Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur, Maritime
“My orders are not to be disputed.” —George Simpson, 1820
“He surely could say of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as Augustus Caesar said of Rome, that he found it brick and left it marble.”
—F.W. Howay, 1939
Known as the Little Emperor, George Simpson was governor-in-chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the most powerful organization in Canada, overseeing an area larger than western Europe. Described by his subordinate John Tod as “that crafty fox,” Simpson played a major role in the evolution of British Columbia, although he spent very little time in the area. It was Simpson’s decision to combine the fur trading domains of New Caledonia (interior B.C.) and Columbia (Columbia River and lower West Coast) that led to the establishment of a string of new forts within present-day B.C., starting with Fort Langley (1827).
“The trade of this side of the mountain [the Rockies],” he wrote, “if properly managed I make bold to say can not only be made to rival, but to yield double the profit that any other part of North America does for the Amount of Capital employed therein but in order to turn it to the best advantage New Caledonia must be included and the Coasting trade must be carried on in conjunction with the inland business.”
Previously the 19th-century forts and trading posts west of the Rockies included Fort McLeod (1805), Fort Nelson (1805), Fort Fraser (1806), Fort St. James (Stuart Lake Fort, Fort New Caledonia, 1806), Fort George (1807), Kootenae House (1807), Fort Astoria (1811) and Fort Thompson (Shewaps Fort, 1812).
New forts and posts that arose under Simpson’s jurisdiction prior to 1850 would include Fort Alexandria (1821, not to be confused with Fort Alexander in present-day Manitoba), Fort Babine (1822), Fort Vancouver (1825), Fort Connolly (1827), Fort Chilcotin (1829), Fort Halkett (1829; 1832), Fort Simpson (aka Fort Nass, 1831), Fort McLoughlin (1833), Fort Essington (1835), Dease Lake Post (1838), San Francisco (aka Yerba Buena, 1839), Honolulu (1839), Fort Stikine (1840), Fort Yaku (aka Fort Durham, 1840), Fort Victoria (aka Fort Camosun, 1843), Fort Youcoun (1847), Fort Yale (1848) and Fort Hope (1848).
Simpson also decided that the Hudson’s Bay Company ought to compete with the Americans and Russians in the maritime fur trade, resulting in the arrival of the first steam-powered ship on the West Coast, the Beaver.
In 1670, King Charles II had afforded control of British North America west of Sault Ste. Marie to the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company for the purpose of harvesting furs. Faced with increased rivalry from the mainly Scottish traders of the Montreal-based North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company was reconstituted in 1821 to include the NWC upstarts and to retain its monopoly position. This amalgamation had been under consideration since 1816. With amalgamation, the HBC/NWC gained control of all fur trading from Labrador to Oregon, and from the Red River to the Yukon. There were so few “settlers” in Western Canada that the HBC would continue to carry all letters for any persons free of charge until 1845.
At age twenty-three, George Simpson arrived in Canada in 1820 as a London-trained bookkeeper. His potential had been recognized by one of the HBC directors, Andrew Colville, who, as historian George Woodcock put it, “was related to him on the wrong side of the blanket.” Simpson had been born out of wedlock at Loch Broom in Ross-shire, Scotland in either 1792 (according to the National Dictionary of Biography) or else in 1787, the date supplied on his tombstone in Montreal. Either way, it is known that Simpson was raised by relatives, not his parents. His subsequent attitudes towards women were possibly affected by his less than secure upbringing.
As a novice, Simpson spent his first winter at Norway House on Lake Winnipeg. At the time, the HBC’s governor for North America, William Williams, was operating under duress because the Nor’westers had warrants for his arrest. The HBC needed another man “on the ground” in case Williams was apprehended. In 1820, Williams sent his new deputy, George Simpson, westward with a brigade of voyageurs to get acquainted with the operations and possibly relieve some tensions with the North West Company. According to historian Douglas McKay, Simpson was sent to the Athabasca District, “the very storm centre of the fur trade battle and the last stronghold of the enemy [Nor’westers].”
