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

MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir George Simpson


IT is usual to make great movements in the world depend on the trusted leader who inspires courage, and points the way to other men. Thomas Carlyle's doctrine of heroes is a very simple way of accounting for human progress. Great leaders themselves, however, are the first to point out how much they depend for their success on the faith, honour, and ability of their subordinates, and to cast doubt on Carlyle's philosophy. Especially in the case of Governor Simpson was this so. He was young, unacquainted with the fur trade, and in a remarkable degree dependent on those leaders in the company who had tramped the winter snows and stood up for their own party in Rupert's Land, the Indian territories, and New Caledonia.

The band of twenty-five chief factors and twenty-eight chief traders, chosen half and half from each of the uniting companies, made up half a hundred men whose knowledge, experience, courage, and zeal could hardly be surpassed. With a sprinkling of Englishmen and a few Irish these select leaders of the fur trade were chiefly Scotsmen, who, with executive ability and power of adaptation, upheld the reputation of their countrymen for sagacity and trustworthiness. It may be worth while to look at some of these leaders and their achievements as they aided the young governor in bringing order out of the chaos into which conflict had thrown the companies.

Chief among the chief factors was Colin Robertson, who had been a Nor'-Wester at first, but who had entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company under Lord Selkirk's direction to forward the interests of the colony. Robertson, while somewhat irascible, was a useful and competent man. His appointment augured well for a friendly attitude towards the Red River colonists on the part of the new company, and was a pledge that the interests of the English company would not be swamped by the aggressive traders from Montreal.

Another chief factor of peculiarly picturesque and notable mien was John McLaughlin. His part was chiefly played west of the Rocky Mountains in the Oregon district. Edward Ellice, the peacemaker between the companies, said of McLaughlin, "Dr. McLaughlin was rather an ambitious and independent personage. He was a very able man, and, I believe, a very good man. . . . While he remained with the Hudson's Bay Company he was an excellent servant." McLaughlin was fond of show, and his distinguished manner is said to have impressed Governor Simpson. A trader's journal is worth quoting: "McLaughlin and his suite would sometimes accompany the south-bound expeditions from Fort Vancouver, in regal state, for fifty or one hundred miles up the Willamette, when he would dismiss them with his blessing, and return to the fort. He did not often travel and seldom far; but on these occasions he indulged his men rather than himself in some little variety. . . . It pleased Mrs. McLaughlin thus to break the monotony of her fort life. Upon a gaily-caparisoned steed, with silver trappings and strings of bells on bridle reins and saddle skirt, sat the lady of Fort Vancouver, herself arrayed in brilliant colours, and wearing a smile which might cause to blush and hang its head the broadest, warmest, and most fragrant sunflower. By her side, also gorgeously attired, rode her lord, king of the Columbia, and every inch a king, attended by a train of trappers, under a chief trader, each upon his best behaviour."

Further north in New Caledonia proper, as the district to the west of the Rocky Mountains had been named by the enterprising Scotsmen from Montreal, Chief Factor John Stuart made a name for himself. Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, John Stuart, as lieutenant of Simon Fraser, made one of the most notable and difficult journeys of exploration recorded, in his descent of the Fraser River from its source iii Stuart's Lake, so called from this trader, to a few miles from its entrance into the Pacific Ocean. John Stuart, though second in command of the expedition, was versed in engineering and was a more cultivated man than his leader, Simon Fraser. He is generally believed to have been the brain of the enterprise. Stuart was a man of much information and literary tastes. Far up in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains lie kept in touch with the important new books, and from his lofty standpoint discoursed upon the amenities of literature in correspondence with his fellow-traders of kindred tastes.

