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    Tomas Simpson

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0749                                                                                                                  
    Final Draft


           (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


            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.

    002      |      Vol_XV-0750                                                                                                                  
    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


            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

    003      |      Vol_XV-0751                                                                                                                  
    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


            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.

    004      |      Vol_XV-0752                                                                                                                  
    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

    005      |      Vol_XV-0753                                                                                                                  
    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,

    006      |      Vol_XV-0754                                                                                                                  
    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

    007      |      Vol_XV-0755                                                                                                                  
    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,

    008      |      Vol_XV-0756                                                                                                                  
    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.

    009      |      Vol_XV-0757                                                                                                                  
    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

    010      |      Vol_XV-0758                                                                                                                  
    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

    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.

    011      |      Vol_XV-0759                                                                                                                  
    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.

    012      |      Vol_XV-0760                                                                                                                  
    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.

    013      |      Vol_XV-0761                                                                                                                  
    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

    014      |      Vol_XV-0762                                                                                                                  
    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

    015      |      Vol_XV-0763                                                                                                                  
    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-

    016      |      Vol_XV-0764                                                                                                                  
    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

    017      |      Vol_XV-0765                                                                                                                  
    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


            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."

    018      |      Vol_XV-0766                                                                                                                  
    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,

    019      |      Vol_XV-0767                                                                                                                  
    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."

    020      |      Vol_XV-0768                                                                                                                  
    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.

    021      |      Vol_XV-0769                                                                                                                  
    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

    022      |      Vol_XV-0770                                                                                                                  
    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

    023      |      Vol_XV-0771                                                                                                                  
    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.

    024      |      Vol_XV-0772                                                                                                                  
    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

    025      |      Vol_XV-0773                                                                                                                  
    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.

    026      |      Vol_XV-0774                                                                                                                  
    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

    027      |      Vol_XV-0775                                                                                                                  
    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.

    028      |      Vol_XV-0776                                                                                                                  
    Thomas Simpson


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    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

    , 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

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    . 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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