The history of the Hudson Bay Company in Prince Albert explored during Coffee and Conversation

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald Connie Gerwing first led the group for Coffee and Conversation on the Hudson Bay Company in Prince Albert to the Gathering Place exhibit on Thursday afternoon.

The Hudson Bay Company has a long history in the Prince Albert region, and that history was the topic of the day at the Prince Albert Historial Museum’s Coffee and Conversation on Thursday.

Museum board member and longtime volunteer Connie Gerwing gave the presentation. She said it sprung from a Hudson Bay Company research project she completed for the recently opened Gathering Place Room.

“We did a big thing on the fur trade and we wanted to dig a little deeper than what we had done in the past so I did this big research project,” Gerwing explained.

Gerwing also recently completed work on a Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Saskatchewan and is waiting to hear if she was successful. She started work on the degree in 1966.

Although the Hudson Bay Company is associated with fur trading, Gerwing said early company efforts in the Prince Albert area focused on farming. She said it was one of the most interesting discoveries she made during her research.

“(Prince Albert) was not a fur trading centre for the Hudson Bay Company,” she explained. “It actually started as a farm. People normally don’t associate the Hudson Bay Company with farms.”

Gerwing said the HBC had a lot of tentacles with many pieces. In the 1830s and 1840s the company began to expand to other things as the fur trade began to falter.

“In 1866 they established a farm here on the west end—probably about four kilometres from right here, from the centre of town,” she said. “(James) Nisbet came the same year and established his mission and four kilometres about west was the Hudson Bay Company farm they called Fort Albert.”

That farm existed for only a few years before they established the Hudson Bay Company reserve around 1870.

“(Starting) from Sixth Avenue East, going east for 3,000 acres, was the Hudson Bay Company reserve on the eastern side of Prince Albert or what became Prince Albert,” she said.

The farm managers were another interesting aspect, the first being Phillip Turner who has many descendants in this area. Like many Hudson Bay Company employees, Turner was an English-speaking Metis. He operated out of Fort a la Corne, moving back and forth between there and Prince Albert.

The second farm manager was William Traill, the son of noted author Catherine Parr Traill of Ontario. Catherine’s sister, Suzanna Moodie, wrote the Canadian classic Roughing it in the Bush.

William Traill and his brother came out west to work for the Hudson Bay Company.

“He worked for the Hudson Bay Company for the rest of his life and he was here for about four years,” Gerwing said. “He married a McKay. There were many, many McKays.”

Traill married Harriet Mckay and retired to Prince Albert where they had a farm and many children. Traill eventually was one of the first citizens of Meskanaw, located south west of Melfort. Meskanaw is the Cree word for trail.

“They started the town of Meskanaw so there is still Traill descendants in Meskanaw all from Catharine Parr Traill who came from England and then Willie, so that’s all through the Hudson Bay Company,” Gerwing explained.

There was a large crowd for the Coffee and Conversation on Thursday. Gerwing began her discussion in the Gathering Place room where she outlined he fur trade research before moving to the main room to have further discussions. Historical Society President Fred Payton added colour during the lively conversation.

“Then of course they had a flour mill, they had stores, (and) a trading post because they serviced all of the north,” she said.
She explained that Prince Albert was a different kind of Hudson Bay Company town.

“They did trade furs eventually but that was a small part of their operation, and they serviced the northern posts and they had a big warehouse and their big steamboat operation here. (The) Hudson Bay Company owned most of the steamboats that were on the river, the Saskatchewan river system and this was a major point where they service those from,” Gerwing said.

She covered from the beginning until the Hudson Bay Company store opened in the 1970s.

Coffee and Conversation is a monthly event at the Prince Albert Historical Museum. The topic has not been finalized.