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


THE important fact is to be borne in mind that the Hudson's Bay Company's charter covered only Rupert's Land, i.e., the territory whose waters flow into Hudson Bay. That left the Arctic slope and the Pacific slope, with Vancouver Island, outside their control. For this vast excluded portion of north-west British America the company held permission to trade secured from the imperial parliament. The license was given for twenty-one years. Twice during Governor Simpson's rule this license came up for renewal. The disturbed state of Canada in 1838 led to this being secured by the company with little opposition or criticism.

But in the interval between 1838 and 1859 there had been a complete change. In Red River Settlement itself great unrest had prevailed from 1847 onward. The attention of Canada, now pacified and prosperous, had also been drawn to the fertile plains of the North-West. Accordingly a determined opposition to the granting of the license arose, and embodied itself in the appointment of a powerful committee of the imperial House of Commons which met in 1857.

This committee became famous. The whole economy of the Hudson's Bay Company was discussed. The committee held eighteen meetings, examined at length twenty-nine witnesses, and thoroughly sifted the evidence. The personnel of the committee was brilliant. The Hon. Henry Labouchere, secretary of state, was chairman. fir. Roebuck and Mr. Gladstone were inquiring and aggressive; Lord Stanley and Earl Russell gave due attention to the proceedings; and Edward Ellice, the old peacemaker of the companies, was combined witness and advocate for the company. Old explorers and pioneers such as John Ross, Dr. Rae, Colonel Lefroy, Sir John Richardson, Colonel Crofton. Bishop Anderson, Colonel Caldwell, and Dr. King gave information.

From time to time, beginning in February and ending in July, the committee met and gathered a vast mass of evidence, making four hundred folio pages of printed matter. It is a storehouse of valuable material about the Hudson's Bay Company. As was proper and necessary, Sir George Simpson was summoned and gave important evidence. He was asked fourteen hundred and twenty-three questions, and his testimony covers forty-four pages of the voluminous report. Sir George was certainly subjected to a severe attack by Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Roebuck, and Mr. Grogan. To say that he came through the ordeal without a scratch would not be true. He was followed with a determined persistence, and his defence of the great monopoly was only partially successful. He found out the full meaning of Job's desire that his adversary had written a book, for the "Journey Round the World " was his hardest task to defend. With today's knowledge of the golden wheat fields of Manitoba, it seems hard to understand his evidence, though it must be said that the large sums of money sunk by the Hudson's Bay Company in its fruitless endeavours to advance agriculture in the Red River Settlement may have influenced his pessimistic testimony as to the capabilities of the country.

While obtaining this enormous mass of evidence, every phase of Rupert's Land was brought out, and incidentally the main features of the thirty-seven years in which Governor Simpson had held sway. The theory of the aggressive element of the committee was that many parts of Rupert's Land, especially the Red River Settlement, were suitable for settlement, and their contention implied that it was simply greed and selfishness that led to the Hudson's Bay Company holding so firmly to its monopoly.

One line of investigation followed was to show that the company had a monopoly and exercised it. It was maintained that the people of Red River Settlement were desirous of exporting their surplus products, and the changes were rung and the case was cited of William Sinclair and .Andrew McDermot, leading merchants, who had been refused transport in their export of tallow. Sir George strenuously maintained that this was simply because the ship accommodation was not sufficient, and that part of the company's goods as well had to be left behind. It came out, however, that Sinclair was suspected of fur-trading, a point on which the company always held a strong position. Much was made of the fact that there was no market for more than a paltry eight thousand bushels of wheat, which were taken by the company. To this Sir George's repeated answer was that the company could not obtain all the wheat supply required, and had at times even to import bread-stuffs for its own use.

Efforts were also made to prove that the Hudson's Bay Company did not wish settlers to take tip the land, that they would only give a lease, and that obstacles were thrown in the way of settlement. In answering this charge Sir George was probably successful. He reiterated that they had no power to prevent squatters taking their lands, and that the majority of the settlers were squatters, not one of whom had been dislodged from his holding.

It was pointed out that in 1844 a form of deed with tyrannical provisions was introduced, but it was replied that it had been little used. The form of deed required four things of the settler: (1) That he would not deal in furs; (2) That he would neither distribute nor import spirituous liquors; (3) That he would resist a foreign invasion; (4) That he would promote the religious institutions of the settlement. Pressed for a satisfactory explanation Sir George maintained that the council of Assiniboia had exceeded its powers in this matter.

As to the charge that a regulation had been adopted by which letters would not be sent out from the Fort Garry post-office for those who had been suspected of participation in the fur trade, Sir George denied any knowledge of the matter, although from the noise made about the affair it is hard to believe the governor could have failed to hear of it.

The battle royal was fought, however, on the capacities of the country to support a large population. Sir George on this point took a surprisingly firm, and even defiant attitude. Categorically asked whether a province could not be laid out which would give a livelihood to a large body of settlers, Sir George with decision replied: "I do not think settlers would go to the Red River from the United States or anywhere else for the purpose of settlement."

