Hudson’s Bay Company Store – Suzan Lagrove & Timothy Ball
Interviews by Sara Kolbet
1 Disc – 56:36 – 13 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 0:10
TRACK 2 – 0:12
TRACK 3 – 0:58
TRACK 4 – 0:56
SARA BUYS SOCKS
TRACK 5 – 8:42
SARA: Introduce yourself.
SUZAN: I’m Suzan Lagrove and I’m regional manager for Western Canada for Hudson’s Bay Galleries and Heritage Tourism. And I have the pleasure of working here in Victoria in this unique gallery.
SARA: Where are we?
SUZAN: We’re in the Bay Center on the 4th floor in our HB heritage gallery, which is the first of its kind the company has done, and we have since rolled one out to Montreal, and our goal is to this year, 2005, in Toronto and gradually each year each of the major cities will have a little history in its store.
SARA: What are we looking at?
SUZAN: My gallery is divided into what I call three themes. Right now we’re looking at a typical retail store from the late 1800s. if you were coming into Victoria and were heading off to the gold fields to make your fortune, these were all the supplies you would get to survive for a year on the gold fields. We do have an interactive quiz in different languages that you can play with as well and see how good you are in guessing the cost of supplies in the 1800s so it lets people see how people lived in the old days.
SARA: What are we selling?
SUZAN: Basic things. We’ve got Bovitrol, which was good for your soups, etc. good old cod liver oil. Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, soap, basic dishes, HBC point blanket to keep you warm. Flannel shirts, warm socks, gold pan, lanterns, snowshoes, paddles for your canoe – all the essentials of life.
SARA: Explain the significance of the blanket?
SUZAN: The blanket was first imported in 1780, it is 100% wool, they’re very warm. The first nations really liked them and the Métis adopted them into a copote, a French term for a hooded coat, and we do workshops here to teach people how to make hooded blankets. But the blankets were an essential part of the trade the company had because now the natives had one big piece of fabric. Rather than having to get all these skins and sew them together they could wrap one blanket around them. They were quite valued and they’re valued today. They come in different colors and many regions have preferences in colors or for different ceremonies they had different colors. So rather than our cream color with our multi stripes it’s important to look at other colors as well.
SARA: What’s that?
SUZAN: That’s a model of the SS Beaver which the original ran aground here in Vancouver off Stanley Park off Brockton point and it was the first steamship paddle wheeler that came up the coast. And the reason they liked the paddle wheeler was it could go up the rivers as well, could go through shallow water as well as on the ocean.
SARA: Anything else here?
SUZAN: Here we have some beaver pelts which of course. In this section we have a stack of beaver pelts which were of course a very important part of our company’s history. That’s what got them over here to begin with in 1670 and they traded the Indians as they were called in those days were great for going out and trapping all these, bringing them back. They loved to get the European goods that the company was bringing over. The ax-heads, the metal ones versus having stone ones to chop down their trees, and it started to make their live easier because they could get kettles and things instead of using clay pots, so the beaver pelt was an important part of our history and with for high fashion in Europe for all the top hats etc that everybody wanted in those days. And here we have a scene as if you had been out paddling all day in your canoe and now you’re by your campfire at night. And you’re getting ready to have dinner but also on the wall we have a map of Canada that’s out of Peter C. Newman’s book and it sort of depicts where quite a few of the forts and trading posts were. Not all of them are displayed but again it’s interactive. You can push the buttons and you see different forts at different times. It shows you where the company started out, around Hudson’s Bay. It also shows the Northwest Company, who was our competition and it shows you their forts…also shows the Northwest Company and it shows once we merged in 1821 it shows all the forts. And it also shows Fort Vancouver down by the Columbia in Oregon, which was a very important part of our history. And the company wanted to remain British so when the Americans were moving out west we knew the 49th parallel was going to go through so that’s how Victoria was established. James Douglas was sent up and needed to find a new location that would be on the west coast that could be the company’s permanent main focus for being able to look after the west coast so that’s how we ended up in Victoria. So that gives you a bit of the history. It also shows you current day stores across Canada. We have2500 stores in our company. All in Canada, coast-to-coast. So you get a feeling for all the posts and where we are today, which is all pretty close to the border because that’s where our population is. not too many of us want to live further north, right? Too cold. So it shows you a bit of history. And it shows you Rupert’s land, which was all the waterways draining into Hudson’s bay. Which was granted by King Charles the second to Prince Rupert and that’s how we started out. He didn’t realize how much land he was granting him at the time, obviously, but when you look at the map it’s interesting to see. And our official title today is still the Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay, which is kind of an interesting title. A little bit different from just The Bay. So it shows you a lot of history there. And you can see from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the river runs down into the United States, into Minnesota and the Dakotas, so a little part of our history where we were actually involved in the United States as well.
