William Sinclair Jr.

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

William Sinclair Jr was one of the most interesting men to work west of the Rocky Mountains, but it took me a long time to put his story together — in spite of the fact that he was connected to my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, on two separate and important occasions. Hmm, when I think about it, it is probably on three occasions!

William Sinclair Jr.’s biography appears in The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, Third Series, 1844-46, edited by E.E. Rich [Champlain Society for the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1944]. It was only on reading this biography that I realized that all of these vague William Sinclairs I had noted in Anderson’s life were the same man. So, this from above book reads:

William Sinclair, Junior, who was a son of Chief Factor William Sinclair and Mary McKay Sinclair, and a nephew of Dr. McLoughlin’s wife, was born on September 25, 1827, at Lac la Pluie.” For those of you who don’t know where Lac la Pluie is, that is Rainy Lake, Ontario, on the voyageur route between Lakes Superior and Winnipeg. “It is not known when he went to the Columbia District, but on May 28, 1843, Dr. McLoughlin wrote to William Glen Rae at San Francisco: ‘I send you Master William Sinclair, he is too young for an assistant, but he will do to copy & assist in the Store.’… After Rae’s death, Sinclair returned to Fort Vancouver, where he arrived in the spring of 1845, and according to instructions from Sir George Simpson he was “entered on the list of App. Postmasters, with the prospect of coming forward to the rank of clerk…his engagement commencing with the 1 June 1844, in consideration of his having been lately employed as assistant to C.T. Rae.”

It is shortly after this period that I first run into him: it must be him because there is no other William Sinclair in the HBC trade west of the Rockies! In November 1847, James Douglas wrote this letter which includes information about William Sinclair, Jr., who is sometimes described by writers as “an experienced waterman…” But he is, of course, only 20 years old, so how can that be? This is Douglas’s letter, below, and of course it relates to his expedition up the Fraser River to view the rapids above Yale which A.C. Anderson had explored earlier that same year, and which Anderson had recommended as a possible route for the New Caledonia Brigades to Fort Langley. William Sinclair Jr was also there!

Since we had the honor of addressing you from Fort Vancouver on 20th September [with a letter that told Governor Simpson of Anderson’s co-called successful route to Fort Langley], I had made an excursion to Fort Langley, chiefly for the purpose of putting matters in train for the passage of the Brigades by the contemplated new route to the interior mention in the 8th paragraph of that letter. Accompanied by Chief Trader Yale and Mr. William Sinclair, leaving Chief Factor Work during the absence of the former in charge of Fort Langley, we proceeded with an Indian canoe up Fraser’s River to the Saumeena village [Spuzzum] where the horse road to Fort Kamloops falls upon the river, about 100 miles beyond Fort Langley. We spent several days in examining the chain of rapids known as “The Falls,” which constitutes the chief obstacle of that route. With a few intervening spaces of smooth water, these rapids extend from the Sumeena to the upper Teat viillge [Yale], a distance of 13 miles…

William Sinclair Jr is not “the experienced waterman” that some writers, including me, have said he was. He was James Douglas’s private clerk, who wrote all of Douglas’s letters and reports just as John Charles did in the year that followed! Now it all makes sense to me. William Sinclair’s HBRS story continues below:

“Sinclair appears to have been employed mostly to the Fort Vancouver Depot, and in 1849 he was promoted to the rank of clerk. He reconsidered a decision to leave the service at the end of outfit 1849-50, and remained in the Columbia District, being employed at Forts Vancouver and Colvile until the end of outfit 1853-54.” But is that true?

It is true. In The Pathfinder I have this, page 159: “On November 15, 1851, when the incoming [York Factory] express boats drifted into Fort Colvile, Chief Factor John Ballenden found Anderson seriously indisposed. His entire family and all the employees of the fort were sick or slowly recovering from the fierce influenza that raged through the district, sickening Natives and fur traders alike. Ballenden, who had crossed the mountains to take over Fort Vancouver while Peter Skene Ogden was on furlough, ensured that everything was in good order at Fort Colvile before continuing down the Columbia River in the express boats, taking the Anderson family with him.”

John Ballenden left clerk William Sinclair Jr in charge of Fort Colvile in 1851, with Chief Trader Angus McDonald in overall charge from the Flathead Post. I actually thought that William Sinclair had left the territory and returned with Ballenden’s Express — actually, I didn’t even think that! I just didn’t connect the two William Sinclairs together at all! But rather than coming in with the Express that year, William Sinclair Jr. was already at Fort Colvile, and had been in that district for some years! Still, he was only 24 years old at the time he was left more or less in charge of the fort.