Foremost among the chief factors under the new organization were Donald McKenzie, a man of affairs, and Alexander Christie, who had a diplomatic and kindly spirit. Both of these men rose still higher in the service of the company, becoming governors of the colony of Assiniboia. Some dozen years after the union of the companies, it became evident that the Hudson's Bay Company should relieve Lord Selkirk's heirs of the responsibility of maintaining the colony. During eight years of this time Governor McKenzie ruled as well as the troublous times would permit. When a settlement was reached with Lord Selkirk's representatives, Alexander Christie, who had succeeded Governor McKenzie, became the official governor of Selkirk colony, under the general control of Governor Simpson.

Many schemes for the agricultural development of the Red River colony had been tried during the transition period after Lord Selkirk's death until 1835, but they had failed, and this chiefly through mismanagement. The Hudson's Bay Company now found it necessary to supersede the patriarchal form of government, and to give a semblance of representative government.

The council of Assiniboia was a partly successful ruling body, though in its later years unpopular, largely because it was said to reflect the company's rather than the popular opinion. Governor Christie was the first governor of Assiniboia who had a regular council to assist him. The council included fifteen members, Governor Simpson was president but Governor Christie the local head of the body. This council included the leading clergy, retired fur traders, merchants, and settlers of the colony. Chief Factor Christie served his first period as governor for six years, and after an interval another period of two years.

Thus among the twenty-five chief factors and twenty-eight chief traders we might go on selecting men worthy of notice. Time would fail to tell all their notable exploits. James Bird retired to settle in the colony and became a member of influence in the council of Assiniboia. Edward Smith became a dominant figure in the far Mackenzie River district. Chief Factor George Keith, who passed most of his life in Athabaska, Mackenzie River, and Great Bear Lake, wrote a series of most interesting letters, embodying a number of Indian tales; his brother James was also a leading chief factor who lived in later years at Lachine.

Chief Factor James Leith will long be remembered. In his will less than twenty years after the coalition of the companies he left £12,000 to be expended for the benefit of the Indian missions of Rupert's Land. His relatives bitterly opposed this bequest, but the case was decided against them, and the interest of this amount, with £300 a year given by the Hudson's Bay Company, now goes as an annual income of £700 to the bishopric of Rupert's Land. So much for the leaders at the time of the union.

As years quickly passed new men rose to take the place of the retiring chief factors and to give Governor 'Simpson their assistance. To name a few of these is but fair.

In 1825 William Connolly became chief factor. He was notable in the district west of the Rocky Mountains, New Caledonia, being in charge of Fort St. James. Married to an Indian wife, his large family grew up to be well educated and notable. One of his daughters became Lady Douglas, the wife of Sir James Douglas of Victoria, British Columbia.

On William Connolly leaving the heights of the Rocky Mountains, he was succeeded in the charge of his post by Peter Warren Dease, who became chief factor in 1828. Dease was very celebrated in his notable expedition with Thomas Simpson, a relation of Governor Simpson. they were sent out by the Hudson's Bay Company to explore, in 1837, the coast of the Arctic Sea, and performed the duties assigned to them with much success.

Duncan Finlayson became a chief factor in 1832, and seven years later began his five years of service as governor of Assiniboia. The reign of Governor Finlayson is treasured in the memory of the people of the Red River Settlement as that of an ideal governor. Ross says of him: "A man of business habits, liberal principles, and strictly just, he knew nothing of party and its objects, but at once took his position in the interests of all, and especially as the friend of the poor." This is a most desirable record for a public man to leave behind him.

But among all those called to his councils by Governor Simpson, the man possessed of the highest qualities as an administrator was James Douglas, afterwards Sir James, who eventually became a chief factor. Douglas was a man of imperial mind, and his fame stands high on the Pacific coast today. Born near the beginning of the century, a scion of the noble house of Douglas, James Douglas joined the North-West Company as a lad, and, going west, was soon taken by Dr. McLaughlin to the Pacific slope. At Fort St. James lie learned the Indian languages with the same facility as he had mastered French, and soon among the wild tribes of the Upper Rockies showed his ability in managing men. He married Nellie Connolly, a native girl of sixteen, daughter of Trader Connolly. He rose with marvellous rapidity in the service, and was made chief factor in 1840. It was said of him: "He was one of the most enterprising and inquisitive of men, famous for his intimate acquaintance with every service of the coast." He became governor of Vancouver Island in 1851, was knighted in 1863, and continued governor of the island as well as of the mainland of British Columbia.