SARA: Could you say the official title?
SUZAN: Our official title is the Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay. It’s great. So then we go on to, we have three little videos here which are only a couple of minutes long that starts out with the beginning, sort of the first hundred years and then it goes into the fur trade to retell and then into modern-day history. Sort of shows you the history of the company. Interesting to watch those. And then you actually go into a dining room scene, which is set in the 1920s. and the reason that time was picked is the fact that what we know as modern retail today, the former Bay store that we just moved from about 18 months ago, and is further down on Douglas, was actually built in 1921.
TRACK 6 – 4:12
SUZAN: So in here we have a dining room theme from the 1920s and as I mentioned the former store opened in 1921 so what you have here is the mom and dad are sitting at their dining room table and getting ready for a party and they have their fine china out. The mother’s looking through a catalogue from 1927 so you do get to look at it on the computer here and it shows you page by page all the fashions from that era. What the costs were. The father’s looking at a magazine called the Beaver Magazine and this was actually a magazine started by the company in 1920 almost as a newspaper for the employees so they knew what was happening in different locations across Canada. And on the computer there beside dad we have issues from the 1920s and 30s you can look through and see what was taking place in history at that time. This magazine is still produced six times a year by the Canadian Historical Society so it’s a great magazine for anybody that loves history, they can still get it and love to share lots of interesting stories in it. You also have in here a telephone. You can listen to different conversations that are taking place in Victoria back in the 20s. The radio you can tune in and listen to music and talk shows from the 20s. The other neat thing we have in here, also the piano if you know how to play it you can sit down and play that, but the artwork in here are originals and these are what we call the calendar series of paintings. So these are paintings that the company commissioned artists to paint for them which show different scenes of history. So it is the artist’s interpretation of what took place at that point in history, but the company actually used them on calendars they used to sell up until 1970 so for our 300th birthday which was the last year they produced the calendars. But you can look on the podium and it shows you each painting, who the artist was, what time in history it’s representing in and which calendar it was on as well. So we do official art tours in here as well where we spend about an hour talking about each artist and the actual medium they painted in and there’s no charge for people to come to these events. So it’s kind of nice. We have one here that shows the SS Beaver that we were talking about. So that’s the SS Beaver in the inner harbor of Victoria, the fort. There and this where the rocks and trees are that’s just across the harbor at the Sangees area. A hotel sits there now but it was a little bit more rugged in those days. So it’s interesting to look at. This is representing Fort Gary in Winnipeg and it’s supposed to be the Red River carts as they were leaving with all the supplies, etc, and it shows our flag flying high and everybody ready to go out and trade.
SARA: Thank you. Anything else?
