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Henry Kelsey
Explorer, Mariner, and Overseas Governor of the HBC

Kelsey’s reputation rests securely on his journey to the Canadian plains in 1690–92, but this achievement should not be allowed to eclipse his versatility or the solid contributions he made to establishing the HBC. In nearly 40 years of service Kelsey played a part in most of the major events in Hudson Bay. Between 1684 and 1722, there were only three complete years (1704, 1705, and 1713) in which he was absent from the bay. He went out from England for the HBC six times (in 1684, 1694, 1696, 1698, 1706, and 1714); he was twice a prisoner of the French when York Fort was taken, and twice present when it was recovered. He served at Albany when that was the only post in the HBC’s possession, and he helped to develop the East Main trade. He was in the first party which tried to settle at Churchill River (1689) and he contributed to the later and successful establishment of a post there. He had a rare understanding of Indian languages.

Nothing is known for certain of Kelsey’s parentage. A Thomas Kelsey served as an officer in the Parliamentary army and was a major-general of militia in 1655 (DNB); another Thomas Kelsey, goldsmith of London, briefly held stock in the HBC in 1679. The likeliest person to have been Henry’s father is John Kelsey of East Greenwich, mariner, who died in 1674 and who may have been “one Kelsy, a commander of a fire-ship,” mentioned by Pepys (Diary, ed. H. B. Wheatley (10v., London, 1898–99), VII, 180). John Kelsey left three sons of whom the first-named was Henry. Our identification rests chiefly on the East Greenwich connexion, for this is where Henry Kelsey’s wife came from, where his children were baptized, where he owned two houses, and where he himself died and was buried. A difficulty that has not been resolved, however, is that if Henry Kelsey was the eldest son named in John Kelsey’s will he must have been born not later than the summer of 1667, John, the second-named, being baptized on 24 May 1668 (o.s.). This means that when the HBC committee wrote in 1688 of “the Boy Henry Kelsey” (a soubriquet picked up and used by modern writers) he had already reached the age of 21.

Kelsey was apprenticed to the HBC for a term of four years on 15 March 1684. The suggestion has been made that this was his second period of service with the company, the first having run from 1677 to 1684. Kelsey certainly was apprenticed to someone in 1677 for his indenture of that year was in the HBC’s possession in 1683. It does not however follow that he must have joined the company at the age of 10: he and his indenture may have been taken over (in or before 1683) from a former master. Even if he joined at an earlier date it is unlikely that he had served in the Bayside ports before he sailed with Captain John Outlaw* in the Lucy on 6 May 1684.

Kelsey was posted to the fort at Nelson River which was later resited and styled York Fort. A few weeks after his arrival the place was unsuccessfully attacked by the French, but nothing is recorded of Kelsey’s part in the action. The first event which he thought worth entering in his own “Memorandum of my abode in hudsons bay” took place in the winter of 1688–89 when he carried letters (which Indians had failed to get through) from York to New Severn. On the round trip, which took a month, Kelsey was accompanied by an Indian boy. But even before this exploit Kelsey was known to the HBC committee in London as “a very active Lad Delighting much in Indians Compa., being never better pleased than when hee is Travelling amongst them.”

In this same dispatch Kelsey was detailed to go with a party to Churchill River, and in the early summer of 1689 the expedition set out from York. Having landed men to build a factory at Churchill, Captain James Young* with Kelsey aboard tried to sail the Hopewell north along the coast, and it is at this point that the earliest journal in The Kelsey papers begins, “A Journal of a voyage & Journey undertaken by Henry Kelsey to discover & Endeavour to bring to a Commerce ye nothern Indians Inhabiting to ye Northward of Churchill River & also ye dogside Nation.” From 17 to 26 June 1689 the Hopewell, hampered by ice, made only 20 leagues. Kelsey now suggested to Young that he and an Indian boy (the companion of the previous winter) should try their luck ashore. By his own computation Kelsey and the boy marched 138 miles in a northerly direction, inland but not far from the coast. From almost every point of view the trip was a failure. The going was hilly and stony; musk-ox were seen and described in the journal but game proved scarce; Indian litter was found but no Indians. Worst of all, the boy proved more hindrance than help, and was so apprehensive of danger that Kelsey turned back in disgust on 12 July. He travelled 142 miles back to the point where Young had put him ashore and a further 93 miles to Churchill River. The contrast between the disappointments of this march and the success of Kelsey’s journey to the Plains in 1690 is striking. North of Churchill, Kelsey was hampered by his own inexperience but even more by a companion who seems not to have known where he was going. As he tells the story, Kelsey underwent no such traumatic experiences as befell Richard Norton* in these parts nearly 30 years later. But the record for 25 July 1689 suggests that this journey was something more than a country walk: “To day put from ye shore it being dreadfull to behold ye falls we had to pass Considering we had nothing to tye our Raft but small Logline & were forct to shoot 3 Desperate falls ye Raft struck upon two of ym but gott safely over.”

