Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur trading company that started in Canada in 1670; its first century of operation found HBC firmly focused in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays, Central Canada.
Within ten years after Captain Cook’s 1778 contact with Hawai‘i, the islands became a favorite port of call in the trade with China. The fur traders and merchant ships crossing the Pacific needed to replenish food supplies and water.
The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska. The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for tea, silks, porcelain and other Chinese goods, which were then sold in Europe and the US.
In 1821, HBC merged with North West Company, its competitor; the resulting enterprise now spanned the continent – all the way to the Pacific Northwest (modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.)
Fur traders working for the HBC traveled an area of more than 700,000 square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Ships sailed from London around Cape Horn around South America and then to forts and posts along the Pacific Coast via the Hawaiian Islands. Trappers crossing overland faced a journey of 2,000 miles that took three months.
In selecting a new fort and trading post site for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) on the Columbia River in Oregon, they picked a location about 100-miles from the mouth at an opening in the forest called Jolie Prairie.
The new facility was to serve as the chief supply center for the company’s regional operation.
On March 19, 1825, the HBC opened Fort Vancouver on a bluff above the north bank of the Columbia River where the city of Vancouver, Clark County, is now located (named for British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798.))
Yes, this is the same George Vancouver how first visited the islands as midshipman with Captain James Cook in 1778 and later led the expedition around the globe (and introduced the first cattle in Hawai‘i with a gift to Kamehameha I – he also discovered the Columbia River.)
Fort Vancouver became part of the expansion and establishment of forts and trading posts along the Pacific Northwest. Then, in 1829, HBC landed its first trading ship in Honolulu.
One of its primary ‘missions’ of that trip was that HBC was looking for a labor pool to help with its operations (they were also there to establish a trade business, as well as test the market for its primary products – lumber and salmon.)
A goal of the trip was to recruit a few seasoned seamen for HBC on the Northwest Coast, including “two good stout active Sandwich Islanders who have been to sea for 1, 2, or 3 years.”
At that time, Hawaiians had already played an important part in establishing the economic institutions of the Pacific Northwest. They provided the food and built the shelters of the fur traders and the early missionaries.
They had worked on many of the merchant ships plying between Hawaii, China, Europe and the Northwest. From the earliest Hawaiians who came as seamen or contract workers, to the ones who worked at Fort Vancouver and elsewhere along the Pacific Coast, they all made an important contribution to the development of the area.
As early as 1811, HBC had already hired twelve Hawaiians on three year contracts to work for them in the Pacific Northwest. By 1824, HBC employed thirty-five Hawaiians west of the Rocky Mountains.
Over the years, HBC’s Fort Vancouver had a unique relationship with the Hawaiian or “Sandwich” Islands, the nineteenth century trade hub of the Pacific.
During peak season, when the fur brigades returned to rest and re-supply, the settlement contained upwards of 600 inhabitants. For many years, the village was the largest settlement between Yerba Buena, (present day San Francisco, California) and New Archangel (Sitka, Alaska).
In the late-1830s Fort Vancouver became the terminus of the Oregon Trail. When American immigrants arrived in the Oregon Country during the 1830s and 1840s, and despite the instructions from the Hudson’s Bay Company that the fort should not help Americans, John McLoughlin, supervisor of the Columbia District, provided them with essential supplies to begin their new settlements.
Not only was the village one of the largest settlements in the West during the fur trade era, it was also unmatched in its diversity. The Hudson’s Bay Company purposefully hired people from different backgrounds, thus providing opportunities in the fur trade business to a variety of people from both the Old World and the New.
Few of the village spoke English, though French, Gaelic, Hawaiian and a variety of Native American languages were often heard. In order to communicate with one another, most villagers learned Chinook Jargon, a mix of Chinook, English and French.
Hawaiians worked as trappers, laborers, millers, sailors, gardeners and cooks; however HBC employed more people at agriculture than any other activity. The daily routine was work from sun up to sun down, with only Sundays off.
In 1840, Kamehameha III, faced with the seeming threat of racial extinction due to depopulation by both emigration and disease, enacted a law that required captains of vessels desiring to hire Hawaiians to obtain the written consent of the island governor and sign a $200 bond to return the Hawaiian back to Hawai‘i within a specified time.
HBC Governor Simpson, on a visit to Hawaii in 1841, reported, “About a thousand males in the very prime of life are estimated annually to leave the islands, some going to California, others to the Columbia, and many on long and dangerous voyages, particularly in whaling vessels …”
“… while a considerable number of them are said to be permanently lost to their country, either dying during their engagements, or settling in other parts of the world.”
In December 1845, the Oregon Government considered an act providing, “that all persons who shall hereafter introduce into the Oregon Territory any Sandwich Islanders … for a term of service shall pay a tax of five dollars for each person introduced.”
By 1849, the Hawaiian population at Fort Vancouver exceeded that of the French Canadians, due to the declining importance of furs and the rising export business of Fort Vancouver’s agricultural production and the consequent larger use of Hawaiian workers.
The number of Hawaiians working as contract laborers for the Company grew steadily. The large number of Hawaiian workers in the village led to the name “Kanaka Town” in the early 1850s – “Kanaka” is the word for “person” in the Native Hawaiian language. (At its peak, the village was home to around 535 men, 254 Indian women and 301 children.)
Several circumstances combined to bring an end to HBC’s activities at Fort Vancouver. The decline of the fur trade, the arrival of numerous American settlers to the newly organized Oregon Territory, the settlement of the boundary dispute with Great Britain which put the area under American sovereignty, all combined to hasten the decision to move the headquarters to Victoria, British Columbia.
In 1859, Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew from Fort Vancouver, the same year the decision was made to close the HBC trading facility in Honolulu.