SUZAN: The other really unique thing we have here is two original pieces of artwork from the 1600s. One of King Charles II from 1666 and the other a Prince Rupert from 1650. King Charles was painted by Sir Peter Lily. The one of Prince Rupert was out of Anthony Van Dyke’s studios. We do say contemporary copy on his. It is an original from his studio, but we can’t guarantee he was the sole artist because a lot of his students assisted him on is artwork. But these have always been in the corporate boardrooms. This is the first time they’ve been on public display so it’s kind of a nice feature for people to come and see. We do do lots of programs here for schools and we always have all kinds of activities where people can come hear guest speakers, make coats, we have a teddy bear tea today where you can make coats for your bears. So we’re always having fun here and we like to share it with people.
TRACK 7 – 1:02
ROOM TONE IN DINING ROOM
TRACK 8 – 1:01
ROOM TONE IN MAIN ROOM
TRACK 9 – 7:52
TIM: I’m Dr. Tim Ball and I’m not employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but I spent my academic career working on Hudson’s Bay Company records. I’m a climatologist by training, studying weather, and the archives in Winnipeg, the company records, have one of the best climate records in the world, because once they arrived in North America they started recording the weather on a daily basis. And they then brought thermometers and barometers to Churchill, Manitoba in 1768 and then they spread them throughout a lot of their posts, so it provides us with one of the longest and earliest records of climate data. And the other thing they did was that they started recording the landscape, that is that they measured the land, mapped it, recorded plant life and everything else, and it’s a huge opportunity because one of the problems we’ve got in the world today is what are the impacts of Europeans on the landscape? And here in the company archives, or at least in Winnipeg in the company archives, you’ve got a very detailed description of almost half the continent and from that we can measure what changes have occurred and it was a remarkable thing. So that’s what my career was around and so of course also you can’t read those archives without becoming interested in the people and the history. And I set up something called the Rupert’s Land Research Center which was designed to promote the archives and assist researchers going to Winnipeg. And I published a lot about the company. The most recent publication in October of 2003 was a book on the naturalist of the 18th century because the first book done on arctic zoology was published by Arthur Pennant. It was published in the 1890s by Arthur Pennant, called ‘Arctic Zoology’ and all of the information came from the fur traders, the employees of the company who were sending materials back to the royal society. And I think that’s what makes that company unique. It was very aware of its environment and of course had to live off the land as well. So it’s an incredible record.
SARA: Can you give me a basic history?
TIM: The Hudson’s Bay Company started out in an era when exploration and development in a mercantile sense, in a merchant sense, was beginning. And there was the Dutch East India Company as an example. And the Hudson’s Bay Company was called the Company of Adventurers and it was people that were looking for resources and looking to expand overseas because the wealthy in Europe started to realize they could build their wealth beyond their shores. And of course the concept of the fur trade and the concept of the resources of North America made it very attractive. One of the things I try to point out to people is the demand for furs increased because the climate was so cold in the 17th and 18th century. You’re talking about 3 feet of ice on the Thames in 1683. But then it evolved very naturally. And the company were just incredibly inventive in terms of what they found as business opportunities. Everything from moose hooves to shipping ice from the Yukon to California gold rush and even trying to ship ice to Hawaii, by the way. So it was just remarkable. I’ve always said it was the largest and most successful multi-national corporation, long before the concept of multi-nationals ever evolved. The company was very democratic. They didn’t care who you were or where you came from. If you could work for them and produce for them, you were hired. And that included all sorts of nationalities. So you’ve got Norway house in Manitoba where you’ve got lots of Norwegians and in Fort Vancouver the Hawaiians that were brought over to support that fur trade there. At the height of their power the company controlled one twelve of the earth’s land surface. That’s after the amalgamation in 1821 with the Northwest Company. And there’s only two people in history who have controlled more territory and one was George III and of course we know what happened to some of his territory and the other was Catherine the Great of Russia and they literally encircled the world. And Sir George Simpson who was the governor at the amalgamation traveled around the world three times including going to Hawaii, just visiting his empire. He crossed the Atlantic 32 times in the days of sail, which gives you an idea of the scope of his empire. And the company paid a minimum of ten percent dividends every year for 150 years and I don’t’ think there’s a company in the world that will ever equal that, because they come and go so rapidly. And from a Canadian perspective, certainly all of central and western Canada is based around corporations. The HBC and later the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, and there’s no other nation in the world that has that kind of background. But the company itself was also almost like a nation. It had its own money and it had essentially nation-state control over its territory.
