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SINCLAIR, WILLIAM, HBC chief factor; b. c. 1794 in Rupert’s Land, eldest son of Chief Factor William Sinclair from the Orkney Islands, Scotland, and of Nahovway (otherwise Margaret, by family tradition a daughter of Chief Factor Moses Norton*, but possibly a Cree), and brother of James*, Colin, and Thomas Sinclair; m. 21 June 1823, Mary, daughter of fur-trader Alexander McKay*, and they had four daughters and four sons; d. 12 Oct. 1868 in Brockville, Ont.

An “active lad,” five feet, five inches tall, dark, “peaceable and mild,” William Sinclair entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1808 as an apprentice with a salary of £8 a year. He spent his first years at Oxford House, York Factory, Winnipeg River District, and Norway House before setting off for Britain in the company ship, Prince of Wales, in 1816. Turned back by ice, the ship wintered in James Bay. To relieve the resulting food shortage young Sinclair was dispatched with able-bodied passengers and letters to Fort Severn and the Capusco Goose Camp in the same region. In 1817 he was made clerk in Lesser Slave Lake District, where, on a journey stopped by ice, he resourcefully improvised a winter post for trading. His annual salary rose slowly to £100. Returning in 1819 from a year in England he served at Oxford House, Sandy Lake (Ont.), and Island Lake (Man.) before joining the Bow River expedition of 1822–23 led by Chief Factor Donald McKenzie* to the forks of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers; during this expedition Sinclair accompanied John Edward Harriott on a seven-week, 850-mile journey over the little known southwestern plains to the Cypress Hills and Missouri country.

In 1824 began 20 years of service in the Winnipeg River and Rainy Lake districts (later combined), at first in outlying areas, collecting wild rice, hunting, gathering furs, heading off American competition along the border, or going with the annual boat brigade to York Factory. The “promising youth” of 1809–10 had become in the mid 1820s, in the opinion of Chief Factor John Dugald Cameron*, “a sober young man – careful and attentive,” “very handy and industrious,” though “rather of a sickly disposition.” He was a good accountant but could not speak French, which was, according to Simon McGillivray Jr, “much against him in commanding Canadians.” His first independent command was the Dalles post in 1831 where, after initial mistakes, he won Chief Factor John Stuart*’s approval; there were few to whom Stuart “would more willingly commit a charge.” Stuart urged George Simpson* in 1831 to favour Sinclair since, though capable and “born in the service,” he had “but little chance of being promoted.” Nevertheless, in 1844 Sinclair was made chief trader.

Sinclair was transferred to Churchill in 1845 as the person best qualified to improve its trade, and was again appointed to Rainy Lake District in 1848; he became chief factor in 1850. He was assigned in 1854 to Fort Edmonton, in charge of the Saskatchewan District. There he attempted to make peace between the Crees and the Blackfoot Confederacy. In 1857 he was again in charge of the Rainy Lake District, going on in 1858 to command the key Norway House District. He went on retirement furlough in 1862. In 1854 he had “lands and a house in Red River,” but in 1863 he settled near Brockville, Canada West, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Like other officers of the HBC, Sinclair was a prodigious traveller. He took on assignments such as re-establishing a grist mill, supplying birch bark and other canoe-building materials, apprehending a murderer, and collecting a musk-ox skin for John James Audubon. The “difficult and troublesome” service of organizing troop transport between York Factory and Red River in 1846, 1848, 1857, and 1861 he performed “in a highly satisfactory manner.” From 1851 to at least 1863 he was a member of the council of the Northern Department.

William Sinclair was one of the country-born, mixed-blood sons of HBC officers to become commissioned officers in its service. George Simpson’s estimate in 1832, in his confidential “Character Book,” was critical: “a half breed of the Cree nation . . . Deficient in education – A good shot and tolerably active but possesses little judgement. A mean spirited low blackguard kind of fellow – Manages the business of a small outpost but moderately well and commands little respect among servants or Indians – .” By 1845 his opinion had changed. His official letters to Sinclair commend him as “an active intelligent officer” on whose “excellent management” and “usual great ability” he counted, though with occasional disappointments. The turning point in Sinclair’s career seems to have been his satisfactory service with Chief Factor John Stuart.

Irene M. Spry

HBC Arch., A.16/64, p.207; A.30/11–14; A.34/2; A.36/12; B.4/b/1, 6, 10, 23 Oct., 14 Dec. 1829, 7 Feb. 1830, 26 May 1831; B.34/a/4, p.48; B.34/d/1, p.45; B.60/a/29b, 17 Sept. 1856, 11 March, 15 May 1857; B.105/a/10–14, 17, 19–20; B.115/a/1; B.115/d/2; B.134/b/22, 24, 26–28; B.135/a/1139; B.154/a/59, 65; B.239/a/132, 1 Aug. 1824; B.239/d/143, 147, 152, 170, 175, 195; B.239/1/8–15; B.239/k/1–3; C.1/785, 787–88; D.4/22, 6 July 1836; D.4/24, 28 Feb. 1838; D.4/57, 10 June 1845; D.4/65, 8 June 1844; D.4/67, 10 June, 22 Nov. 1845; D.4/69, 30 June, 18 Dec. 1847; D.4/70, 2 June, 9 July, 15 Nov. 1848, 19 Nov. 1849; D.4/71, 11 July, 18 Dec. 1850; D.4/75, 28 Jan. 1855, 19 Jan. 1856; D.4/76a, 6 Dec. 1856. [Particular thanks are due to the archivist of the Hudson’s Bay Company and her colleagues for tracing much of the widely scattered material used in the biography that would otherwise have escaped notice.  i.m.s.]

PAC, MG 19, D7, ser.2. United Counties of Leeds and Grenville Surrogate Court (Brockville, Ont.), register 2, pp.678–83. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, 648, 664, 671, 681–82; II, 697, 706, 716, 732, 738, 765, 770, 791, 805, 822, 830, 842, 858, 865. HBRS, III (Fleming). D. G. Lent, West of the mountains: James Sinclair and the Hudson’s Bay Company (Seattle, Wash., 1963), 19, 21, 23, 31–32, 42, 155, 201, 293, 295–96. E. W. Marwick, “A Harrayman in Hudson Bay,” Orcadian (Kirkwall, Scot.), 18, 25 March 1965.

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Cite This Article

Irene M. Spry, “SINCLAIR, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sinclair_william_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sinclair_william_9E.html
Author of Article: Irene M. Spry
Title of Article: SINCLAIR, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: December 19, 2014