Agnes Christina Laut.

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from Europe to America, which has flourished in
the new soil. Other royal companies of Virginia,
of Maryland, of Quebec, became part of the new
democracy. Only the Hudson's Bay Company re-
mains. The charter which by ''the Grace of God"
and the stroke of a pen gave away three-quarters of
America — ^was, itself, pure feudalism. Oaths of
secrecy, implicit obedience of every servant to the
man immediately above him — the canoemen to the
steersman, the trader to the chief factor, the chief
factor to the governor, the governor to the king —
dependence of the Company on the favor of the royal
will — ^all these were pure feudalism. Prince Rupert
was the first governor. The Duke of York, after-
wards King James, was second. Marlborough, the
great general, came third; and Lord Strathcona, the
present governor, as High Commissioner for Canada,
stands in the relation of ambassador from the colony
to the mother country. Always the Company has
been under the favor of the court.

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Formerly, every shareholder had to make solemn
oath: "/ doe sweare to bee True &* faithftdl to ye
Governor 6* Comply of Adventurers of England
Trading into Hudson^s Bay b^ to my poiver will
support and maintain the said comply &* the privi-
leges oj ye same; all bye laws and orders not repeated
which have been or shall be made by ye said GovemW
&* Company I will to my best knowledge truly observe
and keepe: ye secrets of ye said company, which shall
be given me in charge to concede^ I will not disclose;
and during the joint stock of ye said comfy I will not
directly nor indirectly trade to ye limitts oj ye said
company s charter without leave oj the GovemW, the
Depuiy Govern^ and committee, So help me GodJ^

A simflar oath was required from the governor.
Once a year, usually m November, the shareholders
met in a general session called the General Court,
to elect officers — a governor, a deputy governor, and
a committee which was to transact details of busi-
ness as occasion required. Each officer was re-
quired to take oath of secrecy and fidelity. This
committee, it was, that appointed the captains to
the vessels, the men of the crews, the local governors
for the fur posts on the bay, and the chief traders,
who were to go inland to barter. From all of these,
oaths and bonds of fidelity were required. He, who
violated his oath, was liable to forfeiture of wages

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^'Gentlemen Adventurers of England'*

and stock in the Company. In all the minute books
for two-and-a-half centuries, both of the committee
and the General Court which I examined, there
were records of only one director dismissed for
breaking his oath, and two captains discharged for
illicit trade. Compared to the cut-throat methods
of modem business, whose promise is not worth
the breath that utters it and whose perjuries having
become so common, people have ceased to blush, the
old, slow-going Company has no need to be ashamed.
Each officer in his own sphere was as despotic as
a czar, but the despotism was founded on good will.
When my Lord Preston did the Company a good turn
by sending Radisson back from Paris to London,
the committee of 1684 orders the warehouse keeper
"to deliver the furrier as many black beaver skins as
TvUl make my lord a fine covering for his bedd^^ — ^not
a bribe before the good turn, but a token of good will
afterwards. When Mr. Randolph of New England
arrests Ben Gillam for poaching on the Company's
preserve up on Hudson Bay, the committee orders
a piece of plate to the value of ^^lo for Mr. Randolph.
When King Charles and the Duke of York interceded
with France to forbid interlopers, ^^two pair of beaver
stockings are ordered for the King and the Duke of
York;^^ and the committee of April, 1684, instructs
''Sir James Hayes do attend His Royal Highness

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

at Windsor and present him his dividend in gold in
a jaire embroidered purse.^^ For whipping ^^ those
vermin^ those enemies of all mankind, the Frenchj^
the Right Honorable Earl John Churchill (Marl-
borough) is presented with a cat-skin counterpane.

The General Court and weekly committee meet-
ings were held at the very high altars of feudalism —
in the White Tower built by William the Conqueror,
or at Whitehall where lived the Stuarts, or at the
Jerusalem Coffee House, where scions of nobility
met the money lenders and where the Company
seems to have arranged advances on the subscribed
stock to outfit each year's ships. Often, the com-
mittee meetings wound up with orders for the secre-
tary "to bespeake a cask of canary for ye governor ^^^
or "a hogshead of claret for ye captains sailing from
Gravesendy^^ to whom "ye committee wished a God
speed, a good wind and a faire saileJ^

When the Stuart line gave place to a new regime,
the Company hastened to King William at Kensing-
ton, and as the minutes of Oct. i, 1690, record —
^^ having the Honour to be introduced into His
Majesty s clossett . . . the Deputy-Governor Sir
Edward Bering delivered himself in these words.