Upon amalgamation in 1821, Simpson took charge of the Northern Department, an area that included much of Western Canada and parts of the United States, and took measures to reassure disgruntled Nor’westers that they were welcomed by their former rivals in the HBC. According to John Tod’s eyewitness report of Simpson’s diplomacy, “Their previously stiffened features began to relax a little; they gradually but slowly mingled together, and a few of the better disposed, throwing themselves unreservedly in the midst of the opposite party, mutually shook each other by the hand.”
To further limit acrimony from his former enemies, Simpson afforded control of the New Caledonia, Columbia, Athabasca and Mackenzie River trading districts to Nor’westers, placing Nor’westers in charge of eighteen out of 25 fur-trade districts in all. Simpson then proceeded to rationalize the operations that he felt were mismanaged, reducing the company’s staff by more than 50 percent by 1825, and also reducing wages. In his campaign for frugality he was aided by Archibald McDonald, a fellow trader he had met during his stint in the Athabasca District the previous year. After McDonald arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1821, the two men corresponded extensively. McDonald completed a report in 1822 that was critical of the wastefulness and self-indulgence that had prevailed in four NWC posts in the Columbia District—Fort George (Astoria), Spokane House, Fort Walla Walla and Thompson River (Forts Okanagan and Kamloops).
When Simpson went west to survey the situation for himself in 1824–1825, he was critical of everything he saw west of the Rockies. “...if my information is correct,” he wrote, “the Columbia Department from the day of its origin to the present hour has been neglected, shamefully mismanaged and a scene of the most wasteful extravagance and the most unfortunate dissension. It is high time the system should be changed and I think there is an ample field for reform and amendment.”
George Simpson meant business—and little else. Upon visiting Fort George in 1824, he wrote, “Extravagance has been the order of the day.” For the sake of efficiency, not morality, he tried to reverse the HBC custom of supplying liquor to Indians. “His password was economy,” wrote historian F.W. Howay. “Economy in the use of food; economy in supplies; economy in Indian credits; economy in wages and in every expenditure.”
Simpson was present at the ceremonial christening of Fort Vancouver on March 19, 1825. Simpson travelled extensively, preferably with a Scottish piper and a flag flying from the stern of his specially-made, over-sized canoe whenever he approached a trading post. He was a demanding judge of his personnel, maintaining a private “Character Book” in which he kept track of his opinions. The entry for Chief Trader Alexander McLeod, for example, described him as “a most overbearing Tyrannical fellow.” He is said to be “arrogant; does not confine himself to plain matter of fact, annoys everyone near him with details of his own exploits; ‘I did this,’ ‘I did that’ and ‘I did the other thing’ continually in his mouth, but it unfortunately happens that he rarely does anything well.”
Ending his visits to forts in New Caledonia in 1828, Simpson’s party learned first-hand that the Fraser River could not serve as a viable trade route to enable Fort Langley to serve as the HBC’s principal depot on the Pacific. “I should consider the passage down, to be certain Death, in nine attempts out of Ten,” he wrote. After a week at Fort Langley, Simpson and his large party encountered hostile Aboriginals in the Puget Sound area in the aftermath of bloody reprisals conducted by Chief Trader A.R. McLeod whose HBC contingent had killed more than twenty Aboriginals in the Clallum country.
Simpson addressed the problems of coastal transport and shipping by writing his superiors in London in 1832 to request a steam vessel. “We have no idea what the cost of such a Vessel might be,” he concluded, “but should not consider her too expensive at about 6,000 pounds.” The idea to acquire such a vessel was first supplied by John McLoughlin who later opposed his own opinion on the grounds that “we ought not to open a new Channel of expense.” The Company decided in Simpson’s favour on this issue on March 5, 1834.
The 109-ton Beaver, under Captain David Home, left Gravesend, England, under sails with the Columbia, under Captain William Darby, on August 27, 1835. Both ships anchored at Fort Vancouver on April 10, 1836. After it was outfitted with its own cargo of engines and paddlewheels in Fort Vancouver, the 101-foot-long Beaver dramatically improved communications on the West Coast with its 70-horsepower engines and a maximum speed of nine and three-quarters miles an hour. This ship greatly diminished the HBC’s reliance on forts. Although it was not the first steam-powered ship in the Pacific Ocean, as is often presumed, it was the first to operate in the North Pacific.
