Aemilius Simpson: voyage across the continent in 1826.
Simpson had seen much of the world before making the transcontinental journey that is the subject of his journal, but he had never been to the interior of North America. An astute observer, competent astronomer, and meticulous recorder, he made numerous observations for latitude and longitude, and commented on the aborigines, landscape, flora and wildlife he encountered along the route. During the riverine portions of his journey he noted virtually every bend and the length and bearing of every segment. He was responsive to the natural beauties of the country he was traversing and sensitive to the physical hardships of the men and animals that made the journey possible. And he had an ability for picturesque description that gave his writing a vibrancy and freshness. Aemilius's journal was written with a conversational intimacy that reminds the reader of a letter from a friend describing his travels through a distant land. From the first to the last words, it is a joy to read. It has never been published.
Neither the journal nor its author are widely known, and very few fur trade historians have used the manuscript in their researches and studies. The reasons for the lack of recognition might lie in the fact that when he wrote the journal he had no experience in the fur trade; he was a Royal Navy officer on half-pay travelling as a passenger with a Hudson's Bay Company brigade. He was a novice who lacked the authoritative voice of someone who had spent half his life bartering for animal pelts, managing recalcitrant voyageurs, pacifying hostile Indians, and confronting the multitude of other dangers that were the fabric of life in the North-West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nor was he among the ranks of explorers and adventurers who became the icons of the first centuries of European encroachment into North America. But the journal is valuable because of the unique insight it gives of the excitement, pleasures, and trials of transcontinental travel -- seen through the eyes of a newcomer -- at a time when a day's progress depended on the brawn of horses and men and the vagaries of wind and water.
Simpson was born on 27 July 1792, at Dingwall, in the Highlands of Scotland. His father, Alexander, was a schoolmaster. His mother, Emilia MacIntosh, the daughter of a farmer, died shortly after his birth. In 1807, Alexander married Mary Simpson, the aunt of the future governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, George Simpson. There was, therefore, a familial connection between Aemilius and George, and they were also schoolmates.
In 1806, when he was thirteen years of age, Aemilius joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman to begin his training as a naval officer, and his formal education was probably continued while on board ship. Simpson's career spanned the last nine years of the Napoleonic Wars, and he served in the Channel Fleet, the West Indies, Ireland, the Mediterranean, and the East Indies. On 2 March 1815, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In the same year, the French wars ended and the naval establishment was reduced; on 5 December 1816 he retired on half-pay. Aemilius then returned to Dingwall where he formed a relationship with Margaret McLennan, and their son, Horatio Nelson, was born in 1821. On 1 March 1826, George Simpson arranged for Aemilius to be appointed hydrographer and surveyor by the Hudson's Bay Company.
The north-west fur trade was undergoing many changes in the mid-1820s. From about 1785 until 1821 two great fur trading concerns -- the North West and Hudson's Bay companies -- vied for dominance of the commerce. The competition was ruthless; ethical standards were low; violence and bloodshed were commonplace. Both concerns were facing financial ruin, and among many of the partners of the North West Company there was considerable dissatisfaction with the way the trade was being administered by the majority shareholders in Montreal. In 1821 the two firms amalgamated under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company. George Simpson was appointed governor of the Northern Department, and in 1826 he was placed at the helm of all the company's trading territories in British North America.
He began to implement immediate and sweeping changes: redundant trading posts were abandoned, about one-third of the personnel were dismissed, wages were cut, and policies were implemented to reduce waste and lessen the dependency of the company's employees on provisions from Britain. And although patronage and ancestry continued to be important in determining the course of a man's career, there was more emphasis placed on the quality of his performance.
