STEWART, JAMES GREEN, HBC fur-trader and Arctic explorer; b. 21 Sept. 1825 in Quebec City, the son of the Honourable John Stewart*, member of the Executive Council of Lower Canada, and Eliza Maria Green; m. in 1854 Margaret Mowat, and they had at least five sons; d. 1 Sept. 1881 near Edmonton (Alta).
James Green Stewart was appointed an apprentice clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1844 because Sir George Simpson* thought it “highly desirable to have a few young gentlemen respectably connected in this country [Canada] in the concern.” After a year near Lake Superior he was posted to the Mackenzie River District, first to Fort Liard and then to Frances Lake (Yukon). From 1848 to 1852 he was Robert Campbell*’s assistant in establishing and supplying Fort Selkirk at the junction of the Pelly and Yukon rivers. This post marked the limit of Simpson’s policy of expansion; at best it took seven years to get a return on an investment because of the difficulty in reaching the fort. The hardy voyageurs in the Mackenzie District had, according to James Anderson*, an “Intense horror” of the trip up the Liard River; then came the worst series of portages in North America, consisting of at least 60 miles on foot across mountains to the Pelly. Stewart cheerfully specialized in this route, quickly earning Campbell’s gratitude: “I could not be more ably supported had I all Hudson’s Bay to choose from . . . .” Campbell’s confidence was justified. In 1849, when the vital annual supplies from Fort Simpson (N.W.T.) had failed to reach Frances Lake by 1 November, Stewart, who had gone to Frances Lake from Fort Selkirk to meet them, barely survived the return trip. Yet he volunteered, in April 1850, to travel the 1,100 miles to Fort Simpson for the much-needed supplies. En route he rescued the survivor of the Pelly River Post which had experienced fire and cannibalism. At Fort Simpson, John Rae* gave him a boat half laden with supplies to take up the Liard, a trip he made successfully. Simpson remarked that Stewart’s “exertions in this emergency are beyond all praise . . . .” James Anderson, who in 1851 became manager of the Mackenzie River District, was impressed by Stewart’s advice to shift Fort Selkirk farther down the Yukon, and said: “Stewart with equal hardihood and Enterprise has a better education and far clearer judgement [than Campbell].”
However, Stewart’s career lost its early promise. In the summer of 1851 he stayed at Fort Selkirk, permitting Campbell to complete the exploration of the Yukon downriver to Fort Yukon (Alaska) at the mouth of the Porcupine. Their roles were reversed in 1852 when Stewart was sent downriver to Fort Yukon for a cow while Campbell remained at Fork Selkirk. During Stewart’s absence the post was attacked by the Chilkat who feared that their middleman trading position was in jeopardy with the establishment of HBC posts in the area. The Chilkat overpowered Campbell and pillaged the post. After his return to Fort Selkirk, Stewart conveyed what could be salvaged to Fort Yukon while Campbell set off for Fort Simpson and then to Lachine, Canada East, to obtain approval for reestablishing the post. Because of high costs and slow profit returns Simpson turned down the proposal, thus negating nearly 20 years of effort on the upper Liard and Pelly rivers.
As a supernumerary, Stewart briefly and rather inadequately took over Fort McPherson (N.W.T.) in 1854. He annoyed Anderson by telling him that Frances Lake could be abandoned but telling Simpson the opposite. Also he disobeyed orders by visiting the Red River Settlement. Stewart was posted briefly to Fort Carlton (Sask.) before being ordered north again to Fort Resolution (N.W.T.). He was to be second in command to Anderson of an expedition which the British government had asked the HBC to send down Back River to the Arctic to verify reports Rae had received from the Inuit that some of Sir John Franklin*’s expedition had perished on the Montreal Islands. Anderson arrived at Fort Resolution on 22 June 1855, dismissed the guides Stewart had chosen, and selected a different route. He also complained that because of “unnecessary hurry” Stewart had used poor bark for the special shortened canoes recommended by Rae for travelling in this area. Lacking the promised interpreters, the expedition could not properly interrogate the Inuit they met. The search of the Montreal Islands turned up small scattered bits of Franklin’s ships. However, the expedition stopped short of what was later known to be the site of the tragedy, Starvation Cove on the mainland, because their frail craft, two weakened canoes and an inflatable Halkett boat, could not stand the unseasonably severe ice conditions. Moreover, the canoes kept breaking on the return trip up the 84 rapids of the Back River. Discord between Anderson and Stewart continued during this part of the trip, and after the expedition Anderson complained that Stewart had shown no initiative. Anderson also made a formal protest to the Council of the Northern Department when Stewart delayed dispatches by diverting the express to Norway House to pick up his wife and gave a highly coloured version of the expedition to Montreal newspapers. Simpson replied to Anderson: “Stewart has unfortunate failings for which he received from myself, at the request of the Council, a severe reprimand this season . . . .”
Just prior to the Arctic expedition Stewart was promoted to chief trader, and afterwards the British government awarded him £280 for his services. His efforts on two far-flung but relatively unproductive HBC enterprises now behind him, he served at Cumberland House (Sask.) from 1856 to 1862, at Oxford House (Man.) from 1865 to 1867, and finally at Norway House from 1867 to 1871. He became chief factor on 1 June 1869 but was not included in the new deed poll of 1871 despite his request. After settling at Clover Bar near Edmonton in 1878, he acted as an Indian agent for a year. He died of heart disease on 1 Sept. 1881. His best efforts had been in the Yukon where Campbell had named the Stewart River after him.
PABC, James Anderson papers. PAM, HBCA, A.12/2; D.4/ 76a: 831; D.5/25: 590. Provincial Arch. of Alberta (Edmonton), James Green Stewart papers. [James Anderson], “Chief Factor James Anderson’s Back River journal of 1855,” ed. C. H. D. Clarke, Canadian Field-Naturalist (Ottawa), 54 (1940): 63–67, 84–89, 107–9, 125–26, 134–36; 55 (1941): 9–11, 21–26, 38–44. Clifford Wilson, Campbell of the Yukon (Toronto, 1970). E. J. Holmgren, “The diary of J. G. Stewart, 1855, describing his overland journey in search of the Franklin expedition,” Beaver, outfit 310 (spring 1980): 12–17.
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