SARA: How did it get involved with Hawaii?
TIM: The fur trade started of course because the demand for furs increased. There was a decrease in furs from Russia because of wars and so on, and then the colder temperatures, and then as I say the search for resources. Furs weren’t the only thing they were looking for, but that’s what immediately attracted attention. And it wasn’t just the ordinary furs like the beaver, but it was also the luxury furs, what we’d call luxury furs today, ermine and so on, so.
TIM: If you look at any aristocrat or person of rank they always had furs. It was a symbol, the famous painting of Elizabeth the first with the live ermine on her arm is a symbol of wealth, but then it evolved very rapidly. One of the things that happened, one of the quirks of history was that the Huguenots chased out of France. The Huguenots were superb felt makers and were short of the made beaver fur you look at it under microscope
TRACK 10 – 10:03
TIM: I’m Dr. Tim Ball, I’m a climatologist by training, and I did my doctoral thesis using the archives of the HBC to reconstruct the weather of the last 300 years. The Huguenots were chased out of France. They were superb felt makers, that was their guild and their talent. And the beaver fur that was coming from North America, the made beaver fur has got barbs in it and when pounded it makes very strong felt. That of course became used for making the beaver hats. They became fashionable and that was a huge push to the whole fur trade industry. Went out of fashion when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, decided he didn’t like wearing hats and went out like anything fashionable. But by that time the company had diversified and that was its great talent was its ability to see great business opportunities and diversify. And a measure of that is the development of the Pacific trade. One of the things when you read the archives, the single thing that surprises you and me most was the extent to which these people traveled. And the impunity with which they traveled. We think the real challenge of going to the airport and getting on the airplane, but imagine stepping out of the post, say in Toronto and saying I’m going to walk to the west coast, and it’s very difficult to get your mind around that, yet they did those things with impunity, as I said. So when they opened up on Hudson’s Bay at Churchill within two years the aboriginal people were coming around the coast of the arctic to trade and going back to the Mackenzie delta in one summer. And another example is John Ray who was at Churchill on Hudson’s Bay wanted to learn surveying so on go the snowshoes and he snowshoes to Winnipeg, which is about 700 miles. Gets there to find out that the fellow who could teach him has died. Someone says there’s someone in Montreal who could teach you so he snowshoes to Montreal. So as I say we have no idea, we can’t get our minds around that travel. But some of that was out on the oceans. Crossing the Atlantic and crossing the Pacific. So of course the Sandwich Islands as they were called by Captain Cook, named after his sponsor the Earl of Sandwich, were a very important place for movement of shipping. A popular stopping place for water and supplies and so on. And of course trade began with some of the tropical produce from Hawaii that was coming to the west here, and in return there was timber, and furs and coal was an interesting one that developed on the west coast here, and of course that became more important when steam power came in. And part of the battle for the pacific was the battle between the American fur trade company…Part of the development of the fur trade on the west coast here was the battle with Jacob Astor’s fur trade company, the Astoria fur company, and the HBC developed a policy of trapping out all the furs in an area to make it unattractive to the competition and it worked very well, but also part of that competition as well was the growing merchant trade across the pacific ocean from Asia and Alaska and Hawaii of course. And so it didn’t take long before trade was going in both directions. And the company had an agent in Hawaii in 1840. He was actually a British government employee but he was also agent for the company. And Simpson visited there later in 1860. And just reestablished the trade and saw the potential for the trade. Some of the other things that went. Of course salmon was a natural product. Dried salmon was a natural product, so there was trade going back and forth. The company had a practice of trying to hire local people. As I say, very democratic, and they would try to hire people that were suitable for the climate and the trade that they were in. So for example when they left England they went thought eh Orkney islands off the coast of Scotland, which is a very bleak, wind-blown area, and to give you an idea in 1800 of the 700 employees in North America, about 500 or more of them were Orkney Islanders because they could stand the rigors of the arctic and the wind. Well, the same was true with Hawaiians of the west coast. And so they brought them over and some of them never went back. And one community in Washington State is named after a gentleman by the name of Kalama and so at one point Fort Vancouver, half of the company employees there were from the Hawaiian Islands. So it became part of a pacific trade triangle just as there had been a trade triangle in the Atlantic between the Caribbean and the east coast and Britain. So that was the Hawaiian connection.
