The Recollections of Colonel Hiram Hayes

Col. Hiram Hayes, of Superior, is probably the best known man at the head of the lakes. Unlike many of the old residents of Superior, he has never lost faith in the ultimate greatness and prosperity of his city. When Duluth began to forge ahead in the rivalry between the two cities and many of the Superiorites cast in their lot with Duluth, Colonel Hayes remained faithful in his allegiance to the Wisconsin city, and has always been counted among its leading citizens. The Colonel is today a very old man, but is still active and alert mentally and physically.

He has a fund of reminiscences, and is an authority on the early history of the head of the lakes. The following is, in part, an address he delivered a few years ago on the “Fur Trade of the Northwest” before the annual reunion of the Old Settlers’ Association of Superior.

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The site of the city of Superior in 1854 was as primitive, and as much in the wilderness, as when Radisson and Groseilliers encamped upon it in 1654. And when I came hack to Superior in 1865 from the wars, the town in point of improvement, and the country about, was not much changed from its original condition as found, two centuries before, by those French explorers.

It was a little hamlet with a handful of people, to be sure, but it was a question whether the isolated population that remained might not lose their feeble grip and be sent adrift upon some cake of Lake Superior ice, on which they eked out a precarious sustenance by fishing. Potatoes alone were slim living, and if that resource should fail and the fishing give out, what would there be left? So, in 1865, the public mind turned to the burning inquiry: “Can the Red river carts, which have been carrying to St. Paul a portion of the Hudson bay fur trade, be shifted across the country to Superior?” This question was discussed here, forty years ago, with more zeal and fervor than that of a brand new Pacific railway would be were such a project broached today.

What was the case of the Hudson Bay Company’s trade in 1865? What was it anyway? A word or two, then, on that.

Its charter was granted by Charles II in 1670 to his cousin, Prince Rupert, the Duke of Albemarle, and some twenty other noblemen and assured to the company “the sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds lying within the entrance of Hudson straits, and all the lands, countries and territories upon the coast and confines of the above seas.” First and last, the range of the company’s privileges was over a territory one-third larger than the whole of Europe, being more than 4, 000, 000 square miles, and hiding in its unknown depths an equally unknown number of wild native tribes of men.

The business was traffic in furs, and its policy was to keep the whole country in its wilderness condition as a preserve for peltry.

This consuming interest made the company jealous of any intrusion into its domain, and all inquiry into its management.

The principal company posts were York Factory, on Hudson bay, and Moose Factory, on James bay. Two ships from England came each year, arriving in August and going out of the bays in September. The parliament or council house was at Norway House, at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg, and here was the central or distributing depot for the whole country.

But the office of chief administration of the company was in London, and their deliberations, on Fenchurch street, two centuries ago, as now, were conducted and illuminated by candle light. In this as in other things the company holds tenaciously to the sanctities of tradtion. Starting with a capital of less than $60, 000, it has been carefully estimated that the company has carried from this country furs which have sold for $120, 000, 000.

The Hudson Bay Company was and is a colossal trust, greater, if possible, than that of the coal barons, the steel magnates, the oil kings, the ship combines or the railway mergers. It was, moreover, a most despotic and defiant trust.

History has written hard things of the Hudson Bay Company, which we have no occasion here to repeat, and as to which the evidence is not at hand to sustain any complaint if one were disposed to frame it.

It is sufficient to say that the British government, in our time, bought out the Hudson Bay Company, in part, paying more than the United States paid for the Philippines. And still to this day the concern pursuing its traffic up to and within the Arctic circle maintains the greatest fur-trading outfit on the globe.

I said at the start that in 1865 the people here were agitating the subject of diverting a part of this trade to Superior, by way of Lake Mille Lacs, over a wagon road 128 miles in length which our friend, Mr. Descent, had built in 1859-1860, from the Mississippi river to Superior. I was paymaster and a sort of superintendent of construction of that road. The bonus required by the Hudson Bay Company was the erection of warehouses at Superior and the payment of some $28, 000 in tax certificates at face. There have been six, seven or more sorts of currency, first and last, in this territory of St. Louis and Douglas counties, viz.: Wampum, beaver skins, tobacco, “wildcat” and tax certificates.

I name these in the order of their descending scale and values. Neither the silver dollar nor cedar shingles ever obtained much vogue here as measures of value.

The currency or instrument of exchange in the Hudson bay country most used was by standard of the beaver skin. The legend or motto of the company was Pro pelle cutem, “A skin for a skin.” Now the beaver skin was high commodity all over the earth, as in Russia, China, Japan and Britain. It was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

The skin of the tax sale certificate, gotten from skinning taxpayers, was good only for one year, and was, moreover, ill-conditioned, thin and full of holes. Will you handle your fur trade at Superior instead of at St. Paul? was the question.

Enough to say, the Hudson Bay Company by its agent finally declined to exchange its skins for our skins, and, like the Arab of the desert, silently folded up its tent and stole away into the Arctic darkness of the icy North. The tax certificate bargain died before it drew the breath of life.

The great profits of the fur trade and their familiarity with the business tempted sundry thrifty French capitalists and enterprising Scotch merchants of Upper Canada into the formation of a rival company-the North West Company of 1783.

This company, says the historian, “for a time held lordly sway over the wintry lakes and boundless forests almost equal to that of the East India Company over the voluptuous climes and magnificent realms of the Orient. The goods and wares destined for their traffic were put up at the warehouse of the company in Montreal and conveyed in batteaus or boats and canoes by rivers and portages to Lake Superior and other destinations.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

Sources:

  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.