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


GOVERNOR SIMPSON had a remarkable faculty of adapting himself to his surroundings, and soon caught the spirit of the fur traders. He was far from being a mere money-maker—a business automaton. He was fond of the social life which had been developed in the precincts of the Hudson's Bay Company's posts. New Year's Day, St. Andrew's Day, and probably other notable days were observed, and the Indians, only too prone to indulge their idle habits, were glad to fall in with such cheerful interruptions to the monotony of life.

On these holidays and especially for the week between Christmas and the New Year, there was at times too great a tendency to indulgence. But Governor Simpson was in thorough harmony with the fur traders' customs. No doubt he found it necessary to maintain an attitude of strict opposition to the use of strong drink in dealing with the Indians, but with the occasional relaxation of rules at set times he was iii perfect sympathy.

This dual character in the governor also showed itself in business matters. He was a keen business man. Before his time, in the conflict of the companies, business had languished and both companies suffered heavy loss. New establishments had been built out of pure rivalry, and many of them were far from paying for themselves. With remorseless exactness and thoroughness Governor Simpson dealt with these, closed them, reduced their expenditure, or reorganized their methods. But with all this there was in the governor an unusual love of pomp and show. This was a very valuable element in impressing the Indian imagination, and could have been justified on business grounds, but it was with the governor rather a piece of thorough enjoyment—a survival of his boyish nature, when, with the aid of decorated canoes and flags and music, he disported himself in the pageants of the traders.

In the seventh year of his governorship he made a notable voyage through his fur-trading domain from York Factory to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. It is fortunate for us that there was with the governor a gentleman, Archibald Macdonald, who had the "pen of a ready writer," and who has left us a most readable description of the journey in a small work entitled, "Peace River; a Canoe Voyage from the Hudson Bay to the Pacific."

The departure of the expedition on its transcontinental trip was a great event at York Factory. Two light canoes were very thoroughly fitted up for the journey—tents for camping, utensils for the camp-fire, arms to meet any danger, provisions in plenty, wine for the gentlemen and spirits for the voyageurs. Each canoe carried nine picked men, and from Governor Simpson's reputation as a swift traveller it was quite understood that their lot would not be an easy one.

On July 28th, 1828, fourteen chief officers—factors and traders—and an equal number of clerks were gathered together at the Factory to inaugurate the great voyage. The event had gathered the whole Indian community about the posts, and probably no greater spectacle had taken place at York Factory since Miles Macdonell and his Scottish settlers, nearly twenty years before, had started for their new home on the Red River. Hayes River resounded with the cheers of the assembled traders and their dependents, while a salute of seven guns made the fir trees of the northern station re-echo with the din. The voyageurs then gave in unison one of the famous boat-songs for which they are noted, and with pomp and circumstance began their journey.

The long progress of hundreds of miles from the Factory to the outlet of Lake Winnipeg was made with lightheartedness and marvellous speed. Near the foot of Lake Winnipeg is situated Norway house, which at the time was the virtual capital of the fur traders. The approach to this point was made an event of great importance. The fort, though simply a depot of the fur trade, had a number of Indian settlements within reach, and all the denizens of the region were on tip-toe to see the pageant which they knew was approaching. Indian warriors and trappers were there in large numbers; the lordly redman was accompanied on all his journeys by his whole family, so that bevies of old and young women peered upon the scene from the background, while groups of Indian children with their accustomed shyness stood awestruck at the spectacle. The "Kitche Okema" —the greatest mortal they had ever seen—was coming.

The party from York Factory had begun already to show marks of their voyage, and so they landed some miles away from the fort, performed their toilets and arranged their attire as best they could. Fully ready they resumed the journey, and with flashing paddles sped through the rocky gorge by which Norway House is reached, quickly turned the point, came in sight of the fort built on a slope rising from the lake, and saw floating front the tall flagstaff of Norway pine on the top of Signal Hill the Union Jack with the letters H. B. C.,—the flag which had a magical effect on every trader and Indian as he beheld it flying aloft.

The governor's gaudily painted canoe was easily discernible by its high prow, on which sat the French-Canadian guide, who for the time being, as pilot, had chief authority. The governor looked on with interest, while from his immediate neighbourhood in his canoe pealed forth the music of the bagpipes, as well suited for effect on the rocky ledges surrounding Norway House as for the fastnesses of the governor's native land. From the second canoe rang out the cheery bugle of the senior chief factor, who was really in command of the expedition.

