Simpson, Sir George
b. 1792
d. 1860-09-07
George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company and businessman, was born in Scotland in 1792. An illegitimate child, he was raised by his aunt and uncle. Having obtained only a parish education, Simpson travelled to London in 1800 and was given a job at his uncle's sugar company. This company merged with Wedderburn & Company in 1812. It was through Andrew Colvile, a stock holder of Wedderburn and a member of the HBC governing board, that Simpson's keen business sense was noticed and he was given the job of governor of Rupert's Land in 1820.1
Simpson possessed a natural aptitude for business and a tremendous, almost manic energy. He brought both of these qualities with him to Canada. His forty years as governor of Rupert's Land saw the HBC reach its zenith in geographic and commercial success. Simpson reorganized the fur trade and pushed the HBC into expanding its interest beyond fur to almost anything that could be had in areas where it operated. Not content to issue orders from behind a desk at headquarters at Fort York or Lachine, Simpson preferred to see things as they were on the ground, and he embarked on epic voyages throughout his career—by horse, canoe, and foot—to the HBC's far-flung posts in North America. His advice to the HBC governing council in London was always respected and usually followed. With profits soaring by ten to twenty-five per cent, he was given great leeway in making decisions, and was a defacto viceroy for the company in Canada. Friends and enemies alike referred to him as “Emperor of the Plains” and “The Birch-bark Emperor”.2
In the West, Simpson embarked on a trade offensive against the HBC's two biggest competitors: America and Russia. Successful, the HBC soon dominated trade from the Columbia to Alaska. By 1833 American maritime trade had been virtually crushed and the HBC's policy of vigorously trapping out the Snake country had discouraged American inland traders. The Oregon Country, however, could not be held in the face of increasing numbers of American settlers. At first Simpson hoped to provoke an incident between the two governments that would lead to the area being declared British, but by 1840 the sheer number of American settlers convinced Simpson that the HBC would eventually be forced out. In 1842, he ordered the construction of new headquarters for the district on Vancouver Island to replace Fort Vancouver, which he believed (correctly) would soon be part of the United States.3
Simpson spent most of the 1850s in Montreal, tending to HBC and private interests. He died after a short illness on 7 September 1860, at the age of sixty-nine.4
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