It is impossible even to mention the names of all who were high in favour as trusted councillors of Governor Simpson during his many years of service. The appointments to the annual council, usually held at Norway House, were generally made at the governor's suggestion. This tended to make his position somewhat difficult, by spreading the impression that lie was the fur-trading autocrat, an impression, indeed, which a close reading of the records will not fail to confirm.

Men are at times raised to positions of importance largely on account of what seem to be accidental circumstances. An instance of this is seen in the case of James Hargrave. He was for years the officer in charge of York Factory, on Hudson Bay, which was the entrepot of Rupert's Land. Orders from traders and others for their supplies poured in to Hargrave, who had goods bought and forwarded inland by the annual ship as it arrived at York Factory from Britain.

A strong friend of Hargrave's at Red River Settlement was the Rev. William Cochrane, the stalwart missionary who really laid the foundations of the Church of England in Rupert's Land. The forces at work in making chief factors are shown by him in a letter to Hargrave. After years of service at York Factory, Hargrave thought, and so did his friends, that he was deserving of the honour of promotion from the position of bout cois to that of chief trader, and after that chief factor. The chief tradership was long in coming. Before it came Cochrane wrote to him of his expectation that the governor would grant it. Disappointed in one year he writes in the next: "Are you likely to get another feather in your cap? I begin to think that your name will have to be changed into MacArgrave. A 'Mac' before your name would produce a greater effect than all the rest of your merits put together. Can't you demonstrate that you are one of the descendants of one of the great clans?" But the governor did not forget, for in 1833 Hargrave was made chief trader and eleven years afterwards chief factor.

John Siveright, George Barnston, and John Ballenden were all men who as letter writers, prominent traders, and able men rose to the highest places of distinction in the service.

One most notable man whose name cannot be passed by is that of the trader and explorer, Dr. John Rae, who became a chief factor in 1850. Dr. Rae's chief distinction was his daring and success in coasting up the west shore of Hudson Bay, chiefly without carrying a supply train. He found traces of the remains of Sir John Franklin, and obtained half the reward offered by the British government for traces of the lost explorer. Dr. Rae was a man of scientific tastes and most active mind, and to the day of his death retained an enthusiastic interest in Rupert's Land.

William McTavish, who reached the height of ambition of every fur trader, was appointed chief factor in 1851, and became the last governor of Assiniboia under the Hudson's Bay Company regime He was a man of force of character, though he fell on evil times in the troublous years of 1869 and 1870.

The region of Labrador knew well the distinguished services of Donald A. Smith, now Lord Strathcona, for more than twenty years under Governor Simpson's rule, though he was not made chief factor until the year after the death of the great governor.

Robert Campbell, a Perthshire Highlander, for more than thirty years a favourite of the governor, noted as the discoverer of the Upper Yukon, and John McIntyre, master of Fort William, a devoted follower of the governor, both rose, some years after Sir George's death, to high rank in the company.

These are some of the men—not by any means all who should be mentioned—who supported Governor Simpson and helped to make his administration strong. Many of their names have been given to posts, or forts, or lakes, or capes in the wide extent of Rupert's Land. They were chiefly noted for their uprightness and trustworthiness. Among the Indians, when there was no military or police force, no law or civil authority, it was found that the probity and faithfulness of the fur trader was the chief power in promoting order and good-will among the native peoples. The Hudson's Bay Company's officers and men gained the reputation of being keen traders not to be trifled with, and yet fair men who would not take undue advantage in a bargain. Governor Simpson had, on the whole, a trustworthy band of men to lead, and this largely accounted for his success.

Return to Book Contents 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.