Edmontonians in the Spotlight – James Keith Simpson, Part 2

1846 Fort, Edmontonians In The Spotlight


Welcome back to our Spotlight Blog Series, where we shine on little-known Edmontonians, such as James Keith Simpson. In our last installment, James was brought up within the Hudson’s Bay Company power structure. This was a time when one of the largest companies held a waning trade monopoly over most of what is now the world’s second largest country and beyond. The lure of beaver led to trading posts growing alongside rivers like barnacles and the trading posts required managers. But the world was changing and the young Dominion of Canada looked with hungry eyes at the West.

After a clerkship at Fort Pitt, near where he was born, James left the Company at some point in the 1850s or 60s. Maybe he was tired of the work. Maybe he was tired of being a leader. Maybe he was just in love.

In 1864 he married Marie Catherine Mondion at Lac La Biche. Marie had been married before, and she had two sons, Louis and Benjamin Patenaude. She was a large, strong woman and he wasn’t either of those things but James didn’t mind. Marie may have been a sister of Gabriel Dumont, the famous Métis war chief and ferryman who lived on Saskatchewan and was acknowledged as a leader because of his strength and skill at the buffalo hunt.

Dumont and Mistahi Maskwa

By this point, James had also made the acquaintance and gained the friendship of another strong leader, Mistahi-Maskwa: called by the whites Big Bear. Where Dumont was a War Chief and could be acerbic and forthright in his protection of his people’s interests, Mistahi-Maskwa was an okimaw, or peacetime Chief. He had been a warrior, and warriors were attracted to his band, but peace, prosperity, and freedom mattered more now to the great Chief. He was wise, clever and stubborn, and this led him to resist the efforts of the government to make him sign Treaty 6 in the 1870s, especially when neither the head of state nor the head of government would deign to meet with him.

He had stated “We want none of the Queen’s presents; when we set a fox-trap we scatter pieces of meat all around, but when the fox gets into the trap, we knock him on the head. We want no bait. Let your Chiefs come like men and talk to us.”  – Big Bear.

By the 1870s, James was with the Company again in Fort Pitt. Mistahi-maskwa came to trade with him and more, considered him a friend. They shared tea and stories. James must have realized a major difference between the Aboriginals leaders he knew so well, Dumont and Mistahi-maskwa, and the Company men, Simpson, Rowand, and Harriott.

The Bay men derived their authority first from the Company’s hierarchy. If Sir George was in charge, it was because he had been found competent by the board of Governors. If he told someone what to do, he could enforce his rules by fines, imprisonment, and firing.

A Cree okimaw led through his generosity and selflessness. Kamiokisihkwew (Fine Day), a Cree elder, informed an ethnographer of the difficulty of leadership in the following statement:

“It is not an easy thing to be chief.  Look at this chief now.  He has to have pity on the poor.  When he sees a man in difficulty he must try to help him in whatever way he can.  If a person asks for something in his tipi, he must give it to him willingly and without any bad feeling.”

James’ masters, the Hudson’s Bay Company, sold Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada in 1869. Nobody asked leaders like Mistahi-maskwa, Gabriel Dumont or Louis Riel whether they wanted their lands sold. James didn’t have any sort of influence in these decisions, but he would reap some of the results.

The 1870s and 80s were hard times in the West. The buffalo were gone. Smallpox had decimated the peoples of the West again and again. The whiskey traders from the south had come up and poisoned their trading partners. The government made treaties, then broke them. Starvation was rampant and patience was thin.

In 1885, young men from Mistahi-maskwa’s band had enough. When things came to a head in a place called Frog Lake, they vented years of oppression and outrage on Priests, Company men and settlers: those who symbolized their problems. Nine people died. Some call it a massacre, though this is a loaded word. Mistahi-maskwa didn’t instigate the violence, didn’t want it. He tried to stop it, but he was only a wise man, only a peacetime Chief. He couldn’t make people do what he wanted if they didn’t listen to him.

