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George Simpson (HBC administrator)

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George Simpson
Simpson in a portrait by Stephen Pearce
Governor-in-Chief of Rupert's Land
In office
29 March 1821 – 7 September 1860 (1821-03-29 – 1860-09-07)[a]
Preceded byWilliam Williams
Succeeded byWilliam MacTavish
CharterHudson's Bay Company
Personal details
BornUnknown date, c. 1792[1]
Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland
Died (aged 68)
Lachine, Province of Canada
Resting placeMount Royal Cemetery
SpouseFrances Ramsay Simpson
RelativesThomas Simpson (nephew)
AwardsKnight Bachelor (1841)
Manoir Simpson, built in 1834 in Lachine, Montreal, next to the Fur Trade Depot, later became part of Collège Sainte-Anne[2]

Sir George Simpson (c. 1792 – 7 September 1860) was a Scottish explorer and colonial governor of the Hudson's Bay Company during the period of its greatest power. From 1820 to 1860, he was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the whole of Rupert's Land, an enormous territory of 3.9 millions square kilometres corresponding to nearly forty per cent of modern-day Canada.[3][4]

His efficient administration of the west was a precondition for the confederation of western and eastern Canada, which later created the Dominion of Canada. He was noted for his grasp of administrative detail and his physical stamina in traveling through the wilderness. Excepting voyageurs and their Siberian equivalents, few men have spent as much time travelling in the wilderness.

Simpson was also the first person known to have "circumnavigated" the world by land, and became the most powerful man of the North American fur trade during his lifetime.[5][6]

Early life[edit]

Sir George Simpson's Manor in Coteau-du-lac, later sold to the Comte de Beaujeu and Mrs. De Gaspé.[7]

Born at Dingwall, Ross-Shire, Scotland, as the illegitimate son of George Simpson, Writer to the Signet, he was raised by two aunts and his paternal grandmother, Isobel Simpson (1731–1821), daughter of George Mackenzie, 2nd Laird of Gruinard—grandson of George Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Seaforth—and Elizabeth, daughter of Duncan Forbes, Lord Culloden. Simpson's father was a first cousin of Sir Alexander Mackenzie's father-in-law.

In 1808, he was sent to London to work in the sugar brokerage business run by his uncle, Geddes Mackenzie Simpson (1775–1848). When his uncle's firm merged with that of Andrew Colvile-Wedderburn in 1812, Simpson came into contact with the Hudson's Bay Company, as Colvile was a company director and brother-in-law of Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk.


Lachine Canal, Montreal, mid 19th century

This was at the time of conflict between the HBC and the North West Company. Governor William Williams, who had been sent out in 1818, had arrested or captured several North West Company men. The Nor'Westers replied with a Quebec warrant for Williams' arrest. The London governors were unhappy with Williams' clumsy management and both companies were under British pressure to settle their differences. The locum tenens in Simpson's title meant that if Williams had been arrested, Simpson would take his place. In 1820, he joined the prominent Beaver Club.

He went by ship to New York, by boat and cart to Montreal and left by the usual route for York Factory on Hudson Bay. He met Williams at Rock Depot on the Hayes River. Since Williams had not been arrested he was William's subordinate and was sent west to Fort Wedderburn on Lake Athabaska. There he spent the winter learning about, and reorganizing, the fur trade. On his return journey in 1821, he learned that the two companies had merged. This put an end to a ruinous and sometimes violent competition and converted the HBC monopoly into an informal government for western Canada. He escorted that year's furs to Rock Depot and returned upriver to Norway House for the first meeting of the merged companies. There he learned that he had been made governor of the Northern—that is, western—Department and Williams had been made his equal in the Southern Department south of Hudson Bay. In December 1821, the HBC monopoly was extended to the Pacific coast.

After the meeting he returned downstream to take up his duties at York Factory. In December 1821, he set out on snowshoes for Cumberland House and then the Red River Colony. By July 1822, he was back at York Factory for the second meeting of the Northern Council, the first that he chaired. After the meeting he went by water to Lac Île-à-la-Crosse and then by dog sled to Fort Chipewyan and Fort Resolution on the Tıdeè Lake. He then went south to Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River and then Fort Edmonton and after the thaw, back to York Factory.

