George Simpson – Making Administration Cool Since 1787

Two bad ass facts about this man to get out of the way right off – just in case you decide that administration isn’t the edgy topic that you’re looking for this morning and wand off without reading the rest of this post:

  1. George Simpson is known as the first person to have “circumnavigated” the world by land
  2. With the exception of voyageurs and their Serbian equivalents few men, even to this day, have spent as much time travelling in the wilderness

 

George Simpson, administrator extraordinaire. Photo from www.mhs.mb.ca

George Simpson, administrator extraordinaire. Photo from http://www.mhs.mb.ca

Yet another Scot who travelled over to North America in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company, George Simpson would become a central figure in the company during the years of its greatest level of power in Canada.  Not having the most ideal start in life, Simpson was born in 1787 the illegitimate son of his father George Simpson Sr. and an unknown mother who would be raised predominantly by two of his aunts and his paternal grandmother.

Sent, in 1808, to London in order to work for his uncle in the sugar brokerage industry George would come into contact with the HBC when his uncle’s firm merged with that of the one belonging to Andrew Colville who was a director of the company itself.  It appears that Coleville was impressed by what he saw because within eight years of this merge, he would name Simpson Governor-in-Chief, locum tenens of Rupert’s Land. (locum tenens means something close to ‘place holder’ making this a situation where Simpson would be temporarily filling this position in place of the permanent occupant)

George happened to be recruited into the HBC at a time when the company was at a continuous high level of conflict with the Northwest company which couldn’t have been a comfortable arrival for the Scot but it wouldn’t last long as the companies merged in 1821.  After three years working around Hudsons Bay, particularly at what was known as York Factory, Simpson was sent to the Pacific in 1824.  Making his way across what would become Canada, he decided to take an unconventional route which ended up being a fantastic call.  He arrived at Fort George after only an 80 day journey which was at least 20 days quicker than the previous recorded record.

George Simpson

Simpson in later years.

 

While no events of particular note occurred while Simpson was employed by the Hudsons Bay Company, this is perhaps a greater indication of his skill as a leader and administrator than any dramatic deed.  It is also worth while to note that during his time with the company, the HBC often returned a 10% profit which was a far less likely occurrence under other leadership.

On his retirement from the company, George and his wife settled in Montreal where he got into transportation and began to invest in railways and canals.  Travelling to the end, his health would eventually falter and he died at his home in August of 1860, aged 73, after suffering from a massive stroke.

 

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James McMillan – the Founder of Fort Langley

The Scottish born James McMillan was fur trader and explorer who worked for both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company who led a number of the first surveys completed on the lower Fraser River.  It was in his capacity as an employee of the HBC that he founded Fort Langley in 1827 in the role of its first Chief Trader.

Born in 1783, McMillan moved to North America at the age of 20 arriving to work with the North West Company in the position of a clerk in what is now Saskatchewan before joining David Thompson’s 1808 expedition across the Rocky Mountains.  Following the merging of the North West Company and the HBC in 1824 James travelled to the lower Columbia River to Fort George where he remained for a mere 10 days before being sent off in command of an expedition to survey the mouth of the Fraser River in order to determine its navigability and the settlement/agricultural capabilities of the region.  This particular expedition reached as far up the river as Hatzic Slough before returning to the fort.

The Hudson's Bay Company's Fort George. Image from wikipedia.

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort George. Image from wikipedia.

A short while later, in 1827, James McMillan was again dispatched out from Fort George but this time it was sent north from the Columbia River in order to establish the HBC’s presence on the lower Fraser River.  Leading 25 other men, McMillan arrived at the mouth of the Fraser River by boat and, while looking for a suitable location to establish the new fort, completed an in-depth survey of this part of the river which led to the naming of McMillan Island, Barnston Island, and Annacis Island.  Slightly more than month after leaving Fort George, at a location just west of the Salmon River’s confluence, on the south side of the Fraser, the first post of Fort Langley was cut and McMillan was established as Chief Factor.

Fort Langley as it looked in 1862. Image from www.fortlangley.ca.

Fort Langley as it looked in 1862. Image from http://www.fortlangley.ca.

In the time immediately following the construction of the fort, the wilderness conditions of the area made the living conditions less than ideal but James McMillan was able to keep things running successfully.  However, after only a year at Fort Langley he was transferred out of the area and it has never been established if he was simply assigned to another location or if McMillan himself requested the transfer.

