MITCHELL, THOMAS, HBC sloopmaster and explorer; fl. 1743–51.
Thomas Mitchell was appointed master of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s new trading sloop Eastmain in February 1743, and sailed from London to Hudson Bay that summer. His age is not known, but he was described the next year in one of the HBC journals as “a young Trader.” Normally Mitchell’s work would have been confined to routine slooping voyages between the company’s bay posts, but within a month of his appointment the London committee had made it clear that he was to sail north along the East Main (the little-known eastern coast of Hudson and James bays) on discovery. Reports from Indians of the interior suggested that in about latitude 60°N three great lakes occupied “the greatest part of the Labradore,” and the committee felt that the possibility of trade with Indians (and perhaps Eskimos) should be investigated.
In accordance with his instructions Mitchell headed north in the Eastmain in the summer of 1744, accompanied by John Longland in the Phoenix sloop. Mitchell’s log, which describes a perilous voyage in thick, squally weather along an uncharted coast, bears the mark of an inexpert navigator – as one despairing entry put it, “Where we are Now it is past ye art of man to take a true acct of his Course and dist.” Despite his lack of surveying skill and drawing materials (“haveing Nothing But a Black Lead Pencill”), Mitchell managed to include in his log rough maps of the entrances of Big River (Fort George River), Great Whale River, and Little Whale River. At the latter he collected some ore, “and amongst it several Christal stones which may be Dimonds for what I know for they are ye same form.” A few miles farther north, in latitude 56°15´N, the sloops were whirled through a narrow cleft in the shoreline into the unexpected haven of Richmond Gulf (Lac Guillaume-Delisle), shown on Mitchell’s map as “Sr Atwls lake” (after a member of the London committee) but mentioned in his log as “ye Muskeetay Gulph.” From here the sloops returned to Moose Factory (Ont.), without attempting to reach their official objective of latitude 60°N. Mitchell and Longland had explored 500 miles of coastline, and their logs and Mitchell’s sketch-maps provide the earliest documentary evidence of exploration along the more northerly stretches of the East Main coast.
After several years of routine slooping, Mitchell had leave in England in 1748–49, during which time he appeared before the parliamentary committee inquiring into the trade of Hudson Bay. In 1749 he took part under William Coats in the renewed exploration of the East Main. He was entrusted in 1750 with the establishment of a new post at Richmond Gulf and the supervision of a lead-working at Little Whale River. Reports of his illegal trading led to his dismissal, in the late summer, and the wisdom of the company’s decision was borne out when the London committee heard that his unenthusiastic attitude towards the new project – summed up in his comment “that the Mine is a Chimera and the Settlement a Joke” – had demoralized the little garrison at Richmond. Mitchell appeared for the last time in HBC records when he wrote in June 1751 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, probably to request re-employment, for in its reply the London committee was at pains to remind him of his past transgressions.
[Mitchell’s sloop logs are in HBC Arch. B.59/a/8–15. His log for the discovery expedition of 1744 is in B.59/a/9. Other references to his career with the company are in HBC Arch. A.1/36–39; A.6/8, ff.22–24d, 34; A.11/57, f.7; and B.3/a/35–54. His evidence before the parliamentary committee of 1749 is in G.B., Parl., Report from the committee on Hudson’s Bay, 227–28. Extracts from his log of 1744 and a photograph of his map of Richmond Gulf are in Glyndwr Williams, “Captain Coats and exploration along the East Main,” Beaver (Winnipeg), outfit 294 (winter 1963), 4–13. g.w.]