Ships to Hudson Bay: Origins of Vessels and Frequency of Voyages, 1508–1920

The argument set out below contests prevailing assessments of the volume of shipping in Hudson Bay. Overall, texts that describe the North, or the development of Western Canada (whether in terms of political economic, social, or cultural aspects), imply the number of ships to sail the Bay from 1508 to 1920 was too low to be of interest in terms of impact on historical process. My argument references the Ships Lists (1 – 5) posted to this site (originally compiled and appended to my Ph.D. thesis as “An Indication of Seafaring Vessels in, or Voyaging to, Hudson Bay and Strait, including Journeys into Ungava Bay and Foxe Basin, 1508–1920”). It is my contention that the number of voyages sent by various interests to Hudson Bay indicates that a more varied pattern of communication existed than previous commentators have assumed.[1]

The observation that HBC shipping to Hudson Bay occurred on an annual basis is standard in existing historiography. In 1888, for example, A.H. Markham observed that “During the whole of the eighteenth century vessels belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company made annual voyages to, and from, England to York and Moose Factories.”[2] In 2003, archivists Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss remarked that the pattern extended into the nineteenth century.[3] Few authors, however, address the question of how many ships made up an annual fleet. Those authors who do, supply limited assessments. In 1883 for example, Charles N. Bell, an advocate of Northern development, critically remarked a generally held impression:

that the Hudson Bay and Strait were navigated only by one or two vessels
belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which carried the trading goods
for their annual business from London to York Factory and other posts about
the Bay, and returned with the previous year’s yield of furs.[4]

After pointing out that the HBC was not the only instigator of voyages to the area, Bell attempted to correct the perception of a low incidence of maritime traffic in the Bay by presenting a series of statistics. He argued that between 1789 and 1880, there had been “133 visits of vessels of the Hudson’s Bay Company, from England to York Factory.” This suggests there had been not quite two vessels per year for ninety-one years. He then cited United States Government records for 1861 to 1874 as indicating that American whalers had made forty-nine direct voyages to Hudson Bay. This would be almost four vessels per year. Bell also noted that, “over 730 voyages have been made into the Hudson Bay.”[5] Although he was not explicit about the period during which these voyages occurred, the implication was that he meant from 1670 to the early 1880s. If this were the case, the frequency would approach four vessels per year.[6] Markham, equally imprecise, gave a lower estimate, commenting that there were “sometimes two, and even three being sent in a year.”[7] In 1930 Harold A. Innis, in arguing that the relation between the technical demands of the trade in Hudson Bay and Company organization had been established early and endured to at least 1763, inserted a quote from 1674 indicating “two ships out and home.”[8] Ian Kenneth Steele, writing in 1986, at one point intimated a still lower estimate, citing “very low shipping volume” on the part of the HBC, and “a commercial monopoly excluding all intercolonial shipping,” as resulting in a singular “annual ship” from 1675 to 1740. He revised that number upward, however, with the statement: “Except for the years 1699–1712 … at least two ships went out to the bay each year.”[9] More recently, Michael F. Dove found that from 1668 to 1770 there were 256 voyages, which, expressed abstractly, indicates about 2.5 ships per year over that 102-year span.[10] Nevertheless, Dove also allowed that due to warfare, or a decline in the price of furs, there was “the possibility of no ship making the annual voyage.” This “irregularity of voyages,” he suggested, presented “continual annoyances,” to governors stationed bayside.[11] It would appear from the foregoing that for 193 years –– 1668 to 1770, and 1789 to 1880 –– the number of HBC vessels sent from London to Hudson Bay was relatively low and the frequency of their arrival was subject to interruption.

There are problems, however, with the above assessments. First, there is the question of evidence. Despite Bell’s reputation as a competent historical authority and assurances that he consulted the best and most credible sources available, not all ‘authorities’ on Hudson Bay were in agreement as to who among their fellows should be considered reliable sources of information.[12] Were Charles Bell’s estimates off? Second, there is the problem of non-commensurability. Dove’s data, for example, because referring to another period, cannot be applied to verify Bell’s data, nor extrapolated to describe other centuries. William Barr, who considered a lengthier span of time –– 1670 to 1913 –– thus incorporating both periods, stated that the HBC sent “usually … between 2 and 4 ships” annually.[13] He apparently based his assessment on the work of Alan Cooke and Clive Holland, whose examination of sea traffic confirms Bell’s observation that non-HBC ships sailed to the Bay.[14] The most obvious source of these alternative voyages, from at least 1682, was France together with New France. The French maritime presence was formidable by 1684, particularly in James Bay where French naval and supply ships held sway from 1697 to 1713. In the first year of that period of dominance, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was sent with five ships to the Bay. France demonstrated its naval power again in 1782, with the arrival of Jean-François Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse and his squadron of three armed ships. Supply vessels for trading ventures based in France and Quebec continued to visit the Bay into the twentieth century.[15] In addition to French vessels, there were whaling ships and various voyages of exploration. Understanding the frequency and numbers of vessels voyaging to Hudson Bay and associated waters clearly requires more information than existing estimates and general observations supply.

