England Discovers Trade Possibilities at Hudson Bay

Captain Henry Hudson and a few supporters being forced off their ship after discovering Hudson Bay.
Map of North America. The Great Lakes are located south of Hudson Bay.
Indigenous Americans trading furs at a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in the 1800’s.
A variety of animal pelts on exhibit on a table.
Beaver holding a branch in its hand.
Henry Hudson steering a shallop with ice bergs in the background.

In the mid-17th century, all of England’s North American colonies were squeezed in along the east coast. This meant that France had more or less a monopoly on the continent’s fur trade, since the inland regions they controlled had many more furred animals than the English colonies. Still, most of the North American continent had yet to be explored, and when it was discovered that high quality pelts could also be obtained from the largely unexplored Hudson Bay region, England jumped at the opportunity to get in on the fur trade. Quickly, English merchants now opened trading posts at the mouths of rivers emptying into Hudson Bay, creating competition for the French trading stations by the Great Lakes.

Beaver pelts as currency

Because of the newly opened English fur trading posts, many indigenous people started to travel north in their canoes to barter with the English instead of going in the other direction to meet with the French. The type of goods they desired for their fur was still the same, though, with guns and blankets being in high demand. A gun may have cost them fourteen beaver pelts, and a blanket, useful in the cold northern climate, seven beaver pelts. Any other type of pelt, which the First Nations also paid with, would be compared to and priced at their equivalent value in beaver pelts, since these constituted the currency of the time.

While the fur trade intensified, by Royal charter, in 1670, the English Hudson’s Bay Company was granted sole rights to trade furs in the expansive Hudson Bay drainage basin. This made the company rich and the subject of envy from its French rivals. Frustrated by the English expansion, Frenchmen soon attacked HBC installations, and many trading posts came into their possession before England launched a decisive counter offensive and took them back.

Mutiny on the bay

With control over Hudson Bay and with the rights to trade fur in large parts of present-day Canada, the English fur traders in the area made a good living and were content. However, for Englishman Henry Hudson, who had first discovered Hudson Bay, fate had not been nearly as kind. In search of a sea route to Asia, in 1610, Hudson’s ship was iced in in the bay that today bears his name. When spring came and the ice melted, the majority of Hudson’s crew had tired of adventure and wanted to go back to England, while the captain, his crew’s opinion notwithstanding, had pressed on to continue explorations. This had resulted in crew members mutinying and putting Captain Hudson and a few of his supporters to fend for themselves on a shallop. After that, Hudson and the others in the abandoned party were never heard from again.