. . . May it Please your Majesty — Your Maj-
estys most loyal and dutifull subjects, the Hudson^ s
Bay Company begg leave most humbly to congratu-

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** Gentlemen Adventurers of England^*

late your Majesty s Happy Relume home with hon-
ours and safety. And wee doo daily pray to Heaven
{that Hath God wonderfully preserved your RoyaU
person) that in all your undertakings^ your Majesty
may bee as victorious as Caesar y as Beloved as Titus ^
and (after all) have the glorious long reign and peace-
full end of Augustus. . . . We doo desire also
most humbly to presefit to your Majesty a dividend of
three hundred guineas upmi three hundred pounds
stock in the Hudson^ s Bay Company now Rightfully
devolved to your Majesty. And altho we have been
the greatest sufferers of any Company ^ from these com-
mon enemies off all mankind^ the French^ yet when
your Majesty s just arms shall have given repose to
all Christendom^ wee also shall enjoy our share of
those great Benefitts and doo not doubt but to appeare
often with this golden fruit in our hands — And the
Deputy-Governor upon his knees humbly presented
to his Majesty^ the purse of gold . . . and then
the Deputy-Governor and all the rest had the honour
to kiss His Majesty s Hand.^^

Holding its privilege by virtue of royal favor, the
Company was expected to advance British dominion
abroad and resist all enemies. For exactly one
hundred years (1682-1782) it fought the ground inch
by inch against the French. From 1698, agents were

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kept in Russia and Holland and Germany to watch
the fur markets there, and when the question of
designating the bounds between Russian Alaska
and British Columbia, came up between England
and Russia, it was on the Hudson's Bay Company
that the British Government relied for the defense
of its case. Similarly, when the United States took
over Louisiana, the British Government called on
the Company in 1807 to state what the limits ought
to be between Louisiana and British America. But
perhaps the most notoriously absurd part the Com-
pany ever played internationally was in connection
with what is known as " the Oregon question." The
bad feeling over that imbroglio need not be recalled.
The modem Washington and Oregon — broadly
speaking, regions of greater wealth than France —
were at stake. The astonishing thing, the untold
inside history of the whole episode was that after
insisting on joint occupancy for years and refusing
to give up her claims, England suddenly kow-towed
flat without rhjmie or reason. The friendship of
the Company's chief factor, McLoughlin, for the in-
coming American settlers of Oregon, has usually
been given as the explanation. Some truth there
may be in this, for the settlers' tented wagon was
always the herald of the hunter's end, but the real
reason is good enough to be registered as melodrama

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** Gentlemen Adventurers of England'^

to the everlasting glory of a martinet oflBcer's igno-
rance. Aberdeen was the British minister who had
the matter in hand. His brother, Captain Gordon
in the Pacific Squadron was ordered to take a look
over the disputed territory. In vain the fur traders
of Oregon and Vancouver Island spread the choicest
game on his table. He could not have his English
bath. He could not have the comforts of his Eng-
lish bed. He had bad luck deerstalking and worse
luck fishing. Asked if he did not think the moun-
tains magnificent, his response was that he would
not give the bleakest hill in Scotland for all these
mountains in a heap. Meanwhile, the Hudson's
Bay Company was wasting candle light in London
preparing the British case for the retention of Oregon.
Matters himg fire. Should it be joint occupancy,
"fifty-four-forty or fight," or compromise? Aber-
deen's brother on leave home was called in.

"Oregon? Oregon?" Yes, Gordon remem-
bered Oregon. Been there fishing last year, and

"the fish wouldn't rise to the fly worth a d !

Let the old country go!" This, in a country where
fish might be scooped out in tubfuls without either
3y or line!

