Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Simpson, Thomas (1808-1840)

SIMPSON, THOMAS (1808–1840), Arctic explorer, the elder son, by his second marriage, of Alexander Simpson (d. 1821), schoolmaster of Dingwall in Ross-shire, was born at Dingwall on 2 July 1808. Sir George Simpson [q. v.] was his uncle. As a boy Simpson was delicate, with a tendency to consumption. He was destined for the ministry, and at the age of seventeen was entered at King's College, Aberdeen, where, after a highly successful course of study, he graduated M.A. in 1829. He had by this time developed into a strong, active man, so that, instead of proceeding to the ministry, he accepted the offer of a post under the Hudson's Bay Company, and went out to America. In July 1836 he was appointed second in command of an expedition, sent under chief factor Peter Warren Dease, ‘to complete the discovery and survey of the northern shores of America;’ and while Dease, with the party of twelve men, started at once for Great Slave Lake, Simpson went to Red River Settlement, where he spent some months ‘refreshing and extending’ his knowledge of astronomy and practice in observations. On 1 Dec. he started to join Dease, whom, after an interesting and adventurous winter journey, he found at Fort Chippeway, on the shore of Lake Athabasca. In June 1837 they continued their journey, and leaving a few men at Fort Norman, with orders to prepare winter quarters by Great Bear Lake, reached the sea on 9 July. They then turned west, along the coast till, in longitude 154° 23′ W., the boats were stopped by the ice. It was then determined that Simpson should make an effort to reach Point Barrow on foot, which he succeeded in doing on 4 Aug. On the 6th he rejoined Dease, and on the same day they started on the return journey for the Mackenzie River, which they reached without accident on the 17th. Their progress up the river was slow and laborious, and they did not reach Fort Norman till 4 Sept. On the 25th they arrived at the station on Great Bear Lake, to which they gave the name of Fort Confidence, and there they wintered.

On 7 June 1838 they started up Dease River, the ascent of which proved exceedingly toilsome, by reason of the constant succession of rapids. Then carrying their baggage and boats over the watershed, they descended the Coppermine River, and endeavoured to examine the coast to the eastward. The season, however, was so bad that they made but little way, and from Point Turnagain returned to their winter quarters at Fort Confidence, which they reached on 14 Sept. On 15 June 1839 they again started for the Coppermine, where they had left their boats, and with a more favourable season went eastward as far as the Boothia Peninsula. They were, however, unable to determine whether there was any passage to the Gulf of Boothia, or to connect their coast navigation with the known King William Sea to the north. They had almost but not quite discovered the ‘North-West Passage.’ The advanced season compelled them to return, and by 24 Sept. they were again at Fort Confidence, whence, after a very severe journey, they reached Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie on 14 Oct. Leaving Dease there, Simpson set out on 2 Dec., and reached Red River Settlement on 2 Feb. 1840. He remained there till the summer, and on 6 June started for the United States and England. On the 14th he was killed by a gunshot wound in the head. The half-breeds who were with him deposed that he went mad, killed two of the party, and then committed suicide; but an examination of the circumstances seemed to show conclusively that he was attacked by his own men, two of whom he shot before he was killed. His ‘Narrative of Discoveries on the North Coast of America effected by the Officers of the Hudson's Bay Company during the years 1836–9’ was edited by his brother Alexander, consul in the Sandwich Islands, and was published in 1843.

[Life and Travels of Thomas Simpson, by Alexander Simpson, with portrait, 1845.]

J. K. L.