By Anik Laflèche
The year 2020 marked the 350th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Founded on May 2, 1670, HBC is one of the oldest still-operating companies in the world.
While HBC’s longevity is a feat on its own, this company stands out for another reason: a very large portion of its historical records has survived, kept, for most of its history, in London, England. Considering that the documents survived centuries of existence, life in the Canadian wilderness, trips across the Atlantic, poor conservation conditions, fires and floods, and two world wars, it is amazing that so many records can still be consulted today.The HBC records have their own fascinating story, separate from the company’s history. The records were originally kept for legal and business reasons, not historical purposes.
While the records were arranged alphabetically in 1796, the first true efforts to describe and organize the collection date to 1931, when HBC hired its first archivist, Richard Leveson Gower. This was the result of mounting pressure from researchers and historians to access the collection.
In the 1960s, with the 100th anniversary of Canada’s confederation (1967) and the approaching centennial of the creation of the province of Manitoba (1970), serious thought was given to transferring the HBC archives to Canada. This idea became a reality in 1974, when all of HBC’s corporate archives were donated to the Archives of Manitoba. The HBC’s museum collection, on the other hand, is showcased in the Manitoba Museum.
While LAC is not the institution mandated to conserve the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, we do hold microfilmed copies of many—although not all—documents in MG20. Glimpses into the role that HBC played in the development of the North-West and land grants after the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory can be had in some of LAC’s other fonds, such as RG15, the fonds for the Department of the Interior.
Records from the Hudson’s Bay Company are classified in LAC’s collection as MG20. The fonds holds a large variety of documents, such as board minute books, letterbooks, journals, ledgers, staff records, ships’ logs, photographs, post journals, diaries, maps, architectural drawings and photographs, dating from 1667 to 1956. The organization of the records is the same as that originally created by the company and matches that of the collection in the Archives of Manitoba.
Although the Hudson’s Bay Company holds a controversial place in Canadian history, having been one of the main tools for the resource exploitation period of colonization, its records are a crucial source of information of the history of Canada and the First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit. These documents offer insights into our colonial past, westward and northward expansion, economic and cultural development, as well as the daily life of fur traders, Indigenous peoples and frontier communities.
The HBC records offer insights into the birth and development of the Métis Nation, an independent people of First Nation and European ancestry who coalesced into a distinct nation in the northwest in the late 18th century. They would rise to resist the takeover of their homeland in the next century after the Hudson’s Bay Company transfer of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada.
These records can help Canada on its journey towards Reconciliation with First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit.
For more information on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, I recommend reading Deidre Simmons’s Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives or consulting the Archives of Manitoba page “Hudson’s Bay Company Archives – About HBCA.”
If you are doing or planning to do research using the Hudson Bay Company archives records or research on a related topic, our reference specialists can assist you. Simply complete our form to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you!
Anik Laflèche is an archivist in the Reference Services Division.