Thecommitteemen meeting to transact the details
of business were, of course, paid a small amount,

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

but coming together in the court, itself, or in the
jolly chambers of a gay gallant like Prince Rupert,
or at the Three Tunns, or at the Golden Anchor,
great difl&culty was experienced in calling the gen-
tlemen to order, and the law was early passed, "y/
whensoever the committee shall be summoned^ yt one
hour after ye Deputy-Governor turns up ye glass,
whosoever does not appear before the glass runs out,
shaU lose his committee money. ^^ The ^^ glass, ^^ it
may be explained, was the hourglass, not the one
for the "cask of canary." Later on, fines were im-
posed to be put in the Poor Box, which was estab-
lished as the minutes explain, "a token of gratitude
for God's great blessing to the company," the pro-
ceeds to go to old pensioners, to those wounded in
service, or to wives and children of the dead.

The great events of the year to the committee were
the dispatching of the boats, the home-coming of the
cargoes and the public sales of the furs. Between
these events, long recesses were taken without any
evidence that the Company existed but a quiet dis-
tribution of dividends, or a courier spurring post-
haste from Southhampton with word that one of
the Company's ships had been captured by the
French, the Company's cargo sold, the Company's
ship sunk, the Company's servants left rotting in
some dungeon waiting for. ransom. From January

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^'Gentlemen Adventurers of England'*

to April, all was bustle preparing the ships, two in
the first years, later three and four and five armed
frigates, to sail to the bay. Only good ice-goers
were chosen, built of staunchest oak or ironwood,
high and narrow at the prow to ride the ice and cut
the floes by sheer weight. Then captains and crews
were hired, some captains sailing for the Company
as long as forty years. Goods for trade were stowed
in the hold, traps, powder, guns, hatchets, blankets,
beads, rope; and the committee orders the secretary
"to bespeake a good rat catcher to kill the vermin that
injure our beaver ^^ though whether this member of
the crew was biped or quadruped does not appear.
A surgeon accompanied each ship. The secret sig-
nals left in duplicate with the posts on the bay the
year before were then given to the captains, for if
any ship approached the bsty without these signals
the forts had orders to fire their cannon at the in-
truder, cvit the harbor buoys, put out all lights and
do all they could to cause the interlopers' wreck. If
taken by pirates, all signals were to be thrown over-
board, and the captains were secretly instructed how
high a ransom they might in the name of the Company
offer their captors. On the day of sailing, usually
in early June, the Committee went down on horse-
back to Gravesend. Lockers were searched for
goods that might be hidden for clandestine trade,

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

for independent trade, even to the extent of one
muskrat, the Company would no more tolerate than
diamond miners will allow a private deal in their
mine. These searchers examined the ships for
hidden furs when she came home, just as rigorously as
the customs officers examine modem baggage on
any Atlantic liner. The same system of search was
exercised among the workers on the furs of the Com-
pany's warehouses, the men being examined when
they entered in the morning, and when they left at
night. For this, the necessity was and is yet plain.
Rare silver fox skins have been sold at auction for
£200, ;^30o, £400, even higher for a fancy skin.
Half a dozen such could be concealed in a winter
overcoat. That the searchers could no more prevent
clandestine trade than the customs can smuggling —
goes without saying. Illicit trade was the pest of
the committeeman's life. Captains and crews, traders
and factors and directors were alike dismissed and
prosecuted for it. The Company were finally driven
to demanding the surrender of even personal cloth-
ing, fur coats, mits, caps, from returning servants.
On examination, this was always restored.

The search over, wages were paid to the seamen
with an extra half-crown for good luck. The com-
mittee then shook hands with the crew. A parting
cheer — and the boats would be gone for six months,

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** Gentlemen Adventurers of England'*

perhaps forever, for wrecks were frequent, so fre-
quent that they are a story of heroism and hardship
by themselves. Nor have the inventions of modem
science rendered the dangers of the ice floes less.
There are fewer Hudson's Bay Company ships among
the floes now than in the middle period of its exis-
tence, but half a dozen terrible wrecks mark its latter
history, one but a few years ago, when a $300,000
cargo went to the bottom; the captain instead of
being dismissed was presented by Lloyds with gold
plate for preventing another wreck in a similar
jam the next year. Pirates, were, of course, keener
to waylay the ships home-bound with furs than out-
going, but armed convoys were usually granted by
the Government at least as far as the west Irish coast.

