Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 16 The Jolly Governor

Great crises in the world's history generally produce the men who solve them. Cromwell, Washington, Garibaldi—each of them was the movement itself. A wider philosophy may see that the age or the Community evolves the man, but as Carlyle shows, it is the man who reacts upon the community, becomes the embodiment of its ideal, and is the mouthpiece and the right hand of the age which produces him.

That Andrew Colville, a brother-in-law of Lord Selkirk, should select a young clerk in London and send him out to Athabasca to see the great fur-region of the Mackenzie River District, is not a wonderful thing, but that after one year of active service this young man should be chosen to guide the destinies of the great united fur company, made up of the Hudson's Bay and Nor'-Wester Companies is a wonder.

This was the case with George Simpson, a Scottish youth, who was the illegitimate son of the maternal uncle of Thomas Simpson, thefamous Arctic explorer, who is known as having followed out a portion of the coast line of the Arctic Sea.

Anyone can see that from the proverbial energy that is developed in those of inferior birth, there was here one of Nature's commanding spirits, who would bring order out of chaos.

Moreover, the fact of his short service in a distant part of the fur country, left him free from prejudice, gave him an open mind, and permitted him to serve as a young man when he was yet plastic and adaptable—all this was in his favor.

Governor Simpson was short of stature, but possessed of great energy and endurance. He was keen in mind and observing in his faculties. Active and determined, he might at times seem a martinet and a tyrant, but he had at the same time an easy and pleasant manner that enabled him to attract to himself his servants and subordinates, but especially the savages with whom he had constantly to have dealings. His ardent Highland nature led him to rejoice in the picturesque and the showy, and he was fond of music and of society. Given to change, Simpson became a great traveller and made a voyage around the world before the days of steam or railway.

One of the first gatherings of the fur traders, in which the young Governor gained golden opinions, was held at Norway House, the old resting place of the Selkirk Settlers. This meeting took place in June, 1823; the minutes of this meeting have been preserved and are interesting. Such items as, that Bow River Fort at the foot of the Rocky Mountains was abandoned; that because of prairie fires the buffaloes were far beyond Pembina; that the Assiniboine Indians had moved to the Saskatchewan for food; that trouble with the French traders had arisen on account of their determination to trade in furs; that the French half-breeds had largely moved from Pembina to St. Boniface; that the trade should be withdrawn from beyond the American Boundary line; that the Sioux Indians should be discouraged from coming to the Forts to trade; and that the company intended to take over the Colony from Lord Selkirk's trustees, all came up for consideration.

These were all important and difficult problems, but the young Governor acted with such shrewdness and skill, that he completely carried the Council with him, and was given power to act for the Council during the intervals between its meetings—a thing most unusual.

The Governor was ubiquitous.

Governor of Rupert's Land, 1821-60.

Now at Moose Factory, then at York; now at Norway House, but every year at Red River, the Governor saw for himself the needs of the country, and the opportunities for advancing the interests of the Hudson's Bay Company. Forty times, that is, nearly every year of his Governorship, it is said he travelled the route between Montreal and Fort Garry, and this by canoe. He drove his men, who were chiefly French-Canadians, with irritating haste, and it is a story prevalent among the old Selkirk Settlers, that a stalwart French voyageur, who was a favorite of the Governor, was once, in crossing the Lake of the Woods, so infuriated with his master's urging that he seized the tormentor who was small in stature, by the shoulders, and with a plentiful use of "sacrés," dipped him into the lake, and then replaced him in the bottom of the canoe.

It does not fall within the scope of our story to tell of Simpson's journeys through Rupert's Land, nor of his famous voyage around the world, but there is extant an account of his methods of appealing to the interest of the Indians and servants of the company in his notable progresses through the wilds. Some seven years after his appointment Governor Simpson made a voyage from Hudson Bay, across country to the Pacific Ocean, namely, from York Factory to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. Fourteen chief officers, factors and traders, and as many more clerks had gathered to see the chieftain depart. Taking with him a lieutenant—Macdonald, a doctor and two canoe crews, of nine men each, the jolly Governor with dashing speed ascended the Hayes River, up which the Selkirk Colonists had laboriously come, receiving as he left the Factory, loud cheers from all the people gathered, and a salute of seven guns from the garrison. The French-Canadian voyageurs struck up their boating songs with glee, and with dashing paddles left the bay behind.

The expedition was well provided with supplies, including wine for the gentlemen and spirits for the men.

The arrival at Norway House was a féte.

Before reaching the Fort the party landed on the shore, and paying much attention to their toilets, put themselves in proper trim. In full career the canoes dashed through the deep rocky gorge leading to the Fort, the Governor's canoe, had on its high prow, conspicuous the French guide, who for the time gave commands. The Governor always took his Highland piper with him, and now there pealed forth from the canoe the strident strains of the bagpipes, while from the second canoe sounded the shrill call of the chief factor's bugle. As the party approached the Fort they saw the Union Jack with its magic letters H.B.C. floating from the tall flag-staff of Norway pine erected on Signal Hill. Bands of Indians from all directions were assembled to meet the great chief or "Kitche Okema," as they called him. Ceasing the pipes and bugle, the voyageurs sang with lively spirit one of their boat songs, to the great delight of their old friends, the Indians.

The Governor was in 1839, at a time when Canada was much disturbed in both Provinces by the Mackenzie-Papineau rebellion, rewarded for the loyalty of his Company by having knighthood conferred upon him.

Sir George Simpson's annual visits to Red River Settlement were the bright spots in the life of the Colony. Never did a Governor get so near the people as did Sir George. Old settlers tell how when Sir George arrived every grievance, disaster, suspicion, or bit of gossip was faithfully carried to him, and his patience and ingenuity were freely exercised in "jollying" the people and giving them condescending attention.

Sir George married in time, and on occasion brought Lady Simpson, who was a native of the country, to visit the Red River Settlement. Her presence was taken as a compliment by the people. Sir George Simpson, like many of the Hudson's Bay Company, had among all his business engagements the taste for literature. He encouraged the formation of libraries at the several trading posts, and in his letters throws in a remark about Sir Walter Scott, or Blackwood's last magazine, or other living topic, although the means of communication made literature often months late even on the banks of the Red River. His own effort in producing a book gave rise to a considerable amount of amusement. After his great journey around the world, he published an account of his travels in two considerable volumes. It is now no secret that these were prepared for him by a well-known judge of Red River Settlement, of whom we speak more fully in a later chapter. This double authorship became decidedly inconvenient to Sir George on the celebrated occasion when he was cited in 1857 to give evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons as to Rupert's Land. Sir George's experience in introducing farming into Red River Settlement had been so troublesome, and expensive as well, that he really believed agriculture would be a failure in the West, and so he gave his evidence. Unfortunately for him his editor had indulged in his book, in a pictorial and fulsome description of the Rainy River, as an agricultural region. Mr. Roebuck quoted this passage and Sir George was in a serious dilemma. If he admitted it his evidence would seem untrue, if he denied it then he must deny his authorship. He admitted that the book was somewhat too flattering in its description.

But, take him all in all, Sir George really stood for his duty and his people. He lifted the fur trade out of a slough of despond, he was kind and charitable to the people of the Red River Settlement, he was a good administrator and a patriot Briton, and though as his book tells and local tradition confirms it, he could not escape from what is called "the witchery of a pretty face," yet he rose to the position on the whole as a man who sought for the higher interests of the vast territory under his sway, as well as for the financial advancement of his company.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.