Kelsey intended to return to England in 1689 but did not do so. The following summer, on 12 June 1690, he started from York on the journey for which he is chiefly remembered. Until the publication in 1929 of The Kelsey papers, the only contemporary account of this expedition was in the parliamentary report of 1749 when two (slightly different) versions of Kelsey’s journal were presented to a committee of the House of Commons as evidence of the HBC’s active interest in exploration. This journal covers only the period July to September 1691 when Kelsey was inland, and leaves it unclear where he went and with what object. The ambiguity enabled Joseph Robson*, a former employee of the HBC but in 1749 an opponent, to deny the authenticity of the journal and to propagate a version of Kelsey’s travels which is far from the truth. Robson, claiming to rest his case on oral traditions in the bay, did not seek to impugn Kelsey personally: he admitted that there had been a journey and that Kelsey had acquitted himself well. But he denied that the expedition had been authorized, let alone ordered, by Governor George Geyer* at York. In Robson’s tale Kelsey had run away from Geyer’s ill treatment, travelled inland on his own initiative, communicated with Geyer by means of a letter written in charcoal on birchbark (having no proper writing materials), and finally turned up at York with an Indian wife. Thus Kelsey’s exploit was construed to the company’s discredit. The Kelsey papers, containing the author’s own version of the 1691 journal and a rhymed prologue dealing with his departure from York in the summer of 1690, together with documentation from the HBC archives, put it altogether beyond doubt that Kelsey’s mission was authorized and ordered by Geyer and was a reflection of the London committee’s eagerness that such inland journeys should be made. Whether Robson’s version was of his own invention or whether he took it in good faith from later traditions in the bay, it is impossible to say.

The main purpose of Kelsey’s mission in Geyer’s words was “to call, encourage, and invite, the remoter Indians to a Trade with us.” Kelsey carried samples of the goods normally available at the bayside, including two long English guns, powder, shot, 20 pounds of Brazil tobacco, a brass kettle, beads, hatchets, a blanket, and a lace-coat. Next year Geyer sent up fresh supplies of the same sort. The HBC at this time was interested in ways of diversifying its trade so as to avoid an undue dependence on furs, and the orders sent to Kelsey in 1691 were to look for mines, minerals, and drugs. Probably his instructions included the pacification of Indian tribes, for war in the interior had long been recognized as a hindrance to trade. In any event Kelsey assumed the role of peacemaker. There is indeed no reason to question Geyer’s summary at Kelsey’s homecoming: “[he] travelled and endeavoured to keep the Peace among them according to my Order.”

The direction taken by Kelsey was southwest from York, and he set out cheerfully (according to Geyer), but “with heavy heart” by his own account. The route from York was probably up Hayes River and Fox River to Moose Lake, the same followed by Anthony Henday* in 1754, but this suggestion has been criticized by Doughty and Martin, editors of The Kelsey papers. Less than a month after leaving the bayside Kelsey was “on ye borders of ye stone Indian Country,” his estimated distance from York being 600 miles,

Through Rivers wch run strong with falls
thirty three Carriages five lakes in all.

