Sir George Simpson by Stephen Pearce, 1857 - Oil on canvas, laid on board

Sir George Simpson by Stephen Pearce, 1857
Oil on canvas, laid on board

George Simpson was born c. 1787 in Lochbroom, Scotland. While still a schoolboy Simpson displayed a talent for mathematics. In 1812, his uncle Geddes Mackenzie Simpson took him on as an apprentice at his sugar trading company Graham & Simpson. George was a quick study and had a sharp, ordered mind. His abilities significantly impressed his superiors at the office, especially one of the partners, Andrew Wedderburn, who had joined the firm when Graham and Simpson merged with Wedderburn and Company in 1812. This connection with Wedderburn would change George Simpson's life forever.

It was Wedderburn, who changed his name to Colvile in 1814, who would introduce Simpson to the Hudson's Bay Company. Wedderburn's sister Jean had married Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, in 1807. Selkirk soon became HBC's majority shareholder and brought his brother-in-law into the Company, first as a shareholder in 1808 and later a member of the governing Committee in 1809. In 1820, when Simpson was still in his early thirties, Andrew (Wedderburn) Colvile recommended him for the position of acting Governor-in-Chief, of Rupert's Land. The Company accepted. Colvile would remain a friend and mentor of Simpson's for the rest of his life, during which he would serve HBC as both Deputy Governor (1839 - 1852) and Governor (1852 - 1856). Simpson's career prospered for having such an influential connection on the Board.

In 1820 Simpson was sent to the Athabaska, the very frontier of the North American fur trade and one of the key areas of contention in the increasingly violent fur trade war between Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. In fact Simpson's position - acting Governor of Rupert's Land - had been necessitated by recent events. London was concerned that the current Governor, William Williams, was in imminent danger.

Simpson's bland manner concealed an iron will and his conduct in Athabaska proved his considerable mettle. He devoted his energies to promoting economy and discipline, both of which had been noticeably absent at the height of the hostilities. His performance earned him the admiration of his employers. He showed a remarkable ability to master the problems of the trade as well to manage men. The following year, when HBC merged with the North West Company, it was only natural that Simpson would have a significant role. A most promising career was underway.

Fort St. James, B.C. - Governor George Simpson welcomed by James Douglas, 7 September 1828 by Adam Sherriff Scott, ca. 1931

Fort St. James, B.C. - Governor George Simpson welcomed by James Douglas, 7 September 1828 by Adam Sherriff Scott, ca. 1931

By the terms of the merger the administration of the Company was split into two regions, the Northern and Southern Departments, each with its own Governor. Most of the profitable fur areas were in the former area, which covered the region westward from Rainy Lake and Fort Albany to the Pacific coast. London designated William Williams as the senior governor with responsibility for the Northern Department. But Williams instead chose the governorship of the Southern Department, leaving to Simpson the more promising appointment.

At the time of the merger the amalgamated Company had 173 posts: 76 coming from from HBC and 97 from the North West Company. Many were inefficient and unprofitable; others existed in direct competition with one another. The need for rationalization was clear and Simpson's first task was to reorganize fur trade operations from top to bottom. Simpson called his new regimen "economy". In a short time, order and efficiency replaced chaos in the Company's affairs and profits began to soar. Managing personnel proved a particular challenge since many of the senior officers had been bitter rivals prior to 1821.

Luxuries were removed from the officers' requisitions, business-like accounts were required, and superfluous older officers were retired. Where two trading posts competed, one was closed. Posts began to occupy permanent positions in the transportation system, rather than being constantly re-located.

Simpson displayed great skill in reconciling strong personalities to the new reality. Promotion depended upon merit and Simpson devoted a great deal of attention to the individual abilities of his fur traders, which he methodically catalogued in his famous "Character Book", a blunt journal of his impressions. Officers soon came to understand that insubordination had a serious negative impact on their career prospects.

Miniature portrait of Frances Simpson, unknown, n.d.

Miniature portrait of Frances Simpson, unknown, n.d.
HBCA Album 10/82

In 1824 the London Committee decided to compete more aggressively with the Americans in the Columbia District, as the region west of the Rockies was known. Simpson was instructed to visit the area institute measures for economy and efficiency. Known as the "Little Emperor", as much for his diminutive size as for his Napoleonic demeanour, Simpson was a prodigious traveller, constantly on the move by canoe and horseback back and forth across the continent.

Leaving York Factory by canoe on August 15th, 1824, he traversed the Athabaska Pass en route to the Columbia District. At the top of the pass Simpson was amazed to find the headwaters of two small streams that each fed a major river - one flowing to join the Athabaska, the other the Columbia. He named the peak-encircled basin "The Committee's Punchbowl" in honour of HBC's London Committee. The spot became a routine stopping place for travellers. Simpson arrived at Fort George (Astoria, Oregon) on November 8th, thereby completing his journey in only 84 days, 20 fewer than the previous record. The following year, he would pioneer the Carlton Trail which ran almost 900 miles overland from Upper Fort Garry to Edmonton House.

