Discovering the Region: Commentary

9. George Simpson on the Fur Trade

A central figure in the land-based fur trade was George Simpson, a man who never lived permanently in the Pacific Northwest but whose role in the Hudson’s Bay Company gave him enormous power in the region between 1821 and 1846. Simpson was a proud Highland Scot with excellent connections in London. He worked in that city as a sugar-broker’s clerk until joining the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America. The HBC put him in charge of its vast northern fur trading territory, and gave him a tremendous amount of control over the business. It was in this capacity that Simpson made three trips to the Pacific Northwest—in 1824-25, 1828-29, and 1841-42—and on each occasion redefined the fur trade and thereby recast the development of the region. His contributions to the regional economy are illuminated by Mackie (1997).

The excerpts included here come from a journal kept during travels through the Pacific Northwest during 1824-25. Throughout this trip, Simpson was studying territory that the Hudson’s Bay Company had recently gained access to as a result of its merger with the North West Company of traders, based in Montreal. Simpson was trying to decide whether the region, which became known as the Columbia Department, would produce enough profits to make it worthwhile for the HBC, and he was also making recommendations about how to cut costs and streamline operations. The inspiration of the account was not the “noble science of discovery” but the hope for substantial profits. Above all Simpson was a businessman and his remarks were a kind of corporate report. He wrote it for his superiors, the merchants of the Honourable Committee back in London who ran the Hudson’s Bay Company. Besides detailing business conditions in the North American West, Simpson was also concerned to burnish his reputation among his bosses.

Simpson’s route in the Northwest basically followed the Columbia River from British Columbia to the sea, with stops at fur trading posts (e.g. near Spokane) along the way. Included here are passages that show his cost-cutting approach to the trade and a lengthy depiction of the Chinook Indians who resided near the mouth of the Columbia River. During most of his travels Simpson moved so briskly that he spent little time observing Indians, but he stayed put for a time among the Chinooks and wrote at greater length about them. Like other early European observers, Simpson found Northwest Coast Indians to be strange and “uncivilized,” yet he also recognized in them many of the same commercial instincts that he and his employer embodied. As a fur trader, Simpson needed the Indians as partners for the commerce in animal skins, and this fact shaped his perceptions of them. One can, then, contrast his framework for understanding Native Americans to those of explorers such as Vancouver and Lewis and Clark, missionaries like Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, and settlers such as James Swan.

This edition of Simpson’s remarks, prepared by the staff at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, is a typescript based on Simpson’s own journals. For a fully annotated version, consult Merk (1968).

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