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The Scot in British North America
Chapter III, Part B, The Union of the Companies


The more serious difficulties of the Red River settlement had now disappeared. The importation of seed-wheat, which had cost Lord Selkirk no less than 1,040 sterling, and the cessation for the time of the grasshopper plague, had left the colonists in greater ease and contentment than they had known in their native land. The prolonged period of suffering from that first terrible winter at the mouth of the Churchill, the conflicts, the want and the constant flittings to and from Pembina, were over, and the sturdy Highlanders at last enjoyed peace and plenty in the land of their adoption. But the jealous rivalry of the Companies still raged with unabated virulence, and it speedily became evident that unless some scheme of conciliation were devised, each of them would ruin the other. The Hon. Mr. Coltman, the commissioner referred to in the last chapter, urgently advocated a consolidation of the concerns and their interests, as the only method of improving the deplorable state of things then prevailing. The strife so long carried on was, says Mr. Murray, perhaps the most furious ever waged "between two mercantile bodies, destructive alike to the interests of both, and most demoralizing to the savage aborigines." [Hugh Murray: British America, Vol. III. p. 235.] The North-West Company, whatever be thought of its somewhat unscrupulous eagerness to advance and extend the trade it directed, was unquestionably the more enterprising and adventurous of the two. Until the Montreal traders began to appear in the field, the Hudson Bay people never made much progress beyond those great inland waters which were peculiarly their own. The North-Westers on the other hand, struck at once boldly across the fertile belt, and descended by the Fraser, the Thompson and the Columbia to the Pacific. They were the great explorers of British Columbia, and whatever zeal in the path of discovery its rivals afterwards displayed, was due mainly to the new energy infused into the body corporate by their old antagonists. But the North-West Company had attempted too much with its limited capital, and was no match for the old establishment. The consequence was that both parties were disposed to concur in any plan of coalition, framed upon an equitable basis. [Mr Murray writes: "At length the North-West Company, in consequence of their over-strained exertions, became involved beyond their capital; and being obliged to yield to their rivals, they obtained in 1821 an honourable capitulation." This seems hardly fair to the North-West Company, for both parties in fact capitulated to the invincible force of necessity. The same author quotes from Mr. Harmon, a North-West clerk, some account of the extent of this Company’s trade. Harmon, who was an American, crossed to the Peace River and Athabasca districts in 1803. There at Fort Dunvegan, he was visited by three of the Scottish pioneers, Messrs. McLeod, Fraser and Stuart, "on their way to and from the establishments lately formed by the Company in New Caledonia" – as it might still be edited – "on the western side of the Rocky Mountains." Ibid. ii. pp. 199-206.]

The arrangement by which the Companies were united in March, 1821, was exceedingly fair and acceptable to both parties. The North-West made over its property to the Hudson Bay Company, and in return, the members of the former became partners, and its servants taken into the employment of the consolidated Company. The X. Y. Company had combined with the North-West years before, so that now at last there was an end both to rivalry in trade and to deeds of rapine and violence. An Imperial Act was passed by the Parliament, at the instance of Mr. Ellice—a name familiar in Hudson Bay annals—in which the rights and privileges of the new Company were defined and the territory east and west of the Rocky Mountains not included in their charter was granted for a period of twenty-one years. [Hargrave: Red River, p. 79.] The first Governor of the Hudson Bay Company after the union was Mr. (afterwards Sir) George Simpson, who filled that responsible office for nearly forty years from 1820 until his death in 1860.

