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Hudsons Bay Company and the Fur Trade

furs, indians, time, european, brought, usually, land and canoes

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HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY AND THE FUR TRADE. In the sixth cen tury the skins of sables were brought for sale from the confines of the Arctic Ocean to Rome, through the intervention of many different hands, so that the ulti mate cost to the consumer was very great. For several centuries after that time furs could not have become at all common in western Europe. Marco Polo mentions as a matter of curiosity in 1252, that he found the tents of the Khan of Tartary lined with the skins of ermines and sables which were brought from countries far north, from the land of darkness. But in less than a century from that time the fashion of wearing furs must have become prevalent in Eng land, for in 1337 Edward the Third ordered that all persons among his sub jects should be prohibited their use un less they could spend one hundred pounds a year. The furs then brought to Eng land were furnished by the traders of Italy, who procured them from the north of Asia.

The fur trade was taken up by the French colonists of Canada very soon after their first settlement on the St. Lawrence, and the traders at first made very great profits. The animals soon became scarce in the neighbourhood of the European settlements, and the Indians were Obliged to extend the range of their hunting expeditions, in which they were frequently accompanied by one or other of the French dealers, whose object it was to encourage a greater number of Indians to engage in the pursuit and to bring their peltries, as the unprepared skins are called, to the European settle ments. When the hunting season was over the Indians came down the Ottawa in their canoes with the produce of the chase, and encamped outside the town of Montreal, where a kind of fair was held until the furs were all exchanged for trinkets, knives, hatchets, kettles, blan kets, coarse cloths, and other articles suited to their wants, including arms and ammunition. A large part of the value was usually paid to the Indians in the form of ardent spirits, and scenes of riot and confusion were consequently of fre quent occurrence.

The next stage of the Canadian fur trade was when some of the European settlers, under the name of Coureurs des Bois, or wood-rangers, set out at the pro per season from Montreal in canoes loaded with various articles considered desirable by the Indians, and proceeded up the river to the hunting-grounds. Here they remained for an indefinite time, sometimes longer than a year, car rying on their traffic with the Indian hunters, and when their outward invest ments were exhausted, they returned, their canoes in general loaded with packs of beaver-skins and other valuable peltries.

While engaged in these expeditions some of them adopted the habits of the tribe with whom they were associated, and formed connexions with the Indian wo men. This trade was for some time ex tremely profitable • the men by whom it was conducted, the Coureurs des Bois, were usually without capital, and their investments of European goods were furnished by the storekeepers of Mont real, who drew at least their full pro portion of profit from the adventure. The return cargo was generally more valuable than the investments, in the proportion of six to one. Thus where the invest ment amounted to one thousand dollars, and the peltries returned sold for six thousand, the storekeeper first repaid him self the original outlay, and usually se cured for himself an equal amount for interest and commissions, after which the remaining four thousand dollars were divided between himself and the Conreur des Bois.

The Hudson's Bay Company, esta blished with the express object of procur ing furs, was chartered by Charles II. in 1670. This association founded several es tablishments in America, and has ever since prosecuted the trade under the direction of a governor, deputy-governor, and a com mittee of management chosen from among the proprietors of the joint-stock, and resident in London. By this charter the Company obtained, as absolute lords and proprietors, all the lands on the coasts and confines of the seas, lakes, and rivers within the Hudson's Straits, not actually possessed by the subjects of any other prince or state, and the exclusive right of trading with the Indians. Persons who intruded on the Company's privileges were to forfeit merchandise and ship, one half to the Crown and one-half to the Company. In 1749 the Hudson's Bay Company had only four forts, occupied by 120 men, and they were threatened with the deprivation of their charter from non-user. Their exports for the ten pre ceding years had amounted to 36,000l.; their establishment expenses and man agement to 157,0001., their imports to about 280,0001.; and their net profit was estimated at about 80001. a year. At this time the value of the furs imported from Canada into Rochelle amounted to 120,000/.

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