Simpson, George (1787-1860)

Sir George Simpson.
Library and Archives Canada C023580

Sir George Simpson was born in 1787 in Scotland. After finishing his education in the local parish school Simpson went to London, where he worked for his uncle at a London sugar brokerage in 1810. Through brokerage business, Simpson met a board member of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). He was appointed governor-in-chief locum tenens of the HBC in 1820. Although Simpson knew little about Rupert's Land and the fur trading business, he seized the opportunity for adventure. He sailed for New York in March 1820 and traveled to Montreal, the capital of the fur trade. One of Simpson's first tasks was to address the trade wars between the North West Company (NWC) and the HBC. He brought discipline and order to the Company, and took advantage of the turmoil within the ranks of the NWC to promote a merger between the two fur trading companies. In 1821, the HBC and the NWC amalgamated under the HBC name. Simpson was described as affable in temperament, but his officers and other employees understood that he would not allow any insubordination in the ranks of the newly formed company. He won the loyalty of the commissioned officers in the HBC by introducing profit shares in the company, but did not extend this privilege to those in the lower ranks.

Simpson was also reputed to take a hard line with the Indian people he relied upon for the success of the fur trade. In 1822, he stated that their character and nature meant that they had to be ruled with an iron hand to keep them in a “proper state of subordination” which would require them becoming dependent on the Hudson's Bay Company. He went on to say that no credit or ammunition would be given to the Indians dealing with the HBC trading posts unless they proved to company officials that they were working harder and exhibiting more civilized behaviour.

George Simpson's epic journeys across the hinterland were well documented in his journals. He traveled thousands of miles at record-breaking speeds, outdistancing the most seasoned guides and traders. Between 1824 and 1829 he traveled across the West following the main trading routes, and inspected first-hand the operations at the inland posts. In 1826, he was named governor of all the HBC territories in Canada. He developed the expertise that would ensure that the HBC controlled the fur trade for the next 40 years. His word was law, and for this reason he acquired the nickname “Little Emperor.”

Simpson developed relations with mixed-blood women, in a manner known as marriage à la façon du pays. He had several Native “wives,” whom he regarded as little more than sexual partners, and assigned them new mates when he tired of them. Paradoxically, he opposed marriages between other fur traders and Indian or mixed-blood women. After his marriage to his British cousin Frances Simpson, non-White wives were not welcome in the Simpson household. George Simpson fathered several illegitimate children, but although he made provision for all of them, they were kept at a distance from himself and his English wife. Frances was not able to make a smooth transition from her London home to the Canadian West, and owing to failing health she moved back to London in 1834. That same year George Simpson moved to Montreal, where he became a prominent member of the Anglo-Scottish business elite. While he was governor, Simpson used his contacts to secure the interests of the HBC from friendly government leaders. His business interests expanded to include buying land to sell to settlers; he invested and managed two banks; and he held part ownership in the new railway and shipping projects. Simpson traveled North America and further afield to increase the HBC's and his own vast holdings. By the late 1850s, the new mode of trade and travel, the railroad, profoundly affected trade practices and the HBC. The sale of Rupert's Land to Canada was already being discussed when Simpson's health began to fail, forcing him to contemplate retirement. He died on September 7, 1860.

Elizabeth Mooney

Further Reading

Newman, P.C. 1998. Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers That Seized a Continent. Toronto: Penguin Books.