It was with delicious irony that his tormentor then read to Sir George the description from his own "Journey Round the World" of the country lying between Red River and the Rocky Mountains: "Beautiful country, lofty hills, long valley, sylvan lakes, bright green, uninterrupted profusion of roses and bluebells, softest vales, panorama of hanging copses," and asked him if he had changed his mind. The only reply made by the governor was, "Yes, there were a great many flowering shrubs."

At another time Sir George was maintaining that the country could not support a population on account of the "poverty of the soil," that in the district spoken of the earth was frozen the year round, that any time in summer "frozen earth" could be reached by digging a foot and a half into the soil; then he maintained that the want of fuel would make settlement impossible, that the locusts would devour every green thing, and that floods were so prevalent that settlers would be driven out. "I have myself," said the governor, "paddled over the roofs of some of the houses in my canoe."

With a scathing tone his tormentor again read from the fatal book, speaking of Rainy River: "Nor are the banks less favourable to agriculture than the waters themselves to navigation, resembling in some measure those of the Thames clear Richmond. From the very brink of the river there rises a gentle slope of green sward, crowned in many places with a plentiful growth of birch, poplar, beech, elan, and oak. Is it too much for the eye of philanthropy to discern, through the vista of futurity, this noble stream, connecting as it does the fertile shores of two spacious lakes, with crowded steamboats on its bosom and populous towns on its borders?"

Sir George could not extricate himself, but it is only fair that we should remember that his versatile editor, Recorder Thom, had made up his book, and it was no doubt the eloquence and imagination of the editor which was responsible for these highly-coloured and poetic flights. The intensity of the situation was all the greater, because Sir George could not disown the book or make known its history.
Sir George's testimony as regards the difficulties attending the practice of agriculture might be summed up in the expression which he used in regard to the approach to the country through British soil, namely: "That the difficulties were insuperable unless the Bank of England were expended on it." But his answer as to the treatment of the Indians by the company, the degree of law and order maintained by the company, and the general encouragement given to the missionaries in their religious and educational work, was on the whole very satisfactory.

Whatever criticisms may have been made as to the Indians he was able to show that a benevolent and just policy had always been employed towards them. The charges as to starvation of the natives on the shores of Labrador were not fastened on the company; and it was made clear that there was no title a North-Nest Indian was prouder to carry than that of an employe or customer of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Sir George was able to show that in many cases missionaries had been given free passage to the country in the company's ships and boats, that a considerable sum of money was spent annually in chaplaincies, and in supporting schools, while nothing more was taken from the pockets of the people than a four per cent. tariff ' on imports, which tax bore also upon the company, while life and property were surprisingly safe. Much to the astonishment of his questioners, Sir George was able to point to the fact that only nineteen capital crimes had been committed over the whole vast territory during the thirty-seven years of his governorship. This was all the more remarkable as the small population of only eight thousand souls in Red River Settlement made it difficult to carry on government, and to this was added a certain restlessness which the governor described as "arising from the love of mischief-making on the part of some of our second rate half gentry."

Thanks to this inquiry many things were made plain: the whole financial system, the plan of management, the appointment of officers, the simple state of society in Red River Settlement, and the provision for the support of religious institutions arising from the Leith bequest and the gift of the company.

The committee did its work well, and was compelled to decide in opposition to the governor's contentions. Those who have lived to see Rupert's Land at the beginning of the twentieth century, and have passed by its vast wheat fields and comfortable homes, will realize how far astray he was, and at the same time reflect on how utterly untrustworthy may be our honest judgments.

The committee, whose valuable report was cordially adopted by the House of Commons, recommended that it is "important to meet the just and reasonable wishes of Canada to assume such territory as may be useful for settlement; that the districts of the Red River and the Saskatchewan seem the most available; and that for the order and good government of the country arrangements should be made for their cession to Canada." It was also agreed that those regions where settlement was impossible should be left to the exclusive control of the Hudson's Bay Company for the fur trade.

The committee recommended that Vancouver Island should be made independent of the company, and also that the mainland territory of British Columbia should be united with the island.

Some three or four years after the eventful sittings of this committee, and while the old regime still held sway, the veteran emperor of the traders died. He had been much excited over the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada. This over, he had proceeded on his trip to Red River as usual. It is said that he reached Sault Ste. Marie, but was too ill to proceed farther. He returned to Lachine, and there, after a short illness at his home, passed away in 1860.

Though such writers as McLean, who had been in the company's service and had a grievance, do not hesitate to say that his "was an authority combining the despotism of military rule with the strict surveillance and mean parsimony of the avaricious trader," in summing up his life the writer may say: Governor Simpson lifted the fur trade out of the depth into which it had fallen, harmonized the hostile elements of the two companies and made them one brotherhood, reduced order out of chaos in the interior, helped various expeditions for the exploration of Rupert's Land, and on the whole was a. beneficent ruler. His management of the financial concerns of. the Hudson's Bay Company was such as to gain him the approbation of his own country and of the whole financial world.

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.