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Tomas Simpson: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Tomas Simpson

Final Draft

SIMPSON, THOMAS

(b. Dingwall, Scotland, 1808; d. Iowa Was it not what is now either N.D. or Minn.? V.S. , 1840)
Thomas Simpson was born July 2, 1808, at Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland.
His father was Alexander Simpson, a school teacher and sometime magistrate,
his mother was a second wife. He had one half-brother, Aemilius, and a full
brother, Alexander, both to be identified, as he was, with the fur trade.
Thomas in his boyhood is described by Alexander as "distinguished by
a quiet, tractable temper, and a steady attention to his studies." His
father died in 1821, leaving the family ill provided for and Aemilius con–
tributed to its support.
In spite of meager finances, the family was a cultured and educated
one. Thomas was considered a logical candidate for the ministry because
of his quiet temperament and studious nature, and at the age of seventeen
he entered King's College, Aberdeen. At the end of four years, he received
the Huttonian prize, the highest given by the college, for merit in all
departments and received his degree as Master of Arts.
George Simpson [q.v.] his cousin, in 1826 offered him a position with
the Hudson's Bay Company in Rupert's Land but Thomas declined. He continued
with his divinity studies but, in the winter of 1828-29, when George was
Governor of Rupert's Land, the offer was repeated, it was given serious
consideration.
Two factors seemed to enter into this decision. From a delicate
thoughtful youth, Thomas had grown to be strong, brawny and adventurous.
He confessed that he had "a little of the spirit of contradiction and an
unwillingness to be led," qualities which the conformist Church of Scotland
could not view favorably in its newly ordained. Moreover, if he continued
with the ministry, lacking adequate finances, he must wait perhaps for years
before receiving a parochial assignment. During this interim, he must sup–
port himself as did other Church probationers by public or private tutoring.

Thomas Simpson

He viewed this prospect bleakly and recognized that the medical degree to
which he aspired was completely beyond his financial reach.
Aemilius had entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1826,
Alexander two years later. From his uncle Gedd l es, in whose office George
Simpson had received his training, Thomas learned that his cousin, now
Governor, still hoped that he also would join the Company and was offering
him specially favorable terms . — his contract would run only two (instead
of five) years and would carry a salary of £40 the first year, £50 the
second.
These were indeed exceptional terms. Moberley's contract, written at
a much later date, was for the standard five years and graduated annual
wages — £20 for the first year, increasing £5 a year for three years, with
£40 for the fourth year and £50 for the fifth. Thomas consulted his friends
and agreed with them that the opportunity was too good to be missed, so he
accepted with high expectations of adventure.
Thomas reached Lachine near Montreal on April 25, 1829, had a short
visit with Alexander, left with the spring party reaching Norway House on
June 18 where he was assigned as the Governor's secretary. He began work
immediately, traveling with George through the southeastern part of the
Company's territories. As will be seen in the account of George Simpson
in this Encyclopedia, the Governor was an indefatigible traveler, impatient
of inefficiencies, a devisor of short cuts, an entrepreneur where the new
or difficult confronted him. The life agreed with Thomas for Alexander
reports that, on their next meeting in Montreal, he was in high health and
spirits and delighted with the journey.
That George had plans for Thomas is indicated by the fact that in
1830, during Thomas's first year of service, he was assigned to lead the
first western brigade, a party of almost a hundred, which he brought to

Thomas Simpson

the head of Lake Superior with expedition and with relatively few deser–
tions at a time when they were common. Here he handed over the command
and joined the Governor at York Factory on the shore of Hudson Bay. Ex–
cept for mosquitos in summer and cold in winter, he enjoyed this life too
for the situation was comfortable, with the best of accommodations and fare.
This is the version of Thomas, as written to James Hargrave at York Factory.
Alexander describes him, however, as oppressed and annoyed by George. It
is true that in this period his letters confirm Alexander that the hours of
business were long but this seems to have been general throughout the trade
and not the portion of Thomas alone.
On February 10, 1831, he found release from his desk in another com–
mand, this time leaving York Factory for Red River on snowshoes with a
large party of men and two trains of dogs. The 700-mile journey took
twenty eight days, six of which were spent resting the dogs. To Thomas
this journey also was invigorating. In his own words, "winter traveling
is a most healthy and strengthening exercise, and gives one a most vo–
racious appetite." He described his sleep on a bed of pine branches as
"more sound and refreshing" than " awaits many an one sunk in cushions of
down."
There are no published records of other journeys for the next few
years. In 1832, Thomas was stationed at Fort Garry [Winnipeg] [: ]
satisfied with his lot, well housed but busy. He writes newsy letters
to Hargrave, telling of such local happenings as births, deaths, rumors
of cholera outbreaks in the states, the appearance of a meteor. He has
followed the demand of his Cousin George for economy and reports that
his requisition has been calculated with great care.