There were two persons, near relatives named Simpson— both Scotsmen—who played a conspicuous part in the North-West. Thomas Simpson was a scientific man and an explorer of no mean order, whose career seems to deserve special notice here. After the termination of Captain Back’s extended voyage of discovery, Mr. Dease, the chief factor, and Mr. Thomas Simpson, were commissioned by Governor Simpson to explore the northern coast in 1836. Thomas Simpson had been previously engaged on missions of a similar description, and he was now instructed to "spend the ensuing winter at Fort Chipewyan on Great Slave Lake; and in the beginning of summer, five of the party were to proceed to the north-west end of Great Bear Lake and there prepare accommodation and provisions for their next winter quarters. The remainder were to employ the favourable season in descending the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and thence along the coast until they reached the point where Captain Beechey had been arrested." [Murray: British America, Vol. ii. p. 233.] Provision was made for the possible contingency of travel after abandoning their boats, and at the approach of winter, they were to repair to their winter quarters already in readiness for them. In 1838, the Coppermine River was to be crossed, and the party were to make their way to Points Turnagain and Richardson. On the 9th of July, 1837, the first part of the plan was accomplished, when the party reached the Mackenzie River, and on the 20th they arrived at Foggy Island Bay, the furthest point attained by Franklin. Thence, forward all their progress was in the path of new discovery. After finding a new branch of the Rocky Mountains, their path lay along the shore which was low and composed for the most part of frozen mud, on which were seen the mouths of several large rivers. At length, when they could only advance at the rate of four miles a day, the plan of the party was changed. Thomas Simpson, with a party of five men, resolved to perform the rest of the journey on foot. Carrying with them a portable canoe for crossing rivers, they made their way, with the occasional assistance of an Esquimaux "comiak" when they came to a broad inlet. Early in August they came in sight of Point Barrow. "The ocean, extending to the southward, presented so inviting a prospect that, had such been their object, they would not have hesitated, in their skin canoe, to have made for Cook’s Inlet." [Ibid. p. 234.] The remainder of this Arctic expedition was equally fruitful in results. But, unhappily, poor Simpson met his fate, not long after, whilst returning with the valuable results of his arduous labours. In the latter end of 1839 or early in 1840, several of a party of Red River half-breeds, with whom he had set out with a view of crossing the plains to St. Louis, Mo., returned to the Settlement and stated that Mr. Simpson had, in a fit of insanity, killed two of his men and then shot himself, and that they had buried him on the spot where he fell. The theory of suicide for some time prevailed, but those who knew the unhappy traveller best entirely rejected the idea. His former friends and companions did not hesitate to express their conviction "that he did not kill himself, and that this was only a false report of his murderers." [Hudson’s Bay, pp. 112, 113. Mr. Ballantyne adds: "Besides, it is not probable that a man who had just succeeded in making important additions to our geographical knowledge and who might reasonably expect honour and remuneration upon returning to his native land" (and he was on his way thither) would, without any known or apparent cause, first commit murder and then suicide. By his melancholy death the Hudson Bay Company lost a faithful servant, and the world an intelligent and enterprising man.] He appears to have been of a reserved and somewhat haughty disposition, and, on that account, was not liked by the half-breeds, at whose hands, in all human probability, he met his tragic end.

George Simpson was born in Ross-shire, in Scotland; but, while still a youth, he removed to London where he was engaged in commercial pursuits for nearly eleven years. The ability, shrewdness and energy of young Simpson had marked him out for a wide sphere of labour, and under a far-distant sky. In 1819, when the Companies were still battling furiously, Mr. Simpson was invited to cast in his lot with the Hudson Bay Company. Early in 1820, therefore, he sailed from England for Montreal, by way of New York, and in May he was on the road from the Canadian city to the North-West. During the winter of that year he was stationed at Lake Athabasca, where he endured many hardships and privations, although he managed to carry on the rivalry in the far-trade with conspicuous tact and energy. The Ross-shire lad of twelve years before had already made his mark, and assured for himself future fame and fortune; and, when peace was at last concluded by the amalgamation, Simpson’s talent had indicated him as the best man to preside over the vast operations of the united company. After serving a short time as Governor of the Northern department, he received his appointment, and became Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land, and genera1 superintendent of the Hudson Bay Company’s affairs in North America.

