ROSS, MALCHOM (Malcolm, Malcholm), furtrader; b. c. 1754 in the Orkney Islands (U.K.), probably in South Ronaldsay; d. autumn 1799.
Malchom Ross first contracted with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1774 to serve as a labourer at York Factory (Man.) at a wage of £6 per annum. Within two years he was serving inland under William Tomison* and Robert Longmoor* at York’s outpost, Cumberland House (Sask.), and beyond. On 5 Oct. 1776 Ross joined Longmoor on a journey up the Saskatchewan River from Cumberland; they returned in February 1777 “bringing four Sledge Loads of Furrs, hauled by Dogs” after 40 days’ arduous travel from “Where the Indians they left (chiefly Assinnee Poetuck) [Assiniboins] are pounding Buffelo.” Other travels included summer trips with furs down to York Factory and expeditions in January and May 1778 to divert inland Indians from trading with Canadian pedlars.
By 1778 Ross was known as “an Excellent Servant and fine canoe Man equal allmost to any Indian in Shooting falls &c.” The next year he was left in charge of Upper Hudson House (near Wandsworth, Sask.) by Longmoor, who wrote that “he is the fittest man that I can Trust.” The company, which often had labour problems with its Orkney servants, appreciated Ross’s service. Although he still ranked as a labourer, it increased his salary to £15 per annum in 1779, and beginning in 1782 granted this “most excellent Canoe Man, much beloved by the Indians” a salary of £20 per annum.
Ross was inland when the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup] seized York and Churchill (Man.) in 1782, and so he avoided being captured with other company servants such as Humphrey Marten, Samuel Hearne, and Edward Umfreville. He continued with the company and during the 1780s took on positions of increased responsibility. Besides serving as a canoe-maker, hunter, trader, and even tailor at Lower Hudson (near Wandsworth, Sask.) and Cumberland houses, he was called upon to act as temporary master at Lower Hudson in April 1780 and at Cumberland in the summer of 1783. In 1788 he was described as “occasional Master at either House” and during the 1790–91 season as temporary master, being “Every way qualified . . . cannot be a better.”
Between 1790 and 1792 Ross was a valued associate of Philip Turnor and Peter Fidler* on their journey to the Athabasca country and was listed in company books as in “Charge of Goods on the Northern Expedition” at an annual wage of £40. Ross was accompanied on these travels by “his woman and 2 children,” wrote Fidler, who added that “An Indian woman at a House is particularly useful in making shoes, cutting line, netting snow shoes, cleaning and stretching Beaver skins &c., that the Europeans are not acquainted with.”
The Athabascan journey revealed to the London committee the area’s potential as a rich source of furs. In May 1793 Ross, who had spent “a poor, expensive Winter” above Cumberland intercepting Indian groups carrying furs to rival Canadian traders, was asked by the committee to organize an expedition to Athabasca and establish a trading post there. The plan failed to gain the support of William Tomison, by now chief inland, and the expedition, plagued by logistics problems, was postponed. During the 1794–95 season Ross elected to winter at Reed Lake (Man.), northeast of Cumberland, and spent the next season at Fairford House (near Iskwatam Lake, Sask.) to the northwest. The recurrent problem of rivalries within the company for the inland trade was highlighted by his activities, since they drew complaint from Thomas Stayner, chief at York, who had sent men to the same area. In 1796–97 Ross, although weary of frequent changes of winter quarters, was led by circumstances to build Bedford House at Reindeer Lake (Sask.), over 100 miles north of Fairford. Winter provisions got low for the “15 English men of us and two women and 3 Childering”; and the Indians proved difficult. Matters worsened in April when the Canadian Alexander Fraser* arrived to trade in the vicinity and Ross’s assistant, David Thompson*, deserted into the “Canadan Service.”
Ross travelled to England in 1798 and met the London committee on 28 November. It had decided after much discussion that Athabasca should be opened up from Churchill rather than York. Having ordered York not to compete in the area, the committee retained Ross “for 3 Years at £80 p. Ann” to travel from Churchill to establish trade in the Athabasca River region. In the summer of 1799 Ross joined the council at Churchill. On 6 September he made a will, the principal beneficiaries of which were a brother Charles and a natural son George, who was proposed as an apprentice at York in 1801. Shortly after making his will he departed for Athabasca. On 17 October Indians brought word to Churchill that the expedition of which so much was hoped had been halted about 150 miles upriver after Ross fell overboard and drowned in rapids.
Ross was one of the most valued and best rewarded of the company’s many Orkney servants. His enterprise, ability to learn inland skills, loyalty, and modest literacy combined to raise him from labouring to officer rank and enabled him to render conspicuous service to his employers in difficult times. The premature loss of his “well known experience” was much regretted.
HBC Arch. A.1/47, ff.120, 122; A.6/13, f.41; A.6/16, ff.55–56, 127, 129; A.11/116, f.43; A.30/1, ff.22, 80; A.30/2, ff.32, 52, 72; A.30/3, f.38; A.30/4, ff.14, 45, 72; A.30/5, ff.16, 42; A.32/1, f.92; B.14/a/1, ff.21, 29, 33; B.24/a/1, f.32; B.42/b/42, pp.8, 15; B.42/b/44, ff.67, 74; B.49/a/19, ff.28, 40; B.239/b/56, ff.25–25d. PRO, Prob. 11/ 1370, will of Malchom Ross, proved 12 Feb. 1802. St John’s Anglican Cathedral (Winnipeg), Red River register of baptisms, I, no.400. HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson); XV (Rich and Johnson). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell). Saskatchewan journals and correspondence: Edmonton House, 1795–1800; Chesterfield House, 1800–1802, ed. A. M. Johnson (London, 1967).