Thomas Simpson

The Governor was in England at the time. Alexander Christie, Chief
Factor since 1821, and then in charge of the Assiniboia District, was
acting in his place. A rift between the cousins was beginning to develop
for Thomas wrote Alexander that things were going well with "far less
bustle and as good and rapid work as if the Governor himself were on the
ground." He calls George a severe and repulsive master, though crediting
him with good will and kind intentions. "His firmness and decision of
mind are much impaired: both in great and small matters, he has become
wavering, capricious, and changeable."
It is admitted that the Governor's health at this time was not good.
In addition, he was bearing the strain of an ailing wife. In 1829 or
early in 1830, he had married Frances Ramsay Simpson, daughter of his
uncle Geddes, but she had been ill since Christmas 1830, and, because of
pressure of Company business, George had had to leave her during most of
the pregnancy which resulted in the birth of a son.
In 1833, writing to Hargrave on December 28, Donald Ross, Chief
Trader at Norway House, expressed the wish of many. "God grant that they
both may be well by this time and that we may be blessed once more with
a sight of his honest face next spring."
It must have been as much of a trial to Thomas who, like George,
enjoyed traveling and was adept at it, as it was to other traders when
expeditions from London, in charge of naval officers, invaded their
domain. Since Thomas's evaluation of the efforts of Sir George Back is
later to raise questions of his sanity, we confine ourselves to the
opinions of others whose sanity was not questioned.
Back is described elsewhere in this Encyclopedia. We do not single
him out among the British naval officers for invidious comparison. It
just so happens that he was the only one of the many explorers whose name

Thomas Simpson

was used to prove the insanity of another explorer. So, with apologies
to Back, we seek to show that others shared the opinion of Thomas.
William McTavish, a clerk at Norway House, summed up the matter in
a letter to his sister Letitia, July 16, 1834: "The U. L. Expedition have
been playing the same tune, they have starved this winter again, they
went towards the sea last Fall by the Big Peace River, but owing to
Capt. Backs' taking a canoe too weak for the voyage, You'll hear what a
fine story they'll make out of this bungle, they will you may be sure
take none of the blame to themselves. . . like all the other Expeditions
will do little & speak a great deal."
Francis Butcher, clerk at Chipewyan, writes Hargrave on December 27,
1834, that he has word from Captain Back that his expedition has ceased
operations and will return to England the next year. "he does not appear
to have been altogether very successful all he says is 'that much has been
added to science & Geography, and has has [had?] an interview with the
Esquamaux on the Coast' so you see he is not very communicative which bodes
no great things."
Relations between the cousins continued to deteriorate. One of the
secrets of George's charm was that he was accessible to everybody and would
listen attentively to all comers, whether factors, traders, half breeds or
natives. It was quite true that many times he would do no more than listen –
one employee reporting reports on a serious talk calls him kind and conciliatory but
unwilling to be definite — but at least each one who left him felt that
he had had a hearing. Thomas, on the other hand, was frankly impatient
of post natives and half-breeds, calling them an indolent race, next to
impossible to rouse into energy. This statement was made in 1833.
In the same year, at Red River, he, according to his own statement,
had taught the natives that he could command respect and, in consequence,

Thomas Simpson

was treated more as an officer than a clerk. This undoubtedly gratified
Thomas but could not have endeared him to many.
He was still of the low opinion of post natives in the years follow–
ing. "It is hopeless to make anything of such fellows, save Hewers of
wood and Carriers of water, which is all the 'brutes' (as Donald would
say) are good for."
Part of the deteriorating relationship between the cousins may have
been caused by spoken and unfulfilled promises. Thomas's contract called
for two years and those two years would have been up in 1832. Unless
something more had been promised him, why would he have stayed on? In
1834 he writes Alexander that "a word of acquiescence, even a nod, from
the Governor would have procured me a commission as Chief Trader this
year; but the name of Simpson is a disadvantage and, notwithstanding the
promises made to me. . . I must wait."
Company men took unto themselves native or half breed women, either
by marriage, as did John McLoughlin and James Douglas, or without marriage
with the guarantee of adequate financial provision for the woman and her
children, as did George Simpson and John McTavish. Thomas also had a
companion, described by the factors as hearty and cheerful but identified
only as "Miss Armstrong." Because such a union was no disgrace and be–
cause the woman in each case was identified as "Mrs." the probabilities
are that the companion of Thomas was not one who would or could bring
him in contact with the views of the majority.
In any case, on December 31, 1834, Alexander Simpson, then chief
factor at Lachine, arrived at Red River to spend New Year's with his
brother. Aemilius, who had risen to be chief of the maritime command
on the Pacific coast, had died of pneumonia in 1831, Their mother was
far away in Scotland. He arrived full of filled with the expectancy

Thomas Simpson

of all "Auld Lang Syne" means to a Scotsman only to find the colony in
a state of excitement involving his brother.2 An altercation between
Thomas and a half-breed over a further advance on wages had flamed into
a race war. The half breeds demanded that Thomas be flogged but the
Governor pacified them with a keg of rum and the promise that Thomas
would be sent elsewhere, Both Alexander and Thomas w were outraged
and Thomas threatened to resign but, on the surface at least, the matter
quieted down and Thomas remained at his post.
In 1835, Thomas, at Fort Garry, is occupied with the usual Company
affairs, in capital health and spirits, full of local gossip. His let–
ters indicate that he has no inkling of what is going on in London or in
the mind of his cousin George. This was no less than the first Company
effort to organize that search for the North West Passage which had been
dormant in the Company charter since it was signed in 1670. That Charter
was up for one of its periodic renewals, the Company was tired of assist–
ing in the London expeditions with no more than a mention (and that some–
times critical) in the inevitable book. Moreover, after the first Frank–
lin expedition, which had suffered because of the enmity between the
Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, the united company, now
operating as the Hudson's Bay, was required to furnish men and supplies
its own men as guides free of charge for each official expedition and the
naval officers rated as necessities many items which, for the men of the
Bay, were prohibited luxuries.
George Simpson was therefore instructed to make arrangements for an
expedition under Company auspices. Preparation of the plans was given to
Thomas, who seems to have understood that he was to be in command. The
outline drawn up, and ratified by George, clearly does not fit Dease,

