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Memorable Manitobans: George Simpson (1792-1860)

Click to enlargeGovernor, explorer.

Born at Loch Broom, Ross-Shire, Scotland, in 1792, an illegitimate son of George Simpson, a London merchant, he served as a clerk in the sugar brokerage firm of Andrew Wedderburn-Colvile before his appointment as Hudson's Bay Company governor-in-chief locum tenens in 1820. In North America, he ran the tough Athabaska Department until the union of the HBC and North West Company in 1821, when he became governor of the Northern Department of Rupert’s Land, with headquarters at Red River. After 1826 he was governor-in-chief of the HBC and its territories in North America.

For the first part of his tenure he ran his vast empire from Red River, although after 1826 he also established a headquarters in Lachine, Lower Canada. Simpson married his cousin Frances Simpson, daughter of Geddes Mackenzie Simpson, in 1830 and brought her to Red River, where the couple lived until 1833. His marriage, which involved disposing of a Native wife and family, brought about a new fashion in the HBC for European wives. It also eventually led Simpson to make his permanent headquarters at Lachine, where his wife could be more comfortable.

In the course of his work, Simpson became one of the great business travellers of the nineteenth century. Except for three years in London, no year passed without a major journey somewhere. He travelled North America by canoe, often accompanied by a piper, and insisted his health improved the moment he stepped into a canoe. Despite failing eyesight, he travelled to Hawaii in 1841 and continued around the world via Alaska and Siberia. He was a great autocrat and brooked no opposition to his decisions. Simpson’s heyday was before the railroad, but he recognized that the railroad would change the HBC and the nature of the West.

In his later years Simpson resided at Lachine, on Lake Saint Louis. He died there on 7 September1860.

Most of his papers are in the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg.

More information:

Several selections of his letters have been printed, including Letters of Sir George Simpson 1841-1843 edited by Joseph Shafer (1908). His account of his around-the-world tour was published as Narrative of a Journey round the World, during the Years 1841 and 1842 (1847) (2 volumes); his journal of the trip appeared, edited by Frederick Merk as Fur Trade and Empire (1931).

The Little Emperor: Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company by J. S. Galbraith (1976).

George Simpson, Dictionary of Canadian Biography VIII, 812-19.

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.

Page revised: 27 April 2008

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