The ship lists compiled for my study of maritime traffic in Hudson Bay address the lack of detail about seafaring vessels along the Northern Seaboard.[16] They represent a wide survey, necessary in part due to the lack of an existent list that is comprehensive in terms of span of time, geographical scope, and vessel inclusion. The breadth of inquiry was also a response to conflicting assertions within primary and secondary sources. Some differences, such as dates of a voyage, were resolved relatively easily with a high degree of certainty. Others, such as the name of the ship’s master on a voyage, were not. In some instances, discrepancies trace back to the records for a voyage: some ships’ logs are unsigned.[17] Even if there is a signature, there is the possibility that a mate transcribed and signed the log, not the master.[18] Added to this, there are instances where the master purported in one ledger recording the voyage differs from that recorded in another ledger referencing the same voyage. W. Gillies Ross attests to another source of disagreement among various records, finding that occasionally “whaling masters declared for one region but subsequently sailed to another.”[19] Similar inconsistencies in the records of the HBC suggest the possibility of clerical error. The “Book of Ships’ Movements,” for example, records the Lady Head as having sailed for Victoria in 1890 and the ‘tea clipper’ Titania as having visited York Factory, Charlton Island, and Moose River. Yet records of advance payments to their respective crews in the Company’s portledge books suggest the reverse: Lady Head appears to have visited Moose, as the vessel often did, while Captain ‘Dandy’ Dunn was rounding the Horn of South America in Titania, following his normal route to Victoria on the Pacific Slope.[20] There is also the problem of a voyage or vessel’s obscurity. Passing mentions in primary sources sometimes trace to second-hand accounts and oral transmission.[21] Where an arbitrary decision between conflicting sources was required, I relied on what seemed the most credible source. Where confirmation was lacking but a voyage was plausible, I included the vessel in the list, but for the most part attempted to err on the side of caution and underestimate the number of voyages.[22] My intent, in recounting the data, is to inform and to clarify the basis for my argument.

Analysis of the lists enhances insight into the frequency, numbers, and varieties of seafaring vessels in Hudson Bay and its associated waters. In total, 1,301 entries in the lists represent vessels that voyaged in and towards Hudson Bay from 1508 to 1920, a period spanning 412 years. Not all years have an entry. There appear to have been 147 years in which voyages towards, or entering the Bay from distant ports did not occur. During the 1500s, after the first entry for Sebastian Cabot’s reputed and disputed voyage of 1508, eighty-five of the century’s remaining ninety-one years have no entry. Sixty-one years of the following century likewise have no entry. All of these gaps occur prior to 1676. For the 244 years after that date, I found reference to at least one voyage per year, excepting 1695 as the entry for that year indicates. Thus, after 1508, non-indigenous or foreign voyaging to Hudson Bay and associated waters only occurred in roughly two-thirds of the years in which such activity could have occurred –– preponderantly in the later years. By mid-seventeenth century, interest in accessing the relatively unregulated region’s still plentiful stock of beaver saw the frequency of voyaging rapidly increase and, within a quarter century, a variety of interests sent ships to Hudson Bay on a yearly basis.[23]

If, for the 244 years after 1676, excepting 1695, reference to at least one voyage per year entering into or setting out towards the Bay was found, then ‘annual voyages’ appears an entirely reasonable phrase to apply. There are complicating differences, however, among the voyages that qualify the designation of ‘annual.’ In the first place, whether after 1676 or before, not all vessels set out from England. As early as 1619, Jens Eriksen Munk in the Enhiörningen and Jens Hendrichsen in the Lamprenen arrived in Hudson Bay from Denmark, and as late as 1910 Captain Anderson in the Sorine represented that country in the Bay. Zachary Gillam commanded another early, non-English endeavour, setting out for the Bay at some time from 1662 to 1664 in a ship from Boston with Médard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson aboard.[24]

After 1576 there were some 866 vessels sent from England, organized by English interests. Forty-three of these voyaged prior to 1670, including at least two that sailed on ‘proto-HBC’ ventures from 1667 to 1669. After a royal charter confirmed the formation of the HBC in 1670, the Company was not the only source of the English voyages. Eleven vessels were sent to interlope on “the sole Trade and Commerce of all those Seas, Streightes, Bayes, Rivers, Lakes, Creekes and Soundes in whatsoever Latitude they shall bee, that lie within the entrance of the Streightes, commonly called Hudson’s Streightes,” which had been granted to the HBC –– including four Moravian Missionary Society vessels.[25] There were as well ninety-four ships sent towards the Bay by either the Admiralty, or the Government of England, although some were merely escorts through seas closer to England.

Thirty-one ‘interloping’ ships sailed from Scotland. Of these, twenty-six were Dundee whalers that sailed from 1886 to 1912. Two were whaling vessels from Peterhead in 1916 and 1918. While the voyage of the one ship that set out from Cork, Ireland –– the Humphrey and Thomas (alias Rainbow) of 1688 –– was connected to an English interloping venture headed for Hudson Bay, it is not clear that owner and master, Zachary Bardon, had harboured any intention beyond sailing for the Newfoundland fishery.

