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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

Appendix C: Thomas Simpson

Thomas Simpson was born 2 July 1808, the son of Alexander and Mary Simpson.1 Although his father died in 1821, he was able to attend King's College in Aberdeen from which he graduated in 1828. After a short period when he worked in an accounting office he entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1829.

His new career was taken up at the urging of his cousin, George Simpson, then Governor of the Northern and Southern Departments of the Hudson's Bay Company. In entering the service of the Company, he was following the lead of his half-brother, Aemilius Simpson, who had been made superintendent of the Company's marine department on the west coast in 1826 and his younger brother Alexander who had joined the Company in 1828 and had been posted to Lachine. In April, 1829, he joined his brother in Canada after a voyage from Liverpool to New York.

At the end of April, Thomas Simpson travelled by brigade to meet George Simpson at Norway House. After the meeting of the Northern Council he returned with the Governor to Lachine where he worked the season of 1829-30 while George Simpson was in England in search of a bride. In the spring he took the annual brigade to the interior, but stopped at Lake Superior to await the arrival of George and Frances Simpson who followed by light canoe. He travelled with them to Bas-de-la-Rivière, and after they had visited the Red River Settlement, he continued with them to the meeting of the Northern Council at York Factory. In August, the Simpsons left for Red River but Thomas remained at York Factory. He followed in February and March in an arduous winter journey overland (February-March 1831).

For the next five years he was posted in the settlement or rather to the personal staff of George Simpson. He had been hired to serve as the Governor's secretary although his duties often involved work in the day-to-day activities of the business of the Company's establishment at Red River. "My occupations, in short," he wrote to his brother Alexander, "have been very various; secretary, clerk, storesman, &c."2 Each year he travelled to York Factory for the busy summer season and during the winter worked at the Red River. When the Governor was in the country, Thomas Simpson's main duties were connected with his position as secretary. Simpson had a very high opinion of his young cousin. In his confidential character book, where his remarks were usually caustic and grudging in praise, he gave Thomas Simpson a very favourable report:

No. 80 (Thomas Simpson) — A Scotchman 3 years in the Service, 24 Years of Age; was considered one of the most finished Scholars in Aberdeen College: is handy & active and will in due time if he goes on as he promises be one of the most complete men of business in the country; acts as my Secty or Confidential Clerk during the busy Season and in the capacities of Shopman, accomptant & Trader at Red River Settlement during the Winter—perfectly correct in regard to private conduct & character.3

But matching the active governor pace for pace was a very hectic affair; apparently Thomas Simpson stayed with the elder Simpson while he was in the settlement and worked the long hours necessary to copy out the voluminous correspondence. In the fall of 1832, he moved with the Simpsons to the lower fort but had little time to enjoy the new accommodations. "We are exceedingly well housed here in the new buildings;" he wrote to James Hargrave in December, but I have been so desperately busy for weeks back and have kept such late hours that I scarcely know at this moment what I am writing."4

In the spring, George and Frances Simpson set off for Montreal and England. Their stay in the Red River had been unfortunate and had sorely affected George Simpson's usual efficiency. This may have been the cause of Thomas Simpson's low estimate of his cousin's abilities. "I will not conceal from you, that on a nearer view of his character than I before had, I lost much of that internal respect I entertained towards him. His firmness and decision of mind are much impaired: both in great and small matters, he has become wavering, capricious, and changeable."5 His conclusion could have been based on a real decline in Simpson's faculties, for he did suffer intensely with the sickness of his wife and the death of his son, but also a sense of frustration. Thomas Simpson was thoroughly convinced that he deserved much more rapid advancement in the Company than came his way, and he was equally convinced that it was George Simpson who was holding back his rise in the Company.

When George Simpson took his wife to England in the season of 1833-34, Thomas Simpson had the opportunity to show his abilities. He remained in the Red River Settlement, probably at Lower Fort Garry, serving directly under Alexander Christie, the chief factor then in charge of the Company's business in the settlement. As usual he went to York Factory to help with the summer flurry of activity and by his own report, the work went "exceedingly well; far less bustle and as good and rapid work as if the Governor himself were on the ground."6 He prided himself in his ability to handle both the gentlemen and clerks, even better than Simpson himself. "I have this season taught them," he wrote to Alexander, "that I could command respect, and have been in consequence treated by every one, high and low, more en bourgeois than en commis."7 And in speculating about the replacement for Governor Simpson if he should not return to the country, Thomas revealed that his ambitions were aimed even higher. I wish I were five years older: in every other respect, without vanity, I feel myself perfectly competent to the situation; and, with one or two exceptions, hold the abilities of our wigs in utter contempt. This season I have been intimate with many of them — have, in the Governor's absence, had much to do with the general business, and see how easily these men can be led."8