SARA: What was the triangle?
TIM: The triangle was basically from the west coast here, from Fort Victoria, to Honolulu and then Alaska was part of that because the company also had stores in Alaska. They also had stores in Russia of course and the Bering Straits. So that was really the triangle that existed in the Pacific. At the other end of course it hooked up with the spice trade that was going on into Asia. The silk. And of course that continues today and has grown back again today. A good example in Canada was the silk used to come in through Asia through Hawaii and when it arrived in Vancouver there was a special train set aside by the Canadian Pacific Railway called the Silk Train, and it had priority on the track all the way to Toronto with all the people waiting there to buy the silk as it came in from the orient. So they had their fads in those days just like we do today.
SARA: Was there any possibility of Britain becoming protectorate of Hawaii?
TIM: Britain and America were arguing over territory everywhere. The Lewis and Clark expedition were triggered by the journals of Alexander Mackenzie, the HBC employee, who had traveled out to the West Coast from Chippewa and came to Belacula here in British Columbia. As soon as his diary was published in England when he retired, a copy was on Thomas Jefferson’s desk within two months. Jefferson saw that as a huge threat to his idea of continentalism, that America would occupy the whole continent. So he got Lewis and Clark and sent them out as an exploration but also as a sovereignty claim to the Northwest here. And but that, those sovereignty claims extended past the coast here to Hawaii. And the British eventually won out with Hawaii but then it turned back to the Americans anyway. It didn’t, of course that didn’t happen, we got the division between Canada and the US here in the Northwest, but the whole thing was about competition for both the land with the government, competition for trade, with the companies like the Jacob Astor Company and the HBC.
SARA: Describe a fort.
TIM: A fort was, the basic idea is they were called factories, because they were places of factoring, that is making things, and doing business, and the person that ran it was the factor, the chief factor. They of course were defensive in the early days because of concern about attack so they built a palisade, usually it was done with vertical timbers set into the ground, and then within that you built the buildings which you lived in that were divided between the stores, where business was done, and the living quarters, which interestingly enough were called apartments. Which is a word that came over to the states and continued, went out of use in England. There they call them flats. So there was a pretty standard pattern and the designs were done, recommended by the company in England. The most extreme example of that was the stone fort built up at Churchill and they sent masons from England to build the stone fort.
TRACK 11 – 10:04
But the standard pattern was the palisade surrounding the place of doing business and the place of living. And within that of course the store was off limits usually to the aboriginal people, other than those that were considered leaders, to do the trade. And they would go in and do the trade and then the other people would sit outside. At a lot of the forts there were encampments that set up outside the fort. That always happens, as you know, even with military posts today. They were referred to as plantations, which is an unfortunate term, the connotations of that, but the idea was that these were people living close to the fort and working, helping with the company. A lot of times their employment was in things like getting food supply so for example, at many of the posts the spring goose hunt, which was critical, was done by the aboriginal people because they were more efficient hunters. And also the collecting of gathering of larger game, venison and moose and so on, so there was a symbiotic relationship. There were some intermarriages in what was called the fasion du pays, fashion of the country, but generally the HBC discouraged that. They didn’t think it was a good idea. The aboriginal people liked it of course because they thought it would give them trade preference. So there were all sorts of social maneuverings going on, if I can put it in that term. But generally it was a good symbiotic relationship and strong friendships developed. I think about the story of Augustine in Northern Quebec who was called that because he came into the post in August. And he became very good friends with George Back, who was a major arctic explorer in the company. And Augustine heard Back was missing, so he walked right around Hudson’s Bay, which if you look at the map, you can see that distance. Got there to find that Back had been found, so he shook his hand, glad to see him, and then walked home again. And so as I said it was very much a businesslike relationship.