Following his one year stint at Fort Langley, McMillan went on to become the Chief Factor at the HBC’s Red River Colony and made attempts at managing an experimental farm at St. James.  With the failure of this endeavor, he transferred one final time into the Montreal area but, in the end, he returned to Scotland.  He married the Scottish Eleanor McKinley and the two had eight children before McMillan died in Perth, Scotland in 1858.

 

 

John Sebastian Helmcken

Born in London, England on the 5th of June 1845; John Sebastian Helmcken would eventually travel to British Columbia through the same channel as many of his contemporaries, through his employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

John Helmcken in 1854. Image from wikipedia

John Helmcken in 1854. Image from wikipedia

Apprenticed as a physician in London’s Guy’s Hospital he became a ship’s surgeon in 1847 on board the HBC ship ‘Prince Rupert’, apposition which allowed him to travel through both India and China.  On his return to England his initial plan was to leave the HBC and join the British navy, however, the company managed to retain his services and convince him to travel to Vancouver Island in 1849 to fill a position of physician and general clerk.  Helmcken had the opportunity to prove his capabilities for the former of these positions even before arriving on the continent of North America when smallpox broke out on board the ship transporting him to his new country.  Despite less than ideal circumstances and access to a very limited amount of resources, the physician managed to pull the occupants of the ship through the crisis with a remarkable level of success; losing  just one individual to the outbreak.

The doctor around 1880. Photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

The doctor around 1880. Photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

After this rather adventurous start, Helmcken arrived on Vancouver Island in March of 1850 where he immidiately reported to his first posting at Fort Rupert.  It didn’t take long for him to be promoted to the position of magestrate; a role in which he was tasked with settling a dispute between the company and coal-miners in the region who had gone on strike due to their desire to leave the miner’s life and go south to join the California Gold Rush.  Six months after this crisis, John was directed to Fort Victoria in his capacity of physician in order to attend to the ill Governor Richard Blanshard.  Here he meet his wife, Cecila (who happened to be the daughter of soon to be governor James Douglas) and settled permanently.

Cecilia Helmckan, the daughter of Governor James Douglas; image from  www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Cecilia Helmckan, the daughter of Governor James Douglas; image from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Possibly due to his connection to then-Governor, James Douglas, Helmcken was elected to the the first Legislateive Assembly of Vancouver Island as the representative of Esquimalt in 1856; a position which he held until the Island merged with mainland British Columbia in 1866.  Until the province joined the Canadian confederation in 1871, he remained a Speaker of the Legislative Council of British Columbia.

While Helmcken had initially been in absolute favor of  the province joining the Canadian confederation, over time this view began to reverse until, by the time the idea was seriously being considered in 1870, he had determined that it was an idea which was against the financial interest of the colony.  While he repeatedly denied being in support of annexation to the United States he did state that he felt the eventual absorption of the province (and the whole of the rest of Canada for that matter) into its southern neighbour was an inevitable future.

On Vancouver Island; photo from www.biographi.ca

On Vancouver Island; photo from http://www.biographi.ca

Regardless of his own personal feelings regarding the confederation, Helmcken was one of three individuals sent to Ottawa in order to negotiate the terms of the colony of British Columbia joining with the country of Canada; the outcome of which ended up being very favorable directed towards B.C.

Photo fron  victoriahistory.ca

Photo fron victoriahistory.ca

Once the details of confederation had been settled, John Helmcken retired from politics and became a member of the board of the Canadian Pacific Railway but, despite his less prominent role, he continued to significantly impact the development of the fledgling province:

  • He had a role in moving the capital from New Westminster to Victoria
  • He secured lucrative public work contracts for Victoria companies
  • He was a founding member of the British Columbia Medical Society (1885)
  • He helped found the Medial Council of British Columbia
  • He was the physician on the provincial jail
  • He sat on the board of the Royal Jubilee Hospital

John Sebastian Helmcken died in Victoria on September 1, 1920 at the age of 96.

On a side note; doesn’t he just look like a lovely man?

John Helmcken in 1910; photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

John Helmcken in 1910; photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

 

Billy Barker – The Founder of Barkerville

William (Billy) Barker was a hugely successful prospector during the Cariboo gold rich that has been immortalized through his namesake, the town of Barkerville.  However, despite these claims to fame, the last years of his life were actually rather tragic.

