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Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Memoir

< Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39



Thomas Simpson, A. M.

by his brother, Alexr. Simpson.


Thomas Simpson, the writer of the narrative contained in the following pages, was born on the 2nd of July 1808, at Dingwall in Ross-shire, N. B. His father, Mr. Alexander Simpson, though a native of Aberdeenshire, had resided for many years in that distant Highland county, had long exercised the functions of magistrate of his little burgh, and was well known to its visitors and inhabitants for his hospitality and singleness of heart. He died in the year 1821, leaving his widow and two sons but very slenderly provided for.

Thomas, the eldest of the sons, was from his childhood distinguished by a quiet, tractable temper, and a steady attention to his studies; and, as is the case with most boys in his sphere of life in Scotland who manifest such dispositions, it was early determined to educate him with a view to his becoming a clergyman of the Scotch Church.

In his boyhood he was rather of a weakly constitution, having at one time shewn a strong tendency to consumption. He was then considered by his companions as being of a timid disposition; and, so far from taking a lead in the games common among boys, he was remarked for an unwillingness to join in their rougher sports, and for a hesitation in entering upon any exercises that could in the least expose him to personal danger.

In these respects we find a remarkable similitude to the early years of another traveller of much repute — Abyssinian Bruce; and, indeed, in every matter belonging to their early lives, and some belonging to their after career, there is much resemblance between these explorers of two very different portions of the globe. Both were mild and timid in their boyhood: both daring and impetuous in their after-life: both, from an early age, excited much interest and sanguine expectations of future success in everyone connected with them: both profited industriously by their opportunities of education: in both an inclination early shewed itself for the sacred office of the ministry: both were energetic; and their energies were directed enthusiastically to the discoveries in which they were engaged: and both were alike regardless of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and danger in the prosecution of these discoveries.

In pursuance of the design of educating him for the Church of Scotland, Mr. Simpson was sent in his seventeenth year to King's College, Aberdeen. Here he pursued his studies for four winters: the remaining months of each year he spent in his native town, preparing himself for the succeeding winter's labours; or with his friends in the neighbourhood, to all of whom his pleasing address made him an acceptable visitor.

The distinctions to be gained at this northern institution are not, I am well aware, of equal value with those to be won at the more celebrated colleges of southern Scotland, or at the Universities of England; yet the attainment of the highest of them is, at leasts a proof of a young man's pre-eminence among his fellow-students. At the end of his four years' curriculum Mr. Simpson carried off the "Huttonian" prize,—the highest given at King's College,—on an examination of comparative merit in all the departments of study during the curriculum; and at the same time received a degree as Master of Arts.

In the winter of 1828-29, Mr. Simpson attended the divinity class of the same college. He had, while thus engaged, a repetition of an offer — which had been pressed upon him in 1826, and declined—to join Mr. (now Sir George) Simpson, the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company's territories in America.

The change which had been gradually going on for several years in his temperament and constitution was now complete: from a delicate, timid boy, he had sprung up a strong, brawny youth, with the sanguine disposition generally accompanying a state of high bodily health.

On a review of his position and prospects, he saw that, to obtain a settlement as a parochial clergyman of the Church of Scotland, he might require to wait for many years, during which he must support himself by the usual resource of probationers of that Church—public or private tuition. His active and energetic mind, which, as a clergyman, would have found an adequate sphere in a zealous discharge of his functions, could but ill brook the irksome and monotonous labour of tuition; he had high expectations of meeting with much of adventure and interest in the distant and savage region to which he was invited: he therefore resolved to accept this reiterated offer, and proceeded to America early in 1829.

Of the years spent by him in the Hudson's Bay country previous to the commencement of the Arctic expedition, it is unnecessary to say much. His sanguine temperament and buoyant spirits enabled him to pass through them without much weariness or ennui; and he strove, and with success, to accommodate himself to the duties and mode of life which were imposed upon him by a residence in the country which he had chosen as his sphere of action.

Of the share Mr. Simpson had in planning and organizing the expedition of which the following pages are a narrative, he himself speaks modestly and briefly in the first chapter of that narrative. Although Mr. Simpson's name appears only as second or junior officer of the expedition,—the senior being Mr. Peter Warren Dease, an old and experienced officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, who co-operated with Sir John Franklin on his last expedition,—yet a glance at the narrative in the following pages will prove that Mr. Simpson was really the main-spring of the expedition. He alone was at all conversant with science: and the most arduous parts of the service performed by the expedition— the completion of the survey between Mackenzie River and Point Barrow; the exploration of the country between Great Slave Lake and the Coppermine River—essential to the transport across that rugged and sterile country (well called the Barren grounds) of the boats and provisions of the expedition; and the pedestrian journey along the coast, of the summer of 1838, which opened the prospect of a clear sea to the eastward, securing the success of the expedition in summer 1839,—were performed by him alone.

The narrative contained in the following pages is so full, yet so concise, that I consider it unnecessary here to give any details in reference to the expedition and its results. I shall merely remark, that every object in view when it was first organized was attained, with the loss of only one man, who died from sickness, not from accident or fatigue.

On the return of the party to Great Slave Lake in Sept. 1839, Mr. Simpson drew up a succinct narrative, in a letter addressed to the Directors of the Hudson's Bay Company, of the operations of the season, which had been so brilliantly successful; which letter was published in most of the leading papers of the civilized world—as were likewise his similar letters, describing the operations of the two preceding years—and attracted much attention.

At the same time that this letter was forwarded to London, Mr. Simpson transmitted to the Directors a plan for an expedition to complete the survey of the coast between the extreme east of the discoveries of 1889 and the straits of the Fury and Hecla; and, notwithstanding the excessive fatigues to which he had been exposed for upwards of three years, he offered to assume the command of the expedition without a moment's respite, and anticipated that arrangements would be made by which he could again reach the Arctic coast in the summer of 1840.