One of the quaintest customs that I found in the
minute books was regarding the home-coming ships.
The money, that had accrued from sales during the
ships* absence, was kept in an iron box in the ware-
house on Fenchurch Street. It ranged in amount
from £2,000 to £11,000. To this, only the governor
and deputy-governor had the keys. Banking in the
modem sense of the word was not begun till 1735.
When the ships came in, the strong box was hauled
forth and the crews paid.

After the coming of the cargoes the sales of the
furs were held in December, or March, by public

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

auction if possible, but in years when war demoral-
ized trade, by private contract. This was the cli-
max of the year to the fur trader. Even during the
century when the French raiders swept the bay, an
average of ten thousand beaver a year was brought
home. Later, otter and mink and marten and
ermine became valuable. These, the common furs,
whalebone, ivory, elks' hoofs and whale blubber made
up the lists of the winter sales. Before the days of
newspapers, the lists were posted in the Royal Ex-
change and sales held "by candle" in lieu of auc-
tioneer's hammer — a tiny candle being lighted, pins
stuck in at intervals along the shaft, and bids shouted
till the light burned out. One can guess with what
critical caress the fur fanciers ran their hands over
the soft nap of the silver fox, blowing open the fur
to examine the depth and find whether the pelt had
been damaged in the skinning. Half a dozen of
these rare skins from the fur world meant more than
a cargo of beaver. What was it anyway, this crea-
ture rare as twentieth century radium, that was
neither blue fox nor gray, neither cross nor black?
Was it the black fox changing his winter coat for
summer dress just caught at the moment by the
trapper, or the same fellow changing his summer
pelt from silver to black for winter? Was it a turn-
ing of the black hairs to silver from old age, trapped

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^^ Gentlemen Adventurers of England'^

luckily just before old age had robbed the fur of
its gloss? Was it senility or debility or a splendid
freak in the animal world like a Newton or a Shake-
speare in the human race? Of all the scientists from
Royal Society and hall of learning, who came to
gossip over the sales at the coffee houses, not one
could explain the silver fox. Or was the soul of the
fur trader, like the motto painted on his coat of arms
by John Pinto for thirty shillings, in December,
1679 — Pro Pelle CtUem — not above the value of a
beaver skin?

Terse business methods of to-day, where the sales
are advertised in a newspaper and afterward held
apart from the goods, have robbed them of their old-
time glamor, for the sale was to the city merchant
what the circus is to the country boy, the event of the
year. By the committee of Nov. 8, 1680, "5fr
James Hayes is desired to choose 3 doz. bottles of sack
6r* 3 doz. of claret to be given the buyers at the sale £^
a dinner to be spoke at the Stellyarde, Mr. Stone to
bespeake a good dish of fish, a Hone of veale, 2 pullets
and 4 ducks.^^

In early days when the Company had the field to
itself, and sent out only a score or two of men in two
small ships, £20,000 worth of beaver were often sold
in a year, so that after paying back money advanced
for outfit and wages, the Company was able to

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declare a dividend of 50 per cent, on stock that had
been twice trebled. Then came the years of the
conflict with France — causing a loss in forts and furs
of ;£ioo,543. Though small cargoes of beaver were
still brought home, returns were swamped in the
expenses of the fight. No dividends were paid for
twenty years. The capital stock was all out as
security for loans, and the private fortunes of di-
rectors pledged to keep the tradesmen clamoring for
pajmient of outfits quiet. Directors borrowed money
on their own names for the pajmient of the crews,
and the officers of the Company, governors, chief
factors and captains were paid in stock. Then
came the peace of 1713 and a century's prosperity,
when sales jumped from ;£2o,ooo to ;^30,ooo and
;£7o,ooo a year. In five years all debts were paid,
but the Company had learned a lesson. To hold
its ground, it must strengthen grip. Instead of two
small sloops, four and five armed frigates were sent
out with crews of thirty and forty and sixty men.
Eight men used to be deemed sufficient to winter at
a fur post. Thirty and forty and sixty were now
kept at each post, the number of posts increased,
some of them built and manned like beleaguered
fortresses, and that forward march begun across
America which only ended on the borders of the
Pacific and the confines of Mexico. Though the

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^^Gerdlemen Adventurers of England^^

returns were now so large from the yearly cargo,
dividends never went higher than 20 per cent., fell as
low as six, and hardly averaged above eight.

