Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chief Trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson, 1846

At Fort Alexandria, Alexander Caulfield Anderson received his long expected Commission as chief trader in the Honorable Hudson's Bay Company's Service -- 15 years after he entered the fur trade. There were only three positions available to the Gentlemen of the Company -- clerk, chief trader, and chief factor. Although after 1834 the numbers of chief factors were reduced and the number of chief traders increased, fewer than 50 active and retired chief traders received dividends in any one year. Retired chief traders received dividends a full six years after their retirement, and until a retired chief trader no longer received dividends, no senior clerk could be granted his commission as chief trader. Many a clerk did the work of a chief trader without ever earning a promotion and, as in the case of Anderson's father-in-law, James Birnie, some men were never considered for promotion.

It was always an honor to be named chief trader, for it was public recognition of the good work done for the Company, and it meant a marked increase in wages. Even more importantly, the new chief trader now shared in the profits of the Company. Since 1821, the Company's dividends had been divided into 100 shares, with 40 of those shares going to the men who worked in the field. These 40 shares were immediately divided into 85 shares, which were then distributed amongst the chief factors and chief traders. Each chief factor was entitled to two shares (or 2/85th of 40% of the total dividends of the Company) and each chief trader to one.

Immediately upon receiving the letter that advised him he was now a chief trader, Alexander Anderson wrote of the joyful news to his brother, James, now in charge of the Lake Nipigon post. In his response, James expressed his pleasure that at least one of them had received their long awaited chief tradership. "Since one of us was to suffer disappointment and disgrace," James wrote, "I rejoice that the blow has fallen on me, not on you." Although James had never had a complaint lodged against him, he had been superseded in his department by 3 junior officers, men who in his opinion could never have properly run a fur trade post. James was so angry at the slight that he considered leaving the Company's service, and so humiliated he could hardly show his face in the fort.

However, James pulled himself together enough to warmly congratulate his younger brother, and to advise him that his first dividends should be excellent because the returns in the east had been especially high. James' prophecy did not prove accurate, and in a year or two the fur traders in the east suggested that a fixed amount of 400 pounds a year be permanently established for chief traders' dividends. But, James wrote, "Who will bell the cat?" Governor Simpson had a free hand to do whatever he wanted to do, and no one had the power to prevent him from keeping dividends low. In the years after 1840, a chief trader's annual dividends averaged little more than 300 pounds sterling.

James had also heard through the grapevine that his younger brother had obtained his chief trader's commission through the influence of Peter Skene Ogden, who was now firmly entrenched as one of Governor Simpson's favorites. James also expressed his concern that their cousin, James Anderson B, knew no chief factors personally and, as a result, could hardly expect to make chief trader. In this fur trade it had become apparent that those who received their chief trader's commission were those who had powerful friends amongst the chief factors, some of whom, James remarked, used their influence "in favor of relatives, at the expense of their Honor & Conscience." Governor Simpson even admitted as much, when he wrote that the men who had been promoted "were placed in situations where their services came more immediately under the notice of those on whose recommendations the promotions take place."

Sources: Harold A. Innes, The Fur Trade in Canada (U of T Press, 1964)
Letters, James Anderson A to Alexander Caulfield Anderson, A/B/40/An32, PABC


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