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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter V
George Simpson


The patriarchal dictator who carried the Union into effect and administered the affairs of the new empire of the Hudson's Bay Company for 40 years was a young man who had spent but one year in the country. George Simpson came to the Athabaska District in 1821. He did not impress either Hudson's Bay Company men or Nor'Westers of that region with any knowledge of the fur trade, but, raised to the position of Governor of Rupert's Land, he at once exhibited a statesmanlike grasp of his duties. He was an excellent judge of men, a born diplomat, a most capable executive officer. He will always rank as one of the great founders of the empire of the North, on the American Continent. With Selkirk, Simpson stands out as one of the two most notable men of North-West history of the nineteenth century. Both were tinged with feudalism, one with the aim of developing a lucrative trade and harvesting rich dividends for his overlords; the other was resolved to plant the land system of the Old World in the New. Both had high and laudable motives for the welfare of those they governed. Selkirk did not live long enough to see the fulfilment of such a paternalistic policy and one cannot imagine Sir George Simpson's vigorous mind not foreseeing that the Hudson's Bay Company system was doomed to extinction. But Selkirk had the greater idea and will always be regarded as the greater of these two illustrious Scotchmen.

One of the first acts of the Council of Rupert's Land was to make a survey of the various posts of the two companies. Those that had been maintained for mere competition, as well as those which had proved unprofitable, were abandoned. Bow River Fort at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, after a brief existence, was abandoned in 1823, and Pembina the year before. Chesterfield house at the Red Deer forks was rebuilt in 1822 by Donald Mackenzie but abandoned some years later on account of the implacable hostility of the Blackfeet. Simpson kept himself thoroughly informed of the details of the fur trade and visited the various posts from time to time. The methods of transportation were investigated, York Boats were adopted and a thorough reorganization effected by this masterful administrator.

The reduction of the number of posts threw many servants and employees of the old companies out of employment. This question engaged the attention of the Council at its meeting of 1822. The Committee in London expressed extreme concern about the welfare of those discharged and of the numerous half breed children whose parents had died or had deserted them. "It will be prudent and economical," ran the instructions of the Committee to the Council of Rupert's Land, "to incur some expense in placing these people where they may maintain themselves and be civilized and instructed in religion." To meet the problem the company made grants of land upon a special form of tenure, which was really a lease for 1000 years at a peppercorn rent. There were, however, important stipulations upon which the lease depended. The tenant covenanted not to trade in fur or distil liquor or spirits, and he further covenanted to preserve peace, repel foreign aggression, repair roads and bridges and promote general education and religious instruction. Nor did the tenant have the right to sell or sublet his holding without the consent of the company. Though these were the terms of settlement, Sir George Simpson testified before the Parliamentary Committee in 1857 that none of the covenants except the prohibition in regard to fur, was ever rigidly enforced. It was, however, the presence of such restrictions that gave rise in the last years of the company's regime, to opposition to their Charter. It is no criticism of Simpson and his officials that such a system was unsuited to the conditions of the New World; that any attempt to revive the land system of the Norman and Angevin kings on the Plains of the North-West was foredoomed to failure. They attempted to reconcile two opposing policies,—the promotion of colonization and the maintenance of the fur trade. It can be said on behalf of the company that they did as well as could be done under the system and they left behind an honourable record of just and benevolent dealings with the native population and in support of missionaries and schools for their advancement. Sir George Simpson was subjected to a gruelling cross-examination at the British Parliamentary Inquiry in 1857, but on the whole he was able to make a good case for the company. We may conclude that it was not the ability alone of the young Scotch accountant, who had spent 37 years in the wilds of the North-West, that enabled him to fence so successfully with antagonists like Roebuck and Gladstone. The record of the Hudson's Bay Company and the manner in which they exercised their regal powers were also important factors in the case.

It was the policy of the company to have all their retired employees settle at Red River and to make no grants outside of that part of Rupert's Land. The reason given was that the settlers would be more easily afforded the means of education and religion. Already there was a Roman Catholic mission at Red River and an orphanage and Protestant school under the Rev. Mr. West. This may have been an extreme policy but it is no more so than the opposite policy of settling the North-West in scattered and thinly populated communities from the Red River to the Peace, and thus throwing a premature burden on the Government to provide roads, railways and civil institutions, but such are the wasteful but popular methods of democracy. It will be seen, therefore, that outside the District of Assiniboia there was nothing but the fur trade, and this explains why settlement was so late beginning in Alberta.

