When Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 in search of the Northwest Passage, he met 50 canoes filled with Micmac Indians, who signaled a desire to trade by waving furs on sticks. This began the very fruitful trade between Canada’s First Peoples and the Europeans, first the French and later the British. By the end of the sixteenth century, the French had established a colony on the St. Lawrence River, and European gentlemen and military officers had developed a taste for expensive hats fashioned from beaver pelts. French entrepreneurs set up shop in New France, importing wool cloth, iron utensils, firearms, copper pots, sewing needles, and beads for exchange with the tribes along the St. Lawrence. As hunting depleted populations of beaver some of the more adventurous Frenchmen went deeper into Quebec’s interior in search of pelts. Eventually they made their way as far north as the Hudson Bay, as far west as the Saskatchewan River, and as far south as the Ohio Valley.
In 1659, two of these French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard Sieur Des Groseilliers tried to interest the French governor in sponsoring a trading expedition to Hudson Bay to exploit the rich fur sources they had learned about from the Cree Indians. When the governor refused, they traveled to Boston in search of financing, and there they met a well-connected Englishman who invited them to London and presented them to King Charles II. An exploratory trading mission was launched in 1668 and following this, Prince Rupert (the king’s cousin), organized a group of 18 investors to form a company known as The Governor and Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay (later shortened to the Hudson Bay Company). In 1670 Charles awarded a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, granting it the rights to all the commerce of the bay’s entire drainage (despite the clear claims by France) an area of 1.5 million square miles, stretching west to the Rocky Mountains and south into present-day Minnesota and North Dakota.
Before long, English traders noticed increased competition from French traders (surprise, its New France). These Frenchmen ignored the claims of Great Britain leading to a long series of battles eventually as the French and Indian War which was a minor part of the broader Seven Years War between France and England over imperial claims in India, Asia, and North America. In 1763, the French surrendered all claims to New France giving the Hudson Bay Company a monopoly on the fur trade.
Today, the Hudson Bay Company continues to operate as a holding company with holding in technology, retail operations and real estate, including majority ownership of iconic Saks Fifth Avenue.