(The above is a fair sample of Kelsey’s crude verse in the prologue to his journal in The Kelsey papers. No explanation has been offered why he wrote in this way.) Here, on 10 July 1690, Kelsey took possession of the land for his masters, naming the spot “deerings point” after Sir Edward Dering, then deputy governor of the HBC. It is on the location of this place that much of the controversy concerning Kelsey’s travels has turned. Three suggestions have been canvassed. The first, and least plausible, is Split Lake on Nelson River, which would effectively diminish Kelsey’s achievement: this came from L. J. Burpee in 1908 and was virtually withdrawn by him in a later edition of The search for the western sea (1935). The second is Cedar Lake, north of Lake Winnipegosis (C. N. Bell). The third, and now most widely accepted, is a bend in the Saskatchewan River about twelve miles below The Pas, Manitoba (A. S. Morton and others). Kelsey appears not to have travelled far from Derings Point in the winter of 1690–91 and was back there by the spring:

At deerings point after the frost
I set up their a Certain Cross
In token of my being there
Cut out on it ye date of year
And Likewise for to veryfie the same
added to it my master sir Edward deerings name.

Kelsey reported to Geyer by letter and received from York fresh supplies and orders. Then on 15 July 1691 he set out from Derings Point “to discover & bring to a Commerce the Naywatame poets.” Where he went can never be known with perfect certainty, despite the survival of his journal; but C. N. Bell’s summary is the most circumstantial yet made and deserves quotation: “ [Kelsey] ascended the Saskatchewan to the Carrot River at a point on which he abandoned his canoes and proceeded on foot, taking three days under starving conditions to pass through the muskeg country, extending for many miles south of the Saskatchewan River, then entered upon the first firm land, with its wild pigeons and moose, and farther south a more open prairie country which afforded an abundance of red deer, where he met the Eagle Creek Assiniboines, and proceeding on reached the Red Deer River, with its ‘slate mines,’ and, ascending that stream south south-west farther on came to the edge of the timber country, where before him stretched the Great Salt Plain, forty-six miles wide, extending cast and west, and on which he met more of the Assiniboine Indians (these from the adjacent Thunder Hill district) he had journeyed so far to treat with, for he was indeed in ‘the country of the Assiniboines.’ That plain abounded with buffalo, and, crossing it, he again entered a wooded area and high champlain land, replete with ponds and lakes all inhabited by beaver, which was evidently the Touchwood Hills country.” In the course of this journey, on 20 Aug. 1691, Kelsey recorded descriptions of the buffalo and grizzly bear, the first white man to do so in the Canadian west.

Kelsey met a large band of Stone or Mountain Indians (Assiniboines) on 25 August, and soon after he made contact with the “Naywatame” with a view to establishing peace between these two tribes according to Geyer’s instructions. It is not certain who the “Naywatame” were: Burpee suggests “the Nodwayes or Sioux,” and A. S. Morton the Gros Ventres (Atsinas). Kelsey reports his speeches and endeavours briefly and soberly. They were not on the whole successful; nor should it be expected that one young white man 1,000 miles from his friends would be able to heal tribal feuds. The “Naywatame” promised to meet Kelsey at Derings Point next spring and go with him to the Bayside, but fear of attack kept them away. Rich, who called the journey “both in its extent and in its consequences unique in the history of North America,” admits Kelsey’s failure as peacemaker. Kelsey may have spent the winter of 1691–92 south of the Saskatchewan or he may have gone back to Derings Point: the daily entries in his journal cease on 12 Sept. 1691. He returned to York in the summer of 1692 after an absence of two years. Geyer, who was evidently well pleased, reported Kelsey’s arrival “with a good Fleet of Indians” in his letter to London of 9 Sept. 1692.