Ships hailing from French ports present an equally varied picture. Due to a lack of surviving, or readily accessible sources, the picture is also vague. By 1783, twenty-nine vessels appear to have set out from France, while ten set out from New France. For at least fourteen of the voyages organized by interests in France, however, New France might better qualify as their port of origin. ‘French’ voyages display a variety of permutations that highlight the intrinsic mobility of sailors, ships and commercial finance. Iberville in the Pélican, sailing from, and on behalf of France, was in Acadia/ New England and Newfoundland prior to reaching Hudson Bay in 1697. La Pérouse arrived there aboard the Sceptre in 1782 after having made a lengthy circuit of waters from Cape Breton Island to the West Indies. Members of the North West Company [NWC] based in Montreal organized the interloping voyage of the Eddystone in 1803, and the chartered ship sailed from that port, however the voyage appears to have begun and ended in England –– a pattern repeated by the HBC in the twentieth century.[26] In addition, from 1907 to 1920, the Revillon Frères Fur Company sent ‘annual’ supply ships from both Paris and Montreal. Three of these appear in the ship lists as confirmed, the others as presumed only.[27]

As the above mentions of Boston and Montreal indicate, North American ports added cultural and political variety to voyages sent to the Bay. After Zachary Gillam’s 1663 voyage, approximately 186 American vessels, from either New England or the United States, sailed for the Bay. One of these was the ill-fated adventure undertaken by Gillam’s son, Benjamin, in the appropriately, piratically named Bachelor’s Delight.[28] In 1753 and 1754, two attempts at exploration, supported by Benjamin Franklin and funded by subscription –– including that of merchants from Maryland, New York, and Boston –– originated in Philadelphia.[29] Whalers undertook the next series of voyages from the United States, beginning in 1860 with the Syren Queen and Northern Light of Fairhaven Massachusetts. Two more voyages from that port set out in 1863 and 1864. In the meantime, New Bedford began sending out whalers in 1861; at least seventy-five sailed from that port by 1906. From 1863 to 1892, New London sent about twenty-three. Other known ports of origin for American voyages include: Sag Harbour, New York, in 1864 and 1866; Groton, Connecticut in 1866; Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1872 and 1915; Stamford, Connecticut in 1907, 1910, and 1913; and the port of New York in 1871, 1878, and 1919. Works that refer to Reginald B. Hegarty’s research on American whalers usually credit the 1915 voyage of the A.T. Gifford under A.O. Gibbons from Provincetown as bringing the last American whaling vessel into the Bay.[30] In 1919, however, George Comer of the “converted yacht” Finback avowed whaling to be his purpose in the Bay –– although W.O. Douglas, a contemporary, Canadian Royal Northwest Mounted Police [RNWMP] constable, suspected Comer’s real intent was to scuttle the ship.[31] Based on published lists compiled by Cooke and Holland, it appears that, in addition to the 114 whaling voyages from the American ports alluded to above, there may have been as many as sixty-five others from unspecified, though likely Northeastern, ports in the United States.[32]

Newfoundland was another North American source of vessels that sailed for Hudson Bay. As early as 1765 Governor Hugh Palliser had advocated voyages to establish “Communication and trade” to the northward.[33] In 1884 and 1897, the Canadian Government chartered Newfoundland vessels for exploratory purposes. From 1907 to 1920, the HBC was also chartering Newfoundland ships, entering into combined ownership arrangements with Newfoundland shipping interests, or using St. John’s as an intermediary port for its own vessels.[34] Although most of the voyages, in which Newfoundland figures prominently, seem to have been chartered by non-Newfoundland interests, fishing, sealing, and whaling voyages that originated in the Dominion are recorded as having ventured near Hudson Strait.[35]

From 1884 to 1920, at least seventy vessels, affiliated to varying degrees with the Canadian Government, set out for the Bay. In 1920, W. A. Bowden, of the Department of Railways and Canals, gave testimony before a Senate Committee that suggests there had been significantly more, claiming, “we put thirty-eight vessels through the straits during the season of 1914” –– a year for which I found specific references to only a third as many.[36] Although arriving at exact figures would require more extensive research, indications are that a significant number of the vessels originating in Canada, including RNWMP craft, circulated on the way to, or returning from the Bay among ports ranging from Toronto to those of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in addition to ports in Quebec and Newfoundland.

Vessels hailing from more distant North American ports also arrived in Hudson Bay. On occasion, HBC ships normally associated with the Pacific Northwest coast, such as the Ganymede in 1834, Eagle in 1836, and Princess Royal in 1885, circulated to the Bay –– a circumstance which contributes to the confusion over the whereabouts of the Lady Head and Titania in 1890.[37] In 1913, two non-HBC tramp steamers arrived from Texas, and in 1920, the HBC steam ship Nascopie headed for Savannah after completing a Bay voyage.

Whatever the various origins of vessels and crews, not all voyages designed for the Bay actually arrived. Some ships never sailed –– for example the Discovery ketch, bought by George Carteret in 1667 but ultimately rejected as inadequate. Some ships turned back, as did Charles II of England’s Eaglet, which proved unequal to the rough seas of the North Atlantic and returned home, awash with her masts cut in 1668.[38] There were vessels that virtually vanished. The James set out in 1682 from Tynemouth and never returned to port.[39] Neither did the American whalers Pavillion of Fairhaven and the George Henry of New London in 1863. Dundee whalers Polar Star and Séduisante were likewise lost in 1899 and 1911 respectively. There were also British Admiralty vessels, such as the Shark sloop of 1746, under Christopher Middleton and serving as an escort in light of such overlapping conflicts as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, War of Austrian Succession, and King George’s War. As was a common practice for many escorting commanders, Middleton only went far enough on the outward voyage to ensure the convoy was beyond the reach of enemy privateers.[40] Similarly, on a return voyage, HBC ships might rendezvous at the end of the North American shipping season of the North Atlantic –– usually September –– with patrol ships designated to ensure that British whalers, fishers, and others following the route had safe passage if seas closer to home were actively contested.[41] Although HBC ships seldom fell prey to enemy predation while crossing the Atlantic, occasionally voyages were disrupted. The Hudson’s Bay [I] escaped an attack by three French privateers in 1689 and turned back while still in the Channel. The ship’s consort the Northwest Fox was not as fortunate and ultimately surrendered.[42] Over two and a quarter centuries later, warfare again interfered: German submarines attacked HBC steamships Nascopie and Pelican during the Great War, though both survived to continue voyaging as supply ships to Hudson Bay.[43]

