Hudson’s Bay Company, English corporation, formed in 1670, which held a monopoly over trade in the region watered by streams flowing into Hudson Bay in Canada. Charles II, king of England, granted the charter for the company to Prince Rupert, his Bohemian-born cousin, and 17 other noblemen and gentlemen. In its vast territory, which came to be known as Rupert's Land, the company also had the power to establish laws and impose penalties for the infraction of the laws, to erect forts, to maintain ships of war, and to make peace or war with indigenous peoples. The original capital of the company was about 110,000 pounds, a large amount for the period. The company was formed shortly after the English-backed French fur traders and explorers Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, and Pierre Esprit Radisson visited London in 1669 after a successful trading expedition to Hudson Bay. The company intended to prosper from the fur trade and possibly to find in the region a Northwest Passage to the Pacific.
For almost a century this monopoly went unquestioned, although it had developed slowly. By 1749 the company had only four or five coastal forts and no more than 120 employees. The annual trade, although immensely profitable, consisted only of the barter of three or four shiploads of coarse British goods for an approximately equal weight of furs and skins. In that year, an unsuccessful attempt was made in Parliament to revoke the charter on the grounds that the powers it provided had not been used. After this period the development of the company increased. The British conquest of Canada in 1763 resolved conflicts with the French over the fur trade, conflicts that had begun with the birth of the Hudson's Bay Company. The acquisition of Canada made the company's territories accessible from the south as well as from the sea; trade increased greatly, and during the French wars from 1778 to 1783 the company was strong enough to bear a loss of 500,000 pounds.
A monopoly so profitable could not long be maintained. Private trappers and even rival companies soon entered the field, penetrating from the Great Lakes far up the Saskatchewan River toward the Rocky Mountains. In 1783 a group of these speculators formed the North West Company of Montréal and competed fiercely with the Hudson's Bay Company. During the following years the supply of fur-bearing animals was threatened by the slaughter of animals during the breeding season. Eventually, in 1821, the two great companies merged, with a combined territory that was extended by a license to the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the west. In 1838 the Hudson's Bay Company again acquired sole rights to trade in this area for a period of 21 years. At the expiration of the new license in 1859, however, the trade monopoly was abolished and trade in the region was opened to any entrepreneur. The claims of the company to vested interests and property rights, however, remained unsettled until 1870, when Rupert's Land was acquired by the Dominion of Canada in return for an indemnity of 300,000 pounds and a land grant of 2,835,000 hectares (about 7 million acres). The company retained its forts and trading posts, but gave up all monopolistic privileges.
Parts of the remnant of its once vast land empire were sold, and the company now holds only about 810,000 hectares (about 2 million acres); the income from these sales was added to the assets of the company for enterprises in new fields. During World War I (1914-1918) the Hudson's Bay Company operated a steamship line with more than 300 vessels and transported food and munitions for the French and Belgian governments. It also built a chain of department stores in Canada. The Beaver House, the warehouse of the Hudson's Bay Company in London, became a center for the international fur trade. More recently the company has extended its fur trading outside Canada, especially in Russia, and deemphasized the retailing of furs. Under pressure from animal rights activists and because of economic factors, the company closed the last of its retail fur salons in 1991.