In the fall, Simpson returned to the Red River where he wintered in the season 1833-34. The whole of the Company establishment seems to have been moved to the lower fort with the exception of a retail shop and the experimental farm which were located at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine. Christie, Simpson and the others of the Company's establishment were stationed at the lower fort.9 For Thomas Simpson the winter was a pleasant one. He got on well with Alexander Christie, much better in fact than he did with his cousin George Simpson, and with the absence of the Governor he was free from his demanding secretarial duties. In December he wrote to his friend James Hargrave at York:

We are exceedingly comfortable here this season; indeed our worth Bourgeois kind and estimable nature would make any place so. Mr. & Mrs. McMillan reside at the Forks, in Donald's old quarters—they are quite well—but I have not seen them for some time—Mr. McKinlay is much brushed up in the outward man, and proves a very useful and willing assistant in the business here.10

In March he wrote to his brother Alexander again pecking away at his cousin's administration by criticizing the Governor's decision to build the lower fort.

This place is a large stone establishment, that has cost us a good few thousands, and is yet unfinished: we are making preparations to build a large granary and provision store this summer, unless the work be stopped. The Bigwigs at home are rather cool on the subject, and I do not wonder at it.11

If the absence of George Simpson in England in 1833-34 had given Thomas Simpson an easy winter, he was soon given more than enough work to do when the Governor returned to the settlement in 1834-35. With Simpson's return, the centre of administration of the Company in Red River moved back to the forks. In the two years that the lower fort had been completed to the extent that it could accommodate the Company's establishment, it had proved unsatisfactory for it was too far removed from the centre of the settlement. The Company had retained a sales shop at the forks and Alexander Christine probably had to commute often from the lower fort in his role as Governor of Assiniboina. There is evidence too that the Company shifted its operations to the forks in the summers during the years before the upper fort was rebuilt. With Simpson's arrival in the settlement in the fall of 1834, he not only located his headquarters at the forks but made arrangements to construct a new substantial fort there so the move would be a permanent one. And with the Governor's return, Thomas was once again burdened with his secretarial duties. "I envy the York Gents. their saturday's holidays," he wrote to James Hargrave, "for our noses are kept so close to the grind stone that we cannot even call Sunday our own, in spite of which, thank God, I am in capital spirits, and inhabit Donald McKenzie's old office, if you remember that anti-diluvian region.12 Although they wintered at the forks it was apparently planned to move back to the lower fort in the spring. "We shall I believe resume our quarters at the New Fort in April."13 Presumably the winter 1835-36 was spent in much the same way although George Simpson did not winter in the Red River Settlement.

When George Simpson returned to the country in 1836, he carried with him the authority of the Governor and Committee in London for the equipping of an expedition to explore the unknown sections of the Arctic shoreline.14 The Hudson's Bay Company apparently hoped to use significant Arctic discoveries as a lever in their negotiations with the British government for the renewal of their exclusive trading privilege. At the meeting of the Northern Council at Norway House in July, 1836, the plan was discussed and the arrangements made. The Governor had apparently already approached his cousin and had asked him to draw up a proposal for the conduct of the exploration. Thomas Simpson's plan was the one finally adopted although, much to his dismay, he was not placed exclusively in charge of the expedition but was instead given co-directorship with Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, a more senior officer in the Company's service who had accompanied Franklin on his expedition in 1824.

The main objective of the expedition was to fill out the previous work of Franklin, of Beechey, and of Back which had begun the mapping of the North American shore of the Arctic Ocean. Large expanses of this shoreline remained unexplored; they possibly would hold the secret of the Northwest Passage. The party was therefore directed to two areas: the shoreline between the mouth of the Mackenzie River west to the Bering Strait for Franklin had not gone as far west as Point Barrow, Beechey's easternmost point; and the shoreline between the Coppermine River and the mouth of the Great Fish River which Back had explored in 1826. This was a Company operation and the resources of its farflung empire were placed behind the expedition.

Following the meeting of the Northern Council, Dease left immediately for Athabaska to make arrangements for the expedition. Thomas Simpson returned to the settlement to prepare for his role in the exploration.