Of approximately 702 HBC vessels carrying supplies across the Labrador Sea from 1576 to 1920, about 694 succeeded in making landfall inside Hudson Strait. Of 513 non-HBC vessels sent, 413 appear to have arrived along the coast of the Bay or its associated waters.[44] All told, the average rate of arrival for those 344 years would be just over three ships per year. The pattern described by historians from Bell to Dove –– of anywhere from two to four vessels annually –– might appear, therefore, to be adequately representative. It is also, however, somewhat misleading. Depending on how the data is broken up, more nuanced if equally imperfect patterns are evident.[45] For example, in considering the average numbers of vessels to land in the Bay and associated waters over five-year intervals, several distinctions become apparent. First, as Tables 2.1 to 2.3 illustrate, the intervals break down into three immediately obvious periods.




(NB: Above tables captured from dissertation; for “Appendix A” see: ship lists.)


The first period, from 1575–1670, shows a relatively low frequency and number of arrivals. At its start, this period looks promising: during the first interval of 1575–1580, there were seventeen ships; in the third, 1585–1590, there were seven. None arrived, however, during eleven intervals, and only from one to three landed during the remaining six intervals. In the second period, from 1670–1860, the number of ships landing per interval increases dramatically. Only five out of thirty-eight intervals have fewer than ten arrivals: the first and second, spanning 1670–1680, and the seventh to ninth from 1700–1715. Twenty-nine intervals have from ten to twenty landings; four intervals have from twenty-one to twenty-four. The third period begins in 1860 with another obvious increase in the number of vessels to land: fifty-one arrived during the first interval, forty-nine in the second. Eight of the twelve intervals show from twenty-seven to forty-three vessels. Only in one interval, 1890–1895, did the number of landings drop below twenty-five. The interval from 1910–1915 is exceptional in that eighty-nine vessels landed.

The periodization created by considering vessel landings in five-year intervals indicates that the number of vessels to arrive per year increased over time. There was a low of no landings per year during the first period of ninety-five years, when the abstract average number per year was .38 –– or in more realistic terms, one vessel every three years or so. During the sixty years of the third period, the number of landings rises to a high of almost forty vessels in one year –– 1914 –– when the average number of vessels per year was about 8.2. Thus, it is only during the second period that the general pattern of anywhere from two to four vessels annually is seen to apply –– the average number of landings per year being about 3.0. Incidentally, the 190-year span of this period, 1670 to 1860, largely coincides with the temporal limits historians of the HBC, the fur trade, and the ‘birth of Western Canada,’ tend to set on their studies –– 1670 to 1870.

Historians are aware of the limitations periodization may impose on historical understanding –– for better or for worse.[46] In the case of shipping to Hudson Bay, I would argue that adopting the periodization suggested by the political economic history of Western Canada does not always supply the best means of seeking answers to questions about its socio-cultural history. Accepting the span from 1670 to 1870 as sufficiently representative of maritime communication in the Bay and associated waters would be to miss instances of historical variation that, while perhaps of little significance to the history of business, or of formal politics in Canada, are germane to any study of the social and cultural effects of seafaring on Western Canadian development. For example, it is important to grasp at such intangibles as what a ‘low’ or ‘high’ rate of sea-borne communication would be.

The terms high and low signify relative values and in the case of Hudson Bay and associated waters, these values are relative in an insular sense. This is because conditions in the area –– particularly the prevention of communication by ice, but including low population density, the mix of indigenous cultures, and the minimal formalized settlement of new arrivals –– set it apart from other shipping destinations in the Atlantic world. Combined with the difficulty of organizing commensurate data from available record bases in other locations, these differences hamper outside comparison. For the purpose of this thesis, it is nevertheless necessary to recognize that the quality of communication between foreign-born seafarers and native-born residents mattered, both with respect to the transfer of socio-cultural norms, and with respect to opportunities for participation in new realms of work because of the transfer.[47]

Figure 2.1. Second Period: Number of Vessels to Land in Hudson Bay and Associated Waters, 1670–1860. Source: Table 2.2.

Restricting the study to the second period, 1670–1860, would see the loss of actual highs and the lows, flattening values and eclipsing differences in quality of communication. What is actually the middle range –– the second period –– would be taken as representative, yet that range does not suggest the same degree of increase in communication over time. If anything, on a purely visual basis, it suggests that communication began tapering off after the sixteenth interval of 1745–1750 (see Figure 2.1). Although adding intervals to accord with the date of the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada would indicate a dramatic increase in activity about that time, the historical perspective would remain limited.

Adopting the longer perspective, to include all three periods from 1570–1920, shows the number of larger vessels landing in Hudson Bay and associated waters fell within the range of ‘one or two’ (0.4–2.6) per year in seventy out of 345 years. The range was from ‘about three or four’ (2.8–4.4) vessels per year in 150 out of the 345 years; ‘about five to seven’ (5.4–7.2) vessels per year for thirty-five years; and more than seven per year for twenty-five years. Strictly speaking, there were 2.0–4.0 vessels arriving for less than half of the 345 years considered. Asserting that there were from ‘two to four ships per year’ does not adequately characterize maritime activity in Hudson Bay.

