Today on May 2, 1670, King Charles II granted Prince Rupert a royal charter to form the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, colloquially known as the Bay, is currently the oldest North American corporation still in operation today. The Canadian-based company now operates as an international retail group with an extensive footprint across Canada and the United States.
The founding of HBC dates back to over three centuries ago when Charles II granted his first cousin, Prince Rupert, the right to establish a fur trading business in the Hudson Bay region. The king essentially gave his friends and family a monopoly over the commercial exploitation and development of resources in the new world. The royal charter's full name was “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay.” The “Governor” part refers to the chairman and the “Company of Adventurers” refers to stock owners — the ones adventuring, or risking their money.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the fur trade had emerged as a significant commercial opportunity in North America. French colonists were the first to develop reliable trading relationships with the indigenous tribes. And, the British desperately wanted in on the action. Across Europe, people simply loved felt hats. This caused demand for beaver pelts and other furs to skyrocket overnight. Sensing a financial opportunity, the king granted a royal charter to HBC for exclusive trading rights over the rivers and seaways throughout Hudson Bay. The company gained exclusive access to over 1.5 million square miles of land across northwestern Canada (more than 40% of the country's landmass).
Prince Rupert, one of the finest cavalry officers and naval commanders, was selected to serve as the first Governor of the Hudson Company Company. He was also a strong patron and supporter of the arts and science. Rupert held the position until he died in 1682 at the age of 62. The king's younger brother, James II (Duke of York), replaced Rupert as the next Governor. He lasted for two years before succeeding Charles as the new King of England.
The entire fur trade system was reliant on indigenous hunters bringing in a steady supply of animal pelts to British trading posts. They often bartered for European manufactured goods such as knives, kettles, guns, needles, and blankets. During the 1700s, Britain and France bitterly fought a series of land and naval battles for control over the fur trade.
In 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company formally merged with its largest competitor, the Montreal-based North West Company. The newly merged company became a dominant retail player across the entire continent. However, by the turn of the century, fashion trends started to dramatically change, forcing the company to rethink its strategy. In 1912, HBC began an aggressive modernization program and opened its ‘original six’ retail department stores across Canada — with locations in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Victoria, Saskatoon, and Vancouver. In French, the chain is known as la Baie d'Hudson (formerly la Baie).
Today, Hudson's Bay Company continues to survive in a world of dynamic and ever-changing fashion trends. It operates three main banners, including Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH. In 2019, the company sold off all of its European operations across Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The publicly traded corporation generates nearly $10 billion in annual revenue with Richard Baker serving as its current CEO and Executive Chairman.