Known by its slogan, “We are Canada’s merchants,” the Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America and one of the oldest in the world. And its reaches extended all the way to Del Norte County.
Founded May 2, 1670, it is also in the history books as having once been the largest land owner in the world, perhaps inspiring a satirical interpretation of its initials as standing for “Here Before Christ.” Satire aside, the grand lady of the north controlled the fur trade throughout most of then-British controlled North America for several centuries.
The company launched expeditions that to some degree influenced the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest. Serving as the only government available to many areas of the continent before large-scale settlement began, the company remains in business today.
The company evolved from a tip that French traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groseilliers received from the Cree tribe that the best fur country lay north and west of Lake Superior. The Indians also told the two men a “frozen sea” lay farther north.
Following up on the information Radisson and des Groseilliers sought French backing for a plan to set up a trading post on the Bay. Although the French government declined, the men were successful in convincing a Boston firm to finance them.
In 1668 the British commissioned two ships, Nonsuch and Eaglet to explore possible trade into Hudson Bay. After successful trading during the winter of 1668-69 the company received a Royal Charter from King Charles II.
It was given dominion over a 3.9 million square mile area known as Rupert’s Land. The company’s success led to bickering with competing trappers who also sought the wealth furs brought.
Not until 1870 was HBC’s monopoly dissolved. The company controlled nearly all trading operations in Oregon Country as its trappers worked their way from company headquarters at Fort Vancouver near the mouth of the Columbia River.
Its trappers were deeply involved in the early exploration and development of this area, traveling down the Siskiyou Trail and as far south as the San Francisco Bay Area. Trapping “brigades” worked their way through Northern California in the 1830s.
They included Edwin Young, known as an “American visionary,” who led a herd of horses and mules over the Siskiyou Trail in 1834 from this area’s mission to British and American settlements in Oregon. Young returned in 1837, purchased 700 head of cattle and drove them over the Siskiyou Trail to Oregon.
For many colonial settlers, the only source of cash money was furs and hides. High dollar hides were deerskins, valued at 50 cents for a doe and $1 for a buck’s skin.
The worth of buckskin entered into commerce lingo as the word “buck,” slang for one dollar. Not only did the fur trade become a major factor in drawing the boundaries of the United States, especially its northwest corner, fur traders discovered the Oregon Trail and provided guiding during the country’s western expansion.
Because of their own prejudices, much of the western exploration history of American Mountain Men, Canadian Voyageurs and Native American fur trade from the 1500s through 1840 is racially colored.