George Barnston

Packhorses on Athabasca Portage
This is image na-3934-16, from Glenbow Archives, and is used with their permission. The packhorses that the HBC men used were probably smaller than these horses, but the scene would be very similar to this.

My tweets (on Twitter, of course) a little while ago were this:

We commenced our Journey across the Portage at 10 a.m., our Party consisting of Messrs James McMillan, James Birnie, George Barnston, Sinclair, Drummond & myself with twenty four Men and boys, having nineteen Horses to convey the Baggage and Passengers.

The quote came from “Lt. Aemilius Simpson’s Survey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826,” edited by William Barr and Larry Green and published in The Journal of the Hakluyt Society, August 2014. I think I changed one word in the quote, but other than that it is more or less correct — well, except that I added the gentlemen’s first names to the information. For your information, this is who they were: James McMillan was a powerhouse in the HBC fur trade, having come into the territory with David Thompson and remaining behind when the NWC was absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. James Birnie was another NWC man absorbed into the HBC, and is my great-great-grandfather.

But it’s George Barnston I am going to speak of today. He was a pretty interesting man! Born in 1800 in Edinburgh, Scotland, he joined the NWC as an apprentice clerk in 1820 and was taken into the HBC, where he worked at York Factory and Red River. He had, however, trained as a surveyor, and so in 1826 he came west in the returning York Factory Express to work under Lt. Aemilius Simpson on the west coast. Aemilius Simpson was the first cousin of Governor George Simpson of the HBC, and it is in Simpson’s journals that we find a little bit about Barnston.

On their arrival at Fort Vancouver, he and Simpson spent the winter of 1826-27 at Fort Vancouver, where Barnston met botanist/naturalist David Douglas, who was exactly his age. In his article in the North Columbia Monthly, August 2012, Jack Nisbet writes that:

Douglas infused Barnston with a passion for natural history, and the pair spent a good deal of time trying to figure out whether the California condors that wintered around the fort used olfactory or visual methods for discovering carrion. Barnston, in time, would write as eloquently as any ornithologist ever has about watching condors on the wing.

He [Barnston] also imparted his own enthusiasm for surveying to Douglas, who sailed back to London in 1827, took crash courses in surveying, celestial navigation, and magnetic variation, then returned to the Columbia in 1830 with his newly acquired skills plus a full set of surveying instruments. Barnston happened to be present at Fort Vancouver when the naturalist disembarked, and described with great delight the careful unpacking of his friend’s new tool kit…

The Gift: George Barnston and Life Beyond the Fur Trade, by Jack Nisbet, Boundaries, August 2012, The North Columbia Monthly [Spokane newspaper]

After meeting David Douglas for the first time, Barnston went on to do charting on the lower Fraser River and remained to assist in establishing Fort Langley: Barnston Island, which lies in the Fraser at the modern-day community called Fort Langley, is named for him. According to Bruce Watson in Lives Lived West of the Divide, “a visit to England in 1827 no doubt fostered a contact with the Royal Geographic Society of London, for which he collected insects and kept records.” I think in fact he made the contact without traveling to London, and with the help of David Douglas, who was at Fort Vancouver (but I might be wrong).

It appears that Governor Simpson thought that George Barnston was a gloomy fellow: “quite mad,” and likely to commit suicide. Barnston, on his part, scorned the governor for his opinion, and in 1831 he quit the company and returned to Montreal. But that was after his time at Fort Nez Perces, which he found a difficult posting. He was there for outfit 1830-31, and “it is probably while he was there that the fight occurred which Ballantyne describes at length in his book “Hudson Bay.”

Barnston had bought a fine horse from a Blackfoot Indian, which shortly afterwards was stolen from the fort. The following spring the Indian returned, and had the barefaced impudence to try and sell him the same horse. Barnston, “an exceedingly quiet, good natured man,” as Ballantyne says, “but very passionate when roused, no sooner witnessed the fellow’s audacity, then he seized a gun and shot the horse.” The Blackfoot at once sprang upon him, but having been deprived of his weapons at the gate, he was no match for the powerful white man, and Barnston proceeded to pommel him out of the fort and all the way to the Indian camp. There he was set upon by a dozen warriors, who threw him to the ground and began to beat him up.