Such was Kelsey’s exploration into the west. At times it was hard, and there may well have been dangers even if we discard with the rest of the fiction Robson’s tale of Kelsey’s killing two grizzly bears with two shots. Considered purely as a piece of pathfinding, the journey was a major achievement though Kelsey’s journal is suggestive of his having travelled always in the company of Indians who knew what they were doing. To say this is not to diminish Kelsey’s personal credit but rather to emphasize his outstanding talent for winning the confidence of the Indians whom he accompanied: this talent and a courageous spirit were the best assets for exploring North America. Harder to evaluate are the practical results of the journey. One must question its success as a diplomatic mission. Commercially, however, more may have been achieved; very likely trade at York was advanced, but by how much and for how long is impossible to say. In any case French occupation of York from 1694 to 1696 and from 1697 to 1714 must have reduced the benefits to the HBC. What is beyond dispute is that Kelsey’s travels were a triumph of nerve, especially if set against the failure of others to follow his example. In more than half a century after Kelsey made his way to the plains, only two employees of the HBC – William Stuart and Richard Norton – performed major inland journeys.

The version of Kelsey’s journal in The Kelsey papers has an interesting appendix, “an Accot. of those Indians belief & Superstitions.” Kelsey was no more anthropologist than he was poet; but perhaps his notes deserve to be regarded as the first “observations” of Indian life and religion by an HBC man, crudely prefiguring the “Observations” of James Isham* and Andrew Graham*.

After wintering at York, Kelsey returned to England; when his wages ceased on 12 Sept. 1693 he had completed nine years’ service in the bay. He re-enlisted on 25 April 1694, sailed with the summer shipping, and was back at York early in August. A letter written by him on 8 August contains the interesting declaration that “for my own part I shall neither do nor act on any discovery untill I receive further orders from my masters in England.” These orders never came and Kelsey made no more inland journeys. This year, 1694, saw a successful French challenge in Hudson Bay: for all but one of the following 20 years York, an obvious starting-point for inland travel, was in French hands, and when the HBC got it back Kelsey was too senior to be spared.

When the ships left for home on 13 Aug. 1694 Kelsey began “A Journal of our wintering by gods assistance at hayes River in ye year of our Lord 1694.” Only routine matters were recorded until 14 September when Indians brought news of two ships in the vicinity which proved to be French under Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. This journal is our principal source of information concerning the leisurely investment of York which followed. Though shots were exchanged on 16 September it was not until 3 October that the French got their mortar into position and were ready, if the English refused to give up the fort, to “reduce it to ashes & give us no quarter.” Governor Thomas Walsh thereupon sent Kelsey and another to negotiate with Iberville, and the fort was surrendered on 4 October. There is reason to think that the English garrison – Kelsey included – was turned loose to winter “in the woods & deserts” before shipment to France the following year.

Kelsey and other survivors were back in England at the end of 1695 or early in 1696. His wages had ceased on the day York was given up (the HBC’s usual practice) and he was probably short of money and glad to sign on once more on 18 May 1696 for a term of three years. The HBC was planning to recover York with the help of the Royal Navy, and Kelsey’s prompt re-engagement and his appointment as third in succession to the governorship are signs that the London committee attached no blame to him for what they regarded as the base surrender of 1694. Kelsey sailed from Gravesend on 2 June 1696 in the Royal Hudson’s Bay frigate (Capt. Michael Grimington), part of the mixed HBC and RN fleet. His journal (2 June to 19 July) describes the assembly and departure of this fleet and records speaking with a Swedish ship at sea, from whom the English squadron had news of Iberville. York was duly retaken but Kelsey’s journal of this event – if he kept one – has not survived and nothing is known of his part in the action.

Now follows the longest journal in The Kelsey papers, though by no means the most interesting, 18 Sept. 1696 to 3 Sept. 1697. Little personal information is to be found in this record of a year’s routine, similar to the many post-journals of later date in the HBC archives. It is indeed possible that this is a post-journal or draft or copy of one rather than a private document: Kelsey is sometimes mentioned as “Mr. Kelsey” instead of “I,” and the record of events at York continues in the journal when Kelsey himself is absent from the fort. The journal closes with a near-repetition of the events of three years earlier. On 19 Aug. 1697 the French were sighted by Indians; on 31 August they landed close to the fort. Bombardment began and the call for surrender came on 2 September. Governor Henry Baley was for resistance and “drew up a paper & brought on ye platform to satisfie ye men they should have every one a years pay gratis if they would sign ye same & we kept ye fort.” Some signed, others refused. Kelsey’s journal reports the incident but without comment and with no indication of his own preference. Surrender was decided on; with two others, Kelsey again negotiated terms with Iberville. Baley’s decision was the right one. Iberville in the Pélican had already beaten the English ships in the bay and the French force at York (if Kelsey’s estimate of 900 is believed) was in overwhelming strength. So ended “a Tedious winter & tragical Journal by me Henry Kelsey.” The prisoners appear this time to have been sent to France before winter, and Kelsey was probably back in England by the end of the year. War between France and England had been ended by the treaty of Ryswick, signed in September 1697.