During this period the Province of Alberta was included in the Saskatchewan and Athabaska districts of the northern department. By 1830 the principal posts in the Saskatchewan District were Fort Edmonton and Fort Canton. The reader will remember that Fort Edmonton, along with new Fort Augustus, had been abandoned in 1810. It was not until 1819 that the post was reestablished as Fort Edmonton, which has remained the metropolis of the Saskatchewan Valley ever since and the strategic commercial centre of the Far West. By the arrangements of 1821 James Sutherland, who built the first post of this name, became Chief Factor. John Rowand was now in charge with twelve men, having succeeded C. F. Sutherland in 1825 and J. P. Pruden was Chief Factor at Canton with eight men. Other posts in the district and the officers in charge were: Fort Pitt on the Saskatchewan, built in 1831, Peter Small, clerk; Fort Assiniboine on the Athabaska, built in 1825, Richard Grant, clerk; Rocky Mountain House on the Saskatchewan, Henry Fisher, clerk; Jasper's House on the Athabaska, Michael Clyne, postmaster; Lesser Slave Lake, George Linton, clerk. Edmonton was becoming an important point in the transportation system of the country. The company maintained a large number of horses and dogs at Fort Edmonton for the conveyance of goods by pack train and dog sleighs to Fort Assiniboine where suitable craft was held in readiness for transport to the mountains and the Columbia District through the Athabaska Pass. As many as 800 horses were kept at one time for this purpose. The horse guard for Fort Edmonton was situated a few miles northeast of the city at the point now known as the Horse Hills.
John Charles and Cohn Campbell had charge of Athabaska. Simon McGillivray was at Great Slave Lake, but was now under orders to proceed to the Columbia District to cooperate with Chief Factor John McLoughlin. Chipewyan, under Chief Factor Charles; Dunvegan, under Chief Trader Campbell; Vermilion, under Paul Fraser, clerk, and Great Slave under George McDougall, clerk, were flourishing posts. The outfit for the district consisted of four boats, 29 men and 220 pieces of merchandise. Dunvegan was a very busy place, maintaining the reputation Harmon gave it in 1808. The gentlemen in charge were ordered by the Grand Council at Norway House to prepare for shipment to New Caledonia via Peace River in August of every year the following supplies: 650 dressed moose skins, 100 babiche snares and beaver nets, 2000 fathoms of pack cords and 500 kegs of grease. At Fort Simpson Chief Factor Edward Small was in command of the Mackenzie District with M. McPherson, C. Bnisbois, John Bell and J. Hutchison as clerks at Forts Riviere au Liards, Norman, Good Hope and Halkett, respectively, assisted by two or three men at each post. The annual outfit for the district consisted of about 300 pieces.

In 1832 we find a new post established near the 49th parallel of latitude called Piegan Post under Chief Trader J. E. Harriott to attract the Piegans and to prevent the American Indians from frequenting the Company's posts on the Saskatchewan. This post seems to have had but a temporary existence, and though Rocky Mountain House was temporarily abandoned, we find by the winter of 1835 it was flourishing, with an important officer in charge. Fort Pitt was also abandoned for a time on account of the danger of war Parties of Crees and Blackfeet in that region. In order to meet Russian competition across the mountains, the company sent Chief Trader John Macleod in 1834 to take possession of Northern British Columbia and what is now the Yukon Territory and Alaska. He ascended the Liard River above Fort Halkett, crossed the mountains and reached Dease's Lake and what he called the Pelly River, but which was in reality the Stikine. Two years later J. Hutchison was directed to move Fort Halkett to Dease's Lake and establish a post 200 miles from the Height of Land. The expedition failed. In 1837 the Council accepted the spirited offer of Robert Campbell, a clerk stationed at Fort Simpson, to pursue the exploration work west of the mountains. With a half breed and two Indian lads, Campbell ascended the Liard, crossed the Height of Land and discovere(l that Macleod's Pelly River was the Stikine. He returned to Dease's Lake and passed the winter there (1838-39). In May, 1840, Campbell left Fort Halkett and ascended the Liard to Francis Lake (so named in honour of Lady Simpson) up Finlayson River and Lake, crossed the Divide and discovered the real Pelly River. In 1842 Fort Pelly Banks was built and Campbell established Fort Selkirk at the junction of the Pelly and the Lewes in 1848. Farther north the Hudson's Bay traders entered the country by the Porcupine River. In 1840 Chief Trader McPherson opened the post that bears his name on Peel's River. In 1842 John Bell went down the Porcupine a few miles. In 1846 while in charge of Fort McPherson he descended the river to its junction with the Yukon, where next year A. H. Murray established Fort Yukon which continued to be a Hudson's Bay post until the purchase of Alaska by the United States, from Russia. Campbell completed the exploration of the Pelly-Yukon water system in 1850. He descended the Pelly to Fort Selkirk, thence to Fort Yukon, up the Porcupine, crossed to Peel's River and up the Mackenzie to Fort Simpson again.