While on the coast over the winter of 1824-25 Simpson developed an offensive campaign against the Russians, trading up the coast to the north, as well as the Americans whose ship-based coastal trading and inland activities in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the Snake River basin, challenged HBC's importance. These strategic plans eventually allowed HBC to dominate the fur trade from the Columbia to Alaska.

In 1826, Simpson was appointed to the dual Governorship of both Northern and Southern Departments of Rupert's Land, and established his headquarters in Lachine. Two years later, in 1828, he made another legendary canoe trip from York Factory to Fort Vancouver (now in Washington state). A major reason for the trip was to determine if the Fraser River route to the Pacific could be developed as an all-British alternative to the Columbia. This journey covered over 7,000 miles and followed a northerly route via Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaksa and the Peace River, over the Rockies to the headwaters of the Fraser. From there the party split into two, Simpson travelling overland to Kamloops, and the remainder continuing down the Fraser to the Forks of the Thompson, where they rendezvoused. The reunited party then continued downriver in two canoes to the Strait of Georgia whence they travelled the coast to Puget Sound and finally overland to Fort Vancouver. They arrived on October 25th - having left York Factory July 12th, thereby completing a journey considered to be the longest ever attempted in North America in a single season.

The Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land, meeting at Norway House, June 21, 1836 by Charles Comfort, ca. 1934

The Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land, meeting at Norway House, June 21, 1836 by Charles Comfort, ca. 1934

Simpson remained on the Pacific coast until the spring of 1829. His return trip took him to Norway House and Moose Factory to meet with his Departmental Councils and then to Lachine, where he arrived by the end of August. In June from Red River he had written to Andrew Colvile, his mentor on the HBC Board, expressing his desire to go to England, allegedly to seek medical advice. But there was another, more pressing reason: his desire for a suitable - i.e. European - wife. A longtime practitioner of relationships with native women à la façon du pays - "according to the custom of the country" - the middle-aged Simpson was ready to settle down. This he accomplished with his usual speed. Arriving in London in October in 1830 he married his cousin Frances Simpson, 18-year-old daughter of his uncle Geddes Mackenzie Simpson, who had given him his first job.

True to form Simpson embarked on a "working" honeymoon, dragging his new bride halfway across the continent by canoe. They landed up in Red River, where he promptly ordered the building of a brand new stone fort - Lower Fort Garry - with the intention that it would become their official residence. But Frances found life in the wilderness too much and by 1833 she had returned to England where should would remain for the next 5 years.

Under Simpson's strong leadership HBC enjoyed stability and profitability. Despite the yearly Departmental Councils, where senior officers gathered allegedly to discuss business strategy, in reality Simpson ran the show with the authority of a viceroy. His strong connections to the London Committee, as well as its complete confidence in him, allowed the Council of the Northern Department to become the dominant governing body within HBC in Canada. It established the regulations for the fur trade, determined furloughs, applied discipline and recommended promotions and retirements to the Committee in London. But the meetings were little more than an opportunity for Simpson to give instructions to his men face to face. As one disgruntled Chief Factor complained:

In no colony subject to the British Crown is there to be found an authority so despotic as is at this day exercised in the mercantile Colony of Rupert's Land; and authority combining the despotism of military rule with the strict surveillance and mean parsimony of the avaricious trade. From Labrador to Nootka Sound the unchecked, uncontrolled will of a single individual gives law to the land ... Clothed with a power so unlimited, it is not to be wondered at that a man who rose from a humble situation should in the end forget what he was and play the tyrant.

Simpson's view of HBC's business was much broader than that of many others, who viewed any commercial activity other then the fur trade as somehow suspect. Simpson had no such qualms. He was interested in pursuing any and all opportunities that would result in increased profits. Simpson's vision of a ship-based trade along the northwest coast, designed to drive away American traders, resulted in the commissioning of the S.S. Beaver the first steamship in the Pacific Northwest. He and others of the Company's London Committee and senior officers set up the subsidiary Puget Sound Agricultural Company to focus on the local production of foodstuffs which would supply HBC's needs and reduce operating costs.

Sir George Simpson, ca. 1856-1860, Notman copy (1872) of a daguerreotype HBCA 1987/363-S-25/7

Sir George Simpson, ca. 1856-1860, Notman copy (1872) of a daguerreotype HBCA 1987/363-S-25/7

In 1838 Simpson travelled to St. Petersburg along with HBC Governor Sir John Henry Pelly to negotiate a deal with the Russian American Company. The contract, signed in 1839 by Simpson and Baron von Wrangel, saw the Russians lease the Alaskan panhandle to HBC in return for the provision of fresh foodstuffs to the Russians' headquarters at Sitka. Such was the value of this arrangement to both parties that in 1854-55 during the Crimean War, its terms were respected and, at the suggestion of Simpson, both the British and Russian governments agreed to exclude the northwest coast from the theatre of war. During the years following the California Gold Rush, HBC leased rights to glaciers in the Northwest to Americans who harvested ice, shipping it to the boomtown of San Francisco for use as a preservative. Simpson sold salmon, lumber and cranberries - traditional products of the Pacific coast - to anyone who would buy, finding markets as far away as Honolulu and Tokyo.

