CUMMING (Cummings), CUTHBERT, HBC chief trader; b. in 1787 in Banffshire, Scotland; d. 5 April 1870 at Colborne, Ont.
Cuthbert Cumming became a North West Company clerk at Fort Dauphin in 1804, and remained in the Swan River District until 1828 with the exception of one year on leave and one at Red River. In these years he took an Indian wife who bore him seven children, and his concern for them is a recurring theme in his papers; he made provision for them in his will. In this period also he formed lifelong friendships with other fur traders such as James Hargrave, John George McTavish*, and John Siveright*; the latter pictured him as “open, friendly & consistant.” Reorganization of the fur trade in 1821 with the amalgamation of the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies had no immediate impact upon Cumming’s way of life. He remained a clerk with the HBC for several years, then was promoted chief trader in 1827; Governor George Simpson* described him as “a very fit man to come forward.”
In 1828 Cumming was transferred to the Montreal Department, where he was a complete stranger. His financial position began to improve, but his frustration with the work he was asked to perform increased. First he had to cope with the Ottawa lumbermen at the Chats, who were opposed to the fur trade; on the other hand many lumbermen and contractors on the Ottawa River were also traders. He met equally fierce competition in the Saint-Maurice region where he replaced Robert McVicar in 1830. In 1832 he went on leave to Britain, and received a hoped-for western appointment on his return. But a last-minute change of plan sent him in 1833 to Mingan, Lower Canada, on the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, where for several successive winters he found himself completely cut off from the rest of the world with little work to do and little reading or society available.
Cumming eventually received an appointment to Fort Pic on the north shore of Lake Superior in the spring of 1841. There in 1842 he married Jane McMurray, daughter of Thomas McMurray* whom he had replaced at the post. It was perhaps the difference of 26 years in their ages that prompted a friend’s remark: “Everyone knows their own circumstances and state of affairs best.” They had three sons. In 1843 Cumming reluctantly left the Pic, which he described as “that snugg corner” though it was not a flourishing post, and returned to the Swan River District. The buildings at Fort Pelly had been destroyed by fire in 1843, and Cumming’s first task was to rebuild them. Worse, he became convinced that the maintenance of an operation at Fort Pelly and the use of the Swan River transport route were errors in company policy. His journal expresses his dissatisfaction with limitations on the prairie fur trade and concern for the decreasing numbers of buffalo, which brought famine to the Indians. He was seeing the end of an era. Nostalgia overcame him when he wrote to Hargrave about his determination to leave the service: “I march the ensuing summer [ 1844] and through [throw?] my chains to the dogs. I must be a freeman. . . .”
A freeman he was for more than a quarter of a century. At Colborne, in Northumberland County, he was listed as “Cuthbert Cummings, gentleman.” The sharpest picture of him in these years comes from one of his old friends, George Barnston*, writing in 1846 to Hargrave “[We] found Cummings the ‘Noble Burgundy’ seated in all his breadth and Majesty, on the Hall Bench, a perfect picture of ease and contentment. As soon as we entered, with great agility, he squared up to John George [McTavish], and set himself in Boxing attitude, seemingly jealous of the honor of rotundity being contested with him. You would have laughed to have witnessed the graceful movements of these sparring Birds of so like a feather.” Cumming lived till the age of 83.
HBC Arch. A.34/2, 1832; A.36/5, wills of Cuthbert Cumming, 30 July 1828, February 1844; B.159/a, 1817–19, 1824–26. Private archives, J. F. Klaus (Pelly, Sask.), Fort Pelly journal, 1843–44. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, 657, 673, 690. Documents relating to NWC. (Wallace). Hargrave correspondence (Glazebrook). HBRS, III (Fleming). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). The county of Northumberland directory, for 1870–71, comp. J. C. Conner (Toronto, 1869), 61. J. F. Klaus, “Fort Pelly: an historical sketch,” Saskatchewan History (Saskatoon), XIV (1961), 81–97.