Frog Lake Massacre 1885 Lithograph

James was away, but he had been living at Frog Lake and his wife was still there with HBC man William Cameron. Marie saved Cameron’s life, first by hiding him under a pile of laundry, then by literally carrying him away. Their Métis neighbour, Louis Goulet, said he saw “Mrs. Simpson going by with Cameron under her arm. She was Gabriel Dumont’s sister, a big, fat woman, as strong as any man. Cameron could hardly keep on his feet, every step was a stagger. I thought he was wounded, but no, it was fear made him that way. Mrs. Simpson had to drag him, or carry him more like it.”

When James got back home, he found the place deserted, and bodies everywhere. Windows were smashed, buildings were empty. His wife was gone. His stepsons were gone. He could have run then, but he didn’t. That was not what leaders did.

James followed the tracks and found the Cree camp where his wife and family were, virtually hostages along most of the rest of Frog Lake’s survivors. He went to Mistahi-maskwa’s tipi to see his friend of forty years and find out what happened and what was going to happen. The old chief invited James to bring his family to his own tipi, an offer that would protect them. It was all he could do. He couldn’t stop his young men “ they listened to leads who spoke of action, Äyimisà¯s (Little Bad Man) and the war chief Kapapamahcheakwew (Wandering Spirit).

“¦the young men won’t listen, and I am very sorry for what has been done¦ They have been always trying to take my name from me. I have always tried to stop the young men, and they have done it this time and taken my name away from me.”

James Keith Simpson testified at the trial of Big Bear when it was all done and the 1885 resistance was over. He told them what his friend had said about his remorse and the state of his band and the powerlessness he had once violence started. It was something that the jury didn’t like to hear. All they knew was that a band had killed 9 whites and that Big Bear, the trouble-maker, the stubborn resister of treaties, was the leader of that band.

They didn’t really understand how Cree leadership worked. They didn’t know leaders like James knew leaders.

After the trial, after Gabriel Dumont had fled for the United States, after the conviction of Big Bear and Poundmaker and the hanging of Wandering Spirit, James Keith Simpson left the HBC. This time for good. He was over sixty, after all. He homesteaded near Onion Lake with his wife and his stepsons.

We can learn from the leaders of the past, just like James did. We can be calculating, like Sir George Simpson, without seeing humans as commodities. We can be courageous, like John Rowand, without bullying our subordinates. We can refuse indignity, like Wandering Spirit and Gabriel Dumont, without resorting to violence.

We can follow the examples of Ted Harriott and show kindness over and above barriers of race and class. We can argue for a fair deal and hold sacred our duty to the weak and poor like Mistahi-maskwa.

Even if our bravest moment is a footnote in what history will regard as other men’s story. Like James Keith Simpson.

2014 Gerome as James Keith Simpson 2

Come down to Fort Edmonton Park this summer and see Leadership as your scavenger hunt. Ask interpreters and other visitors who their favourite leaders are, and tell them of your own! Meet James Keith Simpson and see if he knows what lies ahead.


*Historian Heather Devine points out that “as historians, we’re always concerned with terminology and the use of terms which might be perceived as inflammatory. The term massacre is inflammatory when it is used in conjunction with Aboriginal people. It invokes images that are stereotypic and negative and also in some cases may be inaccurate in terms of what took place during the event. When I talk about Frog Lake I prefer to use the term killings rather than massacre because I do not believe that it was premeditated. And I don’t think it was a battle; it was not a battle.” Quoted in Myrna Kostash’s The Frog Lake Reader (Newest Press, 2009), which is available in FEP’s Train Station gift shop.

Historian James Loewen discusses the wider problematic reception of the word. “”Across the United States historic markers and monuments use ‘massacre’ when American Indians kill European Americans, even when as few as one white died! Utah alone has five historical markers that use ‘massacre’ for Indian attacks on whites and none for any white attack.” Quoted in Loewen’s Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (Touchstone Press, 1999)