York Factory, Hudson's Bay Company trading post

In August 1824, he left York Factory for the Pacific, taking the unorthodox NelsonBurntwood River route, and ascended the Churchill River and Athabasca Rivers to Jasper House at the east side of Athabasca Pass. He crossed the pass on horseback to Boat Encampment and then down the Columbia River, reaching its mouth on November 8 at Fort George, previously named Fort Astoria. This 80-day journey was 20 days faster than the previous record. He moved the headquarters of the Columbia District to Fort Vancouver, guessing that the south side of the river might fall to the Americans.

He left in March 1825, and crossed the snow-covered Athabasca Pass. From Fort Assiniboine he went on horseback 80 miles (130 km) south to Fort Edmonton on the North Saskatchewan River. He had ordered this new road laid out on his outward voyage. It was a major saving over the old Methye Portage route. He went 500 miles (800 km) on horseback from Fort Carlton to the Red River settlements, and then by boat to York Factory. During this trip his servant, Tom Taylor, became separated on a hunting trip. After searching for half a day, Simpson left Taylor to his fate. Taylor reached the Swan River post after 14 days in the wilderness with no proper equipment.

In 1825, he returned to Britain and learned that William Williams had retired, thereby adding the eastern area to his domain. Returning to Montreal, he went to the Red River settlements, Rock Depot for the annual meeting, the posts on James Bay to inspect his new domain, and back to Montreal. In May 1828, he started his second trip to the Pacific along with his dog, mistress and personal piper, going first to York Factory and then using the Peace River route.

This 5,000-mile (8,000 km) trip remains the longest North American canoe journey ever made in one season.[8] He returned via Athabasca Pass to Moose Factory and Montreal and immediately went south to New York and took ship to Liverpool. After a brief courtship he married his first cousin, Frances Ramsay Simpson, in February 1830, and returned with his new wife to New York, Montreal, Michipicoten, Ontario, for the annual meeting, York Factory, and Red River. Here his wife gave birth to his first legitimate child, who soon died. In 1832, John Jacob Astor approached Gov. Simpson for talks to restrain liquor from the fur trade, and the two met in New York, but a binding agreement never ensued.[9]

In May 1833, he suffered a mild stroke. He and his wife returned to Scotland, where she remained for the next five years and gave birth to a baby girl. In the spring of 1834, he returned to Canada and attended the Southern Council at Moose Factory in May and the Northern Council at York Factory in June, inspected posts on the Saint Lawrence, and arrived back in England in October 1835.

In the summer of 1838, he went to Saint Petersburg to negotiate with Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel of the Russian-American Company. The Russians recognized the HBC posts and the HBC agreed to supply the Russian posts. He then went to Montreal, Red River, Moose Factory, the Saint Lawrence posts, and down the Hudson to New York, where he took ship to England. Simpson received the title of Knight Bachelor from Queen Victoria, giving him the non-hereditary title of Sir on 25 January 1841.


Old Fort Garry - Winnipeg, Manitoba

He left London in March 1841, and went by canoe to Fort Garry (now the site of Winnipeg). On this part of the trip he was accompanied by James Alexander, 3rd Earl of Caledon, who left to hunt on the prairie and later published a journal. Travelling on horseback to Fort Edmonton, Simpson caught up with James Sinclair's wagon train of over 100 settlers heading for the Oregon country, a sign of what would soon destroy his fur trade empire. Instead of taking the usual route, he went to what is now Banff, Alberta, made the first recorded passage of the pass named after him in August, and went down the Kootenay River to Fort Vancouver.

Guessing that the 49th parallel border would be extended to the Pacific and considering the difficulties of the Columbia Bar, he proposed to move the HBC headquarters to what is now Victoria, British Columbia, a suggestion that earned him the enmity of John McLoughlin, who had done much to develop the Columbia district. Simpson took the Beaver north along the Pacific coast to the Russian post at Sitka, and then another boat as far south as Santa Barbara, stopping at the HBC post of Yerba Buena.