Charles Bell was apparently justified in contesting any generally held impression that historically there was a ‘HBC vessel or two, in and out of the Bay annually.’ There were more ships plying the area than that. The frequency with which vessels arrived varied over time, and ‘routine’ HBC voyaging did not mean routine scheduling of arrivals. There were from as few as zero non-indigenous vessels to thirty-eight or more in the Bay and associated waters in a given year. To have informative value, a general statement as to an average number of voyages requires specifying a period of time in which less variable patterns existed. In addition, examining the variety of voyage origins as a factor in the history of maritime communication reveals that adhering to the periodization of political economic history does not necessarily serve analysis along socio-cultural lines. Clearly, the variety of vessels sailing for the Bay and associated waters, and arriving along the Northern seaboard complicated such dualities as English and French cultural affiliations, social conventions, or political loyalties. The pattern of communication was more varied than such historiographically imagined dualities allow.

The volume and variety of shipping in Hudson Bay from 1508 to 1920 was sufficient to support the thesis that there is merit in considering sailors to the area as active agents of complex communication.

[1] See ship lists, this site.

[2] A.H. Markham, “Hudson’s Bay and Hudson’s Strait as a Navigable Channel,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series 10, no. 9 (September 1888): 554.

[3] Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss, eds., Undelivered Letters to Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 1830–57 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), 13.

[4] Charles N. Bell, “Navigation of Hudson Bay and Straits,” MHS Transactions 1st ser., no. 7 (read 10 May 1883).

[5] Ibid. J.A.J. McKenna, quoted in A.H. de Trémaudan, The Hudson Bay Road (14981915) (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1915), 62, similarly asserts “In the course of a century and three-quarters,” there had been 750 vessels. It is not clear what dates delimit the century.

[6] See also Charles N. Bell, Our Northern Waters: A report presented to the Winnipeg Board of Trade regarding Hudson’s Bay and Straits: being a statement of their resources in minerals, fisheries, timbers, furs, game and other products: also, notes on the navigation of these waters, with historical events and meteorological and climatic data (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Board of Trade, 1884), 15, who asserts “fully 750 vessels have passed through Hudson’s Strait. … over 274 years,” which would be from 1610–1884.

[7] Markham, “Hudson’s Bay and Hudson’s Strait,” 556.

[8] Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930; revised ed. 1956; reprint, with revised foreword, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 129, see also 289, where he notes that there were four ships sent out in 1857.

[9] Ian K. Steele, The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 85, 87.

[10] Michael F. Dove, “Voyages to Rupert’s Land: The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Maritime Component, 16701770,” in Selected Papers of Rupert’s Land Colloquium 2002, compiled by David G. Malaher (Winnipeg: Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies, 2002), 27.

[11] Dove, “Voyages to Rupert’s Land,” 18, quotes Governor Fullartine’s complaint from Albany in 1703 and a similar one made by seafarer and governor, Anthony Beale, from the same post in 1706. See also Glyndwr Williams, “The Hudson’s Bay Company and Its Critics in the Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th ser., 20 (1970): 150, who states, “The extent to which the Company was embroiled in war, diplomacy and politics at this time obscures the fact that its trade remained a small-scale affair: a couple of ships a year to the Bay.”

[12] Bell, “Navigation of Hudson Bay and Straits,” maintains that he compiled the substance of his paper from “the best authorities and most credible sources which are open to the writer,” noting that he was “readily and cheerfully supplied with valuable information by the Hudson’s Bay Company people, both in London and at the posts about the Bay,” and that he made an “examination of the works of the old-time navigators.” Markham, “Hudson’s Bay and Hudson’s Strait,” 565, in describing the discussion that took place following the presentation of a paper to the Royal Geographical Society, records an instance of dispute over the authority of  reputed, even esteemed, authorities on Hudson Bay. [See Chapter Eight, N. Hall, Ph.D thesis, 172–173 n.8].

[13] William Barr, “The Eighteenth Century Trade between the Ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Hudson Strait Inuit,” Arctic 47, no. 3 (September 1994): 236.

[14] Ibid., 236, 245; Alan Cooke and Clive Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada: 500 to 1920, A Chronology (Toronto: Arctic History Press, 1978).

[15] See A. Stevenson, “Arctic Fur Trade Rivalry,” The Beaver 5, no. 2 (autumn 1975): 4651; and Thibault Martin, “Rivalités franco-anglaises en Hudsonie, (19041926) à l’origine de la structuration du territoire,” Recherches Amérindiennes au Quebec 32, no. 2 (2002): 7181.

[16] Edith I. Burley, Servants of the Honourable Company: Work, Discipline, and Conflicts in the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1770–1879 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), 110, observes, “Counting and classifying create an impression of scientific accuracy.” I exercised care in the compilation and interpretation of the list. Nevertheless, I regard accuracy –– no less ‘scientific’ –– as an equivocal attribute. See Joan Wallach Scott, “History in Crisis: The Other’s Side of the Story,” The American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (June 1989): 680–692, who argues that “history is an interpretive practice, not an objective neutral science. To maintain this does not signal the abandonment of all standards; acknowledging that history is an interpretive practice does not imply that ‘anything goes.’ Rather, it assumes that discursive communities (in this case, of historians) share a commitment to accuracy and to procedures of verification and documentation. … It also acknowledges that … the knowledge we produce is contextual, relative, open to revision and debate, and never absolute”; see also Thomas S. Kuhn, “[The New Reality in Art and Science:] Comment,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 11, no. 4, Special Issue on Cultural Innovation (October 1969): 403412.

