Aemilius Simpson, his cousin George, and the birth of the York Factory Express

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

Aemilius Simpson was a very interesting young man, and one who kept a concise journal of his voyage across the North American continent, from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, Columbia District.

This is what James Raffan says of Simpson’s early life, in his book Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable story of the Hudson’s Bay Company [Harper Collins, 2007]. George Simpson, later Sir George Simpson, was Aemilius’ cousin, and the man who later became the Governor of the HBC. George was the reason why Aemilius eventually entered the HBC’s fur trade.

By all accounts, young George’s main caregiver was his aunt Mary, who, perhaps as a result of close monitoring of his education at the Dingwall [Scotland] school, was courted by the schoolmaster, Alexander Simpson. Alexander Simpson had one “natural” child… born out of wedlock to another unknown Ross-shire woman, and for whose raising he took responsibility. A second son, Aemilius, arrived in 1792, born to Alexander and his first wife, Emilia MacIntosh, a Dingwall parish farmer’s daughter who died soon after his birth. Romance between Alexander and Mary could only have been reinforced and encouraged by the school friendship between Aemilius and young George, both of whom would go into long service with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Aemilius as a sea captain and George, eventually, as overseas governor.

Aemilius’s service in the HBC was not long, however, but it was interesting. As stated above, he was the second son of a schoolmaster who, after his first wife died, married Mary Simpson, aunt of the future Sir George Simpson, Governor of the HBC. Aemilius’s half-brother was Thomas Simpson, who also joined the HBC and became a noted Arctic explorer.

Aemilius was born in Dingwall, Scotland, in 1792. In 1806, he joined the Royal Navy (he was only thirteen years old). During his years at sea he became a competent navigator with a sound knowledge of nautical astronomy. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1815, but the Napoleonic Wars ended the same year, and Aemilius retired to Dingwall on half pay.

In 1821, Aemilius’s cousin George was made Governor of the HBC, and in 1824-25, Governor Simpson visited the posts West of the Rocky Mountains for the first time. He didn’t like what he saw. Fort Vancouver did not exist, and the HBC headquarters on the Pacific was at Fort George [Astoria], at the mouth of the Columbia River. Governor Simpson ordered a new headquarters built on farmland one hundred miles inland from the mouth of the river — this became Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA]. He also closed down Spokane House and ordered that a new post, Fort Colvile, be constructed just above the Kettle Falls, on the direct route of the then boat brigades to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

At that time, the HBC men travelled out of and into the Columbia District via the old route, in canoes. From York Factory to Cumberland House their route was identical to that of the later York Factory Express, but at Cumberland Lake it followed the modern-day Sturgeon-Weir River [Maligne, or Wicked River] north, crossing Frog Portage, and the Methye Portage to the Upper Churchill River, and down that river to the Athabasca east of Fort Assiniboine. After that, the canoes followed the Athabasca River west, passing the future location of Fort Assiniboine (built in 1823).  At Jasper’s House they walked up the valley to Athabasca Pass and reached Boat Encampment, on the Columbia River. This is the same journey that Peter Skene Ogden and John Work made in 1823, as recorded in John Work’s “Journal July 19 to October 25, 1823,” Manuscript, A/B/40/W89.1A [transcript], BCA.

In 1825, on his return journey to Lachine, Governor Simpson rode south from Fort Assiniboine, over the newly created Athabasca Portage to Edmonton House. He then descended the North Saskatchewan River in a York Boat, and from Carlton House rode on horseback across country to Red River. He had decided that the men from the Columbia should now come out via the Athabasca Portage to Fort Edmonton, where they would merge with the Saskatchewan brigades, strengthening their party and making it safer for them to pass through the dangerous Blackfoot territory. This was the beginning of the York Factory Express.