Thomas Simpson

He could be depended upon for the minor provisions, but the major ones
were made to measure by Thomas for Thomas.
Peter Warren Dease was born in Canada in 1788 and entered the fur
trade in 1801. In 1821, at the union of the Hudson's Bay and North West
companies, he was made a chief trader. By reason of his services to the
Franklin expedition of 1826-27, he was promoted to chief factor, and
from 1831 to 1836 was in charge of the New Caledonia district. While
the Franklin accounts tends to show he was more hindrance than help, he
was generally liked by Company employees because he was "amiable, warm
hearted, sociable, free from haughtiness and reserve." If he did not
fare too well in Franklin's narrative, it is to be remembered that Com–
pany employees had little faith in such publications by British naval
officers who, as McTavish had phrased it, "would take none of the blame
to themselves."
Official jealousy has been given, both by the defenders of Thomas
and the defenders of George, h as the reason why Dease was named leader.
It seems to this writer that the word "jealousy," which both employ, is
here mis-used. Rather it was the feeling of letting Dease have his day.
He was, after all, forty eight years old, Thomas was twenty six. Quot–
ing Charles Ross, Chief Trader at New Caledonia where Dease was [: ]
his superior, at the earlier date of April, 1832, on Dease "if Fortune
always favores the Good, he should enjoy an unusual share of her smiles —
So far, however, she has been decidedly adverse to him in his present
[: ] station." Ross is speaking of fish and fur failures but the
inherent rightness of Dease's chance to shine was widespread among Company
employees, from factors and traders down to the clerks.

Thomas Simpson

Thomas Simpson's enthusiasm, plus the fact that the plans of the
expedition were his own, drawn so that only he could he could follow the major
of its sixteen provisions, led him to swallow his disappointment. He
went to Red River where he brushed up on mathematics and studied prac–
tical astronomy. He then made the journey of over 1200 miles to
Chipewyan and joined Dease on February 1,1837. The party wintered
at Chipewyan and were ready to start out in the spring. On May 31,
Thomas wrote the Governor that it was the eve of their departure. He
outlines the four months of waiting, voices th disappointment that the
command is not his, and expresses the hope that, should accident befall
him, the Company would look after his mother.
On June 1, Dease and Simpson left Chipewyan with two small sea boats
and a party of hunters and voyageurs. By July 4, they had traveled more
than a thousand miles and were at Fort Smith, where reports of bloody
struggles between Eskimos and Indians kept them form hiring an Indian
interpreter. By July 23, they had advanced 1800 miles to Franklin's
"Return Reef" where their real exploration was to begin.
Traveling northwestward along the coast, they mapped and surveyed
until, 150 miles beyond where Franklin had been compelled to turn back
in 1826 but 50 miles short of their goal at already discovered Point
Barrow, they reached the limit of their Boat Extreme.
The ice ahead was jammed against the shore. Thomas, therefore,
undertook the journey on foot, "Mr. Dease most handsomely volunteering
to remain with the boats and thus secure our retreat." He started afoot
with a party of five but soon borrowed an umiak from some Eskimos, a
craft which could navigate beyond the Extreme of their sea boats. In
the umiak the party reached Point Barrow on August 3, thus completing
the western section of the North West Passage. A known seaway now lay

Thomas Simpson

open for 2,000 miles from the North Pacific around northwestern America
to Franklin's farthest east at Point Turnagain.
Simpson rejoined Dease and the entire party traveled back to Fort
Norman where they reported jointly to the Directors of the Company.
Their entire journey so far had been some 3,500 miles, performed without
accident or hardship, a new idea in overland and coastal Arctic explora–
tion of the period where incompetence and resulting suffering had been
the rule. Dease's experience with Franklin, Thomas's with George and his
own conduct of brigades, were contributors to this end.
On September 8th, Thomas wrote the Governor expressing satisfaction
in the interest in which the London Directors were showing and inquiring
about promotion. He had, he said, been promised a Chief Tradership but,
since he had had the exclusive honor of unfurling the Company flag at
Point Barrow, he thought a Chief Tradership Factorship was indicated. His sense of
accomplishment.
His sense of accomplishment and his conviction that
George would be as satisfied as he was overcame his earlier cousinly dis–
trust. "I have always confided implicitly in your kind sentiments towards
me, and feel that they will be fully displayed on the present occasion."
To Alexander he wrote, "Fortune and its great Disposer have this season
smiled upon my undertakings, and shed the first bright beams upon the dark
prospects of a North American life. Yes, my dearest brother, congratulate
me, for I, and I alone , have the well earned honour of uniting the Arctic
to the great Western Ocean, and of unfurling the British flag on Point Barrow."
The report of Dease and Simpson to the London Directors was dated
September 5, 1837. Though forwarded with the greatest dispatch, it did
not reach England until April 18 19, 1838. It aroused great interest and
Sir John Pelly submitted it to the Royal Geographical Society which pub–
lished it in its Vol. VIII of the same year.

