George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


Those who know the present-day Hudson's Bay Company principally as a department-store chain which sells a wide range of quality merchandise may well have difficulty in visualizing its early days as a fur-trading empire which wielded continent-wide privileges and authority.

The Company's charter was granted in 1670 by King Charles II, to his "trusty and well-beloved cousin, Prince Rupert" and the Prince's associates, under the name The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. The purposes of the Company were to be "for the discovery of a new passage into the South Seas, for the finding of some trade in furs, minerals and other considerable commodities, and for Christianizing the Indians". The Charter granted the Adventurers "a monopoly of trade with plenary powers, executive and judicial, in and over all seas, straits, lands, etc. lying within the entrance of Hudson Straits, and the rivers entering them, not already occupied by an other English subject or other Christian power or state". In return, the Company must "yield and pay therefore two elks, and two black beavers", whenever his Majesty or his heirs should set foot in the territory.

For many years the Company confined its trading to the country near Hudson's Bay, extending its posts but gradually inland. These posts were primarily depots to which the Indians were expected to bring furs to exchange for various trade goods. The Company's missions to seek the North-West Passage and to Christianize the Indians, if not forgotten along the way, were definitely secondary to the highly-profitable fur trade. Its monopoly in fur-trading was undisputed for over a century.

The challenge to the monopoly came in 1787, when three petty fur-trading concerns based in Montreal united to form the North-West Company. The new Company, directed by the wealthiest and most influential merchants of Montreal, soon showed a degree of initiative and determination that caused worry and concern at Hudson's Bay Company headquarters. The trade-routes of the Nor-Westers expanded rapidly to the west and north. Trading posts were established each year in distant, virgin fur country.

One of the North-West Company's most adventuresome partners was a young Scot, Alexander Mackenzie. In 1789 Mackenzie took an expedition north, following the river which flowed out of Great Slave Lake in hopes it might reach the Pacific. When he found its mouth to be on the Arctic Ocean instead, he named it River of Disappointment, but later geographers called it the Mackenzie. The expedition ended forever the cherished myth of a North-West Passage. It also made Mackenzie realize that he did not have the equipment or expertise to determine latitude and longitude, so he arranged an extended leave in England to study this art. On returning, armed with the new knowledge, he set out again for the Pacific, by way of the Peace River, down the Fraser to a point above the rapids at Hell's Gate and from there down the Bella Coola to tidewater. This expedition of 1793 was the first to cross North America north of Mexico. Simon Fraser later followed the Fraser River to its mouth, which he reached in 1808, and yet another partner, David Thompson, established trading posts along the Columbia River between 1807 and 1811. He reached the river's mouth in 1811 only to find that John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company had commenced building Fort Astoria three months before. Two years later, however, with Britain and the U.S. at war, the Nor-Westers bought out the Pacific Fur Company and renamed Astoria, Fort George.

Alarmed, the Hudson's Bay Company fought back. Bitter personal feuds arose between rival traders, and there were frequent confrontations and occasional bloodshed. The profits of both firms began to suffer. There was only one feasible solution: in 1821 a merger was arranged under the name of the older Company. By Imperial Act of the same year, the newly consolidated organization was granted exclusive trading rights in all British North America for the space of twenty-one years.

Three years later the rejuvenated Hudson's Bay Company shifted its western headquarters from Fort George (the former Astoria) to a new post six miles north of the junction of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The post, to be named Fort Vancouver, was intended to be a long-term bastion of the Company's power. Within an outer wall measuring five hundred by seven hundred and fifty feet, built of close-fitting beams, there were forty wooden buildings and a brick-and-stone powder magazine. Outside the stockade were some sixty houses for mechanics and servants of the Company plus barns, granaries, dairy-buildings, a boathouse and a hospital. It was evident to all that the Nor-West tradition had endured and the renewed Hudson's Bay Company had come to stay.

Evident to all, that is, except to the American settlers who were coming in ever-increasing numbers along the Oregon Trail. To the Hudson's Bay Company, settlers were an annoyance; they disrupted the fur trade and tended to upset the Company's profitable sale of provisions to the Russian Fur Company in Alaska. Still they kept coming, and although the Company retained a diminishing hope that all land north of the Columbia would remain British, it became steadily more certain that a more northerly post should be established to which a strategic retreat might be made if necessary.

In 1837, Captain McNeill was sent in the Company's steamship Beaver to scout the southern tip of Vancouver's Island, with a view to establishing such a post, and in 1842 his preliminary scouting was followed by a meticulous examination of the area from Ten-Mile Point to Sooke, carried out by young Chief Factor James Douglas. There were three possible harbours in this area. Douglas rejected the most westerly of these, called Sooke (from the Tsoke Indians who lived there), and the large central harbour, called Esquimault (from the Indian name Is-Whoy-Maulth, or "place of the shoaling waters"). In his opinion, the entrance to the former was too narrow and unprotected in rough weather, and the latter did not have sufficiently accessible fresh water. He finally settled on the easterly harbour, called by the Indians Camosun, or Camosack, from the profusion of Camas lilies which grew along its shores and were used by them as food in winter. Although rather shallow and muddy, it did have a protected entrance and adequate fresh water, with plenty of reasonably level ground on which a fort could be raised.

Douglas returned the following year with men and materials to build the new fort. The stockade was commenced 16 March. 1843. It was built of logs three feet in circumference and twenty-two feet long, to obtain which Douglas entered into a contract with the local Songhees Indians; the Company would loan axes to the Indians who would fell the trees and drag them to the site, receiving one Hudson's Bay Company prime blanket for each forty logs.

The construction party had arrived in the Hudson's Bay Company sailing ship Cadboro. The ship's log shows some local uncertainty in the naming of the new Fort. In July 1843 it is referred to as Fort Camosun, and from August to early December as Fort Albert, the later in evident honour of Queen Victoria's consort Prince. At the management level of the Hudson's Bay Company there were no such doubts. The Minutes of Council for the Northern Department of Rupert's Land, covering a meeting held in June, 1843, include a resolution that the name should be Fort Victoria. This information reached Chief Trader Charles Ross, by now in charge of the Fort, in December of 1843. From this point onward, Fort Victoria was the only name in use.

During the next three years, the worst fears of the Hudson's Bay Company became realities. Britain and the U.S. had agreed in 1818 that their boundary from Lake of the Woods to the crest of the Rocky Mountains would be the 49th parallel. The lands lying between the Rockies and the ocean would remain in joint occupancy for ten years, then be partitioned. The agreement was extended in 1826 for a further ten years.

By the traditions and customs of the time, the Hudson's Bay Company's explorations, purchases and possessions should have ensured that the partition would be made by extending the boundary along the 49th parallel to the Columbia River, thence down the centre of the river to the ocean. However American Militancy and British pacifism decided otherwise. The Treaty of Washington in 1846 decreed that the border should be the 49th parallel to the centre of the Gulf of Georgia, thence following the line of the centre of the Gulf and the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific.

The trading posts of the Company which were now isolated in American territory could remain in their possession, but these posts now became more liabilities than assets.

The Company was not without influential friends in Britain, and these soon represented to the Government that it had been ill-used and deserved compensation. The Company already had exclusive rights to trade with the Indians in the territory north of the Columbia, by Government Charter dated May, 1838 and extending thence for twenty-one years. As further compensation the whole of Vancouver's Island was ceded in 1849 for the Company's sole development and use.

We can well believe that in George Robinson's time, the Hudson's Bay Company was a power in the land. Any resemblance to a chain of department stores is purely coincidental!

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