In 1867, most of Canada was still wilderness, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) governed most of the wilderness. Although their charter only gave them the rights to Rupert’s Land (see below), as the successors to the Northwest Company following their merger in 1821, their territory extended north of the 49th Parallel to the West Coast.

In 1867, the HBC had two posts on Lake Athabasca, six posts along the Mackenzie River and on Great Slave Lake, four posts on Hudson’s Bay, including its distribution depot at York Factory. There were another five posts on James Bay which dated from the earliest years of the company, and two posts on Ungava Bay, although Fort Chimo had only just been re-established in 1866. All the posts were focused on the furs from the boreal forest, as there was no serious demand for the Arctic Fox at this time. The push into the Arctic would not really commence for another 40 years. The Arctic Islands were still British, and remained so until ceded to Canada in 1880.

In terms of transportation, annual re-supply in 1867 was handled by the Lady Head (457 tons) which sailed from London in early June, arriving Moose Factory 15 August, sailing with returns on 18 September. The Prince Rupert1 (491 tons) left London on 06 June, anchored off York Factory2 in Five Fathom Hole on 15 August and sailed for London on 17 September, where it arrived 26 October. Both of the Hudson Bay ships were three-masted barques; the steam auxiliary brigantine Labrador3 (391grt) sailed London 01 Jun, re-supplied Labrador posts and was then at Fort Chimo in Ungava Bay from 02-14 September, arriving back in London on 26 October.

Another HBC ship, the Ocean Nymph wintered at Marble Island over 1866/67 to trade with the Inuit. In 1867 it called at York Factory 28 August to 05 September, before sailing to undertake more trade. The ship then returned to London, where the HBC did not consider the voyage results profitable, and they gave up the activity. However, the American and Scottish whalers in the region saw the furs and ivory from winter trading as an opportunity to make additional revenue above whalebone and oil, and began to actively trade over the winters.

Ocean Nymph trading returns from Marble Island4

313 fox

47 caribou

23 musk ox

4 seals

19 wolves

1 swan

9 Arctic hare

ivory & blubber

Goods to support the inland and Western posts were carried by York boat up the Hayes River to Norway House for distribution via Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan River and the Methye Portage. This portage, pioneered by Peter Pond nearly a century earlier, was soon to be superseded by a more efficient route down the Athabasca River. In 1867, Bishop Tache at Lac la Biche, tested the river for commercial transportation5, by taking a party of Grey Nuns by barge to the Catholic mission at Fort Chipweyan.

What else happened in 1867?

On 31 July, HMS Gannet sailed from Halifax on a British Naval survey of the Labrador coast seeking new fishing grounds, and harbours of refuge for the Newfoundland fishing fleet. They found that the existing charts were very inaccurate, and that the coast was 15km east of where it should be. The North Atlantic Telegraph Company cable from Britain was successfully brought into use in August, scotching a plan by the Western Union Telegraph Company to lay a cable via the Bering Strait.

America bought Alaska from the Russian–American Company for $7.2million6. Transfer of ownership took place on 03 October. The HBC had leased the Southeast portion of Alaska since 1839, but the British Government showed no interest in consolidating Canada’s position in the west. Interestingly, an Anglo-American company offered to buy Rupertsland from the HBC in 1866, but the company opted not to proceed, instead using the offer as a lever with the British Colonial Office to push for serious negotiations with Britain about purchasing its rights to what would become the Northwest Territory.

Following the conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec City in 1864 that established the principles of Canadian devolution from Britain, The British North America Act received Royal Assent on 29 March, and was proclaimed on 01 July 1867.

1. This was the seventh ship to carry the name.
2. Chapter 11.2 of Arctic Cargo gives the types of goods being shipped, as well as fur returns about 1867.
3. The Labrador was built in Sunderland in 1866, and was the first steam vessel to be used by the HBC in the East, although the company had invested, successfully, in the paddle wheeler Beaver for the west coast trade in 1835. The HBC purchased the primitive stern wheeler Anson Northrup in 1859 for river service to Fort Garry (Winnipeg).
4. Other sources state that the purpose of the voyage by the Ocean Nymph was whaling and trading, but it was a poor season, and it was the lack of success in waling that caused the HBC to abandon activities in Hudson Bay. The HBC had more success with white whaling (belugas) than with black whaling (right whales). Their major effort for black whales was with the Perseverance in 1894-96. The five small whales taken were not deemed profitable, and the effort was abandoned.
5. He had previously canoed the route in 1852
6. Between $110-120million in 2016