Mr. Simpson’s qualifications for the responsible post he so long occupied were two-fold. He was a man of consummate tact and address, and, at once, set about healing up old wounds, reconciling discordant interests, and removing old prejudices and jealousies from amongst the people of the Territory. Besides that he was the first Hudson Bay Governor who fulfilled, on behalf of the Company, that duty imposed, as a condition, by the charter—the task of exploration and geographical discovery. Governor Simpson, although as keenly alive to the material interests of his employers as the most unreasonable shareholder could expect, never lost sight of the higher claims of science upon his time, as well as energies. To his skilful direction and the eagerness with which he assisted Franklin, Richardson, Ross, Back and other explorers, the most valuable results were due. It was he who sent out Dease, Thomas Simpson, Rae, Anderson, and Stewart upon the path of research, and at every fort or factory, controlled by the Governor, any explorer was sure of shelter, supplies, information and advice. There is scarcely a book on Arctic trave1 which does not express gratitude for assistance from Hudson Bay factors, and almost every one of the names mentioned is Scottish. [As bearing upon the general character of the Scots, as well as upon Mr. Simpson’s active career, the following from Murray’s British America (ii. p. 238.), may find a place here: - "Four-fifths at least of the Company’s servants are Scotsmen, and chiefly from the north districts. They are reckoned the hardiest, the most active and enterprising, and the least liable to bad habits. . .The journeys performed by these officers, and the adventures they have met with, would exhibit scenes and incidents as striking as most of those fictitious ones which so much interest the public. Mr. Simpson, the present (1840) resident Governor, has performed, during his stay in that country, upwards of 100,000 miles of canoe navigation. The chief officers, including the Governor himself, often endure hardships which, to those accustomed to the comforts of civilized life, must appear almost incredible. They frequently spend months without seeing the inside of a home, going to sleep at night in the most sheltered spot they can find, wrapped in their cloaks, and a blanket which has served during the day as a saddle-cloth. Unless fortunate in the chase, they have no means of obtaining food, and are sometimes obliged to kill their dogs and horses to relieve hunger. Yet these hardy Scotsmen will find a livelihood in districts so desolate that even the natives sometimes perish for want. . .Yet, amid all these hardships, such is their zeal in the occupation that a complaint scarcely ever escapes their lips."]

During Sir George Simpson’s long tenure of office, not only were the interests of geographical discovery well looked after, but the profits of the Company steadily increased year after year. The amalgamation with the North-West concern had placed the entire country north of the boundary line in the hands of the Hudson Bay people, and the number of their posts, sensibly augmented in 1821, continued to increase. In 1840, according to Mr. Ballantyne, [Hudson Bay, p. 40.] there were about one hundred and ten forts or factories—thirty-four in the northern, or old Hudson Bay Department, twenty-eight in the southern, thirty-one in the so-called Montreal district and seventeen west of the Rocky Mountains, including a depot in the Sandwich Islands. [The Hudson Bay Company made no attempt to colonization in British Columbia until 1843, when Victoria was founded in Vancouver Island. In 1849, the island was granted to the Company "under the stipulation that they should colonize it." Alexander Rattray, M.D., F.R.S.E.,: Vancouver Island and British Columbia, London, 1802, p. 8.] All the published itineraries, whether of travellers or Hudson Bay employees, apply abundant evidence of the presence of the ubiquitous Scot all over this vast region. The early part of Sir George Simpson’s Overland Journey is so full of references to Scottish agents, that a brief sketch of it may be of service in this relation. [An Overland Journey round the world, during the years 1841 and 1842. By Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson Bay Territories (Amer. Edit.). The Governor, it may be remarked, takes credit for himself as the first traveller who ever accomplished an overland journey round the world. His route lay from London to Montreal, thence to Vancouver and Sitka, and thence by New Archangel, and the Aleutian Islands to Ochotsk; across Russian Asia, through Yakutsk, Irkutsk Tobolsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburgh, and so home by the Baltic. On the journey from Irkutsk to St. Petersburgh, forty-one days were spent, the nights being passed thus: thirty-six in the carriage, one at Tomsk on a sofa, two at Ekaterineburg on the floor, one at Kazan on a sofa, and only one—at Moscow—in a bed. [Ibid. p. 22.]

