«FINDING UEL-HBC CONNECTIONS By Judith Hudson Beattie It is an honour to speak to the national gathering of the United Empire Loyalists here in ...»
Simon Fraser, Fort William, 16th August 1816, To the Earl of Selkirk (W. Kaye Lamb, Simon Fraser: Letters & Journals, 1806-1808, pp. 263-4) When Robert Semple (1777-1816) arrived to replace Miles Macdonell as the newly appointed governor of Assiniboia in November 1815, it was to a reduced and traumatised colony. Semple was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1777 to a British father and a Massachusetts mother (Anne Greenlaw). The family did not flee northward, but had returned to England to escape the American Revolution. Semple became a merchant and travelled extensively in Europe, Africa Page 5 of 7 and South America and wrote of his adventures. In 1815 he received his appointment from the HBC London Committee as Governor of Assiniboia, and travelled out with the Sutherland party of settlers. They landed at York Factory in August and arrived in Red River in November. He spent early 1816 touring the neighbouring posts with Colin Robertson, but they had a falling out and Robertson left on 11 June, judging Semple “a proud Englishman rather too conscious of his own abilities.” A week later, in a confrontation between the Métis under Cuthbert Grant and Semple’s party of settlers and HBC men, the Governor and 20 of his party died at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816. Miles Macdonell was returning to the settlement when he heard of the event and went back to warn Selkirk. They captured Fort William, arrested North West Company partners and took their papers and furs.
He had been involved in escorting the settlers to Upper Canada in 1815, but had returned to RRS. On the 1821 merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company he continued on, serving as a Chief Factor in various postings. Simpson described him, in one of the few mainly positive assessments to be found in his 1830 Character Book, as: “About 58 Years of Age; Strictly correct in all his conduct and dealings, and possesses much influence over the Natives: speaks Saulteaux well, and is one of our best Indian Traders; but in other respects not a man of business; not well Educated, yet possesses a good deal of general information having read almost every Book that ever came within his reach” (HBCA, AM, A.34/2 p. 2d). In 1835, Simpson wrote from RRS to his friend John George McTavish: “he has been here for a month past, he is a happy fellow, nothing seems to concern him, and an excellent well meaning man he is.” (HBCA, AM, D.4 file of letters) He retired in 1846 and died in 1857.
The story of Miles Macdonell’s brother, John, forms a sad epilogue to the UEL-HBC-RRS connection. John Macdonell was serving with the North West Company from 1793 in the Qu’Appelle valley, and from 1799-1812 he was in charge of the Upper Red River and Athabasca departments. On reaching Fort William in July 1812 he learned that war had broken out with the United States and he became involved in the conflict that is also being commemorated this year, the War of 1812. He settled in Pointe Fortune where he became a leading businessman, working with Philemon Wright in Hull Township where my ancestors had settled in 1820! In 1845 he wrote a pathetic letter to Sir George Simpson enclosing one to the Earl of Selkirk. He reminded the Earl of his father’s promise to grant 50,000 acres to Miles McDonell, his brother, and asked Simpson for free passage to Red River Settlement to take possession of that land. The party was to include himself and his wife (both described as aged and infirm), his sons Fingal and Polafax and the latter’s wife and 2 infants, and his daughter Mrs Reilly with her 2 sons and 2 daughters.
Simpson had told him in reply to a previous letter that he was not likely to be granted Page 6 of 7 permission, so he took pains to explain his situation: “It is on account of the family that I am anxious to join the Red River Settlement for I am aware that I cannot be so well of there as here, I moreover feel assured that my creditors being good lenient men will allow me to spend my few remaining days on these premises; But when I am gone, my poor dependents to a certainty will be turned off; - All my possessions being secured to my creditors....” (HBCA, AM, D.5, letter dated 8 August 1845). Simpson did not reply to his letter, and John Macdonell died at Pointe Fortune in 1850, still on his land thanks to his “lenient” creditors.
Although only one of the Loyalists I have described actually worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and two were appointed Governor by them, the others had close connections – often confrontational ones! Although the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives has the largest holding of North West Company records, they are mainly administrative records (employee debts and credits, account books, etc.). So most of what we know about the North West Company employees comes from the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company - another HBC connection.
The men I chose to highlight were also all connected with the Red River Settlement during the course of their careers.
I can also claim a connection to the Hudson’s Bay Company with my employment history in the Archives – although I was not employed by the Company but by the government. Once I received an inquiry at the archives from the U.S. asking if Daniel Hudson had been an owner of the Hudson’s Bay Company. I was able to reply that “No, the company was named for a body of water, Hudson Bay, which had been named for an explorer, Henry Hudson. However, I was descended from Daniel Hudson, who came to Massachusetts in 1639.” This led to a very fruitful correspondence and exchange of information. I am also wearing a gown that connects me at second hand with the RRS. I based it on the portrait of Lady Selkirk, wife of the founder of the Red River Settlement – and my husband is a fair approximation of Lord Selkirk - if he had lived longer and had been influenced by Chilean fashion!
Now if only I can discover my Loyalist ancestry, I could be that UEL-HBC-RRS connection! I have hopes. An 1884 article about Lancaster, Massachusetts, where my ancestors settled in the 17th century, describes the Loyalist following there. And some Loyalists also fought on the American side: Jennifer Brown, who was in town this week to receive a Professor Emeritus honour, told me that her ancestor had a UEL plaque on one side of his gravestone and one for Sons of the Revolution on the other! And it turns out that another connection was made through her spotting my talk here - we are tenth cousins through a Brigham family connection and possibly others. Thanks for this wonderful opportunity to make so many connections - perhaps some of you are also my distant cousins! I would love to hear from you.
Page 7 of 7 Ms. Beattie has worked in the archival field from 1969 to
2003. She held positions in the Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-française (CRCCF) at Université d’Ottawa, the Anglican General Synod Archives, and the Government Records Section of the Ontario Archives before coming to Manitoba in 1981.
She has an Honours BA degree in Canadian History from Carleton University and a Master of Arts degree in Canadian History from University of Toronto, with a certificate from the National Archives of Canada and training in Records Management from the Ontario Archives.
Ms. Beattie has been an active member of the Association Judith Hudson Beattie, Archivist and Historian for Manitoba Archives, the Association for Canadian Archivists, the Eastern Ontario Archivists’ Association and the Toronto Area Archivists’ Group.
She has given many presentations and published on a variety of topics related to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and the records preserved there, as well as other topics.
A book she co-edited with Helen M. Buss, Undelivered Letters to Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 1830-57 (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2003), was launched at her retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in January 2003. She continues research and writing, and volunteers in many areas including with the Manitoba Historical Society.