In the 17th century the French had a monopoly on the Canadian fur trade. However, two French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers defected to the English and told them of a route to the rich trading grounds to the north and west of Lake Superior, which could be reached from the north through Hudson Bay instead of over land from New France. The English sent a successful expedition there in 1669, and the Hudson's Bay Company was incorporated on May 2, 1670, with a Royal Charter from King Charles II. The charter granted the company a monopoly over the Indian Trade, especially the fur trade, in the region watered by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay in northern Canada, an area known as Rupert's Land after the first director of the Company, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. This region constitutes 3.9 million km² (1.5 million square miles), over one-third the area of modern-day Canada, but the specific boundaries were unknown at the time.
In 1821, the North West Company of Montréal and the Hudson's Bay Company merged, with a combined territory that was extended by a licence to the North-Western Territory, which reached to the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the west. In 1870 the trade monopoly was abolished and trade in the region was opened to any entrepreneur. The company also lost its ownership of Rupert's Land, which was sold to the government of Canada.
One aspect of the company's operations was the Hudsons Bay Company Stores, trading posts that were set up across northern Canada. Today this is the only part of the company operation remaining, in the form of department stores referred to as The Bay. Many Hudson's Bay Company stores were until quite recently the only stores in remote towns. More recently they have transformed into boutique stores in their major downtown locations.
Today there are three main retail divisions: the Bay, Zellers, and Home Outfitters. In addition, there is a chain of 105 smaller Fields general merchandise and apparel stores that operate in Western Canada.
In December of 2003, Maple Leaf Heritage Investments, a Nova Scotia based company that was created to acquire shares of Hudson's Bay Company, announced that it is considering making an offer to acquire all or some of the common shares of Hudson's Bay Company. Maple Leaf Heritage Investments is a subsidiary of B-Bay Inc., whose CEO and chairman is American businessman, Jerry Zucker, the head of The InterTech Group Inc., a conglomerate that is the second-largest private firm in the State of South Carolina.