Simpson was based at the HBC’s Canadian headquarters at Lachine Rapids, near Montreal, as of 1833. In 1839, Simpson, the bean-counter, was made Governor-in-Chief of all Hudson’s Bay Territories, not just the northern department, and he would retain that position as “the Little Emperor” until 1860.
He went on a trans-global expedition, via Siberia, in 1841–1842, and published a two-volume journal of his adventures. One volume of his travel memoir concerns his journey across Canada on horseback and by canoe, and includes visits to California; the other mostly concerns Hawaii and Simpson’s transit across Siberia. A map traces his path. In her book The Canadian Rockies: Early Travels and Explorations, Esther Fraser has dubbed Simpson “Banff’s First Tourist” even though was clearly travelling for business reasons. Simpson’s entourage frequently covered 40 to 50 miles per day and arrived at Fort Vancouver on August 25, 1841.
During this expedition, Simpson became the “grandfather” of British Columbia by recommending the creation of Fort Victoria. While travelling with James Douglas to Sitka, Alaska, for informal talks with the Russians, the two men discussed the possibilities of replacing Fort Vancouver on the Columbia with an alternate HBC trading headquarters somewhere to the north. “The Southern end of Vancouver’s Island forming the Northern side of the Straits of De Fuca,” Simpson wrote, “appears to be the best situation for such an establishment....I had not an opportunity for landing on the southern end of the Island, but from the distant view we had of it in passing between Puget’s Sound and the Gulf of Georgia and the report of C.F. McLoughlin and others who have been there, we have every reason to believe there will be no difficulty in finding an eligible situation in that quarter for the establishment in question.”
George Simpson was knighted in 1841. As Sir George Simpson, he was necessarily involved in the machinations during the 1840s possibly to acquire Vancouver Island as a proprietory responsibility for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but he was less than enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits. He was not supportive of colonization because he foresaw, correctly, that it would impede business. “I think the capabilities of the Island are greatly overrated by Messrs Gladstone, Hume, & others who have been so severe on the Colonial Office for putting Vancouver Island under the Company’s direction,” he wrote to James Douglas in 1850.
Much-concerned with decorum and maintaining appearances as “an exemplary bachelor,” as he once put it, George Simpson maintained and discarded his mostly mixed blood mistresses with apparent ease. Prior to his marriage to his eighteen-year-old cousin Frances in London in 1830, he had fathered at least five children by four different women, including one relationship in England prior to joining the HBC. Jennifer S.H. Brown has outlined Simpson’s profligate and condescending relations with Aboriginal and mixed-blood women in Strangers in Blood.
First there was Betsey Sinclair, daughter of Hudson’s Bay factor William Sinclair and his Aboriginal wife Margaret (Nahoway) Norton, who gave birth to Simpson’s child (a daughter) in 1822. In correspondence he referred to his connubial companion as “my article” and “my Japan helpmate.” Simpson saw fit to discard her in 1822. He wrote to J.G. McTavish: “if you dispose of the Lady it will be satisfactory as she is an unnecessary & expensive appendage, I see no fun in keeping a Woman without enjoying her charms which my present rambling Life does not enable me to do: but if she is unmarketable I have no wish that she should be a general accommodation shop to all the young bucks at the Factory.”
Later that same month, Simpson wrote to McTavish again: “White Fish seems to be favourable to procreation and had I a good pimp in my suite I might have been inclined to deposit a little of my Spawn but have become...vastly tenacious of my reputation.” Next Simpson had two sons by Margaret Taylor, another Factor’s daughter, while maintaining a liaison with another woman at his Lachine headquarters, with whom he likely also had a child. Upon marrying his cousin, Simpson made arrangements for another man to marry Taylor, as he had done in the case of Betsey Sinclair.