For administrative purposes, the new company's vast domain was divided into about twenty-two departments, and George Simpson envisaged the Columbia Department as a source of future profits. The area encompassed the drainage basin of the Columbia River and the west coast of North America from Alaska to the Spanish territories in the south. But in the 1820s, American traders, usually based at Boston, dominated the commerce of the coastal regions. They cruised the offshore waters trading for sea otter hides and furs that the Indians brought down the rivers from the interior of what is now central British Columbia. The Hudson's Bay Company, under George Simpson's energetic and aggressive leadership, decided to challenge the Americans for control of the trade. The prospect of monetary profit was the main incentive, but there was also a political component to their ambitions: the Hudson's Bay Company wanted to forestall the Americans from laying claim to the region.
However, to assert the company's presence in the coastal trade, ships and mariners were required, and George Simpson turned to his kinsman Aemilius to assist in the task. His duties were to take command of the Cadboro, a ship being sent from England to the mouth of the Columbia River for the purpose of developing the company's coastal trade.
On 5 March, Aemilius and George sailed for New York and travelled together via Montreal, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior, to Lake of the Woods. They parted company there and Aemilius continued on to the Red River Settlement at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the location of the modern city of Winnipeg. After completing some survey work regarding the location of the 49th parallel of latitude, Aemilius proceeded via the Red River, Lake Winnipeg, and the Hayes River route to York Factory, where he rejoined George.
On 14 July he began a "Voyage Across the Continent of North America," and he described his departure from York Factory in the first entry of his journal:
The Saskatchawan Brigade, which I was appointed to accompany (as were all the party bound for the Colombia) being now equiped, and the number of men required for the latter department being made up, the Dispatches closed, and all other arrangements being completed, we Embarked from York Factory at 3 PM, and commenced our Journey Across the Continent of North America.
The "Brigade consisted of about sixty persons," and they "Embarked in five Boats, which were fully laden with Supplies for the Interior."
The "Boats" were York boats, wooden craft that were first used by the Hudson's Bay Company on the Albany River around 1775. These were the primary craft used by the HBCo. for transport during the fur trade era: their shallow draft, high bow and stern, and pointed ends, made them suitable for travel on shallow rivers. At portages the boats were man hauled over rollers or dragged along the ground. When ascending rapids they were sometimes "tracked"; lines were run from the boat to men on the banks of the river. Travel by York boat was laborious, but a favourable wind sometimes allowed the crews to hoist sail.(2) Simpson was a passenger, a naval officer, and a gentlemen; he did not participate in the gruelling work of manning the boats. "Our Crews," he noted on embarking, "were in high spirits & commenced this labourious Journey with as much apparent indifference as if a few days was to bring it to a conclusion."
Simpson departed York Factory with feelings of sadness, self-doubt, and anticipation. "Altho' my mode of life from an early period has exposed me to frequent changes and separation from friends," he wrote, "yet it has not been able to divest me from feeling very acutely such separation when the hour arrives." He particularly regretted bidding farewell to his "valuable friend the Governor of Ruperts Land [George Simpson]." And he reflected:
I was now entering among strangers and upon entirely a new mode of life, two considerations which were calculated to create a good deal of anxiety, as I was a stranger to the habits of the former, and doubtfull of my capacity to perform the duties of the latter. On the other hand I did not commence the Journey without feelings of satisfaction at the prospect it held out to me of seeing a variety of new and interesting Scenes.
The weather was fine, but they "were very much persecuted by mosketos" throughout the day. After proceeding about eighteen miles, they encamped at 9:20 p.m.
The first stage of the journey required ascending the Hayes River for about three hundred miles, and then crossing to the Echimamish and Nelson rivers for the final ninety miles to Norway House, near the northeast corner of Lake Winnipeg. On some days the crews tracked and portaged from before dawn until after dusk; at other times the route was free from obstacles, their course was unimpeded, and they could occasionally sail.