[17] See for example, HBCA, B.3/a/6, Albany Post Journal, “Journall of a Voyage anno 1714 without a name, Albany Fort [sic]”; and HBCA, “Herd, David J. (ca. 18141878) (fl. 18351878),” Biographical Sheet, which notes that of the eight logs Herd kept aboard the Prince Rupert, only one was signed, and that of eight logs he kept aboard the Prince of Wales, one was unsigned.

[18] See R.J. Cunningham and K.R. Mabee, Tall Ships and Master Mariners (St. John’s NL: Breakwater, 1984), 159160.

[19] W. Gillies Ross, “The Annual Catch of Greenland (Bowhead) Whales in Waters North of Canada 17191915: A Preliminary Compilation,” Arctic 32, no. 2 (June 1979): 98; and W. Gillies Ross, Whaling and Eskimos: Hudson Bay 1860–1915 (Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1975), 144 n.3.

[20] See HBCA, C.4/1, Book of Ships’ Movements, 17191929; C.3/20, Portledge Books, 18451915; see also Basil Lubbock, “The Days of the Tea Clippers,” The Beaver 8, no. 3 (December 1928): 104106.

[21] See Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by sea or overland to the remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth, at any time within the compasse of these 1600 yeares. vol. 1, ed. Edmund Goldsmid (1599; reprint of the 2d ed., reordered with indices, new illustrations and maps, Edinburgh: E. & G. Goldsmid, 1885), 14, 23, 25, 28, 31, 33, 35. In his prefaces to the first and second editions Hakluyt promises “singular probabilities & almost certaintie therof” [sic] and describes “discourses” on which he relied –– including sources such as poems. He defends the inclusion of “some particulars which hardly will be credited,” by avowing “Herodotus, Strabo, Plutarch, Plinie, Solinus, yea & a great many of our new principall writers … hath reported more strange things … Nay, there is not any history in the world (the most Holy writ excepted) whereof we are precisely bound to beleeue ech [sic: believe each] word and syllable.”

[22] A.G.E. Jones, The Greenland and Davis Strait Trade 1740-1865, from Lloyd’s Register of Shipping and the Register of the Society of Merchants, Ship-Owners and Underwriters (Cambridge, UK: Bluntisham Books for the author, c.1996), vii, 15153, supplies a thorough and apt discussion of the difficulties involved in compiling ‘accurate’ ship lists.

[23] See Innis, Fur Trade in Canada; E.E. Rich, The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company 16701870, vol. 1 (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1958); and Arthur S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1870–71, Being a History of Rupert’s Land (The Hudson’s Bay Company Territory) and of the North-West Territory (Including the Pacific Slope) (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1939).

[24] Howard Nicholas Eavenson, “Appendix 21: Two Early Works on Arctic Exploration by an Anonymous Author,” in Map Maker & Indian Traders: An Account of John Patten, Trader, Arctic Explorer, and Map Make; Charles Swaine, Author, Trader, Public Official, and Arctic Explorer; Theodorus Swaine Drage, Clerk, Trader, and Anglican Priest (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1949), 174. Morton, History of the Canadian West, 4647, notes that the Boston expedition reached Hudson Strait, but its navigator “who was accustomed to fetch sugar from Barbados, took fright at the icebergs”; Irene M. Harper, “The First Complete Exploration of Hudson’s Bay: Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouard Groseilliers,” Cambridge Historical Journal 3, no. 1 (1929): 8081, explains that “Zachary Gillam was first hired by Radisson to make an interloping journey to Hudson’s Bay … nearly six years before it happened that Gillam was engaged as a carrier by the London merchants, together with his partner Captain Stannard, another Bostonian. When we remember that Zachary Gillam not only turned back from the bay on the pleas of not understanding ice navigation, but also managed to disable his rotten ship before returning to Port Royal, suing Radisson for the entire loss of cargo and ship, and that Radisson lost the whole of 1665 in fighting this lawsuit, which he won at the cost of his remaining capital, we can understand why Radisson [in 1668] sailed with Stannard and sent Groseilliers with Gillam”; G. Andrew Moriarty, “Gillam, Zachariah,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online edition [DCB] (accessed 20042008), gives the date of the aborted voyage as 1663, Grace Lee Nute, “Radisson, Pierre-Esprit,” DCB, is less certain of a date, and in Grace Lee Nute, “Chouart Des Groseilliers, Médard,” DCB, notes only that “several journeys to Hudson Bay were begun” from Boston.

[25] Hudson’s Bay Company, “The Royal Charter for Incorporating the Hudson’s Bay Company. A.D. 1670,” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Charter and Supplemental Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, no. 6584 (September 2004) pageno=1 (accessed 25 April 2008). I have assumed that the London whaler, Perseverance, of 1897 was identical with the ship of the same name contracted by the HBC for that year –– a possible mistake. Nor am I certain that this was the vessel captained by Alexander Murray of Peterhead and crewed by Murray family members from 1891 to 1894. See G.V. Clark, “An Arctic Veteran,” The Beaver 50, no. 1 (summer 1970), 6467.

[26] HBCA, C.7/45-47, Eddystone: Letters of Marque, Provision Books 18031815; Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, Northwest to the Sea: A Biography of William McGillivray (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1975), 69.