SARA: What did Hawaiians do?
TIM: The Hawaiians were mostly processing the furs. In that attempt to harvest out the furs in the northwest, in Oregon Territory, the company, they were bundling up furs as fast as they could do it. So that was the main employment of Hawaiians that came over was to dress the furs and dressing them of course meant preparing the made beaver and then bundling them up for shipment back to England. Another thing the employees did, obviously you couldn’t make furs all year round, but was a major part of it, but things like cutting firewood. One of the things we forget today, we just push the thermostat and the number of people providing that heat is minimal. But at a lot of the posts I would say that certainly in the more northerly regions 90% of the men 90% of the time cutting firewood, just to stay warm. There was also cutting of timber of course for construction purposes. And then there was also carrying out the trade. Transporting trade goods to the outposts and all the other activities. Hauling water was another major activity because fresh water is always a problem wherever you are. So those were the activities that were…now the other thing that the company did was in the long winter months especially they provided education to both their own employees and the aboriginal people. Teaching them to read and write and a lot of the company employees that came, Hawaiians and Orkney Island men for example were illiterate and I think of William Thomason who was an illiterate Orkney man. He learned to read and write and he ended up being the governor of the northern territory. So it was another example of the democracy of the company. So the long winter evenings were quite often taken up with that. And they had strict routines of religious ceremonies they had to follow and so on. So each post was almost run like a para-military type of operation. But that’s essential if you’re going to have any control over what’s going on.
SARA: What other nationalities or ethnic groups were employed and how did they get along?
TIM: I’ve never come across any conflicts. The greater conflicts were between companies, the Northwest Company employees and the HBC’s. And that got quite nasty at times. But I’ve never seen any conflict. The range of nationalities, oh there’s at least 14 that I know of, including the Hawaiians, Icelanders, Norwegians, Scots, Orkney people, French, just a very wide range of people involved. And of course a lot of them looking for adventure, it’s almost like the Foreign Legion attraction, but the other thing that you have to remember is to sign on with the company you’ve got a five-year contract, minimum, and everything found. So you’ve got your clothing, food, plus your pay, so some of the men never spent a nickel. Anthony Andy worked for the company for years and went back to England with every penny he’d ever been paid. And so that was a very attractive contract in those days. And one of the things that was very attractive was a guarantee of one meal a day. And again, that’s something we can’t think about. But to somebody in the 18th century to say we’re going to give you one meal a day, that’s a tremendous guarantee. And Hern writes about that, even among the aboriginal people, he’s with them for 2 ½ years and he’ll have entries in his journal like we haven’t eaten for seven days. And it’s not a complaint. It’s a statement of fact. So that’s the second thing, beyond the travel, is the hunger and the constant search for food. And certainly that would have been the attraction for a lot of the Hawaiian island young men who came over, and of course then the security of it to say quite a lot of them didn’t go back to Hawaii.
SARA: How much were they paid?
