Edmontonians in the Spotlight – James Keith Simpson Part 1

1846 Fort, Edmontonians In The Spotlight


Was there a time when you saw true leadership? Was there a time you showed it?

James Keith Simpson was his own man. There are many stories we could tell about him but there are just as many stories we can’t tell. We don’t know how he met his wife, or how he came to become a stepfather to her two sons. We don’t know exactly how he died or what he dreamt about. We don’t even know who his mother was.

But James knew leaders, and he knew leadership.

James was born on the upper Saskatchewan river into the fur trading world of Rupert’s Land in about 1823, the same year Robert Peel led the abolishment of the death sentence for over a hundred offences, and the year Simon Bolivar became President of Peru. James would get a chance at an education because while his mother’s name is lost to history, his father was Sir George Simpson, the “Birchbark Emperor” and Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Sir George acknowledged James Keith as his son, but he was born out of wedlock “ the product of one of Sir George’s many “ and there were many “ dalliances with Métis women.

George Simpson and Mary Keith

Sir George, the first kind of leader James knew, was not a nice man. He grew up in the cut-throat sugar industry and when he became a fur trader he practiced the same kind of capitalist drive they use there, eschewing people for profit. He was friendly enough with his immediate employees in public, but slandered them in a private ˜character book’ and brooked no challenge to his rule. Sir George was relentless and the company profited under his rigid “economy.” He had a voracious sexual appetite, but little regard for women “ especially native women, whom he called his ˜bits of brown.’ When one of his mistresses, Peggy Taylor, was too pregnant to accompany him on his breakneck canoe journeys he dropped her off at Edmonton and asked John Rowand to send her back to Red River.

Sir George wasn’t a nice man, but he wasn’t a bad father. He gave his children, first those illegitimate ones and then later (when he married his cousin) his legitimate children, little nicknames and sent them fond thoughts. James was ˜Jordie’ to his father. Jordie seems to have been raised by Peggy Taylor, though she wasn’t his natural mother, and grew up alongside half-brothers like George Jr. and John Simpson. He was plump and happy, and his father came to visit him every once in a while even if he didn’t live with him. They corresponded reasonably often, even if they didn’t have important news to share.

At the age of twenty, James accompanied by some education, entered the fur trade as an Apprentice Clerk: the business of his father and all his father’s friends, and all of his friends. He spent some time across the Rockies in the Columbia District until the damp got to him. Then he traveled back to the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Edmonton, the lynchpin of the western Canadian fur trade.

We can imagine him sitting down to dinner in ˜Rowand’s Folly’, the giant mansion that Chief Factor John Rowand built at Edmonton in 1842. A dining room for all the clerks and apprentices (women dined somewhere else).

Gentlemen's Tea 2010 Courtesy of Lauren Markewicz

Rowand House was full of teenagers at the time. James’ younger brother John was there at age 12 or so. Rowand’s sons were grown and left, but Margaret (18) and Adelaide (10) still lived at home. James was older though. At dinner he sat at the big table, with John Rowand and John Edward Harriott. Two different mentors one couldn’t ask for.

Chief Factor John Rowand was a bit of a terror. He had a good sense of humour and loved his family, but he lamented the young workers that the Company sent him. Nobody can work these days, he complained. “If a man is sick for three days and doesn’t die, then he wasn’t sick at all!” a missionary records him grousing. “When they misbehave I will them without fearing to hurt their feelings “ they must do their duty as I was made to do mine.” The man himself wrote regarding his employees. The men grumbled. Some of them refused to sign up to work at Edmonton, so harsh was the reputation of its master.

Chief Trader John Edward Harriott was a consummate gentleman. Nobody visited Fort Edmonton without remarking about how nice he was: Reverend Rundle; Father Du Smet; George Simpson. William Gladstone, who hated Rowand with a fiery passion, talked about how much he liked Harriott. He said Harriott was the sort of guy who would tip his hat to the men who worked for him and have a chat. Harriott also had a small library of books that he didn’t mind lending out to readers in the Fort. Imagine how helpful that might have been when you were passing a cold Edmonton winter in a time before radio, TV, or indoor plumbing.

John Rowand and Ted Harriott

It’s easy to think about Rowand and Harriott, who were friends as well as coworkers, as being Machiavelli’s perfect pair. Machievelli said it was best for a leader to be both feared and loved, but if you couldn’t be both, you should be feared. Rowand took the fear part, and Harriott inspired love.

James seems to have taken more inspiration from Harriott than from Rowand or his father. When the young clerk was in charge of the outspoken William Gladstone at Rocky Mountain House years later, ˜Old Glad’ said that James made a “first-rate boss” and was liked by all. In 1859 he met the members of the Palliser Expedition and accompanied them on some of their travels, being remarked upon as an invaluable host and guide.

At some point for some reason James left the fur trade for a time and seems to have embraced the Métis culture of his mother’s side. He raised horses, hunted bison on the plains, and traded a little on the side. In 1864 at Lac la Biche, he married Marie Catherine Mondion and adopted her two sons, Louis and Benjamin Patenaude.

Retirement didn’t last. He went back to the Company and ended up running Fort Pitt and a little trading post in a place called Frog Lake. Next time we will talk about two more leaders he meets, one who was his brother-in-law, another who was both his friend and his captor.

Todd as James Keith Simpson, Courtesy of Brad Moyles