On 20 July, for example, Simpson recorded: "Some of our boats being still in the rear we did not proceed on our Journey untill 4:30 AM." That was a late start; they were sometimes underway two hours earlier. The following four hours were occupied "in getting above the rapids of the Mossy Portage." At noon, while they were making another portage, "the day [was] extremely warm Thermometer 81 [degrees]." They encamped at 8 p.m., and Simpson summarized the day's travel:
Notwithstanding our increasing exertions our advance today has been very trifling in point of distance being only 4 1/2 miles. But taking portages and rapids as an equivalent we have certainly made a fair days march, having made four portages two of them launching places for Boats, besides hauling by line thru' several strong shoots & rapids, some of these dangerous & the best tedious & fatiguing, the Crews being frequently obliged to leap overboard in the Rapids to Launch the Boats over Rocks. The Heat of the day was followed by Showers in the Evening.
Two days later, after making four portages, the crews were rewarded with a rest from their toil. They "now entered Knee Lake, which [they] continued to ascend with a fine fair breeze until 8 PM." And on 29 July, the day the brigade arrived at Norway House; there was "a breeze from the NE, rendering great assistance in [their] progress."
They arrived at Norway House at 3 p.m. on 29 July after travelling a distance that Simpson estimated to be "395 1/2 miles." (Considering that he relied on dead reckoning to calculate the distances travelled, he was remarkably accurate. The distance from York Factory to Norway House, measured on modern topographic maps, is approximately 390 miles.) He thought it was "certainly a long time for so short a distance." It was, however, not an unusually "long time" for the journey(3) and their stay was short. There was still far to go; the fishery had failed, and provisions were in scant supply for the three hundred people gathered at the post. The crews were reduced "to the alternative of eating Dogs, which however [was] considered a choice article of food by some of the old Voyageurs."
The brigade left Norway House on 31 July, and they "pursued [their] route along the NW shores of Lake Winnipeg ... favoured with a fair breeze for a great part of [their] Days run, sometimes blowing strong accompanied by rain." They arrived at Grand Rapids, on the northwest corner of the lake, the following morning, and the crews were "employed transporting the Boats [etc.] across the Portage, which is a most laborious operation." During that time, Simpson was engaged in less arduous pursuits: he "walked to the Head of the rapids," and estimated that they were six miles long. He measured the length and elevation of the portage and found that it required transporting boats and supplies over a distance of 1,800 yards and an elevation gain of 67 feet; and he took observations for longitude, latitude, and magnetic variation. At 3:30 in the afternoon of the next day the portage was crossed and the brigade began to ascend the Saskatchewan River to Fort Edmonton.
There were extensive marshes in the lower reaches of the river and in early August 1826 they were in flood. On 5 August, without a suitable place to put ashore, breakfast and supper were cooked on a raft. That night they slept in the boats and Aemilius experienced a dramatic display of northern lights:
The Heavens presented one of the finest displays of the Aurora Borealis I ever beheld. The whole heavens was a brilliant blaze caused by this phenomenon, assuming in quick succession the greatest variety of forms, shewing the various tints of the Rainbow with many others possessing a richness and beauty quite indescribable. The great point from which they appeared to diverge was in our Zenith, from there shooting out its brilliant rays to the several points of the horizon, & then again contracting themselves to the same point. And so strong was the play of these singular lights that I almost imagined I heard a noise caused by its coruscations.
The brigade arrived at Cumberland House on 9 August, remaining there until the next day, thus allowing Simpson time to make observations for latitude and longitude. As they made their way up the river the lowlands receded astern and four days later he commented that, "the Banks now begin to rise in perpendicular Cliffs of a Muddy Sand" forming hills "from two to three hundred feet ... richly Cloathed with Pines and Poplars." The terrain along the river became more open and Simpson was able to walk along the heights of the river bank while the crews moiled through the mud and heat of the day tracking the boats.
His journal entry for 16 August illustrates the gulf that separated the social standing of a British gentleman, such as Simpson, from the Canadien, Metis, and aboriginal boatmen who made up the crews. It was a hot day, 840 Fahrenheit, when he wrote:
There now occurs Tracks of clear country, enabling those inclined to walk across the Points formed by the various bends of the River, which being a more direct line than the course of the River, renders it easy to keep ahead of the Boats, but the great heat, makes it more of a toil than a pleasure. It may therefore be judged, if the mere walking is fatiguing how much more must the labor of Tracking the Boats be so to our Crews.
