakes float along wherever private individual feelings waft without design energy or motive sufficiently legitimate to avow or justify.” [40]

Yet the new system—and least of all the new colony at Red River—can hardly be judged on first impressions alone. Refinements were made to both over the next decade (and beyond): mistakes were made, but lessons were learned. Many of Robertson’s ideas were eventually implemented in the later Athabasca campaigns, and even Auld’s demands for some muscle were eventually answered with some Irish and Scottish heavies to lock horns with NWC bully-boys. In 1812, the HBC turned a profit for the first time in years, and by 1815 was able to start paying dividends again. [41]

Regardless of whether or not Colvile’s plan was the Company’s best choice for its future direction, it was the plan which the Company did choose for its future direction. That decision was made after other options were weighed and considered, options which promised to take the venerable company along very different paths. The variety of options, which the Company was willing to consider, surely undermines its long-held reputation for stodgy conservatism and inflexibility, even if the dynamism is cloaked in the musty shrouds of committee minutes and memoranda.

The first-known photograph of Upper Fort Garry, taken by Humphrey Lloyd Hime during his visit in 1858.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, H. L. Hime Collection, copy courtesy of Parks Canada.


1. E. E. Rich & R. Harvey Fleming (eds.), Colin Robertson’s Correspondence Book, September 1817 to September 1822, London: Champlain Society for the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1939, pp. xxi-xxii; hereafter referred to as Robertson’s Letters.

2. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxii.

3. See Robertson’s Letters, xxii and footnotes. ‘Misappropriation’ is often in the eye of the beholder, and it is not clear whether the gentlemen in question felt they were doing anything dishonest, or whether they felt they had a customary right to occasionally blur the line between public and private property.

4. For Auld’s comment, see Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxiii.

5. See E. E. Rich, The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670–1870, London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1958-59, II, pp. 257–258.

6. Quoted in Rich, History, II, pp. 256–257.

7. Rich, History, II, pp. 170, 181.

8. See Rich, History, II, pp. 259–264. Also see Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada, new ed., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 278–279; A. S. Morton, The History of the Canadian West to 1870–71, 2nd ed., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, pp. 522–523.

9. See A. S. Morton, “The Place of the Red River Settlement in the Plans of the Hudson’s Bay Co., 1812–1825,” Report of the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association 8/1 (1929), p. 104.

10. Robertson’s Letters, xxi; Rich, History, II, pp. 264–265.

11. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxvii-xxviii.

12. Made Beaver was a unit of value equivalent to one prime winter beaver skin. All furs and trade goods were valued in terms of Made Beaver.

13. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxviii-xxix. Already in 1806, the Company owed £25,000 to Committee members Thomas Neave, William Mainwaring, and T. B. Raikes: Rich, History, II, p. 266.

14. John E. Foster, “Auld, William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography VI,

15. They were right: see Innis, pp. 258–260.

16. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxv.

17. Mackenzie blamed the McGillivrays for being slow to find the necessary money for stock purchases, but it was Selkirk who felt the brunt of Mackenzie’s ire: the former explorer threatened to sue Selkirk for breach of trust, in retaining stock purchased on someone else’s behalf. Morton, “Red River,” pp. 104–105. J. M. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada, Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 1999, p. 17, referred to Mackenzie’s “quite unwarranted sense of having been betrayed by the man he was attempting to exploit.” For a brief summary of the NWC’s (and Mackenzie’s) Pacific plans, see Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars, pp. 24–28; for more detail, see Morton, Canadian West, pp. 520-522. J. M. Bumsted, Lord Selkirk: A Life, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008, pp. 171–173, sees no evidence that Selkirk in 1808 was thinking of the HBC in terms of his own ambitions. “At this stage, the venture with Mackenzie was probably merely an incidental speculation made possible by Selkirk’s knowledge of the actual value of the depressed HBC stocks.”

18. This had ended a long run of dividends from 1718 through 1782: for the accounting sleight-of-hand necessary to maintain that long run, and to resume it in 1786, see Rich, History, II, pp. 265–266.

19. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxix.

20. Rich, History, II, pp. 270-272; Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxix–xxx.

21. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxvi-xxvii; Rich, History, II, pp. 288-289. Also Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (Archives of Manitoba) A. 10/1, fo. 87ff.

22. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxvi.

23. Robertson also recommended giving officers commissions on “the profits arising from their exertions.” To avoid privileging the officers “in easy situations” over those in charge of much more difficult “frontier establishments,” he suggested collecting “the profits of all the Factories” into an “aggregate fund,” from which “shares should be distributed among the officers of our whole establishment in various proportions according to the importance and difficulty of the station assigned to each individual.” Innis, p. 162. This system (but weighted only by rank) was ultimately adopted in the Deed Poll of 1821.

24. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxvi-xxvii. Robertson also argued that the Montreal Agency would also be able to purchase “high Wines, Tobacco and Provisions” at around half the price of purchasing them in London, and provide a better market for some furs like buffalo robes. Innis, p. 163.

25. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxxi.

26. See Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars, p. 20.

27. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxxiii-xxxv. Also see Deidre Simmons, Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, pp. 92–94.

28. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxxii–xxxiii.

29. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxxv. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars, p. 21, argues that some of Colvile’s plans “suggest the fertile and inventive brain of Selkirk rather than the cautious business tactics of the merchant. While it is impossible to assign responsibility, it makes good sense to see the Earl of Selkirk at the centre of the new policy.” Also see Bumsted, Selkirk, p. 190.

30. See Innis, p. 279.

31. See Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxxii–xxxiii.

32. Bumsted, Selkirk, p. 193.

33. Bumsted, Selkirk, pp. 200-201; Morton, Canadian West, pp. 523–524; Hamar Foster, “Long-Distance Justice: The Criminal Jurisdiction of Canadian Courts West of the Canadas, 1763–1859,” The American Journal of Legal History 34/1 (Jan. 1990), pp. 11–14.

34. Rich, History, II, p. 272.

35. Foster, “Auld.”

36. Robertson’s Letters, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii.

37. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxxviii.

38. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxxviii.

39. Morton, “Red River,” p. 105.

40. Robertson’s Letters, p. xxxix.

41. Rich, History, II, pp. 293, 311.

Page revised: 6 January 2018

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