Thomas S [: ] mpson

The winter of 1838-39 was spent at Fort Confidence. No signs of dis–
content appear though one of the hunters, George Sinclair, twice narrowly
escaped starvation through having more elderly Indians join his party than he
could provide for. On the first occasion he returned with them "in a re–
duced state" for the hunters had bolted and the entire party had been liv–
ing on scraps of skin. On the second occasion, he, James McKay, and
another half breed were gone for thirty-six days and returned on the verge
of starvation for the same reason. However, in June all prepartions were
completed and the expedition was ready to start out.
Before leaving, Thomas prepared his last will and testament, in which
he listed his assets and prospects: "Five hundred pounds sterling in the
hands of the Hudson's Bay Company [which, on request, acted as banker for
the employees]; my revisionary share as a chief trader in that concern,
worth, at the utmost, fifteen hundred pounds sterling; whatever monies the
British Government may award me for the acknowledged discovery in the year
1837, of the long-sought North-West passage, or may arise from the publica–
tion of my maps and journal; and my half-share of a house and garden in the
town of Dingwall, in the highlands of Scotland." Alexander was named co–
executor and residuary legatee.
In 1839 the party had normal condition and made good use of them. De–
scending the Coppermine and working rapidly east, they reached Cape Alexander
by July 26. They continued ahead beyond the last year's farthest, along the
continental shore through a body of water which, three-quarters of a century
later, Canadian maps called Queen Maud Gulf, and entered Simpson Strait at
its eastern end where the water narrows between the mainland and King William
Island. Passing through, they reached a farthest at Castor and Pollux Bay
on the mainland, east of King William Island.

Thomas Simpson

The return was equally successful. The party was back at the mouth
of the Coppermine in mid-September after a boat journey which is reckoned
at 1,408 miles, probably the longest small-boat exploratory voyage ever
made in the American Arctic seas. They were back at Fort Simpson October 14.
In his diary when near the farthest north east, Thomas had forecast a
continuation of the expedition, he hoped in 1840, which would complete the
demonstration that he had discovered the Northwest Passage. On October 16,
1839, he and Dease made a joint report to the London Directors. They point–
[: ] ed out that the failure of Back's expedition with the Terror had left
a gap in the information about the Passage. They offered and urged that
Simpson be permitted to put his plans into effect "to permit this interest–
ing service."
Thomas remained at the Fort to write the narrative of the expedition and
to draw up maps of the eastern discoveries. He was enthusiastic about plans
for further work in 1840. Dease was [: ] prepared to withdraw willingly and
the command would therefore devolve upon him. He would explore Boothia Felix
and determine whether it was or was not an island. If it proved to be a
peninsula, he hoped to reach Parry's Cape Walker. One way or another, he
would determine the eastern mouth of the Northwest Passage as clearly as he
had determined the western.
Governor George Simpson, however, ruled otherwise. He instructed Thomas
to take a winter's leave of absence and repair to the depot where plans would
be made for completing the service. This tactic of George is easy to under–
stand. Had Company dividends been falling, he would have welcomed the open- ing
up of new possibilities. Company trade on its established bases, however,
was in a good way.

Thomas Simpson

In 1836, dividends and bonus from the southern areas had amounted to
23%; in 1837, 10%; in 1838, 25%; in 1839, 23%. The highest for the period
1826-1835 had been 20%, the lowest 10%. This lends credence to the belief
that George did not want the North West Passage established. He had no
particular knowledge of the far north, beyond the few posts on Hudson Bay,
and there were no factors or traders in the area who could make reports
that he could mull over. On the other hand, he had seen what was happen–
ing south of the border, where one train of covered wagons was followed by
a surge of settlers. He may well have feared that, should the North West
Passage be a reality, ships and seamen would be a regular occurrence.
It must be injected here that the Eskimos of that day were not the peo–
ple to delight the heart of either a trader or an accountant. By their own
methods and standards, they were comfortably clad, comfortably housed, and,
for the most part, well fed. The advertising art of creating wants, so suc–
cessful with some Indians, had not particularly impressed them. The Governor
may well have seen a chain of coastal posts maintained to supply the ships
at an expense which returns would not justify.
Thomas, however, his heart full of exultation, his mind busy with his
future plans, some of which were already laid out on paper, could not accept
this edict. On October 25, 1839, he replied to the Governor: "So far from
wishing to avail myself of the leave of absence, which you have so kindly
offered, it gives me great uneasiness that a whole year will probably elapse
before the final expedition can be set on foot that is destined to accomplish
this North-east , as my excursion to Point Barrow in 1837 achieved the
North-west Passage."
Quite forgetting the Will and Testament which he had earlier drawn up,
leaving his worldly goods to Alexander, or, more probably, so confident of
success that he knew the will would never be probated, he offered the

Thomas Simpson

Governor for the expense of the expedition "the sum of five hundred pounds,
being every shilling I am worth at this moment, besides all the future pro–
ceeds of my double commission, till the whole charge of the said expedition
shall be redeemed." The double commission refers to his promotion from
clerk to Chief Trader, which had been promised, and his belief that he should
be double-jumped to Chief Factor by reason of his exploratory work. The
Chief Tradership was his whether or no he succeeded. The factorship was his
own logical conclusion. One of the statements in this letter, "Fame I will
have, but it must be alone ," was later to be turned to his disadvantage
as one of the symptoms of megalomania.
This writer does not subscribe to the megalomania theory for neither
then nor later were there any conclusive manifestations. Thomas was, however,
so sure of his ground that he behaved in a manner quite contrary to Company
regulations. For one thing, since he had replied to the Governor on October
25, we know that he had received orders to go south. For another, he did
what even the most seasoned factors dared not do. He protested his recall
and acted on the protest by remaining at Fort Simpson until December 2. If
there was an exchange of letters between the two men, and if extant, they
have not yet been published. On the face of it, Thomas felt so confident
of what he was doing and of his right to do it, that he defied anyone, even
the Governor, to stop him.
By December 2, however, something had happened to change his mind. He
left Fort Simpson and, after an absence of three years and two months,
arrived at Red River on February 2, 1840. In the absence of evidence to
the contrary, it may be assumed that the Governor had removed his endorse–
ment and that he could no longer rely on the cooperation of the various posts.
The gaps in the stories of George and Thomas Simpson are enormous. We
know that Thomas, receiving no encouragement from the Governor, wrote to the

