Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

SIMPSON, GEORGE (1787-1860)

Sir George Simpson, in his role as governor of the Hudson's Bay Company territories in North America from 1826 to 1860, had a major impact on the development of the Canadian Prairies. He visited the region frequently, inspecting posts, meeting with the chief factors who supervised each district, organizing the government of the Red River Settlement in Assiniboia (which the Hudson's Bay Company had originally granted to the Earl of Selkirk in 1812, then reacquired in 1836), or simply passing through rapidly, as he did on his journey to the Columbia River in 1824–25.

Simpson was suited for a life spent in remote places (although after 1833, following his marriage to his cousin Frances Ramsey Simpson, he was based at Lachine, near Montreal), having been born in distant Rosshire, Scotland, in 1787. As a young man he clerked for a London firm that did business in the West Indies. He must have impressed, because in 1820 the Hudson's Bay Company sent him to Canada as a possible replacement for Governor William Williams, who seemed likely to be arrested in the conflict with the North West Company. After the two companies amalgamated in 1821, Simpson was appointed governor of the Northern Department. Five years later he was put in charge of the entire North American operations.

Governor Simpson was an autocratic administrator who prioritized economy and efficiency. Immediately following the 1821 merger he inaugurated a series of reforms akin to modern-day corporate restructuring. He radically reduced the number of employees, closed unproductive posts, and overhauled the transportation system. He cut back on gift-giving and the provision of credit to the Native trappers and curtailed the use of alcohol as a trade inducement, ostensibly for the Native people's own good but also to economize. And, with considerable insight, he worked to put the fur trade on a sustained-yield basis: Native trappers were encouraged to rotate their trapping grounds, to refrain from taking cub beaver, and to trap different animals in alternating seasons to allow populations to recover. Recognizing that it would be difficult to force the Native peoples to adopt such alien conservation practices, Simpson also periodically opened and closed trading posts to draw the Native people to different trapping grounds, thus achieving the same goals. In the region between the South Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers, however, where competition with American traders was intense, he suspended conservation measures and set out to create a "fur desert" that would keep Americans out. Simpson's management systems worked: from 1825 to 1860 Hudson's Bay Company stockholders never earned dividends of less than 10 percent a year.

Simpson was knighted in 1841 for his service to the Hudson's Bay Company and his contributions to exploration. He died of apoplexy in Lachine on September 7, 1860, leaving behind a considerable fortune, as well as five legitimate and, from his "country marriages," five illegitimate children.

See also: INDUSTRY: Hudson's Bay Company.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

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