At least Simpson commiserated with them; many of his peers were not that thoughtful. That afternoon they passed the Forks of the South and North branches of the Saskatchewan River and continued on until 8 p.m., having ascended the river for 33 miles.
The following day they mounted a series of rapids immediately above the Forks. The "great strength of Current" required additional men on the tracking line so that the crews could not "form an hourly relief of fresh hands," which obliged them to "take frequent rests." They covered 24 miles that day and encamped near the site of the present-day city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
On 20 August, shortly before arriving at Fort Carlton, Simpson got his first view of the Aspen Park Belt, the area dividing the southern plains from the boreal forests. He wrote:
The Country now presents a face of rich Meadow Land, with occasional Groves of Wood interspersed over its surface giving to the Scene a richness & beauty which even rivals the fine Lawns & rich pasture Lands of a civilized Country, possessing the advantage in point of extent over most countrys, the plains on the right or South Bank, extending many hundred miles to the South, affording pasture to myriads of Wild Animals, viz the Buffaloe, or Bison, a great variety of the Deer, and the number of wild berries produced along the Banks of the River affords an ample supply of food to the black bear who abounds in these regions. The Wolf preys upon the numerous dead carcasses, found over the plains, in consequence of the attacks of animals upon each other, but much more from the hostility of the Hunter.
It was beautiful, he thought, but settlement and agriculture would improve it. "Was this rich face of country made subservient to the use of civilized man," he contemplated, "how much would it enhance its beauty and value."
The "rich Meadow Land," which extended from Fort Carlton to beyond Fort Edmonton, was suitable for travel by horseback. It was common for some members of the brigades -- chief traders, clerks, hunters, and passengers -- to take to horse. They followed the boats, hunting as they went along, thus providing a supply of fresh meat for the crews, which was a welcome change from a diet of pemmican and the occasional fish. And on the 24 August, Simpson, "being anxious to witness the Hunting of the Buffaloe ... accompanied the Hunting Party, and mounting [their] Horses [they] struck into the Plains in pursuit of that object." The first animal killed was a bull. "When within a distance [the hunter] fired & mortally wounded the animal." But the flesh of a bull was not "deemed food" and it was left for the scavengers. Simpson was a little nervous. "To a stranger," he exclaimed, "the fierce appearance of this animal is calculated to excite some apprehension from a too close approach, which is often attended with danger."
He probably viewed the proceedings from a discrete distance, but he left a poignant picture of the great herds of buffalo and other animals that once inhabited the North American prairies:
We were soon gratified by a sight of immense herds extending along the plains as far as you saw -- & besides these, there were also large Herds of Deer & here & there you saw flocks of Wolves prowling about for prey. You also see the Eagle soaring over the plains, ready to pounce upon his prey.
The hunt was successful, and after a good feed they "took up [their] abode for the night under the shelter of a few Willows, which to a stranger appears rather an uncomfortable nights residence."
The brigade passed the mouth of the Battle River, near the modern town of Battleford, on 27 August. The weather was becoming cooler, which Simpson noted with relief, "has had the happy effect of driving away the mosketoes, one of the greatest pests the traveller has to contend with."
Thirteen days later, on 9 September, they arrived at Fort Edmonton, "the most important Trading Post on the Saskatchawan." It was surrounded by a palisade and "in a good state of defence against Indian attack -- a very necessary precaution." Near the fort was "a considerable extent of farm" with "an abundant Crop of Wheat, Barley, Oats & Potatoes -- and a garden producing excellent vegetables." The Banks of the River "provided ample pasture land for the horses." The surrounding country was home to numerous "red Deer Tribes [elk]. Bears both of the Black and grizzle kind [were] also numerous."