The French held York till 1714 and, though war began again in 1702, the HBC made no attempt to recover it by force. With Iberville’s career in the bay ended, and the HBC short of money, stalemate ensued, broken only by an unsuccessful French assault on Albany, the HBC’s one remaining fort, in 1709. It was to Albany that Kelsey was sent after entering into a new contract for three years on 25 May 1698. For his fourth passage out he shipped in the Dering [III] (Capt. Michael Grimington); a journal of part of this voyage forms the last such record (in point of time) in The Kelsey papers. Henceforth Kelsey’s life must be reconstructed chiefly from the HBC’s archives and from his own brief “Memorandum of my abode.”

James Knight was governor at Albany till 1700 when he was succeeded by John Fullartine. Kelsey in 1701 was made master of the Knight frigate, a vessel of just under 50 tons, which had been sent to the bay in 1696 and was now used for the East Main trade. This trade was controlled from Albany, no permanent factory being built at East Main at this time though it is likely that temporary winter quarters were occupied on Gilpin Island, Baley Island or elsewhere. The Knight loaded at Albany with goods and provisions in the late summer, wintered on or off the East Main, and returned in spring. Anthony Beale ran the business for three winters and Kelsey for four (1701–3 and 1707–9), doubling the duties of master of the vessel and trader. The HBC had some hopes of the East Main trade, both for marten skins and for minerals. Nothing much came of the search for minerals, but furs were taken. Two of Kelsey’s seasons (1702–3 and 1708–9) were successful: 3,242 and 3,328 made beaver were the products, figures not exceeded in the East Main trade till 1729–30, though only a small fraction of what was being taken at Albany.

Kelsey came back to England in 1703, possibly because he was dissatisfied with his wage of £50 a year, possibly for the reason given by Governor Fullartine, “the recovery of his health.” Little is known of Kelsey’s life between 6 Oct. 1703 when he landed in England and his next contract with the HBC on 28 Nov. 1705; this was his longest time out of the company’s service. The terms of the new agreement suggest that he was badly wanted, 10s. a week till he sailed in the following summer, £4 a month as mate on the voyage out, and £100 a year in the bay. Kelsey was now clearly recognized as a competent seaman as well as an efficient officer.

Kelsey’s posting was as chief trader at Albany, but “I was kept out of my Imploy a year by Govr Beal.” In the winters of 1707–8 and 1708–9 he was back in the East Main trade and it was this that caused him to miss the French attack on Albany in 1709. For the next three years, so far as we know, he remained at Albany where it appears by a letter of 29 May 1710 that amongst other duties he had some responsibility for training: the London committee wrote, “you doe well to Educate the men in Literature but Especially in the Language that in time wee may send them to Travell If wee see it Convenient.” The reference to literature is mysterious – possibly it means no more than teaching them to read – but the same letter throws some light on one of the minor puzzles regarding Kelsey. Robson in his attack on the HBC alleged that Kelsey had compiled a “vocabulary of the Indian language, and that the Company had ordered it to be suppressed.” There was indeed such a work: “wee have sent you your dixonary Printed,” the committee continued, “that you may the Better Instruct the young Ladds with you, in ye Indian Language.”

