Hudson Bay Point Blankets: Important Trade Good or Gift of Death?
We might not think that a common, household object like a blanket could have an impact on history, but that has happened with the iconic Hudson’s Bay point blankets. The Hudson’s Bay Company, or HBC, first began producing and selling their point blanket in 1779 in posts around Canada and very quickly, the durable, distinctive wool blankets became popular among the settlers and indigenous tribes of Canada. For the white Europeans, the Hudson’s Bay point blankets represented the fur trade and pioneering settlements of the vast Canadian wilderness. But among the native people of North America, the wool blankets symbolized the evils colonialism and the introduction of deadly diseases.
The Hudson’s Bay Company Evolved Over the Years
The Hudson’s Bay Company underwent many changes since it was incorporated in 1670. At that time, the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded by an English royal charter, was originally intended to be a satellite government in parts of North America before the countries of Canada and the United States were officially established. The Hudson’s Bay Company laid claim to all the land in the Hudson Bay watershed, a tremendous amount of land. They also took control of the fur trade in North American and, as part of this endeavor, set up trading posts all across the region. At this point, the company transitioned away from a purely governmental agency to a retail business, trading beaver pelts for items, like wool blankets.
What was a Point Blanket?
The Hudson’s Bay Company did not invent the point system for blankets, but they helped to popularize it. On every Hudson’s Bay blanket…most of which are white with red, green, yellow, and blue stripes…have points, or thin black lines, woven into one corner. The number of points indicates the size of the blanket. Although the points were not originally assigned a value to the blanket, over time, traders used the points to determine how many beaver pelts it could be traded for. At first, one point equaled one beaver pelt. Eventually, the point blankets were the standard by which other items that were up for trade were valued.
The Spread of Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets
The iconic and colorful wool blankets were traded by the Hudson’s Bay Company since its formation. In fact, by the early 1700s, the blankets represented more than half of the items traded for the animal hides. The durable wool blankets were used by both pioneering settlers and the indigenous people for bedding, clothing, and wall dividers. In time, they became a sort of status symbol.
Hudson’s Bay Blankets as Clothing
Winters in Canada can be brutal. French settlers, fur traders, and some of the First Nation people began wearing their Hudson’s Bay blankets as robes or capes. The thick wool protected them from the wind and rain. In the early 1700s, the blankets were sewn into a wrap coat called a capote. Later, in 1811, the Mackinaw, a double-breasted coat made from Hudson’s Bay point blankets, became popular. This style of coat was created by Sir Charles Roberts, a British captain who was stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. These style of coats are still available for purchase today.
For Some, The Point Blankets Symbolize Disease and Death
Many members of the First Nation tribes of Canada consider the Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets to be a vehicle of colonialism and oppression. Still, others refer to them as “the gift of disease.” That is because European diseases, such as smallpox, that were previously unknown to the indigenous people of North America were easily spread through contaminated wool blankets. While it is commonly understood that the pathogens were passed from person to person through contaminated Hudson’s Bay blankets, some historians maintain that this was an unfortunate and unintentional accident. But others are not convinced. They believe that the Europeans understood how smallpox spread and used the popular blankets as a means of starting a biological war on the native people of North America. A decimated tribe is more willing to sign treaties with the White Man because they are weak and vulnerable. The Hudson’s Bay Company vehemently denied these claims.
An Icon of Canada
The unique design of the Hudson’s Bay point blankets has permeated into Canada culture. The blankets themselves are still for sale, as are the Mackinaw style coats. But the historic blankets also show up in period movies, artwork, and literature. Today, you can find t-shirts, slippers, cellphone cases, purses, and wall art all featuring the classic stripes of the Hudson’s Bay point blanket.
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