It took fifty-eight days for the brigade to travel from York Factory to Fort Edmonton; and after the labours of the journey, the heat, the mud, and the "mosketoes," it was time for a party, and the voyageurs and inhabitants of Fort Edmonton knew how to have fun. On 12 September, Chief Factor John Rowand, "favoured us with a Ball in the Evening, which appeared to diffuse a great deal of delight & pleasure among the numerous partakers of the amusement." Simpson further observed:
All appeared anxious to decorate themselves in their best attire, and altho' among so many there were some grotesque figures, yet the general appearance of the group was very pleasing, and I was not a little amazed to see Scotch reels, and even Country dances, danced with a spirit & grace that would not disgrace a far more refined society. Among the half breeds and Canadians particularly, I observed some excellent dancers, & the half breed girls, tho' evidently not so proficient in that art, made a very good appearance & seemed most pleased with the entertainment.
It was probably the wee hours of the morning before the fiddles were put away and the last merrymaker made his way to bed for a few hours sleep before beginning the next, and most arduous, leg of the "Voyage Across the Continent of North America." They now had to portage from the North Saskatchewan River, in the Hudson Bay drainage basin, to the Athabasca River, 75 miles to the northwest. The provisions and goods were prepared into packs, loaded onto horses, and at 2 p.m. on 13 September "the Colombian brigade commenced the Journey across the Portage." Those destined for the "Athabasca and Upper Slave Lake" departed a few hours later. The whole brigade consisted of about fifty men and eighty-three horses, with thirty-three of the men destined for the Columbia and New Caledonia. Simpson "with several of the Gentlemen" remained at the fort for the night and caught up with the brigade the following morning.
Travelling by horseback on the first day, Simpson pursued what was thought to be the correct course, but after arriving "at a deep swamp & stream [he] began to suspect [he] had followed the wrong road." While retracing his steps, he said: "I had a rather unwished for meeting with a Bear. But on taking a short survey of me, he turned into the Woods." Then, after "a very coarse night, rain, sleet, with Thunder & Lightning" they resumed their march over a route that Simpson considered to be "almost impassible to Man or Beast -- the Horses & their loads frequently falling into swamps & ruts in which they almost disappeared, & it required extraordinary efforts at times to extricate the poor animals from their very uncomfortable situation."
It rained throughout the following night, cleared up at 6 a.m., and two hours later they resumed their labours "over a continuance of extremely bad roads, leading thru' Woods, Quagmires & Marshes." At the end of the day, Aemilius estimated they had gone "about 18 miles ... over the worst road [I] certainly ever saw travelled ... In any other part of the world I really believe [the route] would be considered impassible. Yet so familiar is the Voyageur with difficultys that he is better qualified to overcome them than any other people I have met with."
They arrived at Fort Assiniboine, on the north bank of the Athabasca River, on 18 September. The weather was "coarse ... with rain and sleet," which prevented preparing the canoes for the ascent of the river. The last men to cross the portage did not arrive until the 24th; goods were wet and had to be dried before packing. At this place the brigade divided, those destined for the Athabasca country pursuing a downstream course to the northeast while Simpson, with the Columbia and New Caledonia brigade, ascended the river to the westward. A week after their arrival, they left at 9 a.m. on 25 September.
The cumbersome York boats were not used on the Athabasca Riven Instead, Aemilius and the others embarked in three "very deeply laden" canoes, each carrying seven men and a cargo. "The Canadian Crews," Aemilius observed, "appear very well pleased with the change as they are much more used to and understand the management of Birch Canoes much better than the Boats. To the passengers however the change I think affords no advantage, the heavy lading reducing our room to very small bounds."
