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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir George Simpson


DARK DAYS AND THE MAN FOR THE TIME

SOMETIMES the names of men intimately associated or diametrically opposed to one another are continually appearing together before us. It was so in the case of the two men, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Lord Selkirk, whose careers we have been following. Of two whose lives afford a striking example of friendship it was said, "in their death they were not divided." It may be similarly remarked in regard to these two notable opponents. Mackenzie's book gave the impulse to Lord Selkirk's movement ; Mackenzie's company gave the clue to Lord Selkirk for his scheme; Mackenzie was the chief opponent in the Hudson's Bay Company to the sale of territory to Lord Selkirk for his colony; under Mackenzie's silent but powerful opposition, the chief obstacles were thrown in the way of His Lordship's colonization project; and now within a month of each other the two antagonists were called away from earth's trials and rivalries, Sir Alexander dying on his way home from London, March 12th, 1820; and Lord Selkirk passing away twenty-seven days later, on April 8th, far from home, seeking; health in a foreign land.

which brothers had been divided, and chief friends thrown into hostile camps. He had seen that breach closed and those wounds completely healed.

Fifteen or sixteen years had passed since that time, and Ellice advocated, under the circumstances similar to those of the earlier date, that the two great companies which had been fighting a battle royal should lay down their arms and be friends. He urged strongly the plea of self-interest. Both companies were reduced to the verge of bankruptcy. He pointed out that there was great extravagance in the conduct of trade. Two rival traders, outbidding each other, gave more for the furs than they were worth, simply to gain the victory over each other. Often two traders were stationed where the catch of furs was limited, and both establishments at the close of the year showed a serious shortage. The necessity of watching rivals, of ascertaining their plans, and of counterworking opposing movements caused a great loss of time, and so a loss of money and of prestige.

The Indians were irritated by the varying standard of values in trade caused by unhealthy competition, and their relatives, the half-breeds, were in sympathy with them, while the half-breeds of the plains, mostly French and belonging to the North-West Company, were an excitable element at any time, ready to break the peace and create trouble in the country.

Thus jealousy, overtrading, loss of time, too great an extension of agencies, and carelessness of management had, even before Lord Selkirk came upon the scene, led to a loss of money and to the decay of the companies. It was said that it was the low rate to which the stock of the Hudson's Bay Company had fallen that induced Lord Selkirk to buy into the company for the purpose of furthering his emigration scheme.

The massacre of a British officer and his staff to the number of upwards of twenty, cultivated and useful men, by a half-breed band on the plains of Rupert's Land, where for a century and a half the Hudson's Bay Company had ruled, and where for fifty years the shrewd Scottish sense of the Montreal traders had prevented more than an occasional death by violence, startled the imperial government into activity. Lord Bathurst, hearing of Edward Ellice's plan, sent for the peacemaker, heard his views, and adopted the method suggested. He promised to unite the companies by statute if they could but make a financial adjustment between themselves.

The propounder of the plan, encouraged by the promise given by the government, undertook amid numberless prophecies of failure to bring together the hostile elements. Mr. Ellice gives an account of his difficult work in the evidence taken before the Parliamentary Committee of the British House of Commons in 1857.

The agreement, reached after much discussion, was entered into on March 26th, 1821. It provided that the two companies should share equally the profits of trade for twenty-one years, each company furnishing an equal amount of capital. The whole stock was divided into one hundred shares, forty of which were to be distributed among the wintering partners, as the traders actually engaged in Rupert's Land were called.

In order to preserve the rights of both parties the new Act provided for the appointment and specified the duties of new officials. The governor and directors of the new Hudson's Bay Company were given power to appoint district governors, who were to preside at meetings of chief factors, and three chief factors were necessary to constitute a council. Twenty-five chief factors and twenty-eight chief traders were provided for, to be taken alternately from the two companies. The forty shares to be divided among the wintering partners were divided into eighty-five parts, and to each chief trader was given a one-eighty-fifth share, while each chief factor owned two eighty-fifths. The remaining seven shares were divided among old and deserving members of both companies. The Act provided for a license to be given to the company to trade in the territories outside the original Hudson's Bay Company's territory as far west as the Rocky Mountains, but did not include the Pacific slope. The license granted was to be renewed every twenty-one years.

The Act which accomplished the union, which was often called the coalition, was passed on July 2nd, 1821. Provision was made for trying minor offences by local magistrates, but criminal cases involving capital punishment and civil suits of over £200, were to be brought for trial before the courts of Upper Canada.