The Governor, on his arrival at Lachine, made preparations for his trans-continental journey. Along with him were to travel, as far as Red River, the Earls of Caledon and Mulgrave, who were bound upon a buffalo-hunting expedition. Sir George took the old French route up the Ottawa and the Matawa, by Lake Nipissing and French River to the Sault Ste. Marie. Here the first western post of the Hudson Bay Company, under the charge of Mr. J. D. Cameron, was reached. At Michipicoten, the Governor held a temporary council for the Southern Department, Mr. Cameron, Mr. George Keith and Mr. Cowie being the councilors. [A curious case of the Saulteaux Indians’ belief in a Special Providence is recorded here: At a moment of perplexity, when the provisions of a party were exhausted, and nothing could be got without risking life upon a sea, that was neither open water, nor trustworthy ice – the probable alternatives being starving or drowning – an old man thus spoke: "You know, my friends, that the Great Spirit gave one of our squaws a child yesterday. Now He cannot have sent it into the world to take it away again directly; and I would, therefore, recommend our carrying the child with us, and keeping close to it as an assurance of our safety." This counsel was adopted, but sad to say, the whole party to the number of twenty-eight perished (p. 33).] There was no Dawson route in those days, and when the party arrived at Fort William, preparations were made for canoe-work and portage. Pointe de Meuren, the first halting-place, was a memorial of the old time of feuds, since there had been a Hudson Bay fort established there to keep the North-Westers of Fort William in check. At Red River, Sir George established himself with the inevitable Scottish factor, a Mr. Finlayson, and sent his noble companions off to hunt the buffalo under the direction of no less a person than the half-breed, Cuthbert Grant—the hero of the battle of Frog Plains. A vivid picture is given in this interesting volume, not merely of the difficulties in the way of the traveller in getting to Red River, but its isolation from the civilized world. The accounts given by Sir George only serve to heighten our admiration of the daring courage and perseverance of Lord Selkirk and the tough fibre of the settlers, who suffered so much from their landing on the bleak shore at Churchill, until peace and plenty at length removed the protracted period of toil, privation and disaster in every shape. [The relative position of Red River Settlement is a far more interesting feature in the case, than its absolute place on the map. The nearest homes of civilization are the village of Sault Ste. Marie, which itself has a reasonable share of elbow-room. St. Peter’s at the Falls of the Mississippi, which is merely the single island in a vast ocean of wilderness, and lastly York Factory on Hudson Bay, where our annual ship-anchors after a voyage of nearly two months, even from the Ultima Thule of Stromness (p. 42). He adds that this solitary home is farther removed in point of time "from any kindred dwelling than Liverpool is from Montreal, and nearly as far as London is from Bombay."] The testimony which a Hudson Bay Governor could give to the motives of the founder of that settlement twenty years after the noble Earl had found repose in the grave ought to be quoted here. "To mould this secluded spot into the nucleus of a vast civilization was the arduous and honourable task which Lord Selkirk imposed on himself. That nobleman was born a century and a half behind his time. Had he lived in the days of the first three Stuarts, when Britain, as the destined mother of western nations, began to pour forth in her peaceful fleets a northern hive that loved not the sword less, but the ploughshare more, he would most probably have rendered the name of Douglas as illustrious for enterprising benevolence on some fair coast of the new world as it had already become for chivalrous valour in the annals of his own rugged land. His was a pure spirit of colonization. He courted not for himself the virgin secrets of some golden sierra; he needed no outlet for a starving tenantry; he sought no asylum for a persecuted faith: the object for which he longed was to make the wilderness glad and to see the desert blossom as the rose" (pp. 42, 48).

One of Sir George Simpson’s attaches, named McIntyre, an active and intelligent Highlander, picked up on board the ocean-steamer, who possessed moreover, "the peculiar recommendation of being able to communicate with me in one of the unknown tongues, the Gaelic of the north of Scotland," came within a little of ending his own journeyings and his life, by being pitched violently on his head from the back of a horse, endowed with too exuberant spirits. The guide was also a Scot, George Sinclair. After a weary journey, the party at length reached Norway House on Lake Winnipeg, having suffered severely from fatigue, want of wholesome provisions, and a number of distressing casualties. Taylor, Sir George’s faithful servant, with a companion had gone in pursuit of a red deer on the way, and had wandered astray. In a short time, their ammunition ran out, and they were without resource out on the boundless prairie. With feet torn by thorns and prickly grass they strayed on, greedily devouring roots, bark, bird’s eggs, or anything that seemed likely to assuage their hunger. After the lapse of fourteen days, they were strongly tempted to lie down and die. Fortunately at length, famished and lacerated, they reached, or rather crawled to the Company’s establishment on Swan River, where they were received kindly, and then forwarded to Norway House by Mr. McDonell, the factor. The Governor’s journey next lay along the Saskatchewan, the nearest station being Carlton House. Sir George here gives some particulars of an expedition under Messrs. Mackenzie and Rowand, in 1822, to ascertain whether the reports of gold on the Bow or South Saskatchewan River were well-founded. That expedition returned to report that the gold was all moonshine, and, of course, the Governor was not much wiser in 1841.