Thomas Simpson

Directors in London, but he must have had the Governor's permission to
take this step for, without it, he could not have expected a favorable
reply. The Directors did indeed accept the proposal on June 3, 1840
but Thomas never received that news.
In his uncertainty, he wrote Alexander on May 26: "Wretchedness is
the inevitable portion of all who remain too long in this service. My
own situation at present is a very singular one — uncertain till the
canoes arrive whether I shall turn my face again to the North Pole, or
towards Merry England."
Alexander's narrative says that the Directors, having ratified the
proposal, were anxious that Thomas should start on the new expedition im–
mediately. "Unfortunately, the proceedings of their local representative,
Sir George Simpson, had been every different. . . and now [he] effectually
prevented the immediate organization of a renewed expedition. . . by de–
siring his [Thomas's] presence in England."
However, we know from Thomas's letter of May 26, quoted above, that,
if he received no word about the new expedition, he intended to go to
England anyway. His letter of May 25 to Chief Factor Donald Ross is ex–
plicit on the subject:
"I fear that the contemplated expedition cannot proceed this year, if
His Excellency comes not out. In that case it is my intention to proceed
direct to England, via St. Peter's [now Minneapolis] and the United States,
and to urge the matter at home 'in person.'
"I have little or no doubt of succeeding, both there and in the Gulf
of Boothia, and the intermediate jaunt, through the new to the old country,
will benefit my health, which I find has suffered more than I suspected
during the last four years of toil and anxiety."
The spring canoes arrived at Red River on June 2, with no encouragement
for Thomas. Unaware that the very next day the London Directors would ap-

Thomas Simpson

approve his plan and, in addition, for work already done grant him an
annuity of £100 a year, he wrote from Fort Garry to Donald Ross: "My own
destiny is at length decided and I must away across the plains and through
the States to England." He asks Ross to keep available some of the people
he will need when he next goes north. John Ritch, the boat builder, and
Ooligbuck, the Eskimo interpreter, are to be kept busy enough to remain
on the Company payroll so they would be " in"reach at the specified time."
On June 5, he wrote Alexander: "I am just on the move for England, via
the United States; a journey which will, I think, be beneficial to me, as
my stomach had been out of order, and my spirits low, for a great part of
the spring." He mention receiving a letter from the Governor, written by
his Lady, inviting him to England. "God willing, I shall be out again with
him next spring." He gives other local news and concludes with "To-morrow
morning I take my departure, with two companions well mounted and armed, as
we expect to fall in with the Sioux, and war is said to be raging in the
plains; so that I hope to see something of prairie life."
On June 6, accompanied by a party of half-breeds, Thomas rode out of
Fort Garry. Less than ten days later, he had met a violent end. The
story told by two of the half breeds is that after eight days' travel,
Simpson complained of illness. Two others thereupon started to put up the
tent for him when Simpson shot them, declaring they had meant to murder
him. The remaining two hastily mounted horses and rode down the trail
for help. The murdered men were John Bird and Antoine Legros. The eye
witnesses were James Bruce and Antoine Legros, Jr., who, meeting with a
party of emigrants, told their story and led them to the camp. When they
got within 200 yards of the tent, they glimpsed Simpson at the door and
immediately afterwards heard a gun shot. Believing he was determined to
kill them all, they fired three volleys in the direction of the camp and

Thomas Simpson

then proceeded cautiously. They found Simpson weltering in blood, his
head blown to pieces.
The deposition of James Bruce was made at St. Peter's on July 13, 1840,
nearly a month after the event. There is no record of testimony by
Legros, Jr. The verdict was "murder and suicide while of unsound mind."
The account was written up in the St. Louis Bulletin on July 24, and,
with appropriate flourishes, re-written in the New York American of August 3.
Four months later, Robert Logan, one of the men who had accompanied
Bruce and Legros to the Simpson camp, made a deposition at Red River before
A. Ross, J. P. His testimony agrees in the main with Bruce's, as does that
of James Flett who testified before "John Bunn, Magistrate." The discrep–
ancies can easily be explained by tricks of memory.
"The mystery of Thomas's death will not now be solved," says McKay, MacKay
and that is probably true. We can at least, however, speculate about the
verdict.
The official "suicide while of unsound mind" has the advantage of sim–
plicity. A deranged man shoots two other men and ends his own life.
MacKay thinks well of this theory. He says: "A close reading of young
Simpson's personal letters written in the last year of his life gives an
unmistakable evidence of a rapidly mounting and almost uncontrolled egoism,
the culmination of unbounded ambition and the lonely Arctic winter."
Unbounded ambition he most certainly had. So, for that matter, in a
later day, had Henry Ford, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Thomas Alva Edison,
in their chosen fields and, in exploration, so did Robert Edwin E. Peary. and
Robert Falcon Scott. No one has yet suggested that they were subjects for
psychiatrists, so the contributing causes left over are lonely Arctic
winters and "rapidly mounting and almost uncontrolled egoism."