[27] “Keys to History: Revillon Frères,” McCord Museum of Canadian History, online (20 Aug.  2007) (accessed 26 August 2007), states that Revillon Frères, “maintained a fleet of steamers that sailed annually to all of their trading posts.” William C. James, A Fur Trader’s Photographs: A.A. Chesterfield in the District of Ungava, 1901-4 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985), states, however, that the El Dorado was chartered in 1903 and carried provisions sufficient “to equip five posts for a period of five years.”

[28] In 1682, Benjamin Gillam sailed from Boston, and met up with the HBC ship Prince Rupert [I], which his father had captained to the Bay, raising suspicions of conspiracy between the two. Their plan, if one existed, was disrupted by Radisson and Groseilliers in command of the St. Pierre and Ste. Anne [I] and, at the time, allied with Canadian interests. The Canadian force took Benjamin prisoner; Zachary went down with his ship in a storm.

[29] Henry E. Bryant, “Notes on an Early American Arctic Expedition,” The Geographical Journal 33, no. 1 (January 1909): 72–75.

[30] Ross, Whaling and Eskimos, 37, 40, 74.

[31] See Reginald B. Hegarty, ed., Returns of Whaling Vessels Sailing from American Ports: A Continuation of Alexander Starbuck’s ‘History of the American Whale Fishery,’ 18761928 (New Bedford MA: Old Dartmouth Historical Society, and Whaling Museum, 1959), 44; and Ross, Whaling and Eskimos, 146 n.10; see also W.O. Douglas, “The Wreck of the ‘Finback’,” Chesterfield Inlet, “Chester ‘Then’,” History of Chesterfield Inlet (accessed 30 April 2007), who offers an eye-witness assessment of Comer’s intent. W. Gillies Ross, “George Comer (1858-1937),” Arctic 36, no. 3 (September 1983): 295, states that ethnographer Christian Leden had chartered the vessel “to carry out trade and scientific work among the Inuit of western Hudson Bay” before the Finback went aground in Fullerton Harbour.

[32] See Cooke and Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada, 220; and Clive Holland, Arctic Exploration and Development c. 500 B.C. to 1915: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), passim. Cooke and Holland conclude that there were “146 whaling voyages to Hudson Bay, 117 were American and the rest were British.” Ross, Whaling and Eskimos, 21, 23, particularly 37, Table 1, and 144 n.3, appears to be the principal source for their figures. Ross acknowledges that arriving at definite numbers is fraught with “confusions,” and explains that his tablature is based “on Starbuck and Hegarty but incorporates any additional information gained from an examination of ships’ logbooks and journals.”  I used a similar method, but have not been able to reconcile his totals (tabled numerically by decade from 1860 but only up to 1915), or those of Holland (given as numerical values per year), with vessels found through my research. The most problematic years include 1866 (Holland gives eight whalers, I found ten), 1867 (Holland gives nine whalers, I found only three), 1877 (Holland gives two whalers, I found six), and 1919 (I counted George Comer’s Finback as a whaler).

[33] Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, “(Jonathan Horsnaill for) Hugh Palliser, Order Enclosed with Report on the Newfoundland Trade and Fisheries, April 8, 1765,” Colonial Office 194 Papers, vol. 16, 179–179v.

[34] Clifford P. Wilson, “Nascopie: The Story of a Ship,” The Beaver 27, no. 2 (September 1947): 3.

[35] William Howe Greene, Wooden Walls among the Ice-flows: Telling the Romance of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery (London: Hutchinson, 1933), 270–271, 274–275, 278–279. William Wakeham, Report of the Expedition to Hudson Bay and Cumberland Gulf in the Steamship ‘Diana’ under the Command of William Wakeham, Marine and Fisheries Canada in the year 1897 (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, Printer to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1898), 24, 42, also 4, 22, 28, 62, 76, reported seeing the Nimrod of Newfoundland near Cape Chidley. Further, he indicates that unknown numbers of Newfoundland fishers frequented the “great cod fishing resources,” situated off Port Burwell, the Button Islands, and Sir Terence O’Brien’s Harbour, Cape Chidley. He asserts that the grounds were ‘discovered’ by Captain Samuel Blandford, “one of the best known and most successful ice captains in Newfoundland”; see Shannon Ryan, “Blandford, Samuel,” DCB.

[36] Senate, Special Committee on Navigability and Fishery Resources of Hudson Bay and Strait, Report, 10–11 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 53. John A. Cormie, “The Hudson Bay Route,” Geographical Review 4, no. 1 (July 1917): 33, asserts that “In 1915 thirty-six passages are known to have been made without mishap.” Because the statement is unconfirmed by documentation, I have assumed this is in fact a reference to voyages of 1914.

[37] Beattie and Buss, Undelivered Letters, 413.

[38] Rich, History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, vol. I, 32, 36, 38; and Morton, History of the Canadian West, 50.

[39] Rich, History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, vol. I, 104, 105.

[40] William Coats, The Geography of Hudson’s Bay: being the remarks of Captain W. Coats, in many voyages to that locality, between the years 1727 and 1751: with an appendix containing extracts from the log of Capt. Middleton on his voyage for the discovery of the North-west passage in H.M.S. Furnace in 17412, ed. John Barrow (London: Hakluyt Society, 1852), v. See also “Ships taken by the French and Spaniards, December 1746,” and, “Ships taken by the English. December 1746,” The Gentleman’s Magazine 16 (December 1746): 696–698. Similarly, HBCA, C.1/420, Ship’s Log, King George, 1808, “A Journal of a Voyage to York Fort 1808, John Turner master,” Friday, 27 May, notes that on the outward journey the HBC convoy was in communication with HMS Ned Elvin brig, Richard O’Connor Commander.