Simpson’s attachments and detachments were not remarkable given his powerful position, but his directives to his employees on sexual matters were frequently contradictory or hypocritical. While he recommended that his inland employees “form connections with the principal families immediately on their arrival,” he was quick to condemn men who took such relationships seriously, especially if such arrangements proved costly or interfered with business. “We must really put a stop to the practise of Gentlemen bringing their Women & Children from the East to the West side of the Mountain, it is attended with much expense and inconvenience on the Voyage, business itself must give way to domestick considerations, the Gentlemen become drones and are not disposible in short the evil is more serious than I am well able to describe.”
Evidently Simpson was bereft of any appreciation for family. It was fine for men to dally with “copper-coloured mates” for pleasure, but business and pleasure must be kept separate. In 1831, he described how one trader named Robertson, after a decade of marriage to a country wife named Theresa Chalifoux, sought to introduce her to polite society at Red River: “Robertson brought his bit of Brown with him to the Settlement this Spring in hopes that she would pick up a few English manners before visiting the civilised world; but it would not do—I told him distinctly the thing was impossible, which mortified him exceedingly....He takes his departure I understand tomorrow, mortified and chagrined beyond description.”
Racism was part of the times, but Simpson could be cruel, wielding power to emasculate or belittle others. Arrogant, cold and harsh, he retained his imperial and thrifty ways until his death in 1860.
Although it is tempting to view Simpson as an inflexible tyrant, one of British Columbia’s pre-eminent historians, W. Kaye Lamb, cautioned in BC Studies in 1945: “It is often assumed that, so far as the fur trade was concerned, Simpson was something in the nature of a supreme being, whereas in actual fact he worked within limits and in accordance with policies that were determined in surprising detail in London....The far-flung trading system that he perfected in the ‘golden age’ of the fur trade never became a sacred thing that he was unwilling to modify when changing conditions made this desirable. On the contrary, he was ever on the watch to see that the Company changed with the times. Thus in our own region he encouraged farming, fishing, lumbering, and mining as well as fur-trading, and if circumstances had permitted he was prepared to experiment with whaling.”
Historian Theodore J. Karamanksi has summarized, “Above all, Simpson was a man of continental vision.”
[Fort Simpson in British Columbia was named for George Simpson's relative Aemilius Simpson, a co-founder of that post in 1831.]
Simpson, George. Narrative of a Journey Round the World, During the Years 1841 and 1842 (London: Henry Colburn, 1847).
Simpson, George. Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson's Journal, Remarks Connected with the Fur Trade in the Course of a Voyage from York Factory to Fort George and Back to York, 1824-25 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harbard University Press 1931; 1968). Frederick Merk, ed.
Simpson, George. Journal of Occurences in the Athabasca Department, 1820 and 1821, and Report. (London: Champlain Society for Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1938). Edited by E.E. Rich, ed.
Simpson, George. Part of Dispatch from George Simpson, Esq., Governor of Rupert's Land, to the Governor and Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company, London, March 1, 1829. Continued and Completed March 24, and June 5, 1829. (London: Champlain Society for Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1947). E.E. Rich, ed.
Simpson, George. London Correspondence Inward from Sir George Simpson, 1841-42 (London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1973). Glyndwr Williams, ed. Introduction by John S. Galbraith.
Simpson, George. "The Character Book of George Simpson, 1832" in Hudson's Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1975). Glyndwr Williams, ed.
Simpson, George. Narrative of a Voyage to California Ports in 1841-42 (Fairfield, Wa:: Ye Galleon Press, 1988).
McLeod, Malcolm. Peace River: A Canoe Voyage from Hudson's Bay to Pacific, by the late Sir George Simpson (Gov. Hon. Hudson's Bay Company) in 1828. (Ottawa: J. Jurie & Son, 1872).
Morton, Arthur S. Sir George Simpson, Overseas Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company; A Pen Picture of a Man of Action (Toronto, Vancouver: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1944)
Galbraith, J.S. The Little Emperor: Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976).
Daunton, Mark & Rick Halpern. Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600-1850 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Maritime"