BIRD, JAMES (sometimes called James Curtis), fur trader, justice of the peace, office holder, and politician; b. c. 1773 probably in Acton (London); d. 18 Oct. 1856 in the Red River settlement (Man.).
James Bird joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a writer, by the terms of a contract signed in London on 23 April 1788, and left for York Factory (Man.). In 1792, after a four-year apprenticeship, probably served at York Factory, he accompanied William Tomison*, the HBC chief inland, to Cumberland House (Sask.), Manchester House (near Standard Hill, Sask.), and Buckingham House (near Lindbergh, Alta). The following year he was placed in charge at South Branch House (near Batoche, Sask.) to succeed William Walker* and in 1794 he established a post at Nepawi (Nipawin, Sask.) to compete with a nearby North West Company post. From 1795 to 1799 he was in charge at the newly built Carlton House (near Fort-à-la-Corne, Sask.) before being sent to Edmonton House (near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta) in 1799. There he directed the HBC’s move farther up the North Saskatchewan River to build Acton House near their NWC rivals at Rocky Mountain House (Alta). He also organized the 1799 expedition led by Peter Fidler* north to the Beaver River and Lac la Biche, where Greenwich House was established. The London committee of the HBC found Bird’s efforts to extend HBC trade “most pleasing” and in 1803 he was placed in charge of the inland posts in the Saskatchewan country, from Cumberland House to the Rocky Mountains, to succeed Tomison. This was a time of intense competition in the fur trade and in 1810–11, under Bird’s direction, Joseph Howse led the first HBC expedition into the NWC trading territory west of the Rocky Mountains. Bird was based at Edmonton House until 1816 and spent the season of 1816–17 at Carlton House.
Following the death in June 1816 of the company’s governor of Rupert’s Land, Robert Semple*, Bird acted in his place until the arrival of the new governor, William Williams*, in 1818. He continued to oversee the trade of the Saskatchewan district until 1821 when, after the union of the HBC and the NWC [see Simon McGillivray*], he was named chief factor in charge of the Lower Red River district. In the summer of that year he accompanied the visiting HBC director, Nicholas Garry, from Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) to Norway House (Man.). After a furlough in 1822 and then a year’s posting as chief factor for the Upper Red River district, Bird retired from the company in June 1824, deciding to stay in the Red River colony. With two other retired HBC officers, Thomas Thomas* and Robert Logan*, Bird occupied an influential position in the social élite of the small settlement. Considered by HBC governor George Simpson as a “principal settler,” Bird received a company grant of 1,245 acres on the east side of the Red River.
During the HBC campaign against the NWC leading up to the merger, Bird had been appointed a justice of the peace for the Indian territories in 1815. Later, in Red River, he served from 1835 to 1845 as receiver of import and export duties and justice of the peace. A member of Governor Semple’s council in 1815 and of the council of the HBC Northern Department from 1822, he was appointed councillor of Assiniboia in 1839 and held this position until shortly before his death in 1856.
As a fur trader James Bird had been a key figure in the HBC’s success in the Saskatchewan district and in 1819 Colin Robertson* noted that Bird had “more knowledge of the internal arrangements of this country than all the officers put together.” Nevertheless, a high opinion of his own importance and a strong sense of self-interest, together with excessive caution and vindictiveness, marred both his career and his retirement. In 1820, in what was not an isolated incident, the London committee found fault with Bird, noting that “jealous feelings – and fancied slights and injuries” had clouded his better judgement. At Red River, in spite of his social prominence, he was not held in high regard. He was known to have physically chastised an elderly servant, to have harshly dismissed and sued for breach of contract an indiscreet serving maid, and to have demonstrated an absence of charity when called upon to contribute to the relief subscription raised for the retired Reverend David Thomas Jones*, minister at Red River from 1823 to 1838.
Bird had married, according to the custom of the country, more than one Indian woman, possibly polygynously, before marrying an Indian, Elizabeth, at Red River on 30 March 1821. With his Indian wives he had had a large number of children, many of whom, including James*, are mentioned in the parish registers of the Red River colony. Elizabeth died in the fall of 1834 and was buried on 1 November. Like many of his fur-trade colleagues in retirement, Bird sought an English wife and, in what seemed to some indecent haste, he married Mrs Mary Lowman, the widowed governess of the Female Seminary at Red River, on 22 Jan. 1835. Mrs Lowman received a grant of £2,500 in trust from Bird before this marriage, for reasons that remain obscure. At his death Bird left an estate, excepting real property, valued at under £4,000, the bulk of which was left to his daughter and son by his last marriage, Eliza Margaret and Curtis James*. The village of Birds Hill, on or near the Bird property and northeast of Winnipeg, takes its name from James Bird.
PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1, 5: ff.956–58; 6: f.1294; E1, ser.1, 24: 87 (copies); MG 25, 62. PAM, HBCA, A.6/10: f.23; A.6/16: f.126d; A.6/18: ff.40, 105d; A.6/23: ff.121d–22, 171–71d; A.31/1; A.32/3: f.202; A.36/16: f.43; A.44/3: f.110; B.27/a/1–3; 6; B.49/a/34; B.60/a/5–16; B.148/a/1; B.197/a/1; B.205/a/8; D.4/8: ff.3–17d; D.5/5: ff.306–7; D.5/7: ff.183–84; D.5/12: f.157d; E.6/2: f.139; MG 2, B4-1, 1844–51: ff.66–68; MG 7, B7-1, Reg. of baptisms, 1 Feb. 1838; Reg. of marriages, 30 March 1821, 22 Jan. 1835; Reg. of burials, 1 Nov. 1834, 24 Oct. 1856; MG 9, A78–3: 321–22. Canadian North-West (Oliver). [Robert Clouston], “A Red River gossip,” ed. E. A. Mitchell, Beaver, outfit 291 (spring 1961): 4–11. Nicholas Garry, “Diary of Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822–1835; a detailed narrative of his travels in the northwest territories of British North America in 1821 . . . ,” ed. F. N. Garry, RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 6 (1900), sect.ii: 73–204. HBRS, I (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming); 26 (Johnson). Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1934; repr. New York, 1968). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). David Thompson, David Thompson’s narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties.”
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