One savage came forward with a large stone and dashed it into his face, knocking him unconscious. At that moment, armed men from the fort came running up, just in time to rescue him from a gory death. To his dying day, Barnston carried across the bridge of his nose a deep scar, where the stone had struck him.

“George Barnston,” by George Dunlop and C.P. Wilson, Beaver Magazine, December 1941

(As always, we have to remember that articles written eighty years ago may sound racist to us today. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the authors were racist. We no longer use the words “savage,” “warriors,” nor “Indian,” but in those days they did.)

In his book, The Langley Story Illustrated, Donald E. Waite wrote; “Clerk Barnston was also a Scotsman. Leaving Fort Langley he was put in charge of Fort Nez Perce. He retired in 1831 and went to Lachine, Quebec, but rejoined the following year and with Alexander Caulfield Anderson explored the Ottawa River in Ontario and the Great Lakes. For some years he was in charge of Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. He retired a second time and settled in Montreal.” And, yes, Barnston did explore the Ottawa River and the Great Lakes with my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson. But, it wasn’t an exploration, as such: they were crossing the country in the returning York Factory Express. On this long journey, Anderson must have listened to many of Barnston’s stories, and they kept in touch for years afterwards. This is what Anderson wrote of Barnston, and it must have been written in the 1860s or later:

George Barnston: This gentleman who was…attached to the party under Mr. [James] McMillan, who in 1827 founded Fort Langley, entered the service of the NW Co. at an early age. Up to the Spring of 1831, he was in charge of Fort Nez Perces on the Columbia (Walla Walla) and retiring from the service in 1831 proceeded to Lachine, Montreal, in company with Chief Factor [William] Connolly. He re-entered the service in the following spring: we ascended the Ottawa River and navigated the Great Lakes together in the spring of 1832 as far as Michipicoten on Lake Superior, where he diverged, having been appointed to the Southern Department. [He was on his way to Albany, apparently]. He afterwards was in charge for some years of Norway House, and subsequently of Tadousac below Quebec.

He is now settled in Montreal and when I last heard from him, a year or two ago, had recently been elected president of the Natural History Society of Montreal. He was a native of Edinburgh — a man of great energy, of character, of high education, and universally esteemed.

In the late 1820’s, Barnston had accompanied David Douglas, the botanist, around the district, and greatly admired him. All through his fur trade career, Barnston kept up his keen interest in botany and entomology. He corresponded with Douglas after he returned to England, and he was greatly distressed when Douglas was killed by a fall into a bull pit in Hawaii in 1834.

Interestingly, Governor Simpson had rehired Barnston in 1831 because he was afraid he would work for the Americans, Bruce Watson tells us. After he rejoined the HBC, Barnston made Chief Trader in 1840 and Chief Factor in 1847. Still, Governor Simpson considered him “so touchy & sensitive that it was difficult to keep on good terms or do business with him.” Yet, the men he worked with admired Barnston — every single one of them as far as I can see.

His retirement from the fur trade in 1863 allowed him to pursue his scientific research in botany and entomology, developed when he worked in the Columbia District. He lived twenty years past his retirement, and during that retirement he was an active member of the Natural History Society of Canada, and was its president in 1872-73. He supplied specimens to the Royal Geographical Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and McGill University, and published a detailed sketch of his own travels and discoveries in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist in 1860. A. C. Anderson’s daughter, Rose (born in 1858 at Cathlamet), collected specimens for Barnston, according to a letter in the British Columbia Archives, and so we know that Anderson and Barnston were in touch in those later years.

Barnston died in Montreal in 1883, one year after becoming a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His funeral was held at Christ Church Cathedral, and was attended by many important citizens of Montreal. He had eleven children, and one of them went on to become a professor of botany at McGill University. Like I said, a very interesting man!

You can order my book, The York Factory Express, through your local bookstore or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.