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Sir George Simpson, Person of National Historic Significance

Sir George Simpson was designated a person of national significance in 1927 due to his position as Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land and General Superintendent of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Early Years

Sir George Simpson was born in Lochbrom, Scotland in either 1786 or 1787. Born out of wedlock, he was raised by his patriarchal Aunt Mary until his early teens. At this time, he moved to London to work with his uncle, Geddes Mackenzie Simpson, a partner in a London sugar brokerage firm. Geddes’ company soon merged with Andrew Wedderburn’s, which led to George’s first contact with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Brother-in-law to Lord Selkirk, primary owner of HBC stock, Wedderburn became a shareholder and member of the governing board of the HBC.

Tensions in the Hudson’s Bay Company

As Simpson was building a relationship with Wedderburn in London, the HBC and NWC struggled for survival in Western Canada. Initially, the Canadian North West Company was better equipped, with competent officers in the field and adept agents. After 1810, the HBC became more aggressive and the battle for dominance erupted. Colin Robertson, leader of the HBC campaign in Athabasca was captured by the NWC in 1818 and charged with attempted murder. Simultaneously, HBC’s governor-in-chief, William Williams was in danger of arrest.

The HBC’s London committee lost faith in Robertson and Williams and decided to select another manager for North America. Wedderburn, who had since changed his name to Andrew Colville, used his influence to have George Simpson appointed governor-in-chief locum tenens in 1820. In the following months, Simpson travelled to many posts and familiarized himself with the HBC’s operations and holdings.

Merging the Companies

Tired of the ongoing battle for control of the most lucrative trade grounds, the HBC governing board pushed for an agreement between the two companies. In March of 1821, the HBC and NWC merged under the title of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This gave the HBC a monopoly of control over the fur trade in British North America for more than 40 years. Territory was divided into two regions, the Northern and Southern Department, the former being more profitable. Williams, designated as the senior governor, was expected to choose the Northern Department, but forego the option and took the southern. This decision left Simpson, then junior governor, control of more fertile trading grounds.

Leadership Skills

Simpson had a keen head for business and managing people and soon earned the respect of his subordinates as well as the London committee. Faced with contentious workers, many of whom had been bitter rivals before the merger, Simpson showed great reconciliatory skills and strong leadership. He increased the company’s profits by eliminating excess personnel and evaluating each trading post’s virtues individually.

In 1826, due to increased economy and efficiency, Simpson was named governor of both the southern and northern departments. Simpson’s larger jurisdiction led to the relocation of his headquarters to Lachine, in Lower Canada. Lachine was a base for HBC canoes heading west or to Montreal, as well as being a financial and commercial centre with faster access to England.

Family

In 1829, Simpson returned to London and met the 18 year-old daughter of his uncle Geddes, Frances Simpson, who would be his wife. Simpson, in his early forties at the time of his marriage, had already fathered at least five illegitimate children. Despite his previous relationships, he opposed marriages between fur traders and native or mixed blood women. Non-white wives were not allowed in the Simpson household, a rule upheld by Frances.

Frances lived with Simpson in Red River, from 1830-33, yet the transition from England anlong with the death of their first born child was hard on her. In 1833, they returned to England and it was decided that Frances would remain to regain her strength. She returned to North America and her husband in 1838. Together, Frances and George Simpson had five children, four of which survived infancy.

Other Ventures

Simpson became quite active in the Montreal society after his marriage to Frances. His political ties allowed him to sway decisions benefiting the HBC and his own personal interests. Lobbyist, Stewart Derbyshire acted on his behalf, promoting the HBC and Simpson himself through the distribution of gifts such as boxes of cigars or buffalo tongues to ensure the good will of Canadian legislators.

Simpson was also active on several boards, using his social connections to leverage his business ventures. The North American Colonial Association of Ireland, the Bank of British North America, the Bank of Montreal, the Montreal Mining Company, the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, and the Montreal and Champlain Railroad were just some of the boards he sat on. He also had investments in the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, the North Shore Railway Company and the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company.

Travels

Simpson travelled the country visiting posts, traversing passes, and exploring much of Canada during his forty years with the HBC. Almost to the end of his life he continued his canoe voyages to various company posts, making at least one major journey every year, with the exception of three years spent in London. He felt a need to keep himself informed, and enjoyed travelling with speed and testing his constitution.

Knighthood

In recognition of his assistance in the Arctic explorations of Thomas Simpson and Peter Warren Dease, Simpson was knighted in 1841. This honour also acknowledged his importance in the business world and his contribution as an adviser on foreign affairs to the British government.

Fast Fact:

Frances Simpson, George’s young wife, and her companion, Catherine Turner were the first British women to travel from Lachine (Quebec) to York Factory (Manitoba) by canoe.

Fast Fact:

George Simpson had his own, narrow beam, 8 metre ‘express canoe’ for traveling. He travelled with a crew of Iroquois voyageurs and a personal Scottish piper.

Plaque Text:

SIR GEORGE SIMPSON
1792-1860

Born in the Scottish Highlands, Simpson joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1820. In 1821 he became governor of the Northern Department, and in 1826 governor-in-chief in Rupert's Land. An energetic administrator with a passion for detail, Simpson dominated the North American fur trade for almost forty years. Under his direction the Company took a lead in exploration, and he personally travelled widely in the Company's territories. From 1833 till his death, he made his headquarters in Lachine and played a prominent role in the business life of Montreal.

Sources:

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, George Simpson, http://www.biographi.ca