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New Hudson’s Bay Company Archives donation — mostly records from 20th century
Nov 30, 2007

A donation to the province of new archival records from the Hudson’s Bay Company has been received by Premier Gary Doer.

 The donation will join the unique collection recently inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Memory of the World Register. The UNESCO Memory of the World Register identifies and lists the most significant documentary heritage collections in the world.

“These archives are a unique and valuable resource in which we find pieces of our country’s history, its land and its people,” said Doer. “With this new donation, the Hudson’s Bay Company has demonstrated its continuing commitment to the further development of its archives. 

“This donation enriches the collection as a whole and ensures that Hbc’s (Hbc is the abbreviation now used by the company, while HBC refers to the company prior to its modern-era ownership change) contribution to Canadian history will continue to be preserved.”

 The archives, which are housed in Winnipeg, trace the Hudson’s Bay Company from its inception in 1670 through the development of the fur trade, exploration and settlement of North America, and the growth of the company’s Canadian retail, wholesale, property and natural resources business into the 20th century. 

The donation includes 1,395 feet (425 metres) of records, mostly from the 20th century, and is the first major addition of archival records to the Hudson’s Bay Company archives since the original donation in 1994.

“We are proud of our history at Hbc and of our contribution to the preservation and promotion of Canada’s history,” said Jerry Zucker, governor and CEO of Hbc. “We have entrusted our historical legacy to the province of Manitoba and we are pleased to continue this partnership with today’s donation of archival records.”

 The donation extends the continuity of the HBC’s archival record and provides documentation of HBC’s administration and business activities through the 20th century, including its transition from a British company to a Canadian company. The records document HBC’s ongoing social, economic and cultural impact on Canada’s history and follow the changing nature of the Canadian economy and the rise of the retail sector. 

 The records will be of interest to academics, students, genealogists and other researchers from around the world who are increasingly interested in the history of the 20th century.  

The appraiser of the 2007 donation noted the research value is outstanding and the documents provide insight into all aspects of the operation of the company.                                                                       

The archives of HBC were transferred by the company from London to the Archives of Manitoba in 1974 for safekeeping and made accessible to the public in 1975. In 1994, Hbc formally donated its archives to the province. 

Out of the tax savings generated by this donation, Hbc created the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation. The foundation funds and supports the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company archives as a division of the Archives of Manitoba. The partnership between Hbc and the Archives of Manitoba has supported the preservation of the records of this unique historical company and made possible their continuing availability to local, national and international clientèle. 

 In 2006, 2,670 researchers used the HBC archives onsite. Tours were provided to a further 1,020 people, mostly school and university groups. Through mail and Internet, an additional 1,200 questions were answered and 1,170 microfilm reels were loaned to support research in other institutions.

 Also in 2006, the HBC archives were used in the writing of numerous books or theses, articles and film/video/DVD productions. The archives contributed to nine exhibitions in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Timmins, London, Prince Edward Island, Minnesota, New Hampshire, France and Australia.

Fur trade

More than anything else, it is records of the fur trade that draw researchers to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. The Hudson’s Bay Company was involved in this multi-faceted business from the voyage of the Nonsuch in 1668 until it sold its Northern Stores and Fur Sales in 1987 and 1988. It operated fur trade posts and agencies from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island and from the St. Lawrence to the Arctic. 

In the 1800s, the HBC also traded in the American Pacific Northwest; its Snake Country Expeditions may have reached as far south as Spanish territory in what is now Texas. It also had posts in Alaska and Hawaii. In the 1920s there were HBC posts in the Russian Far East.

The fur trade brought the HBC into contact with a wide range of people. They traded with the aboriginal people of North America and learned from them about the country. Many fur traders had Aboriginal wives and families. The HBC was also involved with other fur trade companies such as the North West Company, the American Fur Company, the Russian American Company and Revillon Freres.

Since the fur trade was the exchange of goods for furs, the essential role of fur-bearing animals should not be forgotten. The trade also brought the HBC into contact with the suppliers of goods and the buyers of furs. In the 1900s, the HBC began to sell furs on consignment from all over the world in addition to furs collected at its posts. It became one of the greatest fur auction houses in the world, rivalled only by the Soviet government.

The year 1870 was a major watershed in the HBC’s history. The incorporation of its territory of Rupert’s Land into the new Dominion of Canada meant that the HBC had to adapt to agricultural settlement, transforming Western Canada. 

HBC retail stores began to appear in towns and cities across the prairies and British Columbia, leading to their slogan “The Great Traders of the Great West.” 

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the Hbc expanded across Canada, acquiring other retail companies such as Morgans, Freimans, Zellers, Simpsons, Towers and Woodward’s. Wholesaling and a mail-order liquor business during Prohibition were other 20th-century enterprises.

The HBC was also involved in the sale of farm lands and town lots. Its mineral rights in its properties across the west were the basis of its venture into the oil business, which lasted from the 1920s to the 1980s.

During the First World War, the HBC acted as the chief shipping and purchasing agent for the governments of France, Belgium, Russia and Romania. The “French Government Business,” as it was called, was on such a huge scale that a subsidiary, The Bay Steamship Co. Ltd., had to be created to handle the HBC’s merchant fleet. 

In the 1920s. the HBC participated in a variety of unlikely businesses — reindeer herding, frozen salmon, even comic films.

New retail store

On November 18, 1926, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a massive new retail store in Winnipeg, Manitoba — the latest of 11 stores across Canada. The opening of the store was eagerly anticipated and 50,000 people crowded in on opening day. Eighty years later its doors are still open.

Regular updates were sent from Winnipeg to the governor and committee in London between October 1925 and August 1927, reporting on the progress in the construction of the store. The weekly report of June 19 was compiled by the engineers and builders of the store, Carter-Halls Aldinger, and signed off by A.H. Doe, the HBC supervisor of the construction in Winnipeg. The blueprint accompanied the report and highlighted the progress of various aspects of the construction with different colours and symbols.

Blueprints and photographs were often sent with the weekly reports and provided visual documentation of the construction of the store. Clearly visible in the blueprint were the many columns which bisect all six floors and which descend 51 feet below street level.

The weekly report and the blueprint are part of a series of inward and outward correspondence created by the governor and committee entitled Governor and Committee General and Official Correspondence. 

The opening of this store was recently celebrated with an exhibit in the lobby of the Archives of Manitoba Building at 200 Vaughan.

Additional information can be found at the Manitoba Archives, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives website at www.gov.mb.ca/hbca