Thomas Simpson

Just how lonely were the Arctic winters? We start with Thomas, on
December 1, 1836, as he left Red River for Athabasca at the very beginning
of what is to be his great accomplishment. The whole tenor of the journey
is optimistic. Adverbs like happily, luckily, fortunately minimize the
mishaps. Thomas was, unquestionably, determined to put the brightest face
on things at the time, as tho u se who agree with MacKay would be quick to
point out. We agree, but then the question arises, "If succeeding winters
were so lonely, why didn't he revise and tone down his journal?"
What of the second winter, a winter spent at Fort Confidence, without
the excitement of travel and newness? There are many degrees of loneli–
ness and the presence of other people is no guarantee that it will be dis–
pelled. One of the surest ways to be lonely is to be with people whose
ways you do not understand and who do not understand you. That can happen
anywhere in any season and the Arctic has nothing to do with it.
Thomas, at Fort Confidence, was surrounded by Indians whose ways he was
studying and who compelled his interest. They had nothing in common with
the post Indians. To augment the food supply, he joined in the hunt with
them and, so he says himself, "highly relished the animation of the chase,
and the absolute independence of an Indian life." He [: ] scoffs at
"certain theorists" who would try to make them a pastoral people and frames
for them the question: "Why should we be bound like slaves to follow the
motions of a band of tame animals."
During the "lonely winter" of 1838-39, Thomas had excellent opportuni–
ties to demonstrate both his loneliness and his "almost uncontrolled
egoism." He sent food to relieve some starving elder Indians abandoned
by their hunters ' , he saved the lives of two old women and two little girls
who, starving, wandered into the fort. He could have made excellent
capital of this and any egoist would. However, in his [: ] journal,

Thomas Simpson

he concludes the story, "Far be it from us, however, to arrogate any merit
for our exertions. . It is a duty conscientiously fulfilled by every officer
in the service when the occasion arrives, and was this winter performed with
equal effect by our next neighbour, Chief Trader M'Pherson of Mackenzie
River. "
MacKay has, in great part, based his theories about Thomas on what
Thomas has written about his cousin, the Governor. Thomas, in his later
years with the Hudson's Bay Company, did express, in personal letters, some
low opinions of George. This has been called a sign of mental unbalance
and we might consider it so were there no others who shared the opinin
or if those who agreed with Thomas were similarly called to account.
John McLean says of the Governor that he has not even the saving grace
to correct his own blunders, and accuses him of caprice, favoritism and
disregard of merit. McLean was a Company employee who resigned smarting
with a sense of injustice. His opinion may therefore also be discounted.
In his Life of Lord Strathcona , Beckles Willson quotes a letter from
John Stuart to Alexander Stewart, written from London on February 15, 1836,
which first praises the Governor's goodness of heart but concludes "he is
alike easily influenced by flattery and prejudice of others, and when once
aroused, excitable and without much reflection, will go any lengths."
MacKay, a historian who is almost an apologist for George, still in–
cludes in his " The Honourable Company an uncle's advice to a newly arrived
nephew. "The only, or at least the chief drawback is that you are dependent
upon the goodwill and caprice of one man who is a little too addicted to
prejudices, for speedy advancement . . . It is his foible to exact not only
strict obedience, but deference to the point of humility. As long as you
pay him in that coin you will quickly get on his sunny side and find your–
self in a few years a trader at a congenial post, with promotion in sight."

Thomas Simpson

These few excerpts would seem to indicate that, in his opinion of [: ]
George, at least, Thomas had company.
His contempt for George Back, who had advanced through his Arctic ex–
ploration from midshipman to captain to knight, is also put forward as
an aberration. Simpson, in a letter to his brother, described Back's
journal as containing "little thought, with no small portion of French
sentimentality and self admiration; but, altogether, I think he has made
the most of his subject, which was not a fertile one."
But the subject of Back was one on which both George and Thomas
Simpson could agree for, says George, "That Gentleman seems to think that
every thing must give way to his demands."
Equally unimpressed by Back , as we have seen, were William McTavish, a clerk
at Norway House, and Francis Butcher, clerk at Chipewyan.
Just as it might be argued that some the Company employees were too close
to George Simpson to appreciate his true merit, so it might be argued that
they were too far removed from George Back. One who was not so removed
was Richard King, surgeon on Back's Great Fish River Expedition, and whose
book is very critical of his former commander.
Except for King, who published his opinions, all other statements were
made in private correspondence. Thomas, who had no idea that his letters
would be published, gives courteous recognition in the first paragraph of
his Journal . "The zealous and effective cooperation of the Hudson's Bay
Company, in the Arctic land expeditions commanded by Franklin and Back,
is well known to the British public.

Thomas Simpson

Notwithstanding the reiterated efforts of these able officers, and the
simultaneous enterprise by sea, a considerable extent of the northern
coast of America remained unexplored at their close."
This is the introductory paragraph written before Thomas set out on
his journey. If it is tongue-in-cheek with regard to Back and Franklin,
it is equally so with the Company's cooperation which was ineffective
before union with the North West Company and unenthusiastic thereafter.
George Simpson has set the tenor in 1821 when he ruled that the safety
of Company trade was not to be sacrificed on any consideration, and that
an expedition's necessities were a secondary consideration to Company
difficulties. It must have been with reluctance tempered by an awareness
of Company responsibility that led him to send with Franklin his trader,
Peter Warren Dease.
Since Thomas had company in his opinion of George, and company ,including George, in his
opinion of Back, it is difficult to see why, on these accounts, he should
be the only one in whom the opinions indicated mental decay.
Suicide while of sound mind as an alternative renders incredible the
one thing no one disputes — the killing of John Bird and Antoine Legros.
Whatever reason he might have had for taking his own life, no sane person
would take two innocent men with him. We are further asked to believe
that, after cold blooded murder, he went to sleep beside his victims leav–
ing as the next order of business his own death until the following day.
In either of the suicide theories, there is one more thing unexplained —
the behavior of Antoine Legros, Jr. By the testimony of James Bruce,
Thomas had a double-barreled shotgun with which he killed two men. After
the second shot, therefore, he was unarmed for there is no mention of his
having another gun. Antoine Legros, Jr. saw his father shot, heard his
father profess innocence, saw him die, and then rode off. Since the party

