Manitoba Ancestors: Hudson\’s Bay Company Archives

If you have an ancestor who worked in the Hudson\’s Bay Company or the Northwest Company, then you need to check out the Hudson\’s Bay Company Archives. This is a fantastic resource that can take you back to the early years of the company. Even if you don\’t have an ancestor, the resources will thrill a history buff. As part of the Archives of Manitoba, it is funded in part by the Hudson\’s Bay Company History Foundation. The Archive holdings 1670-1920 have been declared as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, such is the importance of the Archive material about the early European history of the continent and the fur trade.

What my post focuses on is the online databases specific to the HBC Archives.

Biographical Sheets
This collection contains sheets that look like cue cards. They are listed alphabetically by surname. The details of of each employee\’s occupation(s) and time with the company is listed, with reference numbers to the Archive document where the information was found. You may also find birth and death dates, family members, where they immigrated from, and where they went when they retired. Not all employees have a sheet, and not all sheets have the same information. There\’s a link to explain the terms and coding here. I have a friend who we suspect his immigrating ancestor, John Ferguson, was an HBC employee. There is only one John Ferguson in the biographical sheets, and this is what is looks like:

As you can see, he worked for the HBC from 1829-1836. In 1836 he retired to the Red River Settlement, and between 1836 and 1843 he had two children. This corresponds to information we had gleaned from census records about our particular John Ferguson. By 1851 John had moved down to Port Credit, Ontario. Two of his children had listed their birthplace as Hudson\’s Bay. It will take further investigation to confirm that this is the John Ferguson we are looking for, but at first glance this looks promising.

Post Maps
Clicking on the link will take you to a general map that shows 494 of the 501 posts in Canada and parts of the United States. You can further narrow things down to province, territory, or the United States. Or, if you know the name of the post, you can search by the post name. Did you know that there was a post in Hawaii? I didn\’t, until I looked at this map. Continuing with our John Ferguson, you\’ll notice on our biographical sheet that he didn\’t have a specific post he was assigned to. However, it said that he worked in the Swan River district, which is in modern day Manitoba. When I entered \”Swan River\” in the search box, I got 3 possibilities, two in central Manitoba and one in Southern Saskatchewan. Now while you cannot access details of a particular post, it does give you its location on the map. This can give you an idea of where your ancestor would have been located, and where to search locally for records.

Name Indexes
This one is further divided into three categories: Hudson\’s Bay Company Records, Northwest Company Records, and Red River Settlement Records.

  • Hudson Bay Company Records

    This is a set of three indexes regarding HBC employees. The first is Servant\’s Contracts (1780-c1926). This index contains over 9,000 names, and can tell you the year their contract started, age, posting, occupation, and the location number of the file. There is a heading called Origin that could be misleading. It is actually where the person signed up, and not necessarily their home country. The heading Miscellaneous has monetary notes for the most part. Even though the index has some information, the Archives does say that looking at the file itself can give you a lot more. Within the files you can also see reference letters, applications, photos, and academic certificates. There is a John Ferguson listed in the index:

    Now if you look at the location code, it is a different code than the ones listed on his biographical sheet. This might be a different John Ferguson than the one in the biographical sheets, but much of the information matches.

    The next index is Northern Department Servant\’s Engagement Registers (1823-1895). Set up the same way as the index above, you\’ll find the same sort of information. Looking at the file itself will give you additional information of wages, reaons for leaving the employ of the HBC, and terms of service. I found a John Ferguson that had location codes that match the biographical sheets.

    The third index is Register Books of Wills and Administrations of Proprietors (1717-1903). This index has the names and dates of shareholders\’ wills. If you\’ve looked at an ancestor\’s will before, then you know that they can give you information on family and friends, assets, and biographical information. Not to mention that in some cases, the deceased was rather free with their opinions on their extended family. It can be entertaining reading. There were no Fergusons in this index, but I did find 2 McDonald entries. It gave me the year range of the book, and the location code.

    Original records can be viewed onsite. Some have been microfilmed, and can be ordered through inter library loan.

    • Northwest Company Records
    There are 2 indexes here. The first is the Northwest Company Account Books (1795-1827). The index does not give you a lot of information. There\’s name, sometimes a date, and a location code. Looking at the original records though can give you the location they worked out of, and monetary information such as pay and cash advances.
    The second index is Northwest Company Servants\’ Contracts (1787-1822). This one is set up similar to the previous index. You will need to look at the original record to glean information such as terms of service, equipment supplied, and winter posts.
    One thing you should note though is that the majority of the names I looked at in both indexes French names. Those of us who have French ancestry in Canada know that you should always look for variations in spelling. This is especially true if the person writing the record was not French.
    Like the HBC records, you can view these either on site, or if microfilmed, through inter library loan.
    • Red River Settlement Records
    There is only one index for the Red River Settlement, but it\’s a good one. Extracts from registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in Rupert\’s Land sent to the Govenor and Committee (1821-1851) has over 6,000 pre civil registration records for the people who were part of the Red River Settlement. The index itself will give you the event date, type of event, parties involved and relatives, place of residence, place of burial, and/or ages. The original record can be found using the corresponding location codes. In the original record you can also get information such as occupations, location of the event, witnesses, and the names of the clergy.
    As a bonus, these records have been digitized and can be viewed on line. Strangely enough, I found no Ferguson entries in the index. But here\’s a page from 1821:
    The link to the complete set of registers is here. Scroll down the page to get the individual page images.
    Other Information

    If you\’d like more general information on the Hudson\’s Bay Company and its employees, the Archives has some good reading on its Common Research Topics Page. Here you can learn more about artifacts, land sales done by the HBC, and even about the iconic HBC point blankets.
    Lastly, by clicking here you can access the HBC Library Catalogue. It can only be accessed in the Research Room at the Archives of Manitoba, but I think it\’s worth making the trip for. It contains books, periodicals and articles relating to not only the HBC, but Indigenous Peoples as well. It also has items covering history of the US, the Arctic, and Western Canada. 

    One thought on “Manitoba Ancestors: Hudson\’s Bay Company Archives

    1. My Husband's ancestors were in the fur trade and I've been over the HBC site many times…. and here you are showing new-to-me parts of the site! Just goes to show that two heads are better than one when it comes to research. Thanks!!!


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