Alberta Family Histories Society

- Publications for Sale
- Items for Sale

Canadian Genealogical Projects Registry

Contact Assistant Webster

© 2002-07 AFHS
18 Jul 2002



Doing your Family History at the Archives of the Hudson's Bay Company


AFHS General Program Meeting - 2 March 1998
by Graham MacDonald
See also current AFHS Programs


I want to discuss with you tonight, the value of a fairly recent research publication which has come out recently by Elizabeth Briggs and Anne Morton of Winnipeg (Bibliographical Resources at the Hudson's Bay Archives, Volume I. Winnipeg: Westgrath, 1996). and which I think will be of special interest to the group assembled here this evening. But before doing so, I will just briefly point out a few of the items which are listed on the short bibliography which I have circulated to you. The items on display represent the fruit of much detailed research into fur trade families which have been published in the last two decades.

Fur Trade History

As you may know, Fur trade history has been something of a growth industry since the early 1970s, and continues to be so. The year 1980 was a particularly good year for family history in fur trade studies. Alberta born Sylvia Van Kirk at the University of Toronto and Sylvia Van Kirk at the University of Winnipeg, both published important contributions.

  • Van Kirk: Many Tender Ties
  • Brown: Strangers in Blood

The book by Jackson on the Fur Trade families of the Pacific Northwest is a relatively new book and will be of interest to those of you working in the geographic area. It contains many interesting photographs and it will demonstrate the value of many other archive repositories in addition to that of the HBC.

The book by Lois McDonald I have included as an example of what can be done with respect to a specific family on occasion. In this case, the Ermatinger's represent a large and very well documented family whose business activities spread to many quarters of Canada and the Pacific Northwest. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for example, it was the enterprise of Glady McNeice to spend countless hours gathering records with respect to Charles Oakes Ermatinger In support of the Ermatinger Old Stone House built by Ermatinger between 1814 and 1823. Ermatinger had labored for both the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. In the letters of Francis Ermatinger then, we have yet another case of documentation for this family, the originals in this case having been preserved by the Oregon Historical Society.

Biographical Resources at the Hudson's Bay Company

A few brief words about the general structure of the HBC Archives might be in order. Some of this information is summarized in the handouts provided. The actual records are grouped in six lettered series, A to F and by several additional record groups.

  • Section A - Records of the London Office. 1671-
  • Section B - Post and Headquarters in North America, 1684-1943
  • Section C - Ships and Shipping, 1751-
  • Section D - Governor's of Rupert's Land, Commissioner's etc. 1818- 1927
  • Section E - Red River Settlement/Private Manuscripts. 1682-
  • Section F - Related and Subsidiary Companies., 1786-1934

The additional Record Groups are described as:

  • RG 2 - Canadian Committee Office, 1912-1970
  • RG 3-RG 7 - Fur Trade Department/Northern Stores, 1910-1987

What Can be Found in the HBC?

The HBC employees were broken into three main groups:

  • commissioned officer (chief factors and traders)
  • clerks and postmasters
  • servants

Now some records may list employees from all these groups while others may list them according to class. It is possible to trace the career of HBC employees through the following:

  • correspondence, which may include letters of application and recruitment
  • embarkation
  • contracts and abstracts of engagements
  • district and departmental records, company ledgers
  • annual evaluations or personal comments on employees
  • wills

Successful searching of the Company records can reveal the following quite often

  • birthplace and parish
  • age
  • the district or post where active
  • annual salary or wage
  • capacity or occupation
  • personal evaluation.

Ways into These Records

There a number of ways into these records and the start is made in the Reading Room where there is a master Card Catalogue. It is divided into four main sub-catalogues as follows: Search File Catalogue, Archives Files, Library Catalogue, and Photo Collection Catalogue.

Search File Catalogue

This is not an index to every name mentioned in the records of the HBC but does contain more names in alphabetical order than other finding aid in the HBC. To use it one merely goes to the family name or surname in question, for example, the well known fur trade figure Alexander Ross. In this case the name is listed. One then has to fill out a document request form in order to obtain the actual Search File for this individual, which lists all that has been, to that time, summarized about Alexander Ross in the Archive holdings.

For Alexander Ross (1783-1856) the Search File reveals that there are published Biographical Sketches in four different standard reference works. The Search File also refers the researcher to other Files where info. on Ross will be found. Miscellaneous material will be summarized in the Search File as well, such as an 1822 evaluation of Ross by Sir George Simpson, Governor of the HBC.