The unpleasant weather and trials of the portage behind them, they progressed rapidly towards the Rocky Mountains. And despite delays caused by damage to the canoes in the rapids, they averaged a about 25 miles each day, often poling and tracking. On most days Simpson noted that the weather was fine and clear, sometimes with a frost and thick fog in the mornings. The autumn colours were making their first appearance, and the day after leaving Fort Assiniboine Simpson commented:
The general appearance of the Banks has been very interesting, in some places rising in perpendicular cliffs of from two to three hundred feet, their summits richly cloathed in Pines, Birches & poplars. The various tints of their foliage forming a very pretty contrast, which combined with the singular appearance assumed by many of the hanging cliffs forms a very agreeable landscape.
The pleasant weather continued, and on 5 October, eleven days after leaving Fort Assiniboine, they "came in sight of the Rocky Mountains in the SW, their lofty summits towering up to the Vaulted Heavens." Their course was now parallel to where the Yellowhead Highway would eventually be built, and the view of the approaching cordillera thrilled Simpson.
At noon the next day, he wrote, "our Canoe got broke by striking a hidden Rock, obliging us to put on shore immediately to repair ... we again pursued our Journey and arrived at Jaspers House at 3 PM." This place was an important way station and a source of supply of horses necessary for the transmontane portion of the journey.
After an overnight stay, they left at 12:30 in the afternoon. Simpson, with part of the brigade, continued on the Athabasca River; others travelled with the horses. That night they camped near the location of present-day Jasper where Simpson noted:
Our Encampment might vie in point of romantic appearance with many of far greater celebrity. On our left is the perpendicular face of this stupendous Rock rising to an elevation of upwards of three thousand feet -- its shadow casting a gloom over the deep Defile, so opposite to the brilliant sky immediately over us -- that the mind feels an impression as if this situation was somewhat supernatural.
On the 8th they were at the eastern approach to the Yellowhead Pass, and the following day was occupied, Simpson wrote, "in making arangements for our Journey across the Portage, & the separation of the Brigades for the Colombia & New Caledonia. The latter pursue a route that has hitherto been passed by few. Report says it is a good one which soon leads them to head Waters of Fraser's River."
After wishing their friends farewell, those heading for the Columbia mounted the Athabasca River a few miles further. The Columbia brigade now consisted of six gentlemen, "with twenty-four men & boys, Having nineteen Horses to convey the Luggage and passengers." They left the valley of the Athabasca on 11 October and made their way towards the southwest, ascending the valley of today's Whirlpool River, for a distance of about 30 miles. Their destination was the Athabasca Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 5,700 feet. The route had long been known to aboriginal travellers and a few independent traders, and shortly after David Thompson's epic crossing in January 1811, it became the main transmontane fur-trade route.
They ascended "over pretty steep Eminences," Simpson recorded, "& pass thru' Thick Woods, intersected by swamps ... into which the poor horses sink with their loads." Later, one of the animals "was so much injured that it was deemed necessary to kill him, an expedient that was not at all disagreeable to our Voyageurs, his flesh being deemed by them as good and seasonable supply of food."
They arrived at the summit on 13 October, and Simpson saw a reminder of his native land. "I observed the heather," he noted, "such as I have seen on the Hills of Scotland, although I had frequently heard that this continent does not produce that plant."
They immediately began their descent of the western slope of the Rocky Mountains -- "a precipice of enormous magnitude & which forms a very serious obstacle on the line of communication." After a five-mile trek to the bottom, he looked back upon the immense mountain range that he had just descended, and reflected that: "you cannot avoid feeling some degree of amazement at the feat you have performed and the idea forces itself upon the mind that this is by no means an agreeable barrier between seperated friends." It was, he added, "the most difficult & extraordinary road I certainly ever travelled."
After another two days of overland travel they arrived at the Columbia River, and on 16 October the brigade consisting of "about 33 hands ... Embarked in three Boats (constructed in imitation of Canoes)."(4) The most laborious parts of the journey were now behind them, but the river was fast and treacherous. On the day after their departure Simpson recorded: "We run the upper Dalles rapids, a very grand shoot, the runing of which is attended with considerable danger, and requires great skill on the part of the Steersman & Bowsman."