TIM: It varied through time, and I can’t tell you how much the Hawaiian islanders were paid. In the early days the contracts varied depending what you were doing, but for a laborer it was five pounds a year. That went up over time, but it was really pocket money, in the sense that everything was provided for you. So the pay, it’s very difficult to make comments about the pay they received. One of the things the company did do, and they’ve always been accused of being paternalistic, but if the man was married, the man did not receive all of his pay, in North America. The company would keep money in an account for the family to make sure the families weren’t destitute. And I think it’s a side of the company that I think is very commendable and the fact that the governors’ notes are full of granting twenty pound notes to widows, they looked after their employees very well. And of course those things were known and Judith Hudson Beatty, who was keeper of the archives in Winnipeg, published a book called ‘Undelivered Letters’ and there’s certainly not to my knowledge any Hawaiians in there, but these were men who were working on the Northwest Coast here and letters coming out from England and they weren’t delivered because the man had died or left the company or something and of course the company kept every scrap of paper that was ever written on so the letters went back to England and were kept in a file called ‘Undelivered Letters’ and they’re a marvelous social history of how dependent the family were on the money these men were making and were sending home. And how critical that was to the family and an insight into the social history of Britain that you just don’t get written anywhere else. The letters are not very well-written a lot of them, but they’re heart-felt in some of the stories they tell. I don’t know of any correspondence of Hawaiians in the record.
SARA: You were talking about how recently HBC is interested in its heritage?
TIM: It had kept incredible records because if you’re making decisions in London, you need a lot of information, so they kept superb records, books. There were the mess books, accounts books, trading journals, ship’s logs, everything was recorded and they were carried back to England.
TRACK 12 – 10:04
So that that practice of keeping information, and the records that were there. And during the war they moved them out of London so they wouldn’t be destroyed in the Blitz. With the development, two things in its history. One was a trial brought by an Englishman by the name of Dobbs, who was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who accused the company of hiding how much wealth it had and how much potential there was in North America. And he brought a lawsuit on behalf of the ordinary people of England, saying these merchants are not telling you everything and you’re subsidizing it in a way and you should have a share of it. So the Dobbs trial began and really Dobbs made a very good case. It was amazing the amount of information he had at that time. But he lost the case because most of his information came from disaffected employees. That is, employees who had an axe to grind and any lawyer would pick up on that. But it made the company very defensive about what it was doing. So for example when astronomers came over in 1769 they weren’t allowed to live in the company quarters, they were set off in their own quarters. And they were restricted to where they could go and what they could do. Now that gradually eased, you can’t keep a hold on all of it. In the 1970s with the anti-fur trade protest. The company had been gradually going out of the fur trade business and ironically the last furs it sold came from the XY Company, which was a company that it had been in competition with in the east in the early days, but eventually they said no, we’re not going to trade furs anymore. But the concern about that history part lingered for some time, and I would say up until about five years ago when they suddenly realized that they didn’t have that concern anymore and the history was an integral part of the society and it was also a great marketing tool and what company would have that? Oh, we’ve been in business for 300 and some years, we’ve got credibility. And this gallery we’re in is a part of that. This is the first manifestation of this awareness and spreading of its history. And of course what it does is that people come in who have their own memorabilia and stories, descendants of former HBC employees, so it’s really an exciting rebirth of what’s going on. To give you an idea of the scale of the archives in Winnipeg, there’s a quarter of a million photographs in the archives alone, going back to the 19th century, many of them taken, or virtually all of them taken by company employees. They were turned over to the company and put in the company archives. I can’t think of a single photographic archive like that that covers half a continent for that long a time. It’s hardly been catalogued, so it’s an absolute gold mine.
SARA: What is the company today?
