George Simpson (HBC administrator)

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George Simpson
Sir George Simpson.jpg
Sir George Simpson
Born1786/1787 or 1792
Died7 September 1860
Resting placeMount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, Canada
EmployerHudson's Bay Company
Spouse(s)Frances Ramsay Simpson
ChildrenMary Louisa, James Keith, Ann, George Stewart, John Mackenzie (sired at least eleven children by at least seven women, only one of whom was his wife.)

Sir George Simpson (1786/1787[1] or 1792[2] – 7 September 1860) was the Governor-in-Chief 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 chunk of northern North America.

His efficient administration of the west was a precondition for the confederation of western and eastern Canada. He was noted for his grasp of administrative detail and his physical stamina in traveling through the wilderness. During his administration the HBC often returned a 10 percent profit. Excepting voyageurs and their Siberian equivalents, few men have spent as much time traveling in the wilderness. He was the first known person to have "circumnavigated" the world by land.

Early life[edit]

Born at Dingwall, Scotland, 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) (see also Colonial molasses trade and Sugar plantations in the Caribbean). When his uncle's firm merged with that of Andrew Colvile in 1812, Simpson came into contact with the Hudson's Bay Company since Colvile was a director of the HBC and the brother-in-law of Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. He must have shown great ability, for in 1820 Colvile appointed him Governor-in-Chief, locum tenens of Rupert's Land.


This was at the time of conflict between the HBC and the Northwest Company. Governor William Williams, who had been sent out in 1818, had arrested or captured several Northwest 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.

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 Great Slave Lake. He then went south to Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River and then Fort Edmonton and after the thaw, back to York Factory.

In August 1824 he left York Factory for the Pacific, taking the unorthodox Nelson River - Burntwood 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 at Fort George on November 8. 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 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 overland 500 miles 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 5000-mile trip remains the longest North American canoe journey ever made in one season.[3] 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 (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 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 who lived. 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 in England in October 1835. In the summer of 1838 he went to Saint Petersburg and negotiated with Ferdinand von Wrangel of the Russian-America 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, Montreal, the Saint Lawrence posts, Montreal and down the Hudson to New York and took ship to England where he received from Queen Victoria the title of Knight Bachelor, giving him the non-hereditary title of Sir in January 1841.


He left London in March 1841 and went by canoe to Fort Garry (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. Traveling 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 and made the first recorded passage of Simpson Pass (August 1841) 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 move that earned him the enmity of John McLoughlin who had done much to develop the Columbia district. He took the Beaver (steamship) to the Russian post at Sitka, Alaska and then another boat as far south as Santa Barbara, California stopping at the HBC post of Yerba Buena, California on San Francisco Bay. At some point he met Mariano Vallejo. He sailed to the HBC post in Hawaii (February 1842) and back to Sitka where he took a Russian ship to Okhotsk (June 1842). 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 1842. This trip was documented in his book, An overland journey round the world.[4]

Later years[edit]

By this time Simpson and his wife had a large house on the Lachine Canal across from the depot from which the fur brigades started west. He began investing in railroads and canals. In the spring of 1845 he went to Washington, DC to discuss the Oregon boundary with the Americans, something 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. His annual trips west need not be listed. In 1854 he was able to travel by rail to Chicago before boarding his voyageur canoe at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1855 he was in Washington DC discussing 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. In August 1860 he entertained the Prince of Wales at Lachine. Shortly after he suffered a massive stroke and died six days later in Lachine.


During his visit to Hawaii, Simpson, along with Timoteo Haʻalilio and William Richards were commissioned as joint Ministers Plenipotentiary on April 8, 1842. Simpson, shortly thereafter, left for England, via Alaska and Siberia, while Haʻalilio and Richards departed for the United States, via Mexico, on July 8, 1842. The Hawaiian delegation, while in the United States, secured the assurance of U.S. President John Tyler on December 19, 1842 of its recognition of Hawaiian independence, and then proceeded to meet Simpson in Europe and secure formal recognition by Great Britain and France. On March 17, 1843, King Louis-Philippe of France recognized Hawaiian independence at the urging of King Leopold I of Belgium, and on April 1, 1843, 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."


Simpson sired at least eleven children by at least seven women, only one of whom was his wife.[5] 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, including Shelagh Rogers. 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. 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.[6]


  • Raffan, James, "Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company", 2007, which this article summarizes

References and footnotes[edit]

  • Hudson's Bay Company Biography
  • Simpson, George. (1938) Journal of Occurrences in the Athabasca Department, 1820-1821. E. E. Rich, ed. Toronto: Champlain Society Publications.
  • Cranny, Michael (1999). Horizons: Canada Moves West. Prentice Hall Ginn Canada. pp. 148–149. ISBN 0-13-012367-6.
  • Arthur Silver Morton (2008) [1944]. Sir George Simpson: overseas governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, a pen picture of a man of action. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4367-0665-0.
  • John S. Galbraith (1976). The little emperor: Governor Simpson of the Hudson's Bay company. Macmillan of Canada. ISBN 978-0-7705-1389-4.
  • Peter C. Newman (2010). Mavericks: Canadian Rebels, Renegades and Antiheroes. HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 45–78; ISBN 978-1-55468-420-5
  • Lahey, D. T. (2011). George Simpson: Blaze of Glory. Publishers: Dundurn Press Ltd; ISBN 978-1-55488-773-6
  1. ^ Profile, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online],; accessed 19 June 2015.
  2. ^ Raffan, p. 26
  3. ^ Raffan, page 243
  4. ^ Simpson, George (1847). An overland journey round the world: during the years 1841 and 1842. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard.
  5. ^ Raffan, page 432
  6. ^ Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. pp. 186-187.
Preceded by
William Williams
Governor of Rupert's Land
Succeeded by
A.G. Dallas