We have seen that one of the results of the opposition between the old companies was the rapid depletion of the beaver. The use of traps and castoreum by the Iroquois hunters imported by the North West Company about 1800, greatly reduced the number of beavers. After the Union the Hudson's Bay Company did its best to preserve these valuable fur bearing animals. The number taken in each district was restricted as nearly as possible to the number set at the Annual Meeting of the Council. In 1830 the number in Saskatchewan district was limited to 5,500 and in the Athabaska district to 5,000. These were the two greatest fur bearing districts in the whole North-West. By 1840 it was necessary to further curtail the catch of beaver. The company issued instructions to discourage the taking of beaver. At some posts the number taken was reduced by half while at other posts the taking of beaver was entirely prohibited.

During the last years of Sir George Simpson, a new generation of factors, traders and clerks were rising to prominence in the fur trade. Already we have noticed that in 1837 Robert Campbell was fired with the exploring zeal of Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson. Chief Factor John Anderson was now in command of the Mackenzie district and loyally held to the traditions of Simon McGillivray, William McGillivray and the Gentlemen Adventurers. He also had the courage and hardihood of the pathfinder, for we shall find him later leading an Expedition on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company to search for relics of Franklin. Other men who entered the service about this time were William J. Christie, Richard Hardisty, William Sinclair, H. J. Moberly, Roderick McFarlane and James Allan Grahame, all of whom became prominent in the affairs of the company in Alberta. Chief Factor Christie was the son of Alexander Christie, twice governor of Assiniboia and builder of Fort Garry. He was educated in Scotland and became Chief Factor at Edmonton after John Rowand, holding the position until 1872 when he became Inspecting Chief Factor for the Saskatchewan and Athabaska posts. He was also one of the members of the first North-West Council. Richard Hardisty became Chief Factor at Edmonton in 1872 and later became the first Senator from Alberta.

Sir George Simpson died in 1860 and was succeeded by Governor Dallas, who continued in that position until the transfer of Rupert's Land to the Government of Canada. With Simpson passed the old Hudson's Bay Company. Under his successors the Company has emerged into a great modern trading corporation that has spread its activities over the whole empire of the Gentlemen Adventurers, meeting competition with the same resourcefulness and invincible organization that it bore against the Nor'Westers a century ago.

Before dealing with the events that led up to the transfer of the Hudson's Bay Territory to the Dominion of Canada, it will doubtless be interesting to the reader to learn something of the internal economy of a Hudson's Bay post during the latter days of the Company's regime. Vegetables and cereals were grown at almost every post in the Province. The store of provisions was distributed with great care to the officers and men according to fixed rules.

Chief Factor H. J. Moberly, in his "Reminiscences of a Hudson's Bay Company Factor," recently written, gives us the details of rationing the supplies at Lac la Biche in 1856, as follows:

"At the post the allowance of provisions for the winter was on the following scale: To a chief factor, three hundred pounds of flour, three hundred and thirty-six pounds of sugar, eighteen pounds of black tea, nine pounds of green tea, forty-two pounds of raisins, sixty pounds of butter, thirty pounds of candles, three pounds of mustard, and sixteen gallons of port, sherry and brandy or shrub. These provisions were put in two gallon kegs, four of which were laced together and called a maccaron. Rice, pepper, pimento were added, with fifteen pounds of chocolate.

"A chief trader received half the quantity, and a chief clerk half as much as a chief trader.

"This was the winter allowance, but besides this the officer in charge of the brigade on the annual trip to York Factory, with the clerks who accompanied him, got a voyage allowance. The chief factor's portion was one maccaron of biscuit, ham, tea, sugar, chocolate, salted tongues, butter and flour. The clerks got half a maccaron and each man could take what he preferred of the four beverages.