At some point he met Mariano Vallejo, a Californio statesman and general. He sailed to the HBC post in Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in February 1842, and back to Sitka, where he took a Russian ship to Okhotsk in June. He went on horseback to Yakutsk, up the Lena River by horse-drawn boat, visited Lake Baikal, went by horse and later carriage to Saint Petersburg and reached London by ship at the end of October. This trip was documented in his book, An overland journey round the world.[10]


During his visit to Hawaii, he met with King Kamehameha III and his advisers.[11] Simpson, along with Timoteo Haʻalilio and William Richards were commissioned as joint Ministers Plenipotentiary on 8 April 1842. Simpson, shortly thereafter, left for England, via Alaska and Siberia, while Haʻalilio and Richards departed for the United States, via Mexico, on 8 July. The Hawaiian delegation, while in the United States, secured the assurance of President John Tyler of its recognition of Hawaiian independence on 19 December, and then proceeded to meet Simpson in Europe and secure formal recognition by Great Britain and France. He was instrumental in arranging conferences between Hawaiian representatives and the British Foreign Office which resulted in a British commitment to recognize the independence of the islands.[12] On 17 March 1843, King Louis Philippe I of France recognized Hawaiian independence at the urging of King Leopold I of Belgium, and on 1 April, Lord Aberdeen on behalf of Queen Victoria, assured the Hawaiian delegation that: "Her Majesty's Government was willing and had determined to recognize the independence of the Sandwich Islands under their present sovereign."

Later life[edit]

Prince of Wales Terrace, built by Gov. Simpson in the Golden Square Mile

By then, Simpson and his wife had a large house on the Lachine Canal across from the depot from which the fur brigades started west.[13] He also owned other estates such as a Manor in Coteau-du-Lac that he sold to the Comte de Beaujeu and Adélaïde de Gaspé, and another estate in Dorval where he received and entertained Prince Edward VII, of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.[14][15] The Manor's estate included the Fur Trade Depot, and was later sold to Senator Lawrence Alexander Wilson and Lt. Col. W. A. Grant of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery.[16][17][18] Lord Donald Smith of Knebworth House, Co-Premier of Canada Sir Francis Hincks, and other leading members of Montreal's society would attend Simpson's banquets.[19][20][21]

He began investing in banks, railroads, ships, mines and canals.[22] He became a board director and shareholder of Canada’s first bank, the Bank of Montreal, as well as of the Bank of British North America, the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, the Grand Trunk Railway, and the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company.[23][24][25][26]

His business partners included Canada's richest man Sir Hugh Allan, Sir John Rose, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, President David Torrance, minister Luther H. Holton, Senator George Crawford, Senator Thomas Ryan, banker John Redpath, and bankers John Molson and William Molson.[27][28][29]

With Governor Drummond, Sir Antoine-Aimé Dorion, and John Young, they founded the Transmundane Telegraph Company, but the venture later failed.[30][31] In the spring of 1845, he went to Washington, D.C., to discuss the Oregon boundary with the Americans, which he had already done with Sir Robert Peel. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the current border. His wife contracted tuberculosis in 1846 and died in 1853.

In 1854, he was able to travel by rail to Chicago before he boarded his voyageur canoe at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1855, he was in Washington, D.C., and discussed Oregon affairs, and in 1857, defended the HBC monopoly in London. In May 1860, he went by rail to Saint Paul, Minnesota; decided that his health would not bear the trip to Red River; and returned to Lachine.

Rosemount House, McGregor Street, built by Sir John Rose on the land of Gov. Simpson in the Golden Square Mile

In August 1860, he entertained the Prince of Wales at Lachine, who came for the inauguration of Victoria Bridge, in honour of his mother Queen Victoria. Simpson built Prince of Wales Terrace in his honour. The building, made of a limestone facade in the Classical Greek style, consisted of a row of nine luxurious houses, and was inhabited by Sir William Christopher Macdonald and Mcgill University's Principal William Peterson.[32] It was later demolished to make room for Samuel Bronfman's pavilion, which was seen by Alcan CEO David Culver as an unforgivable act of vandalism.[33][34]

Galt House, Simpson Street, built by Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt on the land of Simpson in the Golden Square Mile

A street was named in his honor, called Simpson Street, next to Parc Percy-Walters, McGregor Street, and Maison John-Wilson-McConnell.[35] The park was previously occupied by one of his houses, and was part of his 15 acre estate on Mount Royal.[36] It was then occupied by Rosemount House, which was built on the land of Governor Simpson and was the home of Sir John Rose, 1st Baronet, and later William Watson Ogilvie. Galt House was also built on Simpson Street by Canadian Founding Father Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt. The entrance of Simpson Street is now occupied by Sir George Simpson Tower.