Later in 1825, Governor Simpson was in London, and there he arranged that his half-cousin, Aemilius, join the HBC as surveyor and ship captain. The Governor’s recommendation was accepted, and Aemilius Simpson sailed for Montreal with his cousin. From Lachine they made their way to Lake of the Woods, where they separated. Aemilius accompanied Chief Factor John Charles to Fort Garry, Red River, where he surveyed the boundary line between the HBC’s Red River district and the American territories south of the 49th parallel. When that was done, both men proceeded to York Factory. From this Hudson Bay headquarters, Aemilius would begin his journey to the west to the Columbia district. He begins:

The Saskatchewan Brigade, which I was appointed to accompany (as were all the party bound for the Columbia) being now equipped, 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 3pm and commended our journey across the Continent of North America… Our Crews were in high spirits and commenced their laborious journey with as much apparent indifference as if a few days was to bring it to a conclusion. [B.223/a/3, HBCA]

Aemilius Simpson had been instructed by the Governor that he was to complete a detailed survey of the York Factory Express route all the way from Hudson Bay to Fort Vancouver. His report would provide the Committee of the HBC with a professional description of the route and its difficulties, complete with compass directions and geographical coordinates.  But when the journal was finished, it was much more that that.

When he reached Fort Vancouver, Aemilius Simpson supervised the completion of the ships that the HBC men were building there. A story is also told, that he carried apple seeds in his pocket from England, and on his arrival at Fort Vancouver, these seeds were planted and became the beginning of the apple orchard that Fort Vancouver was known for in later years (Some of these trees are still alive, though very ancient). He was involved in the construction of Fort Langley, on the Fraser River, in 1827, and of the first Fort Simpson, in the estuary of the Nass River, in summer 1831. Shortly after a voyage northward to Sitka, Simpson died of liver failure aboard his ship. He was buried outside the palisades of the first Fort Simpson.

Governor George Simpson mourned his cousin’s death, writing in his Character Book that:

A namesake and Relation of my own, whom I should not have introduced to 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 unexceptionable. [Character Book of Governor George Simpson, 1832, Hudsons Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870, HBRS]

The footnotes are an interesting read: “The first mention by the Governor of Aemilius Simpson’s death came in a letter to J.G. McTavish, dated York Factory, 19 July 1832…

“You will be sorry to hear that the poor Lieut. is dead from inflammation of the Liver..” B.135/c/a, fo. 86d. By then McLoughlin’s letter of 15 March ’32 from Fort Vancouver containing news of the death would have reached Simpson. In a letter to McTavish earlier in the year Simpson wrote of Aemilius that he 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 [Thomas] Sinclair could afford him no support, he was therefore under the necessity of doing all the dirty work of cuffing & thunking himself… I never heard of the scrapes &c &c to which you allude but from what I know of the Lieut. & have heard of him when we were School fellows I have (laying all other claims & feelings aside) a very great respect for his character & high opinion of his worth.” [Ibid, fo. 79d-80].

In July 1834, Peter Skene Ogden decided to change the location of the first Fort Simpson, relocating it in a better location in the outer estuary of the river — the story is told in my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. Donald Manson began to dismantle the first fort, while James Birnie, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and William Tolmie began construction of the second. By the end of July their employees had cut, peeled and squared 1,050 log pickets, enough to enclose an area of 155 feet square. At the old fort, the HBC men dug up the three bodies buried outside the fort gates and transported them aboard ship to be reburied at the new post. This second Fort Simpson stood for a long time, eventually becoming the town of Port Simpson, British Columbia. Though I don’t know if Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson’s grave is still marked [it probably isn’t], he is still buried there.

It might be fun to follow Aemilius Simpson’s story through the records, though I am not sure there is enough available information to make up a book. Not everyone seems to have liked him, however (well, that’s makes a story interesting). Chief Trader Archibald McDonald wrote: “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.” Many years later, Hubert Howe Bancroft, an collector of history of the North West Coast, wrote this about Simpson:

For a British tar and a brave man on duty, dealing rum, molasses, beads and blankets to savages in the dark, dismal shores 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-tenth of the law with him and the other tenth conformity. [Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, p.477]

Much of the information in this post [but not all] comes from an article published in The Journal of the Hakluyt Society, August 2014, titled: “Lt Aemilius Simpson’s Survey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826,” edited by William Barr and Larry Green.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.