They passed through the Upper Arrow Lake on 18 October. The salmon were spawning and he remarked that they were "the most miserable looking fish [he] ever beheld, being in the last stage of existence." Some local Indians were spearing them, but "they must prove but an indifferent article of food ... But it is what these poor people principally depend upon for their subsistence."
On 20 October they crossed the 49th parallel of latitude, and at day's end they arrived at Fort Colville, near Kettle Falls, in the present state of Washington. They "were received here by a number of Indians ... To a stranger, they appear grotesque figures, their faces painted a variety of colours & their leather robes fancifully decorated according to their fashion, giving them a very fantastic air." They remained there the following day, completed the portage around Kettle Falls on the morning of the 22nd, and continued their journey.
They made a speedy descent of the Columbia River; rapids were frequent but there were few portages. On many days the brigade travelled more than 70 miles. The varied and picturesque scenery, formed by the immense beds of basalt adjacent to the river, held a particular interest for Simpson's observant eye. At one point he commented: "You see singular blocks of Rock Strewed over its Surface in detached Masses, resembling the Druidical pillars of Stonehenge."
On 1 November they "arrived at the Cascades, which is the last obstruction in the Columbia River," and at 1:40 p.m. the next day they "arrived at Fort Vancouver [their] place of destination."
Simpson summarized the trek in the last words of his journal:
Having made the Journey from York factory in three months and nineteen days, a distance which I estimate by our route of Two thousand and eight hundred and seventeen miles, the whole of which is by Water communication, except the Assinaboine & Rocky Mountain Portages -- which does not exceed two hundred miles, but still form the most serious obstacles on the line of route. Our Journey tho' not performed with great expedition, may be justly called good, as during the whole of it, not the smallest accident occured to any of our party, and every thing destined for the different Posts arrived in perfect safety.
The journey had taken one hundred and twelve days, and a new phase of Simpson's adventures began.
The Cadboro, a schooner of 72 tons which Aemilius was to command, arrived from England via Cape Horn in 1827. In June, Simpson sailed her from Fort Vancouver and transported supplies, equipment, and "four officers ... twelve French-Canadians, one French-Canadian half-breed, two Kanakas,(5) two Iroquois, an Orkneyman and an Irishman" about thirty miles up the river to build Fort Langley.(6) While the buildings and stockade were being built, he sounded the river and made the first hydrographic chart of the Lower Fraser River.
He returned to Fort Vancouver, and in the autumn he was sent by the Dr. John McLoughlin, who was in charge of the Columbia Department, to California to get provisions and to investigate the possibilities of establishing a trade in salmon and lumber. He sailed with the first shipment of lumber in 1829, travelling to California and the Hawaiian Islands. He was promoted to the position of superintendent of shipping, and in 1830 chose the site for a trading post a few miles up the Nass River, where he assisted in establishing Fort Nass in 1831.(7)
About the middle of August, while on a trading expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Simpson became ill with a "liver complaint" and returned to Fort Nass, where he died on 2 September, aged thirty-nine years. His remains were laid to rest outside the stockade, and soon afterwards that establishment was renamed Fort Simpson in his honour. He was unmarried and his will, dated at Fort Vancouver, 14 November 1828, names his "natural Son Horatio Nelson Simpson now residing in Dingwall Rosshire North Briton" as his sole beneficiary.(8)
Some correspondence and reports, written after his death, suggest that he gained the respect of some of his colleagues, but he was not personally popular with others. Chief Trader Archibald McDonald, in a letter to his colleague, John McLeod, dated 15 January 1832, commented on the numerous deaths both accidental and natural -- of the company's personnel. He wrote: "Among the latter we have to lament the loss of poor Lieutenant Simpson who died on board his own vessel ... of a Liver Complaint after a few days illness ... Independent of his loss to the concern I regret him very much as a private friend. I am sorry to say with you in confidence however that he was not over popular with us--the cause you know as well as I do."(9)