Kelsey left Albany for England in August 1712 in his old ship, the Knight, though as passenger not master. His intention was to return to the bay in the following year, and he was appointed to go as deputy to Knight at York, which was about to be handed back to the HBC under the treaty of Utrecht. Delay in preparing documents for the handover caused a year’s postponement, and Kelsey was given £100 as compensation for the deferment of his appointment. This concession, and the waiving on this occasion of the normal requirement of one year’s notice of resignation, are further indications of the regard in which he was held. Kelsey left England – for the sixth and last time – in June 1714 and was present at the handing over of York on 11 September. For the next three years he played second fiddle to Knight. The main task was to rebuild the fort which was found in 1714 “all rotten and ready to fall, not scarce defensible against the natives if they have a mind to assault us.” Behind Kelsey’s laconic note “Exerted my utmost to gett a new fort” must lie a good deal of work and some hardship, notably that caused by the break-up of the ice in the river at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, 7 May 1715, when the factory had to be evacuated and “if St Paul’s had stood there before the deluge there had been none now.” Kelsey took over command at York in 1717 when Knight went to establish a new post at Churchill, and when Knight returned to England the following year Kelsey, after 34 years of almost unbroken service to the HBC, was made governor over all the bay settlements, Churchill included.

Knight, back in England, made certain complaints against Kelsey, full particulars of which have not survived. Kenney, Rich, and others have suggested that the accusations centred upon private trade, but the few facts on record are not conclusive. Kelsey was sent a copy of the charges in 1719 with a request for detailed answers, the London committee “being very Unwilling to think that a Person wee had so Good an Opinion of as yourself should forfeit their Estimes.” Kelsey’s reply is lost but in a letter to Richard Staunton* of 1 Feb. 1720 he referred to “fals asspersions concerning ye Indians and had it not bin for ym it would been very hard with us this winter for they have killed near 100 Deer,” which sounds like a defence against a charge of being too soft with Indians. One of the charges, we know, referred to theft by Indians as long before as 1696–97. These are the only complaints against Kelsey recorded in the whole of his service, and it is clear that he strongly resented them. “It is a great Dolor,” he wrote to Staunton in 1720, “to be represented so Odiously to Our Masters and tuched in ye most Sensable part yt is a mans reputation wch is more Valuable yn Life itselfe.” What caused this friction between two old servants of the HBC is unknown. Knight was now an old man but he can hardly be reckoned senile for he was given command of the HBC’s voyage of discovery in 1719. He was an ex-shareholder and member of the London committee, so one would expect the charges he laid against Kelsey to have been taken seriously; but there is no evidence that they were pressed very far, and it is unlikely that the HBC would have left Kelsey in command till 1722 if they had lost confidence in him.

Kelsey’s term as governor lasted for four years. Post-journals survive for this period, but there is only one letter to London, a brief note dated 19 June 1719 announcing his departure “on discovery to the northward” and setting out the arrangements made for running affairs in his absence. This “discovery” was a matter of much concern in the closing years of Kelsey’s career. Knight set out on his last voyage in this same year to search for gold and the northwest passage and to find death, tragic but not unapt for the fierce old man whose first employment in the bay had been in 1676. Kelsey’s own voyage northward in July and August 1719 was quite independent of Knight’s; at the time he knew nothing of Knight’s plans and the HBC wisely tried to keep them apart. Knight was told not to sail south of latitude 64°N; if he did so, he would come under Kelsey’s orders. Kelsey’s expedition was in the Prosperous hoy, with the Success in company, and is briefly described in his “Memorandum”: two of the HBC’s Indian slaves were exchanged for two Eskimos to be trained as interpreters, and there was some trade in whalebone, oil and “Sea Horse teeth.” By his own estimate he sailed as far as 62° 40′N. By the next season (1720) Kelsey knew about Knight’s voyage, and this may be why he sent John Hancock to Churchill and thence north instead of going himself to renew the attempt to develop an Eskimo trade. Hancock was back in September with the news that Knight’s men had “Spoiled our Trade.” As yet there was no inkling of disaster.

In 1721 Kelsey again went north in person, having “Richd. Norton & an Nothern indian on board to show me ye copper,” tales of which had been reaching HBC posts. This is the nearest the evidence takes us to a coincidence of purpose between Knight’s dreams and Kelsey’s realistic aims. Knight’s was an expedition with several objectives, gold and other valuable minerals, the northwest passage, whale fishery, all to be searched for north of 64°. Kelsey’s voyages in 1719 and 1721 and the two which he dispatched but did not accompany in 1720 and 1722 were limited in intention, stimulated, as the most recent historian of the search for the northwest passage argues, by a concern at the failure of Churchill to pay its way (Williams, The British search for the northwest passage).