TIM: The Company today was divided up into the Northern stores, which are stores through northern Canada, and then the retailing chains throughout the south. And of course this store, this one here in Victoria is a good example of that. And it’s a lot of sentiment towards the HBC. There was a recent talk of the company bought out by an American company, and Canadians don’t get up on their high horse very often but there’s a lot of comments about that and it’s done very well in fitting into a certain level of merchandising, between the Wal-Mart and the more exclusive stores. And it has a very good reputation for return policies, for example. And things like that. So that’s really where it fits into the marketplace today and it covers Canada. In the arctic, in the north, the northern stores it’s a slightly different situation because in many of those communities it’s the only retail source. And so they company in the early days stuck strictly to very utilitarian things. Probably an outgrowth of Simpson and the Scottish Presbyterian mentality, but they didn’t sell jewelry or silk or trinkets or anything like that. That, by the way, left a niche market for what were called the peddlers, so you get coming into Canada and the northern US, itinerant trades people, merchants, quite a lot of them Jewish. And in Winnipeg in the 19th century there was a place called Finkelstein’s Emporium, you can’t just imagine that store. And that filled a niche that the company didn’t provide. And that was one of the criticisms in the north, that they were really just very utilitarian but then surviving in the north, you need utilitarian things. The other thing I think people need to understand about the company through all of its history is that it always extended credit. The fur trade functioned by the trappers, almost all aboriginal, coming in and being provided by goods, blankets, guns, shot and so on, and then they would come in in the spring and pay off their debt. And they paid it off in terms of the furs that hey brought in. so as I said it was a very progressive kind of program with that and of course bookkeeping was quite a problem and where there was also a problem the company quite often had to absorb losses if there were no furs. And the cycle of furs and the pattern of wildlife, some of the things I’ve studied, and you get years at the end of the 18th century, for example ‘God send us better times’, ‘no game, no furs, no trade, Indians are starving,’ really, really harsh times with the climate changes that were going on.
SARA: Any other stories about Hawaiians?
TIM: I think the only other one that always intrigues Susan and I is the one about the ice, where they were shipping ice I say from the Yukon to California in the Gold Rush, and they were selling it at $1000 a ton, and they tried to ship the ice to Hawaii and packed it in straw and tried to protect it, but unfortunately it didn’t make the trip. It melted en route. But again it’s a measure of the enterprise of the company that they would try anything to promote a business. It was a very thin connection with Hawaii but as I say it’s one that hasn’t been developed and most people don’t know about and particularly the fact that people were moving in both directions. The fact that native Hawaiians had come to the west coast here and then the extent of the trade and the nature of the trade. Who’d ever dream of coal from Nanaimo Canada going to Hawaii? So those are the things I think are most outstanding about it. And also going over those distances.
SARA: When was it founded?
TIM: The Company, the charter was issued in 1670 by King Charles…The HBC charter was granted in 1670 by King Charles and it was granted to Prince Rupert as a favor for Prince Rupert’s helping him in his wars in Europe, and of course that’s why it was called Rupert’s land. And that was the basis of the company called the Company of Adventurers. Most of the investors in that early company were, all of them were wealthy aristocrats. And that later gave the company a great advantage when they amalgamated with the Northwest Company in 1821. And just to give you an idea of the extent of the territory and the involvements. The charter of the amalgamation runs to 12,000 pages and that’s in 1821 so the lawyers were busy even then making money. So 1670 is when it began and what’s interesting is this Victoria store, which they took over, they had their opening day on May 2nd to celebrate the day on which the charter was issued in 1670. And there’s been other events associated with that date because in Manitoba for example they brought the archives from Winnipeg in 1970 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the province of Manitoba and the 300th anniversary of the HBC. So the intertwining of that date with the people of Canada, you see it everywhere.
SARA: Anything else?
TIM: I just wish that more people knew about the history of the company and the value of it in terms of beyond its just being a business. The science material it’s provided for me and more and more science researchers. One example, the science researcher who came to Churchill in 1768 were sent by the Royal Society to measure something called the transitive Venus and this was the first attempt to measure the distance from the sun to the earth, or the earth to the sun, so they could test Newton’s theory of gravity. So here it was done out in the wilderness of Hudson’s bay. And those men had to spend 13 months for a seven-hour scientific observation. And so the stories like that, but the more important thing to me are the stories of the ordinary people, like the Hawaiians. Because I think the company, I always sum it up by saying it’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and the sum total of that is a very successful company and a very successful land that we live in.
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