"The officer in charge of the district also got an extra allowance of flour, hams and drinkables, which was called 'strangers' mess allowance', as he had to entertain many visitors. The best parts of the fresh meats were always reserved for the officers' mess, and the supply was ad libitum.

"The postmasters were old and deserving servants who were now exempted from boat work and almost every other hard work and were never placed in charge of important posts. They received wages of forty pounds sterling, with an allowance for the season of thirty-two pounds of sugar, three pounds of black tea, and one and a half of green, seven pounds of rice, half a pound of pepper and half a pound of pimento.

"The meat rations were weighed out each evening to the postmasters and servants of the prairie posts, each man receiving eight pounds of fresh meat, or two and a half pounds of pemmican or three pounds of dried meat.

"One whitefish was the allowance to each woman, half of a whitefish to each child, if the fish were obtainable, otherwise the woman received half a man's allowance of meat, the child one quarter. Train dogs got two fish, or four pounds of fresh meat each.

"A record of the provisions stocked, with their weight or quantities, was entered as they were received in the 'Provision Book,' in which also were entered the allowances as they were given out. A glance at this book, therefore, would show the officer in charge what amount of 'grub' he had on hand at any one moment.

"Each post had also to keep a diary of the weather, work done, annual departures, births, deaths, marriages and all other events.

"Many of these diaries have been lost or destroyed, but one by one they come to light. Many of them have been collected and sent to the London or to the Winnipeg headquarters of the company. They are intensely interesting and human documents, recording with meticulous care the local events of the day and such bits of world news as reached the posts from time to time."

After the transfer of Rupert's Land to Canada and the reorganization of the Hudson's Bay Company, advances to Indians were discontinued, a practice followed since the beginning of the fur trade. The action was greatly resented by the Indians. No posts had been opened on the South Saskatchewan River since the abandonment of Bow River Fort and Chesterfield House in the late '30s. The nearest post to South Saskatchewan was Last Mountain, an outpost of Fort Qu'Appelle. The spread of the half breeds westward following the buffalo, a migration that steadily increased for many years, rendered necessary a post or two farther west, naturally on the Saskatchewan River. The proposed points were at Vermilion Hills and at the old site of Chesterfield House, the former for the Qu'Appelle, Crees and Stoneys, the latter for the Blackfeet. Before the Hudson's Bay Company could make up their minds to build these posts, the firm of I. G. Baker and other American traders from Fort Benton invaded Southern Alberta and established several forts: Whoop-Up, Stand- Off, and Fort Kipp. The I. G. Baker Company became the first great rival of the Hudson's Bay Company in Alberta, and continued so until the Hudson's Bay Company purchased the I. G. Baker posts in 1892. But an enumeration of the principal posts of the company in operation at the time of the transfer (1870) in the Province of Alberta and the District of Athabasca shows that in the North the Hudson's Bay traders occupied every strategic point for trading with the various Indian tribes. The list is as follows: Edmonton, Victoria, St. Paul, Battle River, Whitefish Lake, Lac la Biche, Chippewyan, Vermilion, Lac St. Anne, Lac la Nonne, St. Albert, Pigeon Lake, Old White Mud Fork, Salt River, Fond du Lac, St. John, Red River on the Peace, forks of the Athabasca River (Fort McMurray) and Forth Smith.

Opposition to the Hudson's Bay Company's rule slowly developed in the District of Assiniboia. The prohibition against dealing in furs created many agitators for free trade. Private importation of supplies was permitted and facilitated by the Governor of Assiniboia until the new traders were guilty of profiteering. The company then stepped in and by keeping a larger stock of goods and selling at cheaper rates, captured the business from the independent traders. This, of course, created a new grievance and the company was charged with operating a monopoly in merchandise as well as in fur. Though acting within the powers of the Charter many of the acts of the company appear harsh to the ordinary citizen and trader. The company sternly repressed trade in furs and searched private houses and stores for traces of the traffic. Private traders were arrested but public opinion in the colony was mainly opposed to such measures. The renewal of the company's license in 1838 served to increase the opposition to the big corporation and from this date onward the position of the Governor of Rupert's Land, particularly the Governor of Assiniboia, was no sinecure. In 1847 a petition was presented to the Colonial Secretary on behalf of the people of Rupert's Land and in 1849 the British House of Commons passed an address to the Queen praying for an enquiry into the legality of the Hudson's Bay Company's claims under the Charter. The Company prepared a reply of conspicuous ability. The statement was approved by the law officers of the Crown who expressed the opinion that the only authoritative way to settle such an important question was a reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The parties who presented the Petition above mentioned were requested to appear before the Privy Council in the case, but they declined the responsibility.

