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THOMAS, THOMAS, surgeon, fur trader, jp, and politician; b. c. 1766, probably in Wales; m. according to the custom of the country, and formally on 30 March 1821, Sarah, a Cree, and they had two sons and six daughters; d. 24 Nov. 1828 in the Red River settlement (Man.).

Thomas Thomas joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a surgeon on 25 March 1789. He was described then as from the parish of St Andrew, Holborn (London), but later as coming from Carmarthen, Wales, no doubt his birthplace. He arrived at York Factory (Man.) on 27 August. In the HBC records he was usually designated as Thomas Sr to distinguish him from another surgeon of the same name, based at York Factory from 1791 to 1794, who was referred to as Thomas Thomas the 2nd. The post journal for York Factory contains passing references to Thomas Sr’s hunting: in the spring of 1791 he and a companion supplemented the post fare by shooting 630 geese. A surgeon had little to do, since the company servants were mostly young and healthy, although in the spring of 1793 Thomas treated many suffering from scurvy.

On 14 July 1794 Thomas Sr went inland despite complaints voiced by company officials over the expenses incurred during Thomas the 2nd’s two winters inland. Joseph Colen*, the chief at York Factory, explained that “I should not have permitted a Surgeon to have returned Inland – had it not been for the great attachment Mr. Thomas Senr has for this country.” The following summer Thomas sailed to England. Since he had seemingly enjoyed his years at York Factory, it is not surprising that the next summer he returned to Hudson Bay, this time as master of Severn House (Fort Severn, Ont.). He arrived at the post on 16 Sept. 1796 and remained in charge until 1810.

In 1810 Andrew Wedderburn, brother-in-law of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], joined the London committee of the HBC, bringing new vigour to the company. His plan for the management of the trade, known as the “retrenching system,” called for the elimination of extravagance, a profit-sharing scheme for company officers, and the division of trading posts into Northern and Southern departments. The posts around James Bay, namely Fort Albany (Ont.), Moose Factory (Ont.), and Eastmain Factory (Eastmain, Que.), with their outposts, formed the Southern Department; Thomas was appointed superintendent with a salary of £150 a year and the guarantee of at least £250 as his “Share of Profits.” In November 1811 he was appointed a justice of the peace for the Indian Territory and held this office until 1816.

Thomas’s first winter as superintendent was spent at Eastmain Factory, no doubt at the request of the London committee, which had heard that there were “jealousies among the officers.” He was to investigate the disagreements which had occurred between George Atkinson and his colleagues. The committee attributed to friction the post’s disappointingly small shipments of whale oil, which brought high prices in wartime Britain. In 1813 the committee decried the mismanagement of Moose Factory under John Thomas and instructed Thomas Thomas to dismiss him even though he had many years of service.

From 1810 to 1814 Thomas made his headquarters at Fort Albany, and during this time, in 1813, his official designation was changed from superintendent to governor. The London committee in 1812 had declared itself “highly gratified to find that Mr. Thomas & all the factors & officers in his department are sensible to the propriety of the new regulations and are aware of their own interest being so closely combined with the prosperity of the Company.”

In 1810 William Auld had been appointed superintendent of the larger and more complex Northern Department, which consisted of the posts of York Factory and Fort Churchill (Churchill, Man.), as well as the Saskatchewan and Winnipeg districts, that is, all the posts south and west of Hudson Bay. Unfortunately, Auld was unable to adapt to the retrenching system and resigned in 1814. Thomas succeeded him as governor of the Northern Department, accepting the command for one year only. He took up residence at York Factory. The London committee wanted to encourage its officers to exercise initiative; Thomas was informed at the conclusion of his instructions that “having thus given our Ideas on these points we leave the arrangements entirely to your discretion as the Governor.”

During Thomas’s winter of command he arranged for the supply of pemmican needed to sustain an expedition being mounted in Montreal to challenge the North West Company in the Athabasca country. Colin Robertson*, the organizer, recognizing defects of character in John Clarke*, who was to take command of the expedition, sought the opinion of James Bird* and Thomas at Lake Winnipeg in the summer of 1815. Since they approved of Clarke, they must share the blame for the disaster which befell the venture. During that summer the NWC succeeded in forcing the governor of Assiniboia, Miles Macdonell, to resign, and in dispersing the settlers of the Red River colony. Some of them sought refuge at the end of Lake Winnipeg; there, Thomas persuaded Robertson to lead them back to re-establish the colony. Thomas’s year in the Northern Department had been one of strain and anxiety. On 30 August, probably in recognition of his efforts, Robert Semple*, governor of the HBC territories, appointed him a councillor of Assiniboia.

After the death of Semple at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) in June 1816 [see Cuthbert Grant*], the HBC asked Thomas to serve as governor-in-chief locum tenens, but he declined. With his family Thomas had spent the winter of 1815–16 at Jack River House and in 1818–19 he wintered at Cumberland House (Sask.), before finally settling in the Red River colony. There, on 30 March 1821, he formally married Sarah, the mother of his children. Later she and seven of the children received baptism.

On 24 Dec. 1822 Andrew H. Bulger*, governor locum tenens of Assiniboia, again appointed Thomas a member of the Council of Assiniboia. Later, George Simpson*, governor of the HBC’s Northern Department, described the council as ineffective, and characterized Thomas as “timid and weak as a child.” Robertson’s appraisal of Thomas was that his knowledge of the fur trade was limited to what occurred on the bay, that he was a “rigid economist,” and that, “like the tanner’s blind horse,” he was afraid of stepping out of his circular path. Nevertheless, the London committee seemed to consider him one of the best men available to direct their affairs in Rupert’s Land.

Thomas’s will provided an annuity of £25 for his wife Sarah, later described by Letitia Hargrave [Mactavish*] as “the most notorious drunkard at Red River.” To each of his two sons he left £3,850, and to each of his six daughters £1,000 in three per cent Bank of England consols. Thomas was regarded as an influential citizen of the colony; his sons followed in their father’s footsteps and several of his daughters married prominent men. Sophia*, the youngest daughter, played a role in translating the Bible into Cree.

Bruce Peel

PAC, RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. PAM, HBCA, A.6/18; A.30/4, 7; A.32/3: f.222; A.36/13; A.44/2; B.59/ b/30; B.198/b/4, 6; B.239/a/89, 96–97; B.239/b; C.1/392, 400; E.4/1. HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); HBRS, 24 (Davies and Johnson). Letitia [Mactavish] Hargrave, The letters of Letitia Hargrave, ed. Margaret Arnett MacLeod (Toronto, 1947). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vo1.2.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce Peel, “THOMAS, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomas_thomas_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomas_thomas_6E.html
Author of Article: Bruce Peel
Title of Article: THOMAS, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: December 22, 2014