[41] See G. S. Graham, “The Naval Defence of British North America 1739–1763,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society ser. 4, 30 (1948): 95–110. Steele, English Atlantic, 118, suggests HBC captains would arrange –– he states “plea” –– for homeward convoy protection while on their outward journey. Michael A. Palmer, “‘The Soul’s Right Hand’: Command and Control in the Age of Fighting Sail, 1652–1827,” The Journal of Military History  61, no. 4. (October 1997): 684, indicates the extent to which affecting a rendezvous was likely dependent more on the “initiative and judgment of individual fleet commanders,” than on protocol. See also Steve Pope, Hornblower’s Navy: Life at Sea in the Age of Nelson (London: Orion, 1998), 19, 20. HBCA, Search File, Ships, Misc. “38. Geo III (1797/98) (Cap. 76)”, Search File, Ships, Misc., “Convoy. 1693”; and Search File, Ships, Misc., “Convoy. 1698,” indicate HBC ships were exempt from formal regulation with respect to joining convoys, though the London Committee made funds available for captains to purchase protection from any “man of war of force” they might encounter.

[42] Rich, History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, vol. I, 255.

[43] Wilson, “Nascopie,” 3–11; G. Edmund Mack, “Nascopie Downs Submarine,” The Beaver 19, no. 1 (June 1932): 18–21; “S.S. Pelican,” The Beaver 9, no. 1 (June 1929): 215.

[44] Vessels of uncertain origin –– such as those listed as ‘already local’, and ‘locally crafted,’ in ship lists, this site –– excluded; likewise smaller vessels such as yawls, cutters, shallops, and those sent out in frames.

[45] See Pat Hudson, History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13–16, 18.

[46] See “Periodization in History,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Electronic Text Library, University of Virginia Library (Gale Group, 2003) (accessed 21 November 2008); and Chris Lorenz, “Comparative Historiography: Problems and Perspectives,”History and Theory 38, no. 1 (February 1999): 31, who opines “Some kind of chronology or periodization is usually the organizational principle of empirical historiography, which is most akin to ‘normal,’ traditional history. Correspondingly, usually little or no theoretical reflection is contained in it”; also Bruno Latour, quoted in Donald Wesling, “Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, and the Edges of Historical Periods,” Clio 26, no. 2 (winter 1997): 191, 202, observes that human beings, “have always actively sorted out elements belonging to different times. We can still sort. It is the sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting” [italics in original]. He argues, “recent ecological thinking, driven by historically new global cultural issues including a reasoned disrespect for science as a creator of risks, is led by urgent logics to the recalibration of paradigm and period.”

[47] See “native-born,” and “native, adj.” OED. For the purpose of this thesis, the compound ‘native-born,’ is used to signify “A. adj. 2. Designating a person born in a particular place, as distinguished from an immigrant or incomer.” The word ‘native’ is used as in “III. Senses relating to place of birth or origin,” specifically, “9. a. Of a country, region, etc.: that is the place of a person’s birth and early life,” including “b. In extended use (chiefly literary). Of an object, event, circumstance, etc.: being or forming the source or origin of a thing or person,” and “c. to have one’s foot on (one’s) native heath and variants: to be on home ground, esp. in one’s place of birth,” but excluding the senses described under the entries for 10. a., 10. b., 11 a., 11 b., and 11 c., that imply a biological heritage, an anthropological classification, or a politically constructed category.


3 Responses to Ships to Hudson Bay: Origins of Vessels and Frequency of Voyages, 1508–1920

  1. christopher wright says:

    I have been very impressed by the enormous amount of research that has gone into the ship lists and related commentary. However, some notes regarding the time periods, and ship traffic.
    1575-1580 marked the period when Frobisher (or rather his backers) was attemting to prove that there was gold on Baffin island. The bulk of the vessels were there in 1578 to haul 1200 tons of worthless rock back to London. The results of the expedition rather soured the court from further exploration in northern America.
    1910-1915. The arctic fur trade was developing rapidly due the popularity of white fox, and there were two very active trading companies – HBC and Revillon Freres establishing posts. The government were trying to build Port Nelson as the Hudson Bay outlet for prairie grain, and the Dundee whalers were still active.
    1915-1920 The dramatic reduction was due, in part, to the war. However, all work on Port Nelson was abandoned in 1917, and because of the sale of the Newfoundland steel sealing fleet to the Russians, there were virtually no capable ships left, other than the Nascopie. Revillon developed the Pagwachun route to James Bay, and the HBC followed them down the river. This removed all the trade that previously went to Charlton and Strutton Islands.

    • hallnjean says:

      Many thanks for the notes Christopher. The info on 1915-20 is particularly welcome for the insights.

      The list was compiled to get at the volume of traffic into Hudson Strait and Bay. For that reason the Frobisher ships to Baffin that did not enter the Strait were not included. Likewise Arctic whaling and trading ships that travelled up Davis Strait and over to Greenland were not traced — that volume of shipping was more than I could deal with in one study 🙂

    • Jean Lelievre says:

      Hi, I’m planning a sailboat expedition at end of July 2017. (Chisasibi, Long Island- Kuujjuarapik, Tursujuq Park, Umiujaq and Nastapoka Falls). Is there someone who have information about the approximate year of the last sailboat that sailed on East side of the Hudson Bay ?

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