Then came the next great struggle of the Company
for its life — against the North- West Company in
Canada and the American traders in the Western
States. Sales fell as low as £2^000. Oddly enough
to-day, with its monopoly of exclusive trade long
since surrendered to the Canadian Government, its
charter gone, free traders at liberty to come or go,
and populous cities spread over two thirds of its old
stamping ground, the sales of the Company yield
as high returns as in its palmiest days.

The reason is this:

It was only in regions where there were rival
traders, or where colonization was bound to come, as
m the Western States, that the fur brigades waged a
war of extermination against the beaver. Else-
where, north of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca,
where cold must forever bar out the settler and leave
the hunter in undisturbed possession of his game
preserve, the Company acted as a nursery for the fur-
bearing animals. Indians were taught not to kill
in summer, not to kill the young, to leave the mother
imtouched. Tales are told — and the tales are per-
fectly true — of Hudson's Bay fur traders takii\g a
particularly long-barreled old musket standing it on

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the ground and ordering the poor, deluded Indian
to pUe furs to the top before he could have the gun;
but to make these tales entirely true it should be
added that the furs were muskrat and rabbit killed
out of season not worth a penny apiece in the Lon-
don market and only taken to keep the Indians
going till a year of good hunting came. When ar-
raigned before a conmiittee of the House of Com-
mons, in 1857, charged with putting an advance of
50 per cent, on all goods traded to the Indians, and
with paying ridiculously small prices for the rare
skins in proportion to what they had paid for the
poor, the Company frankly acknowledged both facts,
but it was proved that 33 per cent, of the advance
represented expenses of carriage to the interior. As
for the other charge, the Company contended that
it was wiser to take many skins that were absolutely
worthless and buy the valuable pelts at a moderate'
price; otherwise, the Indians would die from want
in bad years, and in good years kill oflF the entire
supply of the rare fur-bearing animals. Since the
surrender of the monopoly, countless rival traders
have invaded the hunting grounds of the Company.
None has yet been able to wean the Indians away
from the old Company. It is a question if the
world shows another example of such a long*lived
feudalism.

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^^GenUemen Adventurers of EnglaruT*

Though a Hudson's Bay servant could not take
as much as one beaver skin for himself, every man
afield had as keen an interest in the total returns as
the shareholders in London. This was owing to the
bounty system. To encourage the servants and
prevent temptations to dishonesty, the Company paid
bounty on every score (20) of made beaver to cap-
tains, factors, traders, and trappers, in amounts
ranging from three shillings to sixpence a score.
Latterly, this system has given place to larger salaries
and direct shareholding on the part of the servants,
who rise in the service.

A change has also taken place in methods of
barter. Up to 1820, beaver was literally coin of the
realm. Mink, marten, ermine, silver fox, all were
computed as worth so much or so many fractions of
beaver. A roll of tobacco, a pound of tea, a yard
of blazing-red flannel, a powderhom, a hatchet, all
were measured and priced as worth so many beaver.
This was the Indian's coinage, but this, too, has given
way to modem methods, though the old system may
perhaps be traced among the far Northern tribes.
The account system was now used, so much being
consigned to each factor, for which he was respon-
sible. The trader, in turn, advanced the Indian
whatever he needed for a yearly outfit, charging it
against his name. This was repaid by the year's

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

hunt. If the hunt fell short of the amount, the
Indians stood in debt to the Company. This did
not in the least prevent another advance for the
next year. If the hunt exceeded the debt, the Indian
might draw either cash or goods to the full amount
or let the Company stand in his debt, receiving coins
made from the lead of melted tea chests with i, 2, 3
or 4 B — beaver — stamped in the lead, and the mystic
letters N. B., A. R., Y. F., E. M., C. R., H. H., or
some other, meaning New Brunswick House, Albany
River, York Fort, East Main, Churchill River,
Henley House — names of the Company's posts on
or near the bay. And these coins have in turn been
supplanted by modem money.

One hears much of the Indians' slavery to the
Company owing to the debts for these advances, but



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 9 of 50)