Both Simpson Street and Prince of Wales Terrace were in the Golden Square Mile, a neighbourhood of Downtown Montreal where nearly 3/4 of all the wealth in Canada was held by its inhabitants.[37] During that era, most Canadian enterprises were either owned or controlled by approximately fifty men.[38] As the most important man in the North American fur trade, he was one of them.[39]

Shortly after the Princes of Wales's visit, Governor Simpson suffered a massive stroke and died six days later in Lachine. At his death in 1860, he left an estate worth over £100,000, which in relation to GDP, amounted to half a billion dollars in 2023 Canadian money.[40][41] The amount is also very similar to Harlaxton Manor's building cost.[42] Simpson also gave money to the general endowment of McGill University in 1856, along with Peter McGill and Peter Redpath, among others.[43]

James Raffan, author of Emperor of the North, was of the view that Simpson should be counted among Canada’s founding fathers for his role as Governor-in-chief of Rupert's Land, and its later merger in 1867 to form the Dominion of Canada.[44] Rupert's Land territory was Canada's largest land acquisition to form modern Canada, and included land in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Montana, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota.[45] In newspapers and books, he has been referred as the King of the Fur-trade, the Emperor of the North, the Emperor of the Plains, the Emperor of Lachine, the Birch-bark Emperor, and the Little Emperor.[46][47][48]

Simpson also had a passion for Napoleon, and was living during his lifetime.[49] It was one of the passions of his life, collecting writing relating to his hero, covering his walls with Napoleonic prints at Lachine Depot, Norway House and Fort Garry, and infecting the factors and fur traders of the Hudson's Bay Company with them.[50]


Sir George Simpson's residence on his island named L'Île-Dorval, acquired during the 19th century, where he received the Prince of Wales

Simpson sired at least eleven children by at least seven women, only one of whom was his wife.[51] While in London he produced two daughters by two unknown women. When he left for Canada they were sent to Scotland to be cared for by his relatives. The eldest, Mary Louisa Simpson, was given a £500 dowry on her marriage and moved to Canada. She has at least 111 descendants. The other daughter died early.

In 1817, he produced a daughter by half-Cree washerwoman Betsy Sinclair. Betsy Sinclair was soon passed to an accountant whom he promoted. The daughter married an English botanist and died in a canoe accident on her honeymoon.

James Keith Simpson (1823–1901) is poorly documented. Ann Simpson, born in Montreal in 1828, is known only from her baptismal record. Simpson fathered two sons, George Stewart (1827) and John Mackenzie (1829), with Margaret (Marguerite) Taylor.[52] George married Isabella Yale (1840–1927), daughter of fur trader James Murray Yale, of the Yale family.[53][54] George was also the brother-in-law of Eliza Yale, wife of Capt. Henry Newsham Peers, grandson of Count Julianus Petrus de Linnée.

Soon after the birth of John Mackenzie, Simpson left Margaret to marry his cousin. Simpson shocked his peers by neglecting to notify Margaret of his marriage or make any arrangements for the future of his two sons.[55]


  1. ^ Simpson was appointed Governor of the Southern Department of Rupert's Land on 29 March 1821 but swapped offices with Governor William Williams of the Northern Department in October 1821. Williams was recalled on 26 February 1826, and Simpson was given authority over both departments. Theoretically, both departments remained separate until Simpson was appointed Governor-in-Chief on 13 June 1839.[56][57]


  1. ^ Raffan 2007, p.26.
  2. ^ À la découverte de l'ensemble conventuel des Soeurs de Sainte-Anne à Lachine, un lieu de tradition éducative / recherche et rédaction, Marie-Claude Ravary et quatre autres, p. 4-5
  3. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  4. ^ Canada's history, Rupert's Land
  5. ^ An Overland Journey round the World during the years 1841 and 1842, SIR GEORGE SIMPSON, 1847, The Private Collection of William S. Reese: Part Two, Christie's.
  6. ^ George Stewart Simpson, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, National Park Service, August 14, 2020
  7. ^ Vieux Manoirs, Vieilles Maisons, Commission des Monuments Historiques de la Province de Quebec
  8. ^ Raffan 2007, p.243.
  9. ^ Haeger, John Denis (1991). John Jacob Astor: Business and Finance in the Early Republic, Wayne State University, University Press, Great Lakes Books, Detroit, p. 240.
  10. ^ Simpson, George (1847). An overland journey round the world: during the years 1841 and 1842. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard.
  11. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  12. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  13. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  14. ^ Vieux Manoirs, Vieilles Maisons, Commission des Monuments Historiques de la Province de Quebec
  15. ^ A Royal Visit: The Prince of Wales in Montreal in 1860
  16. ^ À la découverte de l'ensemble conventuel des Soeurs de Sainte-Anne à Lachine, un lieu de tradition éducative / recherche et rédaction, Marie-Claude Ravary et quatre autres, p. 4-5
  17. ^ Vieux Manoirs, Vieilles Maisons, Commission des Monuments Historiques de la Province de Quebec
  18. ^ RCAA-Annual-Report-1949, p. 7
  19. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Smith, Donald Alexander, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal
  20. ^ The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.0, Volume 1, page 92-93
  21. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  22. ^ Manitoba History: The Quality of Friendship: Andrew McDermot and George Simpson
  23. ^ Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, George Stewart Simpson
  24. ^ "BMO : Celebrating 205 Years". Archived from the original on 17 February 2023. Retrieved 22 February 2023.
  25. ^ The Provincial Statutes of Canada
  26. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  27. ^ 1860, Bank of Montreal, Annual General Meeting
  28. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  29. ^ The Charter and By-laws of the City of Montreal : Together with Miscellaneous Acts of the Legislature Relating to the City : with an Appendix
  30. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Young, John
  31. ^ Report of the Secretary of States, Transmitting a Statement of ... the Commercial Relations
  32. ^ Prince of Wales Terrace (demolished)
  33. ^ Prince of Wales Terrace (demolished)
  34. ^ David Culver was a devoted CEO who fought to preserve history
  35. ^ Imtl.org, Rue Simpson, Montreal
  36. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  37. ^ Montreal, Fodor's, Patricia Harris, David Lyon Fodor's Travel Publications, 2004
  38. ^ Margaret W. Westley, Remembrance of Grandeur, Libre Expression, 1990
  39. ^ Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, George Stewart Simpson
  40. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Simpson, Sir George
  41. ^ "Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present". MeasuringWorth.com. Retrieved 17 February 2023.
  42. ^ Hall, Michael (2009). The Victorian Country House. London, UK: Aurum Press, p. 26
  43. ^ Subscriptions to the General Endowment
  44. ^ Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company
  45. ^ McIntosh, Andrew (2006), Rupert's Land, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Rupert’s Land in the Age of Enlightenment, 2017
  46. ^ The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.0, Volume 1
  47. ^ Simpson, George
  48. ^ Emperor Of The North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company, by James Raffan, Phyllis Bruce Books, 2010
  49. ^ The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.0, Volume 1, page 62-63
  50. ^ The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.0, Volume 1, page 62-63
  51. ^ Raffan 2007, p.432.
  52. ^ Simpson, George Stewart (Junior) (1827–1894) (fl. 1841-1862)
  53. ^ "Biography – YALE, JAMES MURRAY – Volume X (1871-1880) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography".
  54. ^ Simpson, George Stewart (Junior) (1827–1894) (fl. 1841-1862)
  55. ^ Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. pp. 186–187.
  56. ^ Oliver 1914, pp. 283–287.
  57. ^ Taplin 1970, p. 94.


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