William (Billy) Barker; image from www.barkerville.ca

William (Billy) Barker; image from http://www.barkerville.ca

Born in England, there is some conflict over the date and location of his birth.  1817 appears to be the most commonly agreed on year (that’s the date that has ended up on his gravestone) but there are claims to 1819 and 1820 as well with the location typically being given as Fenland or Cambridgeshire.  As a waterman, he was employed to work on small boats moving cargo around the smaller canals of England but this career path came to an end around 1845 when the introduction of railroads into the shipping business put him out of work.  The ending of his livelihood in England resulted in Barker travelling to America where he joined the Californian gold rush without having much success.  Regardless of this, he followed many of his fellow prospectors north to British Columbia where he had arrived by 1859.

Despite being one of the first to discover a large amount of gold in the Cariboo region, Billy had to work through three unsuccessful mining locations before he struck lucky.  His first stop was in the area now known as Lillooet which is roughly 400 km south of Barkerville and by 1861 he had worked his way up to what is now Quesnel.  In 1862 he arrived in the aptly and optimistically named Richfield which was only about a 30 minute walk away from what was soon to become the town of Barkerville. Not having any better luck in this area then he had had in any of the previous, Billy decided to look below the canyon of Richfield where Barkerville now lies.  This area was much harder to mine than most and the other miners reported thought he was crazy to try his luck here.  But, this is where his previous experience ended up coming in handy.  Most of the Europeans who mined in the North American gold rushes were from wealthy families and were unaccustomed to the long hours and tough working conditions of the prospector life and so Barker, with his working class background, was likely better suited to this life.

In most areas, gold lies only about 3-5 meters below ground but in the canyon chosen by Barker, he ended up having to dig down almost 20 meters before striking lucky but that clearly ended up being worthwhile.  His mine ended up producing 37,500 ounces of gold (roughly $40 million Canadian today) and the town of Barkerville quickly sprung up around him once word of his find got out.

Unfortunately, it appears that Billy Barker was unprepared for his sudden increase in wealth; reports indicate that he ended up smoking up to 30 cigarettes a day in order to deal with the stress.  He died penniless in Victoria on July 11, 1894 demonstrating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease as well as possible cancer of the jaw.  Currently, his grave is located in Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery although there has been talk in recent years about potentially having it moved to Barkerville.

The Grave of Billy Barker; image from www.flickr.com

The Grave of Billy Barker; image from http://www.flickr.com

Founding British Columbia

Credited by many as the “Father of British Columbia”, James Douglas played an enormous role in B.C.’s establishment as a colony of Britain in the mid-1800’s.

Sir James Douglas

Sir James Douglas

Born in Scotland on August 15, 1803, Douglas was apprenticed to the North West Company (then a competitor of the more enduring Hudson’s Bay Company) at the age of 16 where he began his career in what is now Montreal.  As a result of his transfer to the Fort of  Île-à-la-Crosse in 1820, James was thrown directly into the ongoing conflict between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North Westers.  In fact, he threw himself into this conflict with such enthusiasm that he was one of four North Westers who was specifically, and individually, warned (less than a year after his arrival) against parading within gunshot distance of the nearby HBC post.  Perhaps luckily for Douglas and his longevity, this struggle between the two companies did not go on for much longer as several months later the two organizations were merged and he was made a clerk of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  However, possibly due to skill or potentially his past history with the HBC, Douglas was transferred to the western region of the country less than four years after this company blend.

The 'Father of British Columbia' in his prime.

The ‘Father of British Columbia’ in his prime.

Life in the north west appears to have agreed with Douglas; on a professional note he spent 19 years at Fort Vancouver until he ultimately achieved the company postilion of Chief Trader while, personally, he met and married the half-Indian daughter of one of the company’s chief factors.  Finally, in 1840, he was granted the highest level of rank for field service and made Chief Factor which meant that he was ideally placed, in 1849, when the HBC was leased the whole of Vancouver Island by its colonizing power, Britain.

An image of the wife of James Douglas, taken in Victoria in 1857.

An image of the wife of James Douglas, taken in Victoria in 1857.

Two years after this event, in 1851, James was named the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island which was a position that he then held for the next 13 years.  In 1858, when the colony of Vancouver Island was combined with the colony of British Columbia, his authority was extended and he became the first Governor of the province of B.C. as it appears today; a position he held for 6 years until his retirement in 1864.  With this ending of his service, Douglas was granted the position of Knight Commander within the Order of Bath by Queen Victoria and was the recipient of a thank you letter signed by 900 of the people of British Columbia.  In his retirement, James Douglas avoided politics completely and, instead, used a large amount of his new-found spare time to travel Europe.

The Civil Star, awarded to  a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.

The Civil Star, awarded to a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.

This remarkable man’s life ended in Victoria on August 2, 1877 as the direct result of a heart attack and his subsequent funeral is still thought to have been the largest in British Columbia’s history.