Duncan Finlayson, also writing to McLeod, said: "He departed this life ... much lamented and regretted and whatever feelings might be entertained toward him during his career in the past of the country there is now but one of general sympathy for his untimely end."(10)
Both McDonald and Finlayson are vague regarding the cause of Aemilius's unpopularity, but it seems he carded the rigid sense of protocol and discipline of the Royal Navy to the fur fields of the British North America. Hubert Bancroft, an early chronicler of the history of the North West Coast said about him: "For a British tar and a brave man on duty, dealing rum, molasses, beads and blankets to savages for wild beasts' skins, Simpson was excessively the gentleman. Though an efficient officer he was somewhat eccentric. For example, his hands must be incased in kid before he could give an order on his own deck in the daylight, and if the occasion was perilous or peculiar, his gloves must be white kid. Form was nine-tenths of the law with him and the other tenth conformity."(11)
His kinsman and patron, George Simpson, noted in his "Character Book" that Aemilus was:
About 40 Years of Age. A namesake and Relation of my own, whom I should not have introduced into the Fur Trade, had I not known him to be a man of high character and respectable abilities. He has occupied the most dangerous post in the Service since he came to the country, and his whole public and private Conduct and Character have been unexceptional. (Accounts of his death have reached me since writing this.)(12)
He later wrote that Aemilus was: "As good a little fellow as ever breathed, honourable, above board and to the point. He may be a disciplinarian but it was very necessary among the Vagabonds he had to deal with. The Drunken wretched creature Sinclair(13) could afford him no support, he was therefore under the necessity of doing all the dirty work of cuffing & thunking himself ... I have (laying all other claims & feelings aside) a very great respect for his character & high opinion of his worth."(14)
In 1834, Fort Simpson was relocated closer to the mouth of the Nass River, where Port Simpson, B.C., is now located, and Aemilius's remains were reburied there.
(1) Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, B.223/a/3, folios 1-50. Hereafter, all quotations from the journal are from this source.
(2) Richard Glover, "York Boats," The Beaver, 279 (March 1949), 19-23.
(3) William Tomison, the Master of York Factory, travelling with a brigade of canoes in 1779, covered the same route in fifteen days. See E.E. Rich, ed., Cumberland House Journals and Inland Journals, 1775-82, 2d series, 1779-82 (London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1952), 59-66. And the first Franklin expedition required twenty-eight days. See Robert Hood, To the Arctic by Canoe, 1819-1821 ed. C. Stuart Houston (Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press, 1974), 21-35.
(4) The boats were probably made of split cedar.
(5) Hawaiian Islanders.
(6) G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg, British Columbia Chronicle, 1778-1846: Adventures by Sea and Land (Vancouver: Discovery Press, 1975), 241.
(7) John T. Walbran, British Columbia Coast Names, 1592-1906 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1909), 394.
(8) Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, A.36/12, fo. 35-35d.
(9) Archibald McDonald to John McLeod, 15 January 1832, quoted in "Documents: Beginning of Fort Simpson," Washington Historical Quarterly, 1:4 (July 1907): 265.
(10) Duncan Finlayson to John McLeod, 12 March 1832, quoted in "Documents: Trying to Best the Americans," Washington Historical Quarterly, 2:1 (October 1907): 42.
(11) Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the Northwest Coast, vol. 2 (San Francisco: History Company, 1886): 477n. Quoted in Walbran, British Columbia Coast Names, 1592-1906, 397.
(12) Glyndwr Williams, Hudson's Bay Miscellany, 1670- 1870 (Winnipeg: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1975), 199.
(13) Thomas Sinclair was first mate on the Cadboro.
(14) Hudson's Bay Company Archives, B.135/c/2, fo. 79d- 80. Quoted in Williams, Hudson's Bay Miscellany, 199.