But the real work of reconciliation was not to be accomplished by passing equitable Acts of parliament, or by bestowing fair salaries upon the partners. It needed a man of the right stamp to unify and moderate the opposing members. What qualifications should such a. roan have? He needed to be young and independent, not having strong affiliations with either party, and yet a man of intellect, of position, and of attractive manner to hold the respect of shrewd, experienced factors and traders. He must be of British rather than Canadian antecedents in order that the older company might be satisfied, and yet preferably a man of Scottish origin to gain the confidence of the strong Celtic element which largely made up the North-West Company of Montreal. To have visited the fur country was a necessity, and yet not to have there lost his business habits as so many of the older traders who had lived long at the remoter posts had done. A man, he must be, of quick perception, affable manners, patient temper, good judgment, and of natural astuteness. Was such a catalogue of virtues and habits to be found in any one man? It seemed very unlikely.

In the year before the coalition a young man had been sent from the London office of the Hudson's Bay Company in Fenchurch Street by Andrew Colville, Lord Selkirk's brother-in-law, to watch over the fur-trading interests of the Hudson's Bay Company in far-distant Athabaska, where shrewdness and decision were needed, if anywhere. This was George Simpson. His birth might have been urged against him, but subtle minds might prove that it gave him an advantage in the trying and thankless position to which he was called. It has been shown that William the Conqueror, the Duke of Monmouth, and others who had the bar sinister across their escutcheons, developed enormous powers of pluck and determination. So it was with George Simpson, who was the uncle of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic explorer. His strong, clear intellect, high animal spirits, well-knit, broad-chested frame, compact height—five feet and seven inches---plausible tongue, and affable disposition—all these with, perhaps, the added consciousness that he must depend entirely on his own exertions, made him a man surprisingly fitted for the work of directing the great enterprise in the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company.

He had come to the fur country in 1820, and in that year arrived on Lake Athabaska with fifteen loaded canoes. Like Sir James Douglas on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, Simpson seemed to grasp the situation at once, and his resource and courage were shown immediately. He reached out as far as Peace River. Whether he ever visited Great Slave Lake is not known. His account of his winter spent in Athabaska is interesting "At some seasons both whites and Indians live in wasteful abundance on venison, buffalo meat, fish and game of all kinds, while, at other times, they are reduced to the last degree of hunger, often passing several days without food. In the year 1820 our provisions fell short at the establishment, and, on two or three occasions I went for two or three whole days and nights without having a single morsel to swallow, but then, again, I was one of a party of eleven men and one woman which discussed at one sitting meal no less than three ducks and twenty-two geese." Thus was concentrated in one season an experience valuable to the future governor.

The young governor immediately braced himself to his great work. The union of Hudson's Bay Company traders with Nor'-Westers changed the centre of gravity of the trade, and Norway House on the north side of Lake Winnipeg took the place of Grand Portage or Fort William where the Nor'-Westers were wont to assemble. In later years Governor Simpson was accused of being arbitrary and dictatorial, but at the early meetings held at Norway Douse he won golden opinions for his affability and fairness. The work of every district was reported on  and the new governor at once, by his diplomacy and shrewdness, took his place among these wily old traders of the west, able to baffle Indian cunning and deceit, and showing himself a thorough leader of men.

As we shall see he was imperious on the route. He was as "furious as Jehu" in his driving, but it was men, not horses, he impelled to swift action. The story was prevalent a generation ago on Red River that on one of his voyages, in crossing the Lake of the Woods, the impetuous governor was urging forward his favourite French voyageur with such unreason that the stalwart boatman, it is said, seized his tormentor by the shoulder, and plunged him into the lake, to draw him out quickly, vet and dripping, suiting his action with an emphatic oath.

With great rapidity and yet with business tact Governor Simpson reduced to order the chaotic affairs of the two companies. Learning from the assembled chief factors at Norway House the nature of the trade at every point, a radical policy was pursued of cutting down establishments, withdrawing from unremunerative points, distributing the money influence to better advantage, conciliating the hostile and encouraging the discouraged. In every corner of the wide region of Rupert's Land as well as in the valleys and shores of British Columbia, was felt the power of this predominating personality, from the very moment of his laying his hand upon the helm.

Complaints no doubt were heard from time to time, some of the older officers left the company, many gave vent to bitter feelings. A good writer among the traders, Ferdinand Wentzler, wrote in 1824: "The North-West is now beginning to be ruled with a rod of iron." It was natural that there should be discontented ones, but this adverse opinion serves to show that Governor Simpson was a living, energizing fact in the wide-spread affairs of the company. We shall follow this man of iron will and shrewd diplomatic faculty through the hazes of business in which he distinguished himself for nearly forty years, while he upheld the dignity and usefulness of the high office to which he had been called.


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