SIMPSON, ISOBEL GRAHAM (Finlayson), diarist; b. 20 Jan. 1811 in London, England, eldest daughter of Geddes Mackenzie Simpson and Frances Hume Hawkins; m. 10 Nov. 1838 Duncan Finlayson* at Bromley-by-Bow (now part of Greater London); d. 22 Aug. 1890 in London.
Isobel Graham Simpson’s family had close associations with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Her father, a successful London merchant, had as a partner Andrew Wedderburn Colvile, who in 1839 became the deputy governor of the HBC; in 1830 her younger sister Frances married George Simpson*, a cousin, who was governor of the HBC. When Duncan Finlayson, a highly respected HBC chief factor, visited George Simpson’s in-laws while on furlough in 1838, he was captivated by “the amiable & accomplished Miss Simpson,” and the couple were married in November. However, Isobel’s health was considered too delicate to allow her to accompany her husband in the spring of 1839 to Rupert’s Land where he was to assume the governorship of Assiniboia.
Isobel was determined to join her husband the following year, though grieved to part from her family. It is her lively, sensitive account of the journey from England to Red River (Man.) in the summer of 1840 for which she is remembered, one of the few records of fur-trade travel left by a European woman. Isobel sailed for Hudson Bay in June with Chief Trader James Hargrave* and his bride Letitia [Mactavish*], who described Isobel as “little & lady like, has a beautiful complexion & is very pretty.” Reunited at York Factory (Man.), the Finlaysons embarked by York boat for the Red River Settlement. Isobel bore the inevitable inconveniences of this exposed mode of travel with good humour, enjoyed the “romantic” scenery, and admired the skill of their spirited crew. Her “Note book,” as the diary is called, contains seven attractive, if amateurish, pencil sketches of the native people she encountered.
Although the colony exceeded her expectations, Isobel did not adapt well to life in the Red River Settlement. She visited Norway House in 1842 where her husband presided over the Council of Assiniboia, but she was not unhappy to leave the west in 1844 when Finlayson was transferred to the company depot at Lachine (Que.) near Montreal. Here Isobel lived, except for extended trips to Britain, until her husband retired to London in 1859. When her sister Frances died at Lachine in 1853, Isobel, who had no children of her own, became a second mother to Governor Simpson’s family. She survived her husband by almost 30 years, dying at her home in London in 1890.
Extracts from the diary of Isobel Simpson were published in two issues of the Beaver, outfit 282 (September 1951): 32–35, and (December 1951): 32–37, under the title “York boat journal.” The original is in PAM, HBCA, E.12/5.
PAM, HBCA, D.5/7: ff.96d., 193; D.5/12: f.116d.; D.5/37: f.58d.; D.5/50: f.343d.; D.6/1: ff.31d., 32d.; E.12/1: f.51; E.12/4: f.31. Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod).