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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir George Simpson


IN HIS LETTERS

PROBABLY no man shows his real thoughts in any way more readily than in his correspondence with his friends. Governor Simpson was an excellent correspondent, and kept the whole of his wide-spread command in hand by letters written promptly and frequently. He had the knack of dealing succinctly and clearly with business matters and then drifting off into a page of what he calls "chit-chat," which was very interesting and was eagerly looked for by his correspondents.

We are to be congratulated in our study of his life that the versatile governor wrote so many letters. In a garret in Queen Street, Edinburgh, the letters and papers of the late James Hargrave, chief factor of the company and for many years master of York Factory, were stored by his son with trusty solicitors. York Factory was for many years the entrepot of all the goods for Rupert's Land, and the place of export for the furs gathered from the Arctic solitudes. Hargrave's correspondence accordingly embraced communications from all parts of the fur traders' territory and from almost all men of prominence in the far West.

Large packages of Governor Simpson's letters were docketed and left in perfect order by Chief Factor Hargrave, who, upon retiring, treasured these memorials of the past. The writer, through the kindness of their custodian, from the many hundreds of these letters, selected some thirty written during the interesting portion of Governor Simpson's life, beginning with 1830 and including a number of years following.

The governor had at this time been ten years at the helm of the company's affairs, had become acquainted with the work and with the thousands of men under him. He was certainly master of the situation. In a letter from Norway House in June, 1830, the governor writes that a change has taken place in his condition, meaning that he had just been married. Mrs. Simpson had accompanied hind to Norway I-louse and he writes that she is to accompany him to York. His wife was a sister of the wife of Chief Factor Finlayson, and on this account Red River Settlement was the governor's residence for several years after his marriage. With the zeal of a Benedict, he writes that Leblanc—a faithful and expert workman—is to be ready to leave York Factory with him and return to Red River Settlement to arrange a house for the wintering of himself and his bride, and he gives orders to his faithful man at York Factory to have his quarters on the bay in good order for his arrival.

In the same letter, however, in which he speaks of his new found felicity, a social shadow falls across the view. He mentions that a leading factor has been married, and has gone to Moose Factory. He says to Hargrave, "Pray soothe his woman by any argument you can think of, and say she will not be deserted." The meaning simply is that the officer had been married—manage du pays—to a native, and that when he legally married, lie pensioned off the woman or had her married to some one else. This bad practice was only too common in certain quarters in the fur country.

Governor Simpson was a strong and sympathetic friend. In a letter dated Red River Settlement, December, 1831, he speaks very feelingly of the death of his friend Mr. Richardson—John Richardson, of the firm of Forsyth, Richardson & Co.—of Montreal. His friend had been a prominent man in the fur trade. The governor speaks of him as "a gentleman of the first standing and character in Canada," and refers to the kindness and attention which he had shown him.

Living happily in the settlement he says, "here we are very happy and gay, but the weather has been very changeable." He mentions the McKenzies and McMillans, leading fur-trading people, the Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, the pioneer clergyman and his wife, of whom Governor Simpson was fond, Dr. Tod, an eccentric trader, and Dr. Hambly, the physician, "the strangest compound of skill, simplicity, selfishness, extravagance, musical taste and want of courtesy I ever fell in with." . . . "The people are living on the fat of the earth; in short. Red River is a perfect land of Canaan as far as good cheer goes." The governor was plainly happy in the midst of his new-found domestic joys.

In all the governor's letters there is a shrewdness and adroitness that is very marked. He is, indeed, somewhat given to flattery. The great object of every clerk in the service was to rise to the position of a commissioned officer. The governor, in March, 1832, informs Hargrave that he has prophesied at one of the annual gatherings that Hargrave would be among the first to be promoted. He writes, "You are a prodigious favourite with your bourgeois." He states, however, that the suggestion to make him chief trader had been opposed in the council. The governor promises that it will not be long delayed, and promotion carne, as we have seen, in the following year.

The governor's interest in the people is well shown in a letter written in December, 1832. The crops in the Red River Settlement had been very poor that season, owing to an unusually wet summer and very "unseasonable frosts in the early part of the autumn." He hopes the people may, however, have enough to eat. "You will be sorry to learn," he says, "that Mrs. Simpson continues in very delicate health. She joins in regards to you.

In 1833 the governor himself was exceedingly unwell at Red River Settlement, and he writes that the traders McMillan and Christie advise him to make a trip to Canada and England. Mrs. Simpson also continued in a very poor state of health. He comforts Hargrave by telling him that he hopes to send him a commission from the next meeting of partners in June at Norway House. In the same year there was a great scarcity of the necessaries of life throughout the country; especially was there a great dearth of pemmican and grease. Turning suddenly from an expression of his sympathy for the people, the governor writes, "Sir Walter Scott is no more; our universally admired and respected fellow-countryman is gone."

An example of the governor's firmness and skill in administering reproof is seen in a letter written from the Red River Settlement in December,1833. Referring to some unpleasantness between Hargrave and one of his fellow-traders, the writer states that no doubt his correspondent will be happy and comfortable now that the source of the discord is removed. Then he goes on to tell of all the craft (boats) of Red River shopkeepers being stopped in the ice on their way to England from York Factory. The crews of Logan's and Sinclair's had managed to reach Norway House. McDermot's people had not in December been heard from. He then states that the "trippers" blamed Hargrave for delaying them so long at York. The governor says, however, that he and Mr. Christie upheld his officer at the Factory; but privately he states his fear that Hargrave in his anxiety to dispatch the Prince George, the company's ship, on her journey through Hudson Bay to England, had delayed the brigades five or six days.

In the same letter Governor Simpson shows the part he took in religious of affairs. The missionaries of the Church of England thus far held the whole ground among; the Highland settlers of Red River. The people were somewhat irritated. While the governor sympathized to a certain extent with his fellow-countrymen in their desires, yet he feared dissension, and preferred matters to remain in their existing condition. He says, "have got into the new church (St. John's), which is really a splendid edifice for the Red River people." He says they are now less clamorous about a Gaelic minister. He likewise has a fling at his complaining fellow-countrymen, saying that they had wished to have their private stills, and now "about whiskey they say not one word, that ruin is so cheap, and good strong heavy-wet' in general use."

Among his chit-chat in May, 18435, he speaks of a promising Scottish officer having gone through his work manfully and being an efficient officer, is "which is a feather in his cap." Ballenden afterwards became master of Fort Garry.

In the year 1836 there are many letters. The governor was on the eve of going to England, and after the council at Norway House writes a letter every other day to Hargrave. In most generous terms he instructs Hargrave to be attentive to Captain Carey and his family. The captain was the new head of the company's experimental farm at Red River Settlement. Extra allowances were to be made for the newcomers, and for three officers at Red River Settlement, as well as greater liberality to be shown to all the gentlemen and clerks.

In another letter of the same month the governor urges that the several brigades should be got off as early as possible, in order that they might all reach their destinations before the setting in of the ice. They were to leave in the following order: Saskatchewan, Columbia, Lac la Pluie (Rainy Lake), Sinclair, and McKenzie (Red River).

The governor has been charged with conniving to degrade the Indians and to prevent the whites obtaining their rights. One evil, however, he continued strongly to oppose, that was the use of strong drink, at least in any general way. We have already seen how on the Pacific coast he entered into a compact with the Russian governor to cornpletely do away with strong drink among the Indians of the coast.

Writing July 6th from Norway house, lie says to Hargrave: Has the allowance of wine regulated by fixed system succeeded at York? I do not at all see that it is necessary to introduce evening brandy and water parties for the convenience of the captains. On the contrary I should be glad that it was broken off; let them take their 'whack' at the dinner table, like other people. When spoken to in England about heavy drinking on shipboard, they said in their defence that it is the custom of the service at the Factories."

In this letter the governor's love for curiosities and display may be seen. He instructs Hargrave to send to him at London the calumet (red pipe) to be handed to him by Trader Ross; also a pair of leather shoes and Indian scalps. He wishes to have the trader send him stuffed birds, well made snowshoes, or anything else curious at the Factories. These objects he showed with great pleasure to the numerous friends whom he gathered around him in the world's metropolis.

Sometimes the governor held a very strong opinion, favourable or otherwise, of certain of his subordinates. Of John Tod, an irrepressible fellow-countryman of his own, he had no good opinion. In 1823 an historian has described with great liveliness Governor Simpson summoning Tod and in bland terms telling him the council had been pleased to send him to New Caledonia, which it is well known was regarded as the Siberia of the fur-traders. The imperturbable doctor was highly pleased and said to the governor that that was the place where he most wished to go. In a letter of 1836 to Hargrave occurs the following: "John Tod has been a most useless and troublesome man of late. He goes home with his wife this summer. He requires more luxury and attention, I understand, than ally governor of Rupert's Land would be indulged with ; let him have all that is fit and proper, but not an iota more."

On the other hand the letter says: "If anything seems to you that may be useful to Finlayson at Ungava let it be forwarded. He will have no further supplies till autumn 1838, and perhaps not then. It has been decided to send another man to Ungava."

An interesting group of letters lies before me dated June, 1849. One of these is a letter from Sir George Simpson to Hargrave at York Factory. It is written from Norway House. With it is a letter, or copy of a letter, from Hargrave to Sir George and within this a list of names. The correspondence shows the inner history of how the appointments to high offices were made in Sir George's time. Hargrave had now become a chief factor. He is asked to select such men as he may regard most fit in the company's service for appointment to commissions at the meeting of the following year. This was presumably done by every officer, and then from the lists suggested the appointments were made.

Hargrave suggested two names for chief factor. These were John Rae, the Arctic explorer, and William Sinclair, an old and respected trader. By contemporary lists we find that these two were appointed, and were the only ones appointed to the chief factorship in 1850, shoving how much Hargrave's opinion was valued. He suggested the names of six clerks for the chief traderships.

In the year 1849 the first bishop of Rupert's Land, Bishop Anderson, was appointed, and came out from England in a company's ship by way of York Factory, and thence to Fort Garry. It is amusing to find in the postscript to this letter the evidence that Sir George desired to have his kingdom in proper order for the inspection of the prelate. He says to Hargrave: "I shall be up here, God willing, about June 10th next. Pray take care that there be no drunken scenes at York at any time, more especially when the bishop passes or during the visits of missionaries or strangers, and do not let brigades start on Sundays."


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