by Marie Fraser, Genealogy/Newsletter Editor, Clan Fraser Society of Canada
This article was inspired by a CFSC member who suggested that we profile a person associated with one of the Fraser septs, who had made a significant contribution to the early development of Canada. Sir George Simpson was the Hudson’s Bay Company governor of Rupert’s Land, and his cousin Thomas Simpson was a HBCo fur trader and the explorer credited with discovering the North West Passage.
Sir George Simpson [c.1787-1860]
George Simpson was born out of wedlock to an unknown mother and George, the son of a Calvinist minister, Thomas Simpson [1718-86] by his second wife, Isobel Mackenzie [a granddaughter of Duncan Forbes of Culloden]. George Jr was raised by his father’s sister Mary [second wife of schoolmaster Alexander Simpson] at Dingwall in Ross-shire. The precise date of his birth is a mystery, ranging from 1786 to 1796. His biographer, John S. Galbraith, concluded 1787 as the most likely.
Although her nephew’s education did not go beyond the local parish school, Mary’s youngest brother, Geddes Mackenzie Simpson, recognized his business skills and hired young George as a clerk in the counting house of his sugar brokerage, Graham & Simpson, in London. By 1812 the name of Wedderburn was added, with the amalgamation of the family sugar business in Jamaica controlled by Andrew Wedderburn, whose sister Jean had in 1807 married Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk [1771-1820]. Wedderburn had become a dominant shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1814 he changed his name to Colvile and in 1820 he nominated Simpson to replace William Williams as Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land.
Simpson’s task was to ensure that the English Hudson’s Bay Company and the colonial North West Company strictly adhere to the 1817 proclamation that all parties in the fur trade refrain from hostilities and restore captured goods and forts. However, the rivalry escalated as soon as Simpson reached the tiny Fort Wedderburn near the imposing Nor’westers’ quarters at Fort Chipewyan.
Marjorie Wilkins Campbell wrote several books about the independent fur traders from Montreal, who banded together in 1779 to form a commercial empire that spanned the continent, before it merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Simpson triumphed over the Nor’westers by employing a battlefield dictum followed by his idol, Napoleon: One must never interfere with the enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.
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Simpson held a tight grip over the HBCo Northern Department from 1821 onwards but he did not succeed Governor Williams of the Southern Department to head both districts until the latter retired in 1825 and it was not until 1839 that he became Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land. In 1841 he was knighted by Queen Victoria.
Simpson’s ruthless treatment of Native women has been well documented. On 21st May 1821 he wrote to London from Fort Wedderburn: « Connubial alliances are the best security we can have of the goodwill of the Natives. I have therefore recommended the Gentlemen to form connections with the principal Families immediately upon their arrival, which is no difficult matter as the offer of their Wives & daughters is the first token of their Friendship & hospitality. »
Even before joining the HBCo, Simpson had already acknowledged two daughters born out of wedlock in Britain. [Isabella married James Cook Gordon, a Scottish solicitor, and Maria married Donald McTavish in Inverness.] Between his arrival in 1820 and his marriage in 1830, he had at least five other children by four women. Betsey Sinclair bore him a child but he soon tired of her. Margaret Taylor gave him two sons. He also had at least two other simultaneous affairs [and a child each] with Mary Keith, and with his Montreal mistress, Ann Foster. His sex-object attitude to women was largely responsible for the breakdown of marriage à la façon du pays.
On his second trip to England to find a suitable bride, Simpson sent his country wife Margaret Taylor [then with child] to Bas-de-la-Rivière, presided over by chief factor John Stuart, whose own country wife was Margaret’s sister. On this voyage he was accompanied by his friend, John George MacTavish [younger son of Lachlan MacTavish of Dunardry], who had been brought to Canada by his kinsman, Simon McTavish, as a clerk for the North West Company, and rose to be the chief factor at Fort York. Now employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, John George MacTavish left Simpson in England while he continued north to Scotland, where he married Catherine Turner in Edinburgh, deserting his country wife of 17 years and his seven children by her.
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On 24th February 1830 at St. Mary’s Church, Middlesex, Simpson married his beautiful 18 year-old cousin Frances [1812-1853], daughter of Geddes Mackenzie Simpson. She was 26 years his junior. He brought her to the Red River settlement and their first child, George Geddes, was born in 1831 but died the following spring. His wife’s deteriorating health and frailty convinced him to take her back to England in 1833, although they continued to see each other occasionally over the next 12 years, while she raised their three young daughters, Frances Webster (Fanny) born in 1833, Augusta d’Este (Gussy) born in 1841 and Margaret Mackenzie (Maggie) born in 1843. His wife returned to live with him at Lachine in 1845 and gave him a second son, John Henry Pelly, born in 1850, but her health soon failed, and she died three years later.