Since my return from Norway House, my time has been chiefly devoted to astronomy, surveying, and chart drawing; my old mathematics were more readily polished up than I anticipated; and I have all those branches now at my fingers' ends. I have likewise, read a good deal, with the hope of getting rid of the stiff and ungraceful style of Rupert"s Land correspondence, which is still jarring in my ears, and marring the freedom of the pen that may ere long have to figure before the public.15

For Simpson, the expedition offered the opportunity to give expression to his ambitions, his pride, and his romantic nature. "I myself would have been ere now thoroughly disgusted with this service," he wrote to his brother, "had not a ray of light shone, all of a sudden, upon my path, in the shape of a mission to the Arctic regions, where, having shaken off the trammels of pounds, shillings and pence, I hope to achieve something worthy of the education and talents bestowed upon me."16

The next day, 1 December 1836, Thomas Simpson set off on foot from Red River in a winter journey to Fort Chipewyan. He reached the post, 1,377 (1,277) miles from Red River, in 62 days, a commentary on Simpson's tremendous capabilities for winter travel.17 The remainder of the winter was spent at Fort Chipewyan and on 1 June, the party set off to accomplish the first phase of their three-year expedition. In the course of the summer they travelled down the Mackenzie to its mouth and then westward along the Arctic coast line. On 23 July, they arrived at Return Reef, the westernmost point reached by Franklin in 1826, and on 1 August, Boat Extreme, where the ice conditions prevented further progress by small boat. Leaving Dease with the boats, Thomas Simpson continued the expedition with a small party of five men, travelling on foot. They reached Point Barrow, the object of the expedition, early in the morning of 4 August: "On reaching it, and seeing the ocean extending away to the southward on the opposite side of the Point, they hoisted their flag, and with three cheers took possession of their discoveries in his Majesty's name."18

Simpson made contact with the rest of the party on 6 August, and the expedition began its return that day. They reached Fort Norman on the Mackenzie River on 4 September, and immediately reported to the Governor and Committee, and to George Simpson. With the same express, Simpson sent a letter to his brother Alexander and it was evident that he felt that the success of the expedition was due to his efforts alone.

Fortune and its great Disposer have this season smiled upon my undertakings, and shed the first bright beams upon the dark prospect of a North American life. Yes, my dearest brother, congratulate me, for I, and I alone, have the well-earned honour of uniting the Arctic to the Great Western Ocean, and of unfurling the British flag on Point Barrow.19

From Fort Norman the exploration party travelled across Great Bear Lake to Fort Confidence, a wintering post which had been established to serve the expedition.

The winter on Great Bear Lake was a bitter one, the mean temperature for the six months of residence being 14.07 degrees below zero; in March a low of -60 degrees was recorded. The houses were not finished when the expedition arrived and the party sent ahead had not been able to stock sufficient provisions for the wintering. "We were threatened with starvation at the outset," wrote Simpson to his brother in January, "but by dint of dispersing all hands, we got over that, and now enjoy abundance. Our buildings are small as the climate and our means demanded."20

During the winter Simpson explored the area, searching for the best route to the Coppermine for the expedition of the following year. And later in April he took a party from Fort Confidence with provisions and equipment to a stream 15 miles from its junction with the Coppermine and left them with two men to be picked up when the expedition followed in June.

On 6 June, the main part of the expedition departed from Fort Confidence with the boats and passed over the Dease River and Dismal Lakes to the provision station on the Kendall River. The Coppermine was navigated at full flood and the ocean reached on 1 July. Here the heavy ice conditions which would eventually bring the exploration for that season to a premature close first became evident. After a wait of 17 days at the mouth of the Coppermine, the boats could finally move but only with difficulty. And on 20 August, further progress was made completely impossible by a solid field of ice. Dease again agreed to attend the boats while Thomas Simpson set off with a small party for further exploration on foot. On the first day they reached the easternmost point reached by Franklin in 1821, and continuing until 25 August, explored approximately 120 miles more of the coast line. On 25 August Simpson erected a "pillar of stones" and took possession of the territory in the name of the Honourable Company for the Queen of Great Britain.21 They then turned back, reaching Dease on 29 August The expedition quickly made its way up the Coppermine, left the boats at the Kendall River, and arrived back at Fort Confidence on 14 September.

The expedition had been an "incomplete success."22 Simpson placed the full blame for the failure to reach the Great Fish River squarely on Dease's shoulders. He had insisted that the expedition turn back on 20 August when Simpson had wanted to continue, maintaining that September would be the best month for navigation. Upon returning to Fort Confidence, he had a great deal of difficulty convincing Dease and the remainder of the party that they should continue the exploration in the following year.

