Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Assistant to York:" the Ambiguous Role of Flamborough House, 1749-1759

Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Assistant to York:" the Ambiguous Role of Flamborough House, 1749-1759

Article excerpt

York Factory, or York Fort as it was originally known, was founded by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1684 and soon became the Company s most important fur trade post on western Hudson Bay. Flamborough House was a small outpost of York Fort, built by the Company in 1749 as a result of a serious challenge to their position in North America. (1) In London, rumours abounded of planned interloping expeditions destined for Hudson Bay and designed to challenge the HBC's royally-chartered trade monopoly there. Alert to such rumours, the London Committee instructed their servants on the Bay to be alert themselves. In particular, they instructed Chief Factor John Newton at York to build a small establishment on Nelson River to block any interlopers. (2) None of the rumoured expeditions made their way to Hudson Bay, however, and Flamborough House ended up serving an ambiguous role as a small provisioning outpost with the potential for drawing trade away from York. It also became an arena for conflict between Newton's successor, James Isham, and his subordinates, exemplifying issues of patronage, governance, and control with which the Company and its officers struggled.

John Newton Prepares to Face the "Interlopers"

The 1740s had seen a series of attacks on the Hudson's Bay Company's chartered privileges, the most notable adversary being Arthur Dobbs. A pamphlet war in 1743, expeditions to Hudson Bay by the ships Dobbs and California in 1746-1747, and a Parliamentary Enquiry in 1749 all convinced the Company's London Committee of the strength and perseverance of their opponents. Furthermore, the initial interest in the Northwest Passage had transformed into commercial designs on the fur trade of Hudson Bay. Although Dobbs retired from the field of battle even before the Parliamentary Enquiry began, more than a decade of activity on his part had generated unprecedented interest in Hudson Bay.

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Monopolies and royal charters were unpopular in England during this period: the Royal Africa Company, in particular, came under steady attack. Dobbs' battle cries had been taken up by many groups, including the Merchant Adventurers of Bristol, who had opposed the HBC more than once before. (3) Although the Enquiry reported that there was no case for annulling the Company's Charter, London was full of rumours that the Company's opponents would send an expedition to trade in the Bay: they allegedly hoped to provoke a prosecution from the HBC, and thus secure the test-case and the legal verdict which the Law Officers of the Crown had recommended the year before. In 1749, the Committee warned their Bayside factors that Dobbs or others might attempt to infringe upon the Company's trade. (4)

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Port Nelson at the mouth of the Nelson River was seen as the most likely landing point, and John Newton at nearby York Fort (on the Hayes River) received detailed instructions to guard against potential interlopers. The Committee instructed him to send veteran labourer John Hughes and carpenter Richard Ford with four men about twenty miles up the Nelson River to build a log tent on the south shore, across from a point of land called Flamborough Head, and to stake out a suitable spot for a "Factory house" to be built the following spring. (5) A "Factory" was a major post where a factor (or agent) resided, while a "Factory house" (or "house") was a smaller outpost commanded by a "master" of lower rank and pay.

The Committee felt that interlopers would most likely try to establish a foothold a short distance up Nelson River, the lower reaches of which were navigable by sloops. They could thus intercept Native traders bound for York without making themselves inaccessible to their supply ships. (6) In such an event, Flamborough House was to receive a large transfer of men and trade goods from York and to intercept First Nations traders before they reached the interlopers. …

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