Sir George’s accounts of the Indian tribes and of the scenery and productions of the country show that he was a keen observer. After describing the appearance, nature and habits of the buffalo, he relates that in 1829, he saw as many as ten thousand putrid carcases of buffaloes, "lying mired in a single ford of the Saskatchewan, and contaminating the air for many miles around." Travel in those days was not without its rude alarms. It was not altogether agreeable to be awakened from sleep by the cry of "Indians are coming," and only consolatory to learn after the cocking of muskets that the visitants were only a lot of Crees, "who, as their tribe had no reputation that way, were allowed to remain with us all night" (p. 65). The extreme heat in July was no surprise, but hailstones like those Sir George encountered in 1837, near Lac la Pierre, and measured in presence of Messrs. Finlayson and Hargrave, of York Factory, were an unmerciful visitation. A hailstone five inches and a half round is something more than a surprise. "Throughout this country," states the Governor, "everything is in extremes—unparalleled cold and excessive heat, long droughts, balanced by drenching rain, and destructive hail" (p. 67). That, however, is not the experience of settlers or even passing tourists now-a-days, and although no one would doubt Sir George’s general impressions, it would certainly seem clear, either that the discomforts of locomotion in those days super-induced a resolution to record only the foul weather, because it was noteworthy, or else the climate has been modified considerably during the past thirty years.

Of course there was no Battleford in those days, with its enterprising newspaper editor or printer; so the next station was Edmonton, the last fort this side of the Rocky Mountains. Here the party were entertained not only by the factor, Mr. Rowand, but by the Rev. Mr. Rundle, who was unostentatiously doing his Master’s work in the wilds of the far North-West as a Wesleyan missionary. He appears also to have been an acute observer of nature, skilled in more than one of the natural sciences, and full of valuable information. Sir George Simpson continued to ascend the river until he reached the watershed at the height of some "seven or eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, while the surrounding peaks appeared to rise nearly half that altitude over-head." At Athabasca Portage the scenery was wild and grand; the road, "only a succession of glaciers, runs through a region of perpetual snow, where nothing that can be called a tree presents itself to enliven and cheer the eye." (p. 78). It is here in a gelid pool or lake, that both the Columbia and the Mackenzie—one bound for the Pacific, the other for the Arctic Sea—take their rise. [Here, says Sir George, "the relative positions of the opposite waters is such as to have hardly a parallel on the earth’s surface, for a small lake, appropriately enough known as the Committee’s Punch-bowl, sends its tribute from one end to the Columbia, and from the other to the Mackenzie."] Here for the first time in a twenty years’ wandering in America, the Governor thought that he had discovered the very heather of his native Scotland; but on afterwards comparing the specimens he preserved with the genuine article, he found that they were not identical. A purely indigenous sample of the western fauna, however, gave him much trouble; it was a troublesome and venomous species of winged insect, "which, in size and appearance, might have been taken for a cross between the bull-dog and the house-fly."