With this expectation, and in order to be personally on the spot to expedite and superintend the arrangements, he left Fort Confidence, his dreary residence for two long winters, on the 26th Sept. 1839; and after a journey of most extraordinary celerity, having traversed 1910 miles on foot in sixty-one days, including all stoppages, arrived at Red River Settlement on 2nd Feb. 1840.

At this place he remained, anxiously waiting for letters from England, which would authorize his proceeding on his new expedition, and which would convey to him intelligence of the reception given in England to the news of his havng completed the survey of the Arctic coast of America between the point reached by Beechey from the Pacific and that to which Ross had penetrated from the Atlantic Ocean.

In both these expectations he was most deeply disappointed; for the annual canoes from Canada, which arrived early in June, brought him no ratification of his plan, nor news of the reception given by the public to the intelligence of the success of the expedition: indeed, his letters (contrary to his expectation) did not reach England in time to be acknowledged by that opportunity.

Having no authority for fitting out another expedition, the local authorities of the Company declined undertaking the responsibility of doing so, notwithstanding the very limited and economical scale on which it was proposed by Mr. Simpson; and he, deeply mortified at this delay of his plans, determined upon proceeding to England, in preference to remaining a year in idleness waiting for the acceptance of his proposal.

That acceptance was written on the 3rd of June, 1840, by the Directors of the Hudson's Bay Company, to their Superintendent at Red River, in the following terms: "Reverting to the subject of the Arctic Discovery Expedition, the gallantry and excellent management manifested by Messrs. Dease and Simpson in that arduous and interesting service, and the good conduct of the people under their command, entitle them to our warmest commendations. The valuable and important services of Messrs. Dease and Simpson have been brought under the consideration of her Majesty's Government, who have not, as yet, noticed the subject.

"We observe that Mr. Dease avails himself of the leave of absence that has been afforded him with the intention of visiting Canada this season; and that Mr. Simpson volunteers to conduct another expedition, with the view of continuing the survey from the mouth of the Great Fish River to the Straits of the Fury and Hecla. We have much satisfaction in availing ourselves of that gentleman's proffered services: you will therefore be pleased to meet any demands that may be made by Mr. Simpson for men, goods, provisions, craft, &c. &c., and to take the necessary measures to give effect throughout the country to that gentleman's views and wishes in reference to the important and arduous service on which he is about to re-enter."

Had this letter, instead of being written on the 3rd of June, reached Mr. Simpson on that date, how different might have been the result!

On the 6th of June Mr. Simpson left Red River Settlement, with the purpose of crossing the prairies to St. Peter's on the Mississippi, and thence making his way to England.

On starting from the Colony, he was accompanied by a party of settlers and half-breeds. Eager to reach England, he got tired, in a very few days, of their slow movements, and went on ahead in company with a party of four men. He pursued his journey with much rapidity; for, on a chart which was found with his other papers after his death, we trace his day's journey on the 11th of June to have been forty-seven miles in a straight line.

Subsequent to that date every circumstance is involved in mystery. All that can be ascertained with certainty is, that, on the afternoon of the 13th or 14th of June, Mr. Simpson shot two of his companions; that the other two mounted their horses and rejoined the larger party, a part of which went to the encampment where Mr. Simpson was alone, on the next morning; and that Mr. Simpson's death then took place.

Whether he shot these men in self-defence, and was subsequently put to death by their companions ; or whether the severe stretch to which his faculties had been subjected for several years brought on a temporary hallucination of mind, under the influence of which the melancholy tragedy took place, is known only to God, and to the surviving actors in that tragedy.

But it must be noticed, in support of the former supposition, that the depositions of those who pretend to describe the manner of his death are contradictory in the extreme. Moreover, the North American half-breed is, of all races in the world, that which most retains the odium in longum jaciens. Mr. Simpson had, five years before, incurred the animosity of the half-breeds of Red River by inflicting a chastisement on one of them who had grossly insulted him, and they then threatened his life.

Three of his companions were of this race. They saw Mr. Simpson returning to England after having achieved an object important in itself, but of which they even exaggerated the importance; their long-treasured animosity was likely to have shewn itself in threats and insults, if not in actual attack; and hence—it is the opinion of many intelligent men who have examined the circumstances, and are acquainted with the character of the half-caste natives—resulted the events which cut short the career of this enterprising young traveller.

If the other supposition should be true (and there is nothing save the contradictory statements of his attendants to support it); if, indeed, it pleased Providence to darken the spirit which had passed undaunted through so many trials; we can but acknowledge that the decrees of God are inscrutable to mortals, and join in these beautiful lines of Cowper:

Thus perished, before he had completed his thirty-second year, Thomas Simpson, a man of great ardour, resolution, and perseverance; one who had already achieved a great object, and who has left a name which will be classed by posterity with that of Cook, Parry, Lander, and Franklin.

The British Government, in the same month in which he died, intimated its intention of bestowing upon him a pension of £100 per annum in testimony of his services. The Royal Geographical Society presented to him in 1839 their gold medal, which never reached him, and is now in the possession of his only surviving brother.

In person Mr. Simpson was rather under the middle size; but he was strongly and symmetrically formed, and his whole appearance was that of a man able to encounter a great amount of physical fatigue. His countenance was open, and had an expression of energy and liveliness. His manners were pleasing and amiable. He was much beloved by all who knew him ; and his loss has been deplored by his relatives—to whom his kindness and affection were unbounded—as the greatest of earthly calamities.