In 1841, Simpson was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his (i.e. HBC's) support for Arctic exploration, particularly the expeditions of Peter Warren Dease and Simpson's own cousin Thomas, who from 1837 - 1839 charted much of the north central and western Arctic coastline. Soon afterward Sir George took an overland trip around the world travelling across British North America, Asiatic Russia and Europe. Leaving London March 3rd, 1841 he was accompanied because of failing eyesight by a young secretary, Edward Martin Hopkins, husband of the well-known watercolour artist Frances Anne Hopkins. He made his way across North America, by way of Halifax, Boston, Montreal, and the canoe route up the Ottawa, arriving at Fort Vancouver at the end of August. On September 1st he left aboard the S.S. Beaver for a tour of the posts along the northwest coast. After short visits to California and Hawaii Simpson left Honolulu in February 1842 on the last leg of his journey, which took him across Siberia back to Europe and London, where he arrived on October 21st. The entire trip had taken only 19 months and 19 days.

The Governor of Red River, Hudson's Bay Voyaging in a Light Canoe [sic] - Peter Rindisbacher/Library and Archives Canada/C-041512

The Governor of Red River, Hudson's Bay Voyaging in a Light Canoe [sic]
Peter Rindisbacher/Library and Archives Canada/C-041512

Despite his prodigious energy and talent not even Sir George Simpson could keep the Oregon country for HBC and the British. The joint British-American occupation of the region - roughly analogous to the modern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming - had begun in 1818 and was renewed in 1827. While HBC's policies were successful in keeping rival fur traders out, the continuous arrival of Americans overland into the territory meant that most, if not all, of the region would eventually be awarded to the Americans. HBC alone carried the British claim to the area and for a long while expected to retain the lands north of the Columbia - roughly the 46th parallel. But when the new international boundary was finally established in 1846, it lay along the 49th parallel, thereby ceding the Company's profitable Columbia Department to American jurisdiction.

The last decade of Simpson's life saw the introduction of major changes that heralded a new era. Settlement and the fur trade had never been a happy partnership. By the 1840s Red River - the colony established by Lord Selkirk in 1811 - had become the seat of a free-trade movement that threatened the Company's fur monopoly. In 1849 convicted free trader Pierre-Guillaume Sayer was released without punishment in response to pressure from the Red River Métis. This act effectively brought the Company's theoretic monopoly to an end.

It became increasingly obvious that HBC's control over Rupert's Land would not remain unchallenged. Some Canadians, among them George Brown, editor of the Toronto Globe, argued that Rupert's Land should be part of Canada. The British House of Commons appointed a select committee in 1857 to investigate all facets of the Company's activity and called Simpson as a witness. His remarks on the unsuitability of Rupert's Land for settlement were unconvincing and in its final report the committee recommended that the Red River and Saskatchewan districts, be annexed to the Province of Canada and opened for settlement. But since Canada lacked the resources to purchase these territories or to open railway communications with them, the status quo would pertain for another decade.

In 1858 Simpson journeyed to St. Paul, Minnesota to investigate the possibility of shipping HBC's trade goods west by rail rather than along the traditional route through Hudson's Bay. On the basis of his recommendations the London Committee decided to send a trial consignment from Montreal by Canadian and American railways to St Paul and thence by steamboat to Red River. The experiment was a success and after Simpson's death this became the principal route used by the Company.

During the summer of 1860 the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) visited Canada. Simpson entertained the royal party at a lavish event at his estate on Île Dorval, near Lachine that included a water-borne cavalcade of Iroquois paddlers in full paint, feathers, and scarlet costumes. Three days later, on September 1st, he suffered an attack of apoplexy and on the morning of 7 September he quietly lapsed into a coma and died. Alexander Grant Dallas, whom Simpson had recommended some months earlier, was named as his successor.

Simpson was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, beside his wife Frances, who had died in 1853. He was a wealthy man and left an estate, including stocks, bonds, and real estate of well over £100,000 sterling. Over the course of his 40 years at its helm Simpson had participated in the forefront of events that saw the Company reach its greatest extent. He had completely reorganized the fur trade and put it on a sound financial and administrative basis. He had almost single-handedly expanded the Company's interests beyond fur, ushering in an era of diversification that would last until the late 1980s. Without a doubt "The Birchbark Emperor" had left his indelible stamp on HBC.