ISBISTER, JOSEPH, HBC chief factor; b. c. 1710, son of Adam Isbister and Helen MacKinlay; m. 1748 Judith, daughter of Christopher Middleton*; buried 20 Oct. 1771 at Quebec.
Little is known of Joseph Isbister’s youth, but he probably grew up in Stromness, Orkney Islands (U.K.), where his father was a merchant. In 1726 he was apprenticed to Captain Christopher Middleton of the Hudson’s Bay Company and served under him in Hudson Bay for the next four years. Isbister was then employed by the company as a sailor in James Bay until 1735, when he was appointed mate of the Beaver, an HBC sloop engaged in trade along the East Main (the eastern coasts of Hudson and James bays), and given command of Eastmain House (at the mouth of Rivière Eastmain, Que.), an outpost of Fort Albany (Ont.). Three years later he succeeded Robert Pilgrim* as master of the Moose River (II), and in August 1740, after the sudden death of his superior, Rowland Waggoner*, he was elected to the command of Albany.
The first Orkneyman to attain a governorship in the HBC, Isbister proved to be one of the company’s most noteworthy officers in the mid 1700s. A man “of great strength and independence of mind,” he was not afraid to challenge the authority of the company’s London committee, as he did over the matter of inland trade. The company, lacking both the experienced personnel and the birch-bark to build the large canoes necessary for trade in the interior, and also afraid that inland posts would draw trade away from its more easily provisioned bayside posts, had long preferred that its servants persuade the Indians to travel down to Hudson Bay. But this policy placed the company at a disadvantage with its Canadian competitors. In 1743 Isbister reported that Albany’s trade had fallen off because some Canadian pedlars had established a post about 120 miles up the Albany River at “the very part that all Cannoes must pass that Come Down to Albany Fort.” Convinced that Albany’s trade could be saved only by disregarding the company’s official policy, in June 1743 he took a small party of men to a strategic spot upstream from the Canadian post, built Henley House (at the junction of the Albany and Kenogami rivers, Ont.), and appointed his brother William* master.
Although the committee approved Isbister’s action, it insisted that the function of the small outpost was to be for “defense rather than trade.” Isbister, however, displayed an astute and far-sighted appreciation of the needs of the company’s trade: inland posts would eventually dominate the company’s activities. He was also the first to grapple with the problem of inland transport, and his efforts to build a boat “to draw as little watter as a Canno & Carie more goods” presaged the introduction of the flat-bottomed York boat.
Ill health forced Isbister to relinquish the command of Albany in 1747. During the following year in Britain he married, and he recovered his health sufficiently to return to Hudson Bay as chief of Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.). He retained this post until 1752 when he was again appointed chief at Albany.
Isbister’s career provides insight into the company’s problems of management and discipline. Although the London committee had drawn up strict rules of conduct for its servants, it depended on the capability and inclination of its overseas officers for their enforcement. Life on the bleak shores of Hudson Bay was hard and monotonous, and it is not surprising that the men sought solace in liquor and Indian women. In 1740 the committee specifically commanded Isbister to stamp out drunkenness, private trade, and “the detestable Sin of Whoring.” Following these instructions, he instituted a strict military regimen at Albany and, being a powerful, quick-tempered man, he frequently resorted to physical force to punish those who were refractory or careless. On Christmas day, 1743, he chastized a man for “Caballing” by knocking him down so hard he broke his leg. To another servant, who had neglected his duties while drunk, he applied six lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails.
The London committee’s standing regulation prohibiting the harbouring of Indian women in the posts was more difficult to enforce, in part because it was at variance with the realities of life on the bay. By the mid 18th century it had become customary for chief factors to keep an Indian wife, and Isbister, despite his marriage in 1748, was no exception. These alliances helped cement trade ties with the Indians, and the women, besides answering the men’s physical needs, performed important domestic tasks around the post, such as making moccasins and netting snowshoes. As a result, many HBC chief factors allowed their officers and men varying degrees of licence with Indian women. Isbister, however, was particularly strict: everyone but himself was prohibited contact with Indian women. His double standard earned him the bitter resentment of the garrison at Churchill and ultimately culminated in tragedy after his return to Albany. His attempts to re-establish strict discipline there antagonized the men and alienated the Home Guard Indians (Crees), who had been given free access to the fort and its supplies by the previous factor. Wappisis*, one of the leading Indians at Albany, was so enraged when William Lamb, master at Henley, followed Isbister’s example that in December 1754 he and some relatives plundered the post and killed the men.
Isbister, who refused to acknowledge that his own behaviour had been an indirect cause of Henley’s destruction, blamed the whole affair on French intrigue. Fearful that the post would fall into French hands, he ordered a party of Indians to burn it, but his prime concern was to bring the responsible parties to justice. When his suspicions concerning the involvement of Wappisis, who had returned nonchalantly to Albany, were confirmed, he brought him and his two sons to trial, found them guilty, and sentenced them to hang. Although determined “to let the Indians Know that the English will not put up with Such Villainous Treatment,” Isbister delayed carrying out the sentence until he had received the approbation of the Moose council. The London committee reprimanded him not for his execution of the Indians but rather for his failure to re-establish Henley. Isbister was prevented from doing so, however, by the refusal of most of his men to go inland again.
In 1756 Isbister’s contract expired and, in compliance with his wishes and in fear for his safety should the Indians seek revenge, the London committee recalled him. A gratuity from the committee several years later indicates that he did not leave the company on bad terms.
In 1760 Isbister, along with his wife and six small children, immigrated to Quebec City. Governor James Murray was instrumental in securing for him the lease of the post of Mingan from Jacques de Lafontaine* de Belcour. Isbister got along well with the Indians because of his knowledge of their language, and Murray later observed that “prudence made it Necessary at that time of War to be careful who occupied the Posts in the Gulph and River of St Lawrence.” In 1763 Isbister purchased a property on the Rue des Remparts in Quebec. He died in the city in October 1771 “of a Decay and wore out lungs.” His wife and children returned to England.
ANQ-Q, État civil, Anglicans, Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Québec), 20 Oct. 1771. HBC Arch. A.1/37, ff.253, 296; A.1/43, ff.150, 172; A.1/144, f.56; A.5/1, f.13d; A.6/6, f.96; A.6/7, ff.1, 157; A.6/8, f.112; A.6/9, f.9; A.11/2, ff.101–2, 164, 173–75d; A.11/3, ff.10–11; A.16/2, f.50; A.16/10, f.19; B.3/a/30, f.8; B.3/a/34, ff.8, 36–37; B.3/a/35, f.17; B.3/a/37, f.11; B.3/a/46, ff.5, 17; B.3/a/47, ff.41–42d; B.42/a/36, f.20; B.42/a/38, ff.25d, 27d. PAC, MG 8, G24, 10, f.19; RG 4, B28, 24, 9 Nov. 1771; RG 68, 331, f.551. PRO, CO 42/1, ff.155–56, 293–95. HBRS, XXVII (Williams). Letters from Hudson’s Bay, 1703–40, ed. K. G. Davies and A. M. Johnson, intro. R. [G.] Glover (London, 1965). Rich, History of HBC. J. S. Clouston, “Orkney and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Beaver, outfit 267 (March 1937), 38–43, 63.