NORTON, MOSES, HBC chief factor; b. c. 1735, son of Richard Norton* and Susannah Dupeer; d. 29 Dec. 1773 at Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.).
Moses Norton is one of the most controversial figures in the annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Historians of the fur trade do not agree in their assessment of him: Richard Glover denounces him as “a very sinister man” whereas Edwin Ernest Rich praises him, especially for his “uncommon energy and perception.” The root of the conflict lies in the credibility of a damning character sketch of Norton written by Samuel Hearne and first published in 1795. Hearne nursed a deep hatred for Norton and several of his allegations must be questioned.
Norton’s origin remains a mystery. He was definitely not “an Indian” as Hearne claims, but owing to Hearne’s statement that Norton was born at Prince of Wales’s Fort it has widely been assumed that he was the mixed-blood son of his father and a native woman. Norton’s will, however, suggests that both his parents were European, for he names Susannah Dupeer as his mother. Since Richard Norton had married Elizabeth McCliesh, it is possible that Moses was born of an illicit union when his father was on furlough in England in the 1730s.
The course of Moses Norton’s career reinforces the improbability of his being of mixed blood. In 1744 Norton was indentured in England to one of the HBC’s ship captains, George Spurrell*, for a term of seven years. His career with the company was launched in 1753 when he contracted to serve as mate of the Churchill sloop for three years at a salary of £25 per annum. In 1756 he became accountant and assistant to Ferdinand Jacobs, chief factor of Prince of Wales’s Fort, assuming temporary command of the post in 1759 prior to a year’s furlough in England. He was appointed chief factor in 1762 and retained command at Churchill until his death. In view of the company’s official policy, which forbade intimate contact between its servants and the Indians [see Joseph Isbister], it is doubtful whether the London committee would appoint a mixed-blood to one of its most important posts. It was not until 1794 that official permission was given for mixed-blood boys to be employed in the company’s service. If Norton was indeed a native of Hudson Bay, it is curious that his exceptional advancement received no mention in the company’s records.
The correspondence between Norton and his superiors reveals the faith which the London committee had in his ability to carry out the arduous responsibilities connected with Prince of Wales’s Fort. Three difficult tasks faced Norton: the reconstruction of poorly built sections of the stone fort, further northern exploration, and the establishment of a black whale fishery. His failure to achieve conspicuous success in any of these areas resulted from circumstances beyond his control, rather than personal incompetence as Glover maintains. Work on the fort was inevitably hampered by lack of materials and skilled artisans. From 1761 to 1764 Norton himself captained expeditions to search for the elusive northwest passage. His explorations took him as far north as Chesterfield Inlet (N.W.T.) and he was rewarded by the committee with a gratuity of £40. Norton, whose annual instructions to his sloop captains show a comprehensive grasp of affairs, improved the coastal trade with the Inuit, particularly after 1765, when he succeeded in negotiating a peace between the Inuit and their enemies, the Chipewyans. Norton’s interest in the fabled northern copper mine, which had long intrigued the company’s officers at Churchill, was heightened in 1767 when two Indians, Idotliazee and another (probably Matonabbee), returned to Churchill after five years of exploration with a piece of copper ore and a draft map. During his furlough the following year, Norton was able to interest the committee in his plans for exploration which subsequently led to the dispatch of Samuel Hearne in 1769. Although Norton has been held responsible for the failure of Hearne’s first two journeys, it is doubtful whether he would have deliberately tried to sabotage an undertaking in whose success he was so much interested. Norton has been unfairly castigated for the failure of the black whale fishery, which was abandoned in 1772. The project was defeated, in spite of much effort and expense, by the lack of skilled men, inadequate boats, and the short season.
In sum, the London committee had reason to consider Moses Norton a highly valuable servant, and it expressed disapproval only of the manner in which he attempted to curb private trade. Although Hearne charged that Norton was “a notorious smuggler,” the problem of private trade was much worse at the posts at the bottom of the bay than at Churchill. Norton had adopted a realistic approach to curbing the abuse; he allowed his “principal Officers and Tradesmen” to trade furs with the ships’ captains in return for their suppressing “illicit Trade and practices among the Inferior Class.” In 1770, as part of a general attempt to deal with the problem, the London committee ordered Norton to abandon his scheme. To curb the chief factors’ penchant for indulging in private trade, the committee raised their salaries to £130 per annum and allowed them a bounty of three shillings on every score of made beaver shipped to England. Norton was reprimanded for trying to curry favour by sending presents of furs to his friends on the London committee.
Within the draughty walls of Prince of Wales’s Fort, Norton endeavoured to live in high style. His apartments were “not only convenient but elegant”; he imported books, pictures, and an organ from England, and even kept a pet parrot. Like his father before him, Norton showed a particular fondness for the company of Indians, who were regularly admitted to his quarters. He was a stern disciplinarian, however, and he earned the enmity of some of his men, notably Hearne, by refusing to allow them to have any dealings with Indian women [see George Atkinson]. He himself had an Indian family, but there is no evidence to substantiate Hearne’s claim that he lived a most debauched existence, maintaining five or six of the finest Indian girls for his pleasure and not hesitating to poison any man who refused him a wife or daughter. Norton’s only known descendant was a daughter named Mary (Polly), born in the early 1760s of a Cree woman. A doting father, Norton indulged this child to such an extent that she became totally unsuited to the hardships of Indian life; although provided with a generous annuity by her father, Mary perished during the difficult winter of 1782 following Hearne’s surrender of Churchill to the French under Lapérouse [Galaup]. Like other chief factors of this period, Norton also maintained an English wife, Sarah, whom he probably married in 1753. He made regular and generous payments to her and named her the executrix of his will.
Norton died in December 1773 from a chronic disorder of the bowels. The 21-gun salute fired at his funeral would have pleased Norton, for he wanted to be remembered at his passing. To his friends and servants, he left bequests for mourning rings and apparel and “ten Gallons of English Brandy to be equally divided amongst all hands.”
HBC Arch. A.1/39, A.1/43, A.5/1, A.6/15, A.11/14, A.16/10, A.44/1. PRO, Prob. 11/713, f.314; 11/1002, f.374. Copy-book of letters outward &c, begins 29th May, 1680, ends 5 July, 1687, ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson, intro. E. G. R. Taylor (Toronto, 1948). Hearne, Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort (Glover). Letters from Hudson Bay, 1703–40, ed. K. G. Davies and A. M. Johnson, intro. R. [G.] Glover (London, 1965). Rich, History of HBC, II.