________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 34 . . . . May 6, 2011


George Simpson: Blaze of Glory. (A Quest Biography).

D. T. Lahey.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2011.
260 pp., pbk., $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-773-6.

Subject Headings:
Simpson, George, Sir, 1792?-1860. Hudson's Bay Company-Biography.
Northwest, Canadian-Biography.
Hudson's Bay Company-History-19th century.
Northwest, Canadian-History-To 1870.
Northwest, Canadian-Discovery and exploration.
Fur trade-Canada-History-19th century.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



The voyageurs were fed a steady diet of pemmican - a mixture of pounded dried buffalo meat and fat - energy-rich to keep up the pace eighteen hours a day. However, when the brigade was lucky enough to kill a moose near the shore, Simpson indulged the whole party with a "half holyday" from afternoon until the following morning, in a continued succession of "eating, roasting, and boiling."

When travelling, Simpson was in his element as nowhere else in his life. On his earlier voyages, no mere passenger, Simpson himself became the brigade commander. At an encampment, at two in the morning, it was Simpson marching through the sleepers to rouse the tired men. At seven to the minute they put ashore for breakfast. Thirty minutes were allotted to this task, then Simpson would shout "Take away!" and the meal was ended, eaten or not, and the trip continued.

As a genealogist who has diligently studied Simpson's family tree, Lahey, a retired English teacher, has uncovered considerable details about Simpson's early life. Even so, much of the early chapters on Simpson's parentage and formative years rely upon conjecture. Born in the Scottish Highlands, Simpson was sent to London in 1808 at the age of 16 to apprentice with his uncle as a mercantile broker. The business training that he was receiving would serve him admirably in the years that followed. After Andrew Colvile (formerly Andrew Wedderburn) joined in business with Simpson's uncle's firm, he became Simpson's employer and made Simpson his personal secretary. It was in this role that Simpson began to discover the workings of the Hudson's Bay Company. In early 1820, Simpson was appointed the shadow governor-in-chief of the HBC and set out for Rupert's Land where he took charge of the Athabasca District and began both the transformation of the company's affairs and his own rise in status as governor of a vast swath of North America.

      The Simpson story is a multi-faceted one, touching on corporate history, the history of the fur trade, adventurous tales of exploration and discovery, and the social and legal history of the Canadian Northwest. A basic grounding in the history of the fur trade in Canada, and, in particular, the rivalry between the North West Company and the HBC would be a great asset to readers It is inexcusable for a work that details several cross-continent journeys by Simpson, including the exploration of new territory, to fail to include a map of the Canadian Northwest showing the major trading posts noted in the biography and the routes traveled.

      Simpson proved to be a skilled manager, a good judge of character, and an astute businessman. He helped resolve conflicts with the rival North West Co. and the Russians in the Pacific Northwest. After the HBC absorbed its main rival, Simpson facilitated the downsizing of trading posts and implemented economic reforms that made the company more profitable.

      Simpson's marriage to his much younger cousin, Frances Ramsay Simpson, was, in fact, his fifth marriage, with the previous unions seemingly made by contract or by what we might call common law. Apparently, as governor, Simpson sought to set a good moral example for his officers by marrying Frances in Scotland. Her life story is better documented than those of Simpson's previous wives, but, in all cases, Lahey's brief accounts of their cross-country journeys and travails with pregnancy, childbirth and poor health suggest a challenging life at best. The National Film Board of Canada's 1978 vignette, "Lady Frances Simpson," that recalls her travel by canoe with a piano to Fort Garry and the Red River Settlement, seems absurd to viewers today but does hint at complex social conditions that are worth further exploration than Lahey is able to provide in this volume.

      Following his knighthood, Simpson undertook a 20-month-long journey around the world, starting from London in March 1841. His post trip narrative is summarized by Lahey in four chapters that include a damning description of the non-industrial Californians prior to union with the United States, accounts of Simpson's successful efforts to lobby for the continuation of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a state free from English or French colonial annexation, and records the strange customs and sights seen as his party crossed Siberia.

      Lahey's passion for his subject is obvious, and his decision to draw upon Simpson's own writings and those of his contemporaries to give voice and historical credibility to the biography is admirable. He makes a compelling argument for the study of Simpson as one of the Makers of Canada. The volume includes modern photographs of locales from Simpson's childhood as well as reproductions of sketches, portraits and the only known photograph of Simpson. The index and chronology are both useful. The extensive "Further Reading" includes some brief annotations but curiously omits John S. Galbraith's 1976 biography of Simpson while including many older works and entries in The Beaver that are likely only to be found in large research collections. Some of the Champlain Society Publications noted can be found online, and Lahey is also unaware that the nineteenth-century titles noted can be found online via the Internet Archive website at www.archive.org.


Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON, with collection development responsibilities for History, English and Caribbean Studies.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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