James Sinclair (fur trader)

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Rupert's Land, before Treaty of 1818, showing location of HBC headquarters York Factory
Map of the Oregon Country "jointly occupied" by the US and Britain, showing final portions of York Factory Express and Oregon Trail routes.

James Sinclair (1811–1856) was a trader and explorer with the Hudson's Bay Company. He was the son of Hudson's Bay Company factor William Sinclair, from Eastaquoy in Harray, and his Cree wife, Nahovway. He was a brother of William Sinclair. James was born in Rupert's Land and educated in Scotland at Edinburgh University. He twice led large parties of settlers half-way across Canada, from the Red River Valley to the Columbia River valley.

The Treaty of 1818 set the boundary between the United States and British North America along the 49th parallel of north latitude from present day Minnesota to the "Stony Mountains" (now known as the Rocky Mountains). Under the treaty, the boundary in the Columbia District had not been fixed under a policy of "joint occupation" of lands west of the continental divide. The Hudson's Bay Company, which controlled much of the Oregon Country, discouraged settlement because it interfered with the lucrative fur trade. However by 1838, American settlers were coming across the Rockies. Many left from St. Louis, Missouri on the Oregon Trail; a fairly direct, but difficult route.

British traders, missionaries and settlers used the Carlton Trail, which followed the Red River north, then crossed Lake Winnipeg and followed the Saskatchewan River system west to Fort Edmonton. They then went on to Jasper House and the southern leg of the well established HBC York Factory Express route over the Athabaska Pass and down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. This route while longer, was easier than the route followed by the Americans.

Belatedly realizing that settlers would ultimately decide who controlled the Columbia district, Sir George Simpson created the Pugets Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of HBC around 1840. The purpose of the company was ostensibly to promote settlement by British subjects of land on the Pacific coast of North America. Company operations were centered at Fort Nisqually, near present day Olympia, Washington, where the company developed dairy, livestock and produce farms.

Simpson instructed Alexander Ross to organize and lead a party of Red River settlers across Rupert's Land and over the Rockies into Oregon country, to be settled on HBC farms. Ross felt that he was too old for such an arduous journey and enlisted Sinclair to lead the party.

In 1841 James Sinclair guided a large group of Red River Colony settlers west from Fort Garry in an attempt to retain Columbia District as part of British North America. Twenty-three families, comprising one hundred twenty-one people, set out on 3 June 1841. Most of the families were of mixed-race (Métis), headed by men who were well known to Sinclair and who were capable hunters, well-suited to living off the land; while on the trail and as pioneers in Oregon Country.

Governor Simpson caught up with them, in the Red Deer Hills, on his round-the-world trip. He had set off from London on May 3 and was traveling fifty miles a day on horseback and up to one hundred miles a day by canoe. Simpson told Sinclair that instructions had been left at Fort Edmonton as to how he was to cross the Rockies. Simpson wrote in his diary, "Each family had two or three carts, together with bands of horses, cattle and dogs. As they marched in single file their cavalcade extended above a mile long. The emigrants were all healthy and happy; living with the greatest abundance and enjoying the journey with great relish."

Red River cart and driver

Traveling southwest from the Red Deer Hills, the Sinclair expedition pioneered a quicker, more southerly route. They entered the Rocky Mountains at "Devils Gap" on Lake Minnewanka, near present day Banff. They crossed the Bow River and then followed its tributary the Spray River and the Spray's tributary Whiteman Creek over Whiteman's Pass over the Great Divide. They followed the Cross River down the western side; entering into the Columbia Valley through Sinclair Canyon, near present-day Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. From there they journeyed south-west down to Lake Pend'Oreille then on to an old fort known as Spokane House then to Fort Colville on the Columbia River and finally to Fort Vancouver along established trade routes.

Despite such efforts, Britain eventually ceded all claims to land south of the 49th parallel (except Vancouver Island and surrounding Gulf Islands) to the United States by the Oregon Treaty in 1846, as resolution to the Oregon boundary dispute. This was partly due to John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver. Known to be friendly towards American settlers, McLoughlin was slow to settle the Sinclair expedition families on Hudson's Bay Company lands; but did not discourage some from settling in the Willamette Valley on the south side of the Columbia River where they could get free land. The other families settled at Cowlitz and Fort Nisqually. The Sinclair expedition had successfully journeyed 2000 miles, in 134 days,without the loss of a single life and grew in number by three babies born along the way.

Sinclair returned to the Red River Colony. He then traveled to St. Louis, then California and finally back to what had become the fully American Oregon Territory. He also traveled to London where he petitioned Parliament on the rights of Métis for a free fur trade, which angered Governor Simpson. He and Governor Simpson eventually overcame their animosity, and Sinclair rejoined the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1854 led a second large group of Red River settlers on a secret journey to Fort Nez Percés (old Fort Walla Walla) in what had become the fully the American Oregon Territory. He had been promised 200 head of cattle by the HBC for doing so. Upon reaching the Rockies he followed the Kananaskis River south and made a difficult crossing following the Elk River into the Columbia-Kootenay's. He died in an Indian attack at the Cascades settlement on the Columbia, March 26, 1856.

Mount Sinclair, Sinclair Pass, and Sinclair Canyon in the Canadian Rockies are named for him.

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