I am right that William Sinclair Jr. did come in with the returning Express, however — just as I thought! Firstly, in my own book, The York Factory Express, I have him leading out the Express in both 1850 and 1851. Not only that: in a letter written from Fort Colvile on April 22nd, 1851, A.C. Anderson wrote this: “Gentlemen; Mr. William Sinclair, in charge of the Columbia Accounts, now leaves for Norway House. Three retiring servants accompany him.” Further, Robert Clouston, who was then in the area around Jasper’s House on his way to the Columbia District, wrote in a private letter to Governor Simpson that a month earlier, in 1851, “On the 6th of May, Mr. Sinclair with the Columbia Express reached the grand batture, which from the depth of snow was the limit of horse travelling…” 

So we are learning quite a bit about William Sinclair Jr. Anderson returned to Fort Colvile in spring 1852, carrying in the District’s trade goods and bringing out the furs to Fort Vancouver. Anderson came back to Fort Vancouver in May 1852, when he reported favourably “of the business of that place [Fort Colvile] conducted by Messrs McDonald and Sinclair. Such being the case, the Board of Management have… granted Mr. Anderson his furlough for outfit 1852, and appointed Messrs. [Angus] McDonald and [William] Sinclair [Jr.] to Fort Colvile District.”

There is one more connection between William Sinclair Jr. and Alexander Anderson, and that is not shown in the Hudson’s Bay Company files, but in an article published in the Colonist Newspaper, February 16, 1869, in which Anderson writes: “As far back as 1853, while actively engaged in the affairs of the Hudson’s Bay Company, I contemplated the establishment of a route of communication between the head of the Great Okanagan Lake and the Upper Arrow Lakes of the Columbia, thence through a pass from the head of this last lake (since called by the Government explorers “Trout River Pass,” to the valley of the Kootenay at the Flat Bow Lake [Mabel Lake]; then to reach the fair navigation of the upper waters, while avoiding the dangerous portion comprised between the discharge of the Flat-Bow Lake and the mouth of the river…. I dispatched, in the summer of 1852, an officer to explore the first portion of the route, whose report was favorable to the views I entertained, but from diverse [word] the completion of the scheme was interrupted.” He dispatched William Sinclair Jr. on this duty, and Sinclair did complete the work he was assigned.  Later Anderson spoke to Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile about this possible route, and McDonald followed up on this exploration, and I believe he made his way all the way to the top of Okanagan Lake and, perhaps, beyond. But it was never used, nor ever even travelled again, at least by an HBC man.

But to continue William Sinclair Jr’s biography, follow along here. In early June 1854, William Sinclair Jr. was “dispatched last week for the Snake Country with a small outfit of goods…” During the following year he was clerk at Fort Hall, and later was at the Pend-d’Oreille River, where the gold rush was happening. He worked at Cowlitz Farm, and then “suddenly, and for no apparent reason,” left the fur trade for the gold rush. He went to Victoria and then up the Fraser River to the goldfields, and “no persuasion would induce him to defer his retirement, even for a few months, so that it is probable he has something in view that he considers more promising than fur trading.” The fur trade did not pay well, and so many people left for the gold rush.

It seems he did not stay on the Fraser. For a while William Sinclair Jr was at Fort Owen, in the Flathead Country. Then he went to England from York Factory in 1862, and by February 1864 he was back to the west side of the Rocky Mountains. He had re-entered the HBC once more, and was assistant at Fort Colvile where he was joined by his wife and children — Eloisa Kittson, daughter of William Kittson and Helene McDonald, and step-daughter of Richard Grant. He was now earning 100 pounds per annum, which probably made working for the company worth while. In 1868 he lived in Brockville, Upper Canada [Ontario]; in 1878 he was in Victoria, B.C.; and in June of that year he re-entered the HBC once again. He was at Bella Coola post of Fort McLoughlin until November 1882; and for six months served as purser aboard the Company’s steamer, Otter. “In July 1883 he was instructed to go to Kamloops, where he was stationed until the end of March, 1884…

During the remaining years of his service Sinclair had charge in turn of Hazelton, Yale, Langley, and Fraser Lake. He committed suicide by shooting himself on October 30, 1899, and he was buried at Fraser Lake on November 3, 1899. All the reports on his character speak of him as being a good and. trustworthy servant. 

He was 72 years old when he died. Sad story: I presume he felt his health failing, and had not earned enough money to pay for his future. The choices were stark.  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.

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