Rupert’s Land, British colonial territory covering a vast region surrounding Hudson Bay in present-day Canada. In May 1670 King Charles II of England awarded a charter for the territory to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a new fur-trading enterprise. The territory was known as Rupert’s Land until 1870, when it became part of Canada.
Rupert’s Land was established because investors in the HBC, including Prince Rupert, a cousin of King Charles II, wanted to tap into rich sources of furs, especially those of beaver. Many fur-bearing animals were found in the homelands of indigenous peoples around Hudson and James bays. In this period, hats made from beaver felt, the soft fur underlying the coarse outer hairs of a beaver’s pelt, were the height of elite men’s fashion in Europe. The British, French, and Dutch all wanted access to reliable fur supplies (see Fur Trade in North America).
The HBC charter defined Rupert’s Land to include all of the Hudson Bay watershed, the land surrounding the waterways that drain into Hudson Bay. Europeans had no idea how large this area really was; it turned out to reach from the Rocky Mountains in the west to present-day northern Québec in the east and south into what is now North and South Dakota and Minnesota in the United States. Its size remained undiminished until 1818, when the 49th parallel became the border between Rupert’s Land and the United States. In Canada, Rupert’s Land included all of present-day Manitoba, and large parts of Ontario, Québec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.
|III||THE FUR TRADE|
Long before the British arrived, the Cree people occupied the area around Hudson Bay known as the Hudson Bay Lowlands. They caught fish and harvested water birds at the bay in the summer and hunted and trapped along inland waterways in winter. Farther south, along the Great Lakes, lived the Ojibwa people, whose homeland expanded westward as they became more involved in the fur trade and moved farther west to find fur-bearing animals. The Assiniboine and Sioux communities to the southwest also moved westward onto the plains as British and French fur traders reached their lands.
During its first century, the HBC built trading forts at the mouths of the major rivers on Hudson and James bays and relied on indigenous people to transport furs from the interior. Henry Kelsey in the 1690s and Anthony Henday in the 1750s, both agents of the company, were among the first British to travel far inland in the territory. During the same period, French explorers, most notably French Canadian Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Vérendrye, in the 1730s, crossed the southern reaches of Rupert’s Land to establish a French trading and military presence along the northern border of the Louisiana territory (then defined as the area that drained into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers). It was not until 1774 that the HBC built its first permanent post in the interior, Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River.
Rupert’s Land was the site of much competition over the fur trade. From the 1780s to 1821 the North West Company, a company of merchants based in Montréal, rivaled the HBC in fur trading throughout Rupert’s Land. As a result, fur-bearing animals started to decline, and violence occasionally broke out between the two companies. They merged in 1821 under the name of Hudson’s Bay Company.
Another consequence of the fur trade in Rupert’s Land was intermarriage between indigenous peoples and Europeans. Indigenous people wanted to establish relations of trust with the newcomers, and from their perspective the best way to do that was to cultivate kinship ties with the fur traders through both marriage, adoption, and other relations. As a result, a large mixed indigenous-European population arose by the early 1800s. Many of these offspring assimilated into aboriginal communities, and a few others took their fathers’ European identities. Many eventually identified themselves as Métis, a people of mixed ancestry, forming a new sociocultural and political category that became particularly important in western Canada.
Métis made up nine-tenths of the territory’s largest colony, the Red River Settlement (which included the area of present-day Winnipeg). In 1869 the British government agreed to buy back Rupert’s Land from the HBC and turn it over to the new Canadian government, but the Métis resisted. They were fearful of their land rights because Canadians, particularly in Ontario, were eager to expand westward to secure lands for new settlers and agriculture. The Métis, led by Louis Riel, were incensed that Canada had not consulted with them about the sale of the territory. In what was known as the Red River Rebellion, the Métis forbade the entry into Red River of a new governor sent to take charge of the territory, and they set up a provisional government. After several troubled months, the Canadian government recognized the Red River area as a new province, Manitoba, which was admitted to the Canadian confederation in 1870. The rest of Rupert’s Land became the Northwest Territories; its southern districts later became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.