Soon a new antagonist entered the field. In 1857 the Canadian Government laid claim to a portion of the Hudson's Bay Territory lying west of the old Province of Canada and sent a despatch embodying this claim to the Colonial Secretary. The despatch was referred to the law officers of the Crown. The law officers gave an elaborate opinion in the course of which they stated: "The Charter could not be considered apart from its existence for nearly two centuries and nothing could be more unjust than to try this Charter as a thing of yesterday." They held that the Crown could not with justice question the validity of the Charter nor the Company's territorial ownership of the land granted to it, but subject to certain qualifications they thought that exclusive rights of government or monopoly of trade could not be insisted on by the Company as having been granted by the Crown, although it did possess limited powers to pass ordinances and exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction.

The period of the second license of twenty-one years had now but two years to run. The British Government, therefore, in view of the opposition to the Company in Canada and within the boundaries of Rupert's Land itself, referred the whole question to a select committee to consider the state of the British Possessions in North America, which were under the administration of the Hudson's Bay Company, over which they possessed a license to trade. Many notable witnesses were examined, among them Sir George Simpson, Lt. Col. Lefroy, Dr. John Rae, Sir John Richardson, Chief Justice Draper of Upper Canada, Bishop Anderson and the Rt. Hon. Edw. Ellice. Much evidence was taken. The members of the Parliamentary Committee comprised some of the ablest men in the House of Commons:—the Rt. lion. Labouchere, Lord John Russell, Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Adderley, Mr. Roebuck, Lord Stanley. Canada sent Chief Justice Draper to watch the proceedings on behalf of Canada.

We cannot pass the encomiums of the report as others have done. Notwithstanding the brilliancy and the ability of the cross examiners of the Committee, their want of familiarity with the life, history and resources of the North-West enabled Simpson and Ellice to make out a very good case for the Company. On each side Simpson and Draper were the star witnesses. The report of the Committee was, of course, a foregone conclusion. The monopoly of a Stuart king granted in 1670 could not pass muster in 1857 in -I elected on Lord Grey's Reform Bill of 1832. The Committee reported against the renewal of the license and advised an equitable extinction of the Hudson's Bay Charter over Rupert's Land. It recognized the legitimate ambitions of Canada to extend her boundaries and annex the Red River and Saskatchewan districts, and advised the separation of Vancouver Island from the rule of the Company. In those regions of the Indian Territory and Rupert's Land where there was no prospect of settlement, the Committee, recognizing the fitness of the Company to govern such territories, declared it was desirable that they continue in the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company. The report is a splendid document and reflects from every paragraph the fine sense of justice, in balancing prescription with necessary reform, that distinguishes the deliberations of the Mother of Parliaments.

As a result of the Committee's report the license was not renewed in 1859 but its chartered rights were still intact and things were left in the air. The Canadian Government desired to acquire the regions specified in the Committee's report, but how was it to be done? Proposals and counter-proposals were made by the Imperial Government, by the Government of Canada and by the Hudson's Bay Company. Even powerful private interests bestirred themselves. A syndicate of Anglo-American capitalists wanted large tracts of the country in the Red River and Saskatchewan valleys for colonization purposes. Another syndicate offered to open up communication with the North-West by ,I from the Ottawa River to Lake Huron for a grant of 40,000,000 acres in the neighborhood of the Saskatchewan Valley. Such proposals were strongly opposed by the Canadian Government and ,I was lodged in 1866 on behalf of Canada with the Colonial Secretary against any scheme of private exploitation, stoutly maintaining at the same time that the Hudson's Bay Company had no right to dispose of the lands of the colony. The whole matter was set at rest by the British North America Act of 1867. By Section 146 of this Act the Queen was empowered to admit Rupert's Land and the North West Territory into Confederation by Order-in-Council upon the terms to be adopted in an address of the Parliament of Canada and submitted to the Queen. To remove all doubts the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland passed an Act, July 31st, 1868, enabling the Queen to accept the surrender of the land, privileges and rights of the Hudson's Bay Company and transfer the same to the Dominion of Canada. Negotiations were immediately opened between the Canadian Government and the Hudson's Bay Company, with the British Government as mediator, and the deed of surrender was agreed upon to become effective July 15th, 1870.


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