Symbol of change

August 26, 2015

Around 200 years ago, this pendant was given by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to an Aboriginal chief to signify his importance to the fur trade. Large and heavy, with a beaver and the intertwined letters “HB” engraved on one side, the pendant was a conspicuous symbol of status within fur-trade society.

The pendant is particularly important for two reasons. First, most trade jewelry given to Aboriginal people was made of silver, not gold plate. Second, it is a rare example of gold work from well-known Montréal silversmith Charles Arnoldi (1779–1817).

The pendant would have been perceived by many as a sign of equality between traders and Aboriginal people in the Western regions. “Aboriginal people tended not to trade unless they had some kind of bond with the traders,” says Timothy P. Foran, Curator of British North America at the Museum. “For the most part, they engaged in trade on their own terms and European newcomers had to respect Aboriginal customs. At the same time, the fur trade was the beginning of a permanent European presence in the Aboriginal homelands of the West. It set the stage for the takeover of Aboriginal territory by the Canadian state in the 1870s.”

Challenging the monopoly

Struck between 1800 and 1815, the pendant was the direct consequence of an increasingly fierce trading rivalry between HBC and the North West Company, founded in Montreal in 1779. “The Hudson’s Bay Company started in the 1670s by building a few posts on the shores of Hudson Bay and simply waiting for Aboriginal people to come to them,” explains Foran. “In contrast, the North West Company built a series of forts in the interior and created an expansive transportation and trade network stretching from the valley of the St. Lawrence to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Because the North West Company used silver jewelry as trade items, HBC had to as well, although they had never made much use of such items before then. The North West Company forced HBC to become innovative and competitive.”

Reining in the rivalry

Too competitive, as it turned out. As HBC expanded its network and increased its investment in trade goods, and as stocks of fur-bearing animals declined or disappeared altogether in some regions, the two companies behaved as if they were at war — indeed, there was bloodshed on both sides. By 1821, the British government had had enough and forced the two companies to merge into a new, leaner Hudson’s Bay Company. Thereafter, HBC began removing silver and gold pieces from its trade as these items were extremely expensive to produce.

Yet despite claiming a monopoly over the fur trade after 1821, the company’s struggles were far from over. “Even as it worked to streamline its operations and to control the trade, HBC faced intensifying competition from independent traders throughout the 1830s and 40s,” explains Foran. “It was ultimately the Plains Métis who broke the company’s monopoly: their victory in an 1849 trial set a precedent for free trade in the West.”

Image: Oval gold-plated lead pendant, 10 cm x 7.5 cm, 18001815
The Hudson’s Bay Company distributed silver pendants to prominent Aboriginal hunters and trapper, but reserved gilt pendants for chiefs alone. Gilt pendants are extremely rare.