Although Sir George Simpson could be an affable, easygoing person and a diplomat when required, he was also known to be ruthless and determined, even cruel, and could ruin the career of anyone who did not agree with him. For forty years, he ruled over western Canada, earning a reputation as the Little Emperor. Touring his vast empire by canoe, the governor was often accompanied by his personal piper and bugler, arriving at the various posts with the fanfare of a European prince.
Piper Colin Fraser [1805-1865]
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Colin Fraser [1805-1865] from Kirkton, Sutherlandshire, was recruited in the Orkney Islands by Simpson’s father. He arrived at York Factory in 1827 and beat out two other candidates to win the £30 a year job as Simpson’s personal piper. According to some old papers of the Laird MacGillis of Williamstown and John MacDonald of Garth, who were together in the Red River area, Fraser married Nancy Beaudry, by whom he had a large family, from Bethsey born at Fort Carlton in 1833, to Caroline born at Slave Lake in 1859.
One anonymous and possibly apocryphal story refers to a Cree who heard Colin Fraser play at Norway House and reported to his chief: « One white man was dressed like a woman, in a skirt of funny colour. He had whiskers growing from his belt and fancy leggings. He carried a black swan which had many legs with ribbons tied to them. The swan’s body he put under his arm upside down, then he put its head in his mouth and bit it. At the same time he pinched its neck with his fingers and squeezed the body under his arm until it made a terrible noise. »
Thanks to Mrs Ann Fraser, née Simpson, proprietor of the Lovat Arms Hotel in Beauly, Inverness-shire for sending us the following article from the Press and Journal :
North explorer honoured at last
For 150 years the achievements of Thomas Simpson, the explorer son of a Dingwall schoolteacher, were deliberately ignored – but no more.
Simpson was accused of committing a double murder and, in the eyes of the Church, the equally unpardonable act of taking his own life. But the circumstances under which his short life ended have always been open to question.
One version is that he killed in self-defense and in turn was killed in the shoot-out. The official version of what happened indicated Thomas had also committed suicide. That was more than enough to damn him in the eyes of the stern, unforgiving churchmen of the day and, as a result, Thomas was cheated of the honour due him as the Arctic pioneer who charted the North West Passage.
He was a Hudson’s Bay Company agent and the first in recorded history to have reached Barrow Point in the wastes of northern Canada, almost completing the full exploration of the then elusive sea passage between the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Instead of letting him return to complete the charting, his cousin George, who was Hudson’s Bay governor, ordered him to take six months’ leave, so that he could orchestrate the credit for the discovery to his own advance.
Thomas set out for New York and sea passage home, carrying all his notes and maps with him. But nine days later, he died in a shoot-out with supposedly friendly half-breeds just south of the Canadian border. The local justice who carried out the investigation into his death took the view he had murdered two of his four half-breed companions and then, as the two others fled, turned the gun on himself.
It was a verdict later dismissed by his brother, Alexander, who was prepared to accept the evidence that Thomas had indeed killed the two half-breeds because they were planning to steal his notes and maps which they could easily have sold to the company’s American rivals. Alexander was convinced the two other half-breeds who survived had killed Thomas, inventing the suicide story to cover themselves. That his brother’s maps and notes were never recovered appeared to bear out Alexander’s version.
Thomas’ premature death meant he never knew his cousin’s decision to send him on leave had been over-ruled by the company’s directors in London and he was free to continue with his exploring. Nor did he learn he had been awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal for his previous work. So not only was he cheated in life; he was also cheated in death, finally denied an honourable epitaph, being disgraced in the eyes of the church. Thomas was buried in an unmarked grave in Canada.
Back in his home town in Dingwall, the parish church refused even to remember him, rejecting an inscribed memorial tablet prepared for insetting into one of the church walls. For years the unwanted marble slab had lain ignored in Dingwall’s town house. Now, it is being given a place of prominence in his home town museum which opens for the season in the middle of next month.