As the canoes came near the shore the effect was heightened by the soft and lively notes of the French-Canadian voyageurs, who were always great favourites of the governor. The song they sang in French was one that never becomes wearisome—that of "A La Claire Fontaine." The leader carolled the solo:---

"A la claire fontaine
M'en aliant promener,
J'ai trourc l'eau si belle
Que je m'y suis baigne."

And then all joined in chorus

"Il y a longtemps que je t'aime
Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

The reception over, the governor at once proceeded to the duties of his office and examined the details of the work of the fort.

A large correspondence had met him at Norway House. To despatch this and examine the prospects of trade at the place was a work into which the governor entered with the greatest gusto. All officers and employes appeared before him; the buildings, books, trade, and outlook were all inspected or considered, and this man of lordly tastes was found to be possessed of an iron will and keen business acumen. His rapidity in despatching business was so great that it was said he could do the work of three ordinary men.

The long journey of a thousand or more miles from Norway House to Fort Chipewyan, into the detail of which we cannot enter, was accomplished by rapid transit, interruptions only being made to examine minutely the affairs of Cumberland, Carlton, Edmonton, and a score of minor points along the route.

Fort Chipewyan had always maintained its preeminence as an important depot of the fur trade. The governor had spent his one year as a clerk within its precincts. He now returned to it with his new rank as a potentate having power to make or unmake men. Its picturesque position as well as historic memories appealed directly to him. Here he met the officer in charge, William McGillivray, whose name was a great one among the Nor'-Westers, the original chief of that naive, after whom Fort William was called, having died three years before this voyage took place. MacGillivray, at the invitation of the governor, taking his family with him, joined the party in crossing the Rocky Mountains.

The same waving of flags, firing of guns, shouting of Indians and employes, and the sound of singing and bagpipes which had attended the arrival and departure of the distinguished travellers at Norway House were repeated at Fort Chipewyan. A little more than a month had passed from the time of their leaving York Factory when the travellers entered Peace River in order to cross the Rocky Mountains. As Forts Vermilion, Dunvegan, and St. John were passed, the most important fact pressed on the members of the expedition was the lack of provisions. This was a year of unusual dearth in the whole region as far as Fort McLeod, which lay west of the summit of the mountains.

At the various stopping-places the governor, besides examining into the financial prospects and management of each fort, was called upon to settle disputes. This His Excellency did with the same distinguished success with which he accomplished all his other duties. Presiding with the air of a chief justice, he gave caution and advice in the most impressive manner, and with due solemnity he lectured the Indians for their orgies and for the scenes of violence which often followed them.

In passing from Fort McLeod to Fort St. James the journey was made across the crest of the Rocky Mountains, the voyageurs carrying the baggage on their shoulders, while horses were provided for the gentlemen of the party. Fort St. James being the emporium of the fur trade for New Caledonia, was a place of note, and the entry to it was made as splendid as circumstances would permit. The journal says:—"Unfurling the British ensign it was given to the guide, who marched first. After him came the band, consisting of buglers and bagpipers. Next carne the governor, mounted, and behind him Dr. Hamlyn, the physician, and Macdonald, the scribe, also on horses. Twenty men, loaded like beasts of burden, formed the line; after them a loaded horse; and finally McGillivray with his wife and family brought tip the rear."

Thus arranged, the imposing body was put in motion. Passing over a gentle elevation, they came into full view of the fort, when the bugle sounded, a gun was fired, and the bagpipes struck up the famous march of the clans, "Si coma leum codagh na sha " (If you will it, war). Trader James Douglas, who was in charge of the fort, replied, with small ordnance and guns, after which he advanced and received the distinguished visitors in front of the fort.

Descending from the crest of the Rocky Mountains, by September 24th the party carne to Fort Alexandria—named after Sir .Alexander Mackenzie —four days down the Fraser River, and then reached Kamloops, the ,junction of the North and South Thompson Rivers. At every place of importance the governor took occasion to assemble the natives and employes and gave them good advice, "exhorting them to honesty, frugality, temperance," finishing his prelections with a gift of tobacco or some commodity appreciated by them.

After a rapid descent of the Fraser River the party reached Fort Langley near its mouth, in two days less than three months from the time of their starting from York Factory. From this point Governor Simpson made his way to Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, then the chief post on the Pacific coast, and in the following year returned over the mountains, satisfied that he had gained much knowledge and that lie had impressed himself on trader, engage, and Indian chief alike.

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.