Thomas Simpson

was armed against the Sioux, the logical thing would have been for Legros,
Jr. to point his gun at the defenseless Simpson and shoot him or take him
prisoner. We have no explanation from Legros, Jr. for apparently he never
made a deposition.
Among Company employees the suicide version was at first accepted
Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson wrote Hargrave from Fort Garry on December 18,
1840: "This shocking event took place on the 14th of June last, and altho'
then known to all the Emigrants, from this place to the United States, not
one returned, to give us the slightest intimation of the sad affair, but
the whole party proceeded to Saint Peters, as if it had been a matter of
common occurrence.
". . . That the poor man must have been insane is, I think, clear,
otherwise, how could a person, like him, who was on the high road to fame
& fortune have committed such a horrible deed — a deed, he must have been
aware, if it did not cost him his life, would have attached a stain to his
name worse even than death."
It is not long, however, before the theory of murder is advanced.
Chief Factor J. D. Cameron [: ] writes on April 25, 1841 to Hargrave. He
describes Simpson as a young man religiously brought up, of bright talents,
entering on a brilliant career. For such a one "to be so far deprived of
reason, as to commit two murders — and then — the act of self Destruction,
is horrible beyond all that can be imagined. " But — do we know all the
truth? I feel convinced that we do not. From my knowledge of Poor Thomas's
character — I am sure there must have been a quarrel between him and the
others before the work of Blood began."
His theory is that Thomas found fault with the slower pace of his com–
panions for he was, understandably, anxious to "make an expeditious Journey."
He would have "made use of harsh remarks which with fellows as firey as

Thomas Simpson

himself and who had no great love for him, would [: ] have soon led into
quarrels — and from quarrels to the work of Death. Hence I am persuaded —
he shot the two men in self defense, was perhaps himself wounded, or at
all events was dispatched the next morning by some one of the returning
Party. The stories such as they are, do not tell well at all. Besides
surely — if the whole Party had been innocent of his Death — some one
would have returned back [: ] immediately to carry the melancholy Tidings
to red river. . .The whole business is involved in mystery — and it may
be a long time are all the truth will come to light."
The most conclusive point for murder made by these factors, and later
to be made by others, is that no one of the Emigrants returned to Red River which would be
the natural thing for innocent people to do. They may not have known why
Thomas was journeying to England; they certainly did not know that Thomas
was an important person in his own right, since he did not know it himself;
but they all knew that Thomas was the cousin of George and that George was
the Governor of Rupert's Land. They all knew that if they returned to Red
River either with the body of Thomas or without it but with a clear state–
ment of facts, they would have been amply rewarded. Instead they journeyed
on, "as if it had been a matter of common occurrence."
By order of George Simpson, the bones of Thomas were returned to Fort
Garry but Christian burial was denied him. "A grave was dug for him,"
says McArthur, "away from those of the good people, and no stick or stone
marks the spot."
The news of the death ofT Thomas reached Alexander in January 1841.
He was then in the Sandwich Islands and chanced upon a copy of the New York
American of August 3, 1840, which, with embellishments, was quoting the
earlier account in the St. Louis Bulletin of July 24. He immediately made
arrangements to leave for England.

Thomas Simpson

Arriving in May, he found that the manuscript narrative of Thomas
was still in the hands of George and that temporary suppression had been
arranged so that it could be included in a compilation to be made up at
some later date. To substantiate his statement, he quotes a letter from
George to Sir J. Henry Pelly, February 25, 1841. "His 'Journals or
Narrative' I should, if you have no objection, wish to be reserved for
myself, to be embodied in a work which, if I live to return and can command
a little leisure time, I have it in contemplation to publish."
Alexander's vehement protests won the promise that the narrative would
be published separately and in Thomas's own name, Since Alexander had to
return to the Pacific, Colonel Edward Sabine, a man of unquestioned in–
tegrity, agreed to put the manuscript in shape for publication. On July 18,
1843, Sabine reported to Alexander on the manuscript, "On [: ] perusal,
I found the work in a state of such complete preparation, that the altera–
tions which I saw any occasion to make were very few indeed. . . . it impressed
me with an additionally high respect for your brother's memory, that he
should have drawn up the narrative of the expedition on the spot, in such
a complete manner that it might well have been printed verbatim. "
In the year 1840, the year in which Thomas died, the Admiralty announced
its intention of awarding both Dease and Simpson annuities of £100 each.
Dease presumably collected his until his death in 1863.
Alexander appealed in vain to the Company as such, to George, now a
Knight, and to the Imperial Government Admiralty for a payment of money due Thomas's estate.
He considered the Government owed Thomas at least one year's annuity.
Sir Robert Peel, however, regretted that it was not within his power to
appropriate in such a fashion the limited fund for the reward of public
service. Alexander countered that the officers of two Government expedi–
tions had failed to determine the existence of a Northwest Passage, yet
promotions and honors were given them. Thomas Simpson had succeeded