The winter at Fort Confidence was less severe than that of 1836-37, although a great deal of aid was extended to neighbouring Indians to save them from starvation. Unlike the previous winter there were already signs of thaw in May. At the end of June they were at the mouth of the Coppermine, and after Thomas Simpson had explored Richardson's River, the sea ice opened, and they continued east along the coast line. At the end of July, they came to the farthest point reached by Simpson in the previous year. On 16 August they reached Montreal Island, and on its northern side found a cache left by Sir George Back's party five years before. They had achieved the result expected from their expedition; the linking of Franklin's exploration east from the mouth of the Coppermine to Back's journey west from the mouth of the Great Fish River. Before turning back they conducted exploration east of the mouth of the Great Fish as far as Cape Britannica where they erected "a conical pile of ponderous stones, fourteen feet high" and took possession "of our extensive discoveries in the name of Victoria I, amidst the firing of guns and the enthusiastic cheers of the whole party."23 They then ran east along the coast for another 40 miles, the easternmost point of their expedition. From there they returned to Cape Britannica and to Point Ogle on the west side of the mouth of the Great Fish. Making a small diversion to cross the strait to the southern shore of Victoria Island, they continued homeward. On 15 September they entered the mouth of the Coppermine, and arrived at Fort Confidence on 24 September. After winding up affairs there, the party passed through Great Bear Lake to the Mackenzie and up the river to Fort Simpson where they arrived 14 October. The expedition remained there until 2 December when Simpson set out overland for Red River, arriving there 2 February 1840. The whole journey of some 1,900 miles was accomplished in 61 days.24

Simpson was eager to continue with the exploration for another season, but alone. While at Fort Simpson he wrote to both George Simpson and the Governor and Committee urging that another expedition be sent under his direction in 1840 and 1841 to explore the Gulf of Boothia and thus complete the exploration of the northwest Arctic. Both Simpson and Dease had been awarded leaves of absence for their previous three years of exertion. Dease was prepared to take his but Simpson, anxious to get started again, preferred to turn his down. Very impatiently, he awaited permission from London to continue exploration. While in Red River, he wrote to Alexander, outlining his achievements of the previous year and at the same time telling of the uncertainty of his future plans.

My own situation at present is a very singular one — uncertain till the canoes arrive whether I shall turn my face again to the North Pole, or towards Merry England.... I have... been awaiting my future destiny with impatience, and the moment it is decided shall write you again; till then adieu!.25

The canoes arrived with no news from the Governor and Committee. Unknown to Simpson, the Committee had decided in his favour and had approved another expedition; but the letter dated 3 June had been sent out on the York ships. Impatient, Simpson decided to travel to England to argue his own case. On 6 June he set out southward with halfbreed companions John Bird, Antoine Legros Sr. and Antoine Legros Jr., to travel through the United States to England. He was never heard from again.

Simpson and two of his halfbreed companions were shot. Simpson apparently killed the two halfbreeds in the evening, and the third (Legros, the son), escaped to tell of the slaying to a large party of halfbreeds with which they had been travelling. In the morning a group returned with Legros to Simpson's camp. In their subsequent testimony they claimed that Simpson was alive when they arrived and that he first shot at them and then shot himself. Alexander Simpson would never accept their testimony and claimed that Simpson had in fact been murdered by his travelling companions.

A true explanation of the events would lie somewhere in between. Simpson had just returned from three years in the Arctic — three years of arduous travel in desolate country. He craved the prestige and reknown which would arise from his explorations and yet was constantly fearful that credit would be denied. He was probably subject to temporary bouts of insanity. His travel habits were strenuous and he may have pushed his halfbreed companions too hard. The halfbreeds, as a group, were not liked by Simpson and Simpson was not well liked by them. Probably a small incident sparked a fight which ended with the two halfbreeds dead and Simpson wounded. The party which arrived on the following day perhaps finished him off.26

The recognition which Thomas Simpson craved was finally extended but he never knew of it. Dease and Simpson both received a civil list pension of £100 from the British government. Thomas Simpson was awarded the Founder's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society for the "promotion of geographical science and discovery." It was awarded at the anniversary meeting of the society.27

May 1839, and accepted by the Deputy Governor of the Company in the absence of Simpson:

advancing almost to its completion, the solution of the great problem of the configuration of the northern line of the North American continent.... Mr. Simpson and Mr. Dease, whatever may be the result of their further labours, have already earned for themselves a high place amongst those who have added to the fame and glory of British enterprise.... The result of these two expeditions is, that the northern shores of America, — all the acquisition of British hardihood, perseverance and judgment — can now be accurately laid down on our maps, from Behring's Straits to the 106th degree of longitude, forming a continuous line of coast of upwards of sixty degrees; and a fair prospect is opened, that another season may go far to complete our knowledge of the whole.27

But the Company was the main beneficiary of the Arctic discovery. Governor John Henry Pelly was created a baronet and George Simpson knighted. The Company also had its exclusive trading privilege renewed. Thomas Simpson's journal was published in 1843 and Alexander Simpson, concerned about the cloud covering his brother's death and the relative obscurity of his life, published a biography in 1845. Still it is probable that full recognition has not been accorded to the work of Simpson. He did not discover the Northwest Passage as he believed at his death but he did further considerably the exploration of the Arctic shore of the North American continent.

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