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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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The Hudson's Bay Company

In 1670, the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay," better known as the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), was created. With its charter, the King of England granted the HBC an exclusive right to trade in the huge territory known as Rupert's Land. Named after Prince Rupert, one of the principals in the company, Rupert's Land was a vast area of about 7 770 000 km² and encompassed all the land that was drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay -- in short, much of what is now western and northern Canada. In return, the company was expected to give the British monarch two elk and two black beaver whenever a royal visit was made to the territory.

In 1670, and for many years to come, Rupert's Land was a great unknown to the Europeans who extracted furs from it. The HBC established a network of posts around the shores of Hudson Bay, but the Company was not interested in forming a colony, as the French had done beside the St. Lawrence River. It was interested only in trading for furs. The small wooden forts stood at the mouths of the important rivers, down which the Native people came in their canoes, bringing beaver skins to trade.

In their competition with the French traders from Canada, the HBC had many advantages. The posts on Hudson Bay were closer to the supplies of furs in the forests of the northern country, and company ships could sail with their cargoes of trade goods right into the heart of the continent. The HBC did not have to spend large amounts of money building a colony, nor did they have to employ a large number of traders to travel inland. For many years company employees were content to remain at the posts waiting for the furs to come to them.

Eventually the HBC was forced to wake from its "sleep by the frozen sea." Rival traders working inland established small posts in the hinterland south and west of Hudson Bay, intercepting the canoes of Native people on their way down to the British and choking off the supply of furs. In order to compete, the HBC was forced to send its own trading parties into the interior. In 1774, Samuel Hearne led a party of HBC canoes to the Saskatchewan River where he established Cumberland House, the first of many HBC inland posts. This move by the company initiated a period of fierce, head-to-head competition with traders from Canada, a rivalry that continued for 50 years and was the motivating force behind the spread of the fur trade across the western interior and over the Rocky Mountains into what is now British Columbia.

Eventually competition proved too costly to sustain and in 1821 the HBC absorbed its last rival, the North West Company, taking complete control of the western fur trade. The Company enjoyed its monopoly position for another four decades before rival traders again moved into its territory. In 1870 the HBC gave up its rights in Rupert's Land, selling them to the Canadian government. The company became a commercial enterprise like any other, evolving into the chain of retail stores familiar to modern Canadians.

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