Kelsey’s last expedition is succinctly described in the “Memorandum.” He called first at Churchill, left there on 13 July 1721, saw parties of Eskimos on 21, 23 July, and 1 August, and began his return on 9 August. From these Eskimos he learned of the loss of Knight’s Albany, “we seeing things belonging to those vessels,” but he was unable to search to the northward, “ye winds did not favour my Intentions of going farther to ye Noward.”

Kelsey sent Captain John Scroggs in the Whalebone to the north in 1722, the last of this series of voyages of “discovery.” It is surprising in view of Kelsey’s finds the previous year that no orders have come to light for searching out the fate of Knight’s ships; but there may have been verbal instructions to this effect. Scroggs certainly brought back information sufficient to convince the HBC that Knight and his ships had been lost. Kelsey’s interest in the north now ended for with the arrival of the Mary from London in 1722 came his recall and his successor, Thomas McCliesh*. No reason was given by the HBC beyond Kelsey’s having completed four years as deputy and four as governor; “Wee think it Convenient to Call you home.” Kelsey was now in his middle fifties, not a great age for service in a company which had employed such a venerable figure as Knight.

Kelsey reached England on 31 Oct. 1722 and was paid off. In January 1724 he petitioned for appointment as captain of the HBC ship Hannah, which suggests that while he may have had enough of continuous residence in the bay he was still game for a summer voyage. In fact the Hannah did not sail in 1724 so Kelsey did not get the job. On professional grounds his appointment would have been entirely credible for he was an experienced mariner. When and how he gained this competence is not clear: we know that he commanded the Knight in 1701 and was mate in the Pery on her Atlantic crossing in 1706. In the “Memorandum” he records, and claims credit for, two major salvage operations in Hudson Bay which testify to skilled seamanship. The first was in 1711 when the Pery, out from England, grounded on sand off Albany and was wrecked by a gale. Kelsey reports “Govr Beale Desired me to take charge of ye knight to go down to ye Perry to save what could be of ye Cargo accordingly I did,” though Beale’s account of the event gives credit neither to Kelsey nor to anyone else. Again, in 1719 when the Hudson’s Bay [III] frigate was wrecked off Cape Tatnum, Kelsey saved most of the cargo. “I had,” he writes, “a narrow escape for my life & If I had not staid till ye 2d of Septr. to get ye cargo on shore their would have been little of it sav’d.”

Henry Kelsey died in his own house in Church Street, East Greenwich, and was buried on 2 Nov. 1724. He had married Elizabeth Dix of East Greenwich on 7 April 1698 soon after returning from his second spell as a prisoner of the French; she survived him and was the executrix of his will. Three children are known to have been born to the marriage: Elizabeth (b. 11 July 1704) and Mary (b. 17 March 1706), both born in the only long break in Kelsey’s service with the HBC, and John (b. 16 Nov. 1713) born while his father was waiting to return to York. In the registrations of baptism of his children Kelsey is described as “mariner” but in his will made on 2 Jan. 1723 as “gentleman.”

Kelsey’s earnings in his service to the HBC have been carefully investigated: they were not great. As an apprentice he was promised £8 and two suits at the end of his time: in fact he received £15 in gratuities and wages totalling £36. From 1688 to 1691 he was paid £15 a year, rising to £30 between 1691 and 1693; he received no reward for his exploration north of Churchill in 1689 but a gratuity of £30 for his journey to the plains, which if not the greatest ever made must surely have been one of the cheapest. By 1696 he was earning £35 a year, dropping to £30 when he went to Albany in 1698 and rising to £50 when he took over the East Main trade in 1701. From 1706 he got £100 a year and this (apart from a brief period in 1711 when he was in charge at Albany) remained his wage till he became governor in 1718 at £200 a year. Adding such supplementary payments as “lying-by money” it appears that Kelsey’s lifetime of service to the HBC brought him a little less than £2,500. Not surprisingly the provision left for his widow was slight. True he owned the house in which he lived and the one next to it, but in 1730 Elizabeth Kelsey had to petition the HBC for help with the cost of apprenticing her son: she received ten guineas, and another six guineas in 1734 to buy clothes for the son, “She being wholly incapable to do it herself.”