During his progress from Edmonton, Sir George Simpson struck a south-westerly course to the Kootonais or Kootanie River and Flat-bow-Lake, thus approaching close to the boundary line. From Mr. Macdonald, at Fort Colville, fresh guides were sent in advance to him. That post was reached by the Macdonald River, and a chain of lakes connected with the Kootanie. Here the change of temperature was at once remarked, the climate being many degrees milder than to the east of the mountains. Fort Colville, a rather pretentious work of defence for the locality, was found to be constructed of cedar, enclosed with pickets and bastions. About a mile away the Columbia, about three-quarters of a mile wide, flowed between flat and monotonous banks of sand, the scanty vegetation upon which had been withered by a protracted drought. At this time the Indians of the interior were in a state of dangerous excitement. During the previous winter Mr. Black, who was in charge of Thompson’s River, had some trifling dispute with a chief at the Kamloops post. When the latter returned to his lodge or camp, he took sick and died; and his tribe at once attributed his death to Mr. Black’s magic. The avenger of blood was at once put on the unfortunate factor’s track, and he was shot in the back and killed while quietly crossing his apartment. The savage escaped, but was at last hunted down and despatched, on the banks of the Fraser River, by his own people. The existing disquiet was caused by the relations of the chief, who now demanded vengeance for the two deaths in the tribe, caused, as they contended, by the whites. At the Wallawalla, a tributary of the Columbia, Mr. McKinlay had charge of the Company’s post, and there Sir George encountered an American missionary, named Munger, whose complaints concerning the country were loud and bitter. He also had a professional grievance to annoy him: the Indians were not tractable, and instead of embracing the Gospel eagerly, as he had been led to expect, he found them a bigoted, superstitious and jealous people (p. 99). Some distance below the party passed two conspicuous basaltic rocks, something like chimneys supported by a truncated pyramid; these "needles," or whatever they might be called, had been named after two adventurous Scots—Mackenzie’s and Ross’s Heads.

The Governor was now passing through a country in which he had been threatened with trouble, when exploring with Mr. McMillan and Dr. Todd in 1829. On this occasion, although there was some anxiety about the probable attitude of the tribe, no untoward event occurred. Sir George Simpson was on what was afterward declared to be American territory, and crossing the Straits he made his way to Vancouver, where he was hospitably received by the afterwards well-known Mr. Douglas, then temporarily in charge during the absence of his chief Mr. McLaughlin. The next stage was to Sitka in Russian America, whither he sailed in the Beaver from Fort Nisqually, the captain, McNeill being, like most white men in these parts, a North Briton. So far north as Dease’s Lake, sixty miles from Fort Stickeen and one hundred and fifty from the sea, there was then a Hudson Bay fur trading-post with Mr. Campbell as the Company’s factor, and further south, with a landlocked bay on the coast stood Fort Taco, superintended by Dr. Kennedy. With Sir George’s further progress we are not now concerned, and this sketch of his journey across the continent is simply introduced to give some conception of the rough country over which the Hudson Bay Company’s operations extended, its vast extent, and the overwhelming preponderance of Scots among the white men engaged either in trade or exploration.

Although Governor Simpson’s name will recur in the fo1lowing chapter, it may be well to round off his biography here. He was not only an indefatigable explorer, but a thorough man of business, and his services were naturally and properly given, along with his sympathies, to the company he so long served or controlled. In the disputes regarding the validity of its charter, and in all that concerned its interests, he was the staunch advocate of the trading monopoly in British North America. During his later years he resided chiefly at Lachine, although so long as he was able, he periodically visited the territory. In 1860, he diverted the Prince of Wales, with a picturesque canoe expedition which started from Isle Duval near Lachine, and his last public act was the reception of His Royal Highness as a guest at his home on the St. Lawrence. During that year he was seized with apoplexy and paralysis but had so far recovered as to prepare for a visit to Red River. This he was not fated to accomplish; for, while driving home from Montreal he was again stricken with apoplexy and expired on the 7th of September, 1860. [Morgan: Celebrated Canadians, p. 490-1.]

In a subsequent chapter, when the great west is viewed at a later stage in its history, reference will be made to travel in recent years, having for the object either pleasure or the survey of the country for railway or telegraphic purposes. Meanwhile, a glimpse has been given of the vigorous activity of the Scottish race in that vast, untamed wilderness during the latter part of the eighteenth, and the first half of the present century. To enumerate all the prominent Caledonians engaged over that broad expanse of British territory would be out of the question within the limits of this chapter. It is impossible to take up any of the books cited here, or others, such as a work by Mr. John McLean entitled "Twenty-five Years in the Hudson Bay Territory," quoted by some of our authorities, without being satisfied that the great West of British North America was taken possession of by the Scot at an early date, explored by his indomitable perseverance, and first drawn towards and within the pale of civilization by his wondrous energy and intelligence.


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