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Memorable Manitobans: Colin Robertson (1783-1842)

Chief Factor.

Born at Perth, Scotland on 27 July 1893, he began his career as a clerk in the North West Company in 1803. He left the NWC in 1809, borrowed money from William Auld, and sailed for London with an introduction to the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He advocated an active push into the Athabasca territory with Canadian voyageurs. This proposal was rejected at the time, and Robertson went into trade in Liverpool. He submitted a revised plan in 1814, which was accepted with himself in charge. His motto was “When among wolves, howl.” He understood the need for the flamboyant gesture and often made it. In Red River, he seized Fort Gibraltar from the NWC and returned it only under conditions.

He subsequently disagreed with Robert Semple over strategy for defending the settlement, and went back to England at the end of 1816. He returned to Montreal to stand trial for the Fort Gibraltar business, and was acquitted. He then organized his Athabasca venture, eventually collecting 27 canoes and 190 men. The strategy was successful and brought the NWC to the bargaining table with the HBC. He was made a chief factor in the reorganized HBC in 1821, but George Simpson did not like him. Simpson and Robertson contested over the latter’s effort to introduce his mixed-blood wife into Red River society.

From 1821 to 1832 he was in charge also at the North Branch of the Saskatchewan district, Churchill, the Islam Lake district and the Swan River district at Fort Pelly. During this time he proposed improvements in the navigation of the rivers, and suggested that the construction of railways at the portages might be of considerable advantage in transporting goods. He suggested plans for the construction of a winter road from York Factory to Norway House which were approved by Council in 1828, and personally directed this work until 1830.

Simpson forced Robertson to plan retirement. Before he could retire, however, he had a stroke, and therefore did not leave the Company officially until 1840. He died in Quebec, shortly after election to the Canadian Legislative Assembly, on 3 February 1842.

A letter-book (1817-22) was published in 1939 by the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, edited by E. E. Rich as Colin Robertson’s Correspondence Book, September 1817 to September 1822.

See also:

Colin Robertson, Dictionary of Canadian Biography VII, 748-50.

Sources:

Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 18 March 2012

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