The Kelsey papers, which were not known to historians before 1926 and which are now the chief source of information concerning the life of Henry Kelsey, leave a number of questions unanswered. How and where did these papers come into the hands of the Dobbs family, descendants of Arthur Dobbs, the leader of the critics of the HBC in 1749? The “papers” are entries in a single paper-covered volume, the title-page of which reads “Henry Kelsey his Book being ye Gift of James Hubbud in the year of our Lord 1693.” Doughty and Martin, the editors, concluded that Dobbs did not know of the existence of this book when he attacked the HBC in 1749; for Dobbs, three years before Robson’s book was published, likewise interpreted Kelsey’s journey to the plains as impromptu and unauthorized. A contrary view is pressed by E. E. Rich who thought it probable that Kelsey’s journal was copied or abstracted from the HBC’s records by Christopher Middleton* and passed by him to Dobbs. “That Dobbs, with a copy of Kelsey’s Journal in his possession . . . should have suppressed it . . . is merely an instance of the rancour with which he challenged the Company’s position.” There is no evidence to support either view. There is nothing to show that the volume now called The Kelsey papers was ever part of the HBC’s archives for Middleton to copy or steal. The title page suggests that it was Kelsey’s own property, though his action of recording official business in a private book would not have had the company’s approval. He may have brought it back to England in 1722 in case Knight’s charges against him were revived: the “Memorandum of my abode” (the last document in the book) ends with the arrival of Kelsey’s relief and reads like an apologia. Dobbs could have got the volume from Kelsey’s family, could even have bought it, before 1749 or after 1749; one’s guess at the date must depend on whether one thinks Dobbs a rogue or not.

There is also disagreement about the handwriting of The Kelsey papers. Doughty and Martin were of the opinion that the whole of the volume was in Kelsey’s hand; Kenney that none of it was except a few lines in an Indian language which appear on pages 60–61 of the printed edition.

Some of these mysteries may in time be cleared up, but it is not rash to say that the HBC archives are unlikely to yield much more information of substance concerning the life of Henry Kelsey. Scraps of biographical information concerning his parentage, early life, and descendants may be found elsewhere, but we must not expect to know a great deal more of the man himself than we do now. It is little enough. What he did is in outline clear, but his character remains, as A. S. Morton said, “illusive.” A good deal of what has been written about him consists of generalized inference from his recorded actions. We seldom know what choice was open to him. His letters and journals contain few personal reflections; what can be found (such as the observation already quoted on the value of reputation, or the remark in 1722 “Its but in vain for any man to kick against the fates”) are commonplace. He had, one thinks, little formal education; his composition does not rise above the rather low level of HBC officers of the time. Yet he wrote verse which, however crude, was harder to write than prose, and he taught “literature” to the rough-necks in the bay. That he was a man with whom it was possible to quarrel is suggested by the dispute with Beale in 1706 and the break with Governor Knight, but we know the rights and wrongs of neither case. With men under his command Kelsey could certainly be severe, as he showed by flogging two men on Boxing-day 1719 and two more on 10 May following: the journal entries are consistent with his having administered these punishments in person. Undoubtedly his forte was relations with Indians, though Morton may be going a little far in calling him “our first example of that comparatively rare species, the Indianized Englishman.”

Perhaps Kelsey preferred Indian to white society; perhaps he pitied the natives and wanted to protect them. We know that he dismissed John Hancock from the council at York for cruelty to Eskimos and “for beating and Useing all Indians Morosly.” But for this, and for most of what Kelsey did, sound commercial reasons can be adduced.

K. G. Davies

The above taken from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The Kelsey Papers
With an Introduction by Arthur G. Doughty, Keeper of Public Records & Chester Martin, Head of the Department of History of the University of Manitoba (1929) (pdf)

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