Good Clerk & Trader, reputed to be dishonest, but it is considered to be good policy to employ him, to prevent him falling into the hands of the Americans.

Bibliographic References

Cards of this nature refer the researcher to standard works such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The Beaver, publications of the Hudson's Bay Record Society or the Moccasin Telegraph, all of which are available in the Reading Room.

Section E

This major record group contains many references to personal names, since it is the main holding area for Private Manuscripts.

Brief References

This is a section of the catalogue which has been maintained by Archives staff over the years whenever a reference to a person has been found in a document or a publication. The reference was noted on a Brief Reference Card, and filed according to surname. An example is as follows:

Tait, John, (b) (fl. 1852-1857)
Parish: North Mavine (Shetland)
B. 239/U/2071
Nil Cards and/or Correspondence Cards

This is a part of the card catalogue where archivist maintain a public access to past enquiries for individuals. If HBC staff were unable to find a reference to a specific enquiry, a Nil Card is filed. Follow up may be done by a contemporary researcher with an Archivist, who will check the public enquiry files to see what the documentary basis was for the preparation of the Nil Card. For instance, the original enquiry may have come from a person who had reason to believe a certain person worked for the HBC, and such provided information is retained on file.

It needs to be mentioned here that there are also free standing Binders in the Reading Room known as the 'Biogs' - the Biographies. These may be easily accessed under the appropriate surname. Lets take a quick look at the summary for one Patrick Cunningham.

Archives Files

Now we come to another main division of the Card Catalogue - The Archives File. This is the top right hand drawer of the Search File and represents files previously kept by the HBC in Winnipeg and based on files maintained in London, England. These may be worth consulting in certain contexts.

Library Catalogue

Little need be said about this part of the catalogue. Like most archives, the HBC has gathered many books and pamphlets which complement the archive holdings. The use of this is standard, and is a great resource with respect to people who have gained a certain fame or notoriety.

Photo Collection Catalogue

Similarly with the Photo Catalogue, which is self-explanatory, except to say that a certain amount of information may be attached to a photograph of an individual and so the Photo Collection Finding Aids may be worth consulting.

Section 3.1 of Briggs and Morton: Fur Trade General

This section deals with sources which are either alphabetically organized or have name indexes and which cover long periods of time.

The McCloy Index

Names for this index of Fur Trade Biographies were taken from

  • Appendices of Volume. XXII Of The Publications of the Champlain Society
  • Volumes I to XII of the Champlain Society, HBC Series
  • Publications of the HBC Record Society
  • Appended entries from HBC Staff

Now lets get into the real record groups a bit. There are a number of records which can be consulted under the heading of Fur Trade General
A.32/1-19 Servants Contracts, 1780-1818 Microfilm 387-391
A.32/20-60 Servants Contracts c.1820-c.1925 Microfilm 391-419
A.36 Officers and Servants Wills, 1763-1913 Microfilm 425-431, etc.

Lets Look at Servants Contracts: 1780-1818.

Now lets look at another Record Group - A. 36: Officers and Servants Wills.

Another Record Group is A. 44: Register of Wills and Administrations of Proprietors, 1771-1903.

Another Record Group. Officers and Servants Legers. A. 16

Another Record Group. Lists of Servants in Hudson's Bay Company. 1774-1841. A. 30.

The format for these records changed over the years. For example in 1785 lists were kept by district. By 1818 there is one list for employees of the Northern Department and one for the Southern Department.

North West Company

Some of you will be interested in the HBC holdings for the NWC which was absorbed into the HBC in 1821. The records for the NWC are generally in short supply and so the amalgamation of 1821 was probably a good thing from the standpoint of record preservation. Similar charts as these we have already seen summarize the holdings for these records. Lets take a quick look at the summary provide in Record Group F. 4/40 for one Solomon Chartier

Post and Headquarter Records. Group B

There are a variety of things to be learned from records in this group. Genealogists are always interested of course, in Marriage Certificates.

Record Group D

Is the place where Inspection Reports live, and in these quite often are found lists of employees at a given post and comments on evaluations.

A few words are in order about Native Peoples and what can be learned from the Records. Here, we will want to check the records in the usual way, particularly through Post Records where Native Census records were often kept.

There are many other kinds of specialized headings which we can not touch upon tonight, but which are well set out in Morton and Briggs.