Thomas Simpson

"and the claims which he thereby established on [: ] his country his death
did not abrogate." There was no reply.
Nor was he successful with the Hudson's Bay Company. The answer [: ] of
the Directors in London to the claims for Chief Trader and Chief Factor pro–
motions (i.e. for some £2,000 to £3,000) was that Sir George was [: ] but a
commissioned officer with limited powers, that he had no authority to bestow
appointments, and that all he could do at any time was to recommend Thomas
(with the approbation of a majority of the Council) to the Governor and Com–
mittee. "Whatever promise, therefore, Sir George Simpson may have given
your brother, must have been perfectly understood by both parties to be such
as he had power to fulfil. . . but cannot, by any reasonable construction,
be supposed to imply, that your brother, who had then done nothing whatever
to distinguish himself, was to be advanced instanter over the heads of offi–
cers who had been more than twice as long in the service, and who had much
stronger claims on the Company."
Even had this been true, which the account of Sir George in this Ency–
clopedia indicates it was not, the Council had actually voted a chief
factorship for Thomas. Says Morton, "Thomas Simpson had carried through an
exploration on the Arctic coast that caught the admiration of a wide circle
in England. Admiralty had awarded him an annuity of £100. Was the Hudson's
Bay Company to take no notice of his achievement? The Chief Factors decided
to reward him, and gave him the majority over [John] M'Lean."
While pensions and annuities do stop on the death of the recipient, it
would seem that there were several months of Thomas Simpson's life when the
emoluments did apply. The Company, however, informed Alexander that his
claims were "totally inadmissible." It did pay, says McArthur, "the merest
pittance as the balance due to Simpson" to his mother.

Thomas Simpson

Alexander placed a marble tablet as a memorial to Thomas in the parish
church at Dingwall but, because of the alleged suicide, the parishoners ob–
jected and it was removed to the county buildings of Ross-shire.
Aside from Alexander's tablet and Thomas's own Narrative , there are no
memorials for, as we have seen, he was buried in an unmarked grave and we
do not have his complete writings unless they are still in the Company ar–
chives to be published at some later date.
The American agent at Lac qui parle received Thomas's effects from the
Emigrants and forwarded them to Sir George. Thomas died June 16, 1840 but
his manuscript did not reach England until October 1841. The rest of the
papers were not turned over to Alexander until 1844. After examining them,
he wrote Sir George on December 2: "When they reached me a great portion of
those letters — I especially advert to those from yourself — were wanting.
. . . I hesitate not to assert, that the depositaries of my brother were
rifled of valuable papers." McArthur states that the diary, which would
have told most of the story, was missing and Alexander states that the pa–
pers which had been removed would have afforded him legal grounds for pro–
ceeding against the Company.
There were several who had opportunity to tamper with Thomas's effects.
The American officer at Lac qui Parle , for instance, had opportunity but,
so far as we can see, no motive. He was a transmitting agent only.
James Bruce and Antoine Legros, Jr. also had opportunity. Alexander
believed one of the two assassinated him Thomas because he was believed to be carrying in writing
the secret of the Northwest Passage. Had either of these been involved,
all the papers, including the manuscript, would have been taken for James
Bruce could not read and therefore could not select, and the probability is
that Legros Jr. was also illiterate. We infer the illiteracy of Bruce be–
cause his deposition was obviously written for him, read to him, and signed

Thomas Simpson

James his X mark Bruce. If Legros, Jr. had been able to read, he would most
certainly have taken the Journal for time was limited and the Journal
would have been the most likely place to look at leisure for "secrets."
The Emigrants also, of course, had opportunity, but, we have seen,
they were so engrossed in their own prospects that they treated a sen–
sational occurrence as though it had been an everyday affair.
We do know Sir George received the papers because he himself says
so and because Alexander says it was from George that, after four years,
he received them.
Unfortunately, at the time the papers reached George, he was not in
a position to give them complete attention for there was a competing
attraction. Quoting in its entirely the paragraph from his Narrative
of a Journey Around the World
, "Early next morning I received occupa–
tion enough for one day at least. A boat from our establishment brought
me the journal and other papers of my late lamented relative, Mr. Thomas
Simpson, whose successful exertions in arotic discovery and whose un–
timely end had excited so much interest in the public mind. By the same
conveyance we got a supply of white fish. This fish, which is peculiar
to North America, is one of the most delicious of the finny tribe, having
the appearance and somewhat the flavour of trout."
It is possible that Sir George, dividing his wordage equably between
the death of Tom Thomas and the arrival of fish, preferred to savor the
fish rather than the diary, set it aside for later perusal, in which case
it may still turn up in the Company archives, be published and resolve
once and for all many perplexing questions. On the other hand, if the later
perusal occurred during one of the sea voyages and it the contents of the
diary did not meet Sir George's approval, it may have conveniently been
dropped overboard.

Thomas Simpson

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hargrave Correspondence, 1821-1843 . Edited with Introduction and Notes
by G. P. deT. Glazebrook, Toronto, 1938.

KING, RICHARD. Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean ,
London, 1847.

McARTHUR, ALEX., "A Prairie Tragedy: The Fate of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic
Explorer." Paper read before the Historical and Scientific Society of
Manitoba, Transaction , No. 26, Winnipeg, 1897.

MacKAY, DOUGLAS, The Honourable Company . Indianapolis and New York, 1936.

McLEAN, JOHN, Notes of a Twenty-five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay
Territory
, London 1849.

MOBERLY, H. J., and W. B. Cameron, When Fur Was King . Toronto, 1929.

MORTON, ARTHUR S., Sir George Simpson, Overseas Governor of the Hudson's
Bay Territory
. Oregon Historical Society, copyright 1944.

SIMPSON, ALEXANDER, Life and Travels of Thomas Simpson . London, 1845.

SIMPSON, GEORGE, Narrative of a Journey Round the World during the years
1841 and 1842
. London, 1847.

SIMPSON, THOMAS, Narrative of Discoveries on the North Coast of America.
London, 1843.

STEFANSSON, VILHJALMUR, Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic . New York, 1938.

WILLSON, BECKLES, The Great Company . Toronto, 1899

----- Lord Strathcona; The Story of His Life .Toronto, 192 1902.

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