Dingwall Museum Trust chairman Dr Tony Woodham said: « We are very pleased to have this memorial plaque, because Thomas Simpson’s achievements deserve more recognition than they have been given in the past. He made a very significant contribution to Arctic exploration when it was a highly dangerous pursuit and we will try to see they are more widely recognised here in his home town’s museum. » The memorial plaque credits Simpson with the high distinction of being the discoverer of the long-sought North West Passage. The museum trust is also marketing a booklet on the unsolved mystery of Simpson’s death.
Thomas Simpson [1808-1840]
Thomas Simpson was the older son of schoolmaster Alexander Simpson [1751-1821] by his second wife Mary [daughter of Rev. Thomas Simpson and Isobel Mackenzie]. Thomas was a sickly youth tending to consumption but, unlike his cousin George, he graduated with honours from King’s College, Aberdeen, at age 20, and by 1836 was as tough as any of the Canadian voyageurs. Unfortunately, he suffered from an intellectual pride that came close to snobbery, and considered himself superior to the officers of the fur trade, including his cousin George.
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The ambitious young man who had been brought to Canada in 1829 as his cousin’s personal secretary, became a seasoned northern traveler, but described the Little Emperor as a severe and most repulsive master. Thomas was hot-headed and intolerant and felt his cousin was leaning over backward in his treatment of him to avoid charges of nepotism.
A lesser man would never have reached Point Barrow in the summer of 1837. Although chief factor Peter Warren Dease had been in charge of the expedition, chief trader Thomas Simpson wrote to his brother Alexander: « I and I alone, have the well-earned honour of uniting the Arctic to the great Western Ocean…. » By the fall of 1839 Dease had bowed out and the attainment of his ambitions was within reach. « Fame I will have, » he told George Simpson, « but it must be alone… To the extravagant and profligate habits of the half-breed families, » he added, « I have an insuperable aversion. »
The impetuous young explorer fidgeted all through the long winter, waiting for some praise or gratitude. When none came and he could stand it no longer, he decided to go to England to press his case. On 14th June 1840, while riding through Dakota Sioux territory with four heavily armed mixed-bloods, tragedy struck. The two survivors swore that Simpson had been taken sick, accused two of the party of plotting to kill him, and shot them dead.
The witnesses fled, returning later with a larger party to find Simpson himself dead of gunshot wounds, his rifle beside him. The authorities brought in a verdict of suicide. Was it murder or suicide? No one will ever know. The irony is that his considerable triumphs had not been ignored, as he believed. In England, the gold medal of the Geographical Society, as well as a pension of £100 a year, awaited him. He did not live to receive either, but went to his grave, a victim of his own paranoia.
His brother, Alexander Simpson, wrote The Life and Times of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic Explorer [London, 1845]. Tod Lewis, whose great-grandmother came to Canada after the death of her father, Alexander, has the author’s copy of the book.
The Introduction to the Canadian Heritage Series Library Edition  offers an interesting perspective of Alexander Simpson’s biography of his brother Thomas, whose contribution to Arctic exploration has only recently been recognized in his home town of Dingwall.
« What requires some explanation is the part which the Hudson’s Bay Company played in the quest for the North-West Passage, and particularly in the Dease-Simpson expedition, for on this aspect the author, blinded by hero-worship for his dead brother and by his own resentments, gives an utterly distorted, grossly unfair picture. »
There is a delightful passage in the book where Alexander Simpson notes that their grandmother was a descendant of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the celebrated Lord President of the Court of Session who « in his days of youthful prime » made an illicit connexion [sic]. « The daughter of this illicit connexion [Elizabeth], at age 18, married the widowed laird of Gruinard, a scion of the noble house of Seaforth, and the father of twenty children by his first wife; but he was still a hale, handsome, gay and gallant Highlander, and Miss Forbes overlooked or forgot the disparity in years, and was the happy mother of twelve children, and a kind and dutiful stepmother to her husband’s first numerous family. » According to the Scatwell Genealogical Tables of The Clan Mackenzie , George Mackenzie, 2nd of Gruinard, had an extraordinary total of thirty-three children, 23 by his first wife and 10 by his second wife. In The History of The Mackenzies , Alexander Mackenzie notes that George was the eldest of sixteen children of John Mackenzie, 1st of Gruinard, who was a natural son of George, 2nd Earl of Seaforth.
We cannot change the past – only our view of it. History is interpreted by historians and writers who are human. An open mind and a few books – good and bad – can change many set, preconceived ideas, and enrich our appreciation of the past.