ATKINSON, GEORGE (known as Sneppy until about 1790), fur trader and explorer; b. 15 March 1777 at Eastmain House (Eastmain, Que.), son of George Atkinson* and Necushin, an Indian woman; d. 25 Sept. 1830 at the Red River settlement (Man.).
The mixed-blood son of a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, George Atkinson Jr became a formidable if not always tractable force in the affairs of the company on the Eastmain, the eastern coast of James and Hudson bays. Although he was baptized in England around 1790 and was sent there several times “to shake of a little of the Indian,” as his father put it, he always retained his Indian connections and he contracted two country marriages with Indian women.
The period of Atkinson’s service on the Eastmain was initially dominated by the HBC’s efforts to meet the threat of competition from Canadian traders. His first experience of inland exploration seems to have been in the summer of 1793 when he accompanied an HBC party to the Canadian post at Lac Cheasquacheston (Lac au Goéland) by way of Lac Nemiscau. Later that year the 16-year-old caused a second expedition to be abandoned when he refused to take charge of a canoe after the accidental death of the steersman. In 1795 another effort to reach the post came to nothing because Atkinson and the Indians were “bad against it.” As his superior, James Fogget, complained, “He delights always in the company of the Indians, and not in the Englishmens.”
Indian skills were at a premium among company servants during the years when wartime demands had led to a drop in standards, and so Atkinson remained in the HBC’s service in the Eastmain district, hunting and organizing transport. From 1803 to 1806 he was in charge of the post at Big River (La Grande Rivière), north of Eastmain Factory, where he competed in effective though sometimes unorthodox fashion against the North West Company. His salary increased steadily during this period, until by the season of 1805–6 he was earning £50 a year, plus bonuses. On his return from a visit to England in 1807 he was made a member of the council at Eastmain and again placed in charge of Big River, where he remained until the post closed in 1813. For his final three years there he also supervised the whale fishery along the coast to the north, although relations between him and other company traders and schooner masters were evidently difficult. As the London committee of the HBC wrote to his superior, Thomas Thomas, in 1813, “We fear there may be some difficulty in establishing a cordiality between Atkinson and any European officers for long continuance.”
The London committee had a more independent role in mind for Atkinson, in which, it was hoped, his contacts with the Indians would help rather than hinder the company’s designs. He was to survey the Great and Little Whale rivers (Grand Rivière de la Baleine and Petite Rivière de la Baleine) in 1815, the beginning of the company’s plan to explore “one part of the country after another” in an attempt to exploit new trading areas. Atkinson’s insistence on hunting for his family delayed the survey until 1816, when he completed exploration of Great Whale River only. He proceeded about 350 miles by canoe as far as Lac Bienville and returned with a rough sketch of his route and a report that the river held out promise of neither trade nor provisions. In 1818 he embarked with a party of Indians on his second survey, striking inland from Richmond Gulf (Lac Guillaume-Delisle) along Deer River (Rivière au Caribou) to Clearwater Lake (Lac à l’Eau Claire) and then to the area of Upper Seal Lake (Petit Lac des Loups Marins). There or near by, he recorded on 22 July 1818 the first known observations of freshwater seals. At the beginning of August he met Indians who told him that the lakes at which he had by then arrived emptied into “the sea, on the other side of the continent.” He had reached the height of land, but was forced back by the reluctance of his guide to go farther, and by sickness among the Indians. Again, his report was a depressing one – of a journey involving 50 portages to the height of land, of a barren country, and of few furs.
Atkinson’s role as an inland explorer was subsequently taken over by HBC employee James Clouston. His hold over the Indians was illustrated by Clouston when he wrote in 1823 that the Indians believed Atkinson could kill them by his conjuring. Clouston also complained that Atkinson told the Indians they were being cheated by the HBC and that he encouraged them to demand higher prices for their furs. Atkinson became an increasing embarrassment to the company, and attempts were made to persuade him and his numerous family to move to the Red River settlement.
Atkinson performed one further service before retiring. His contribution to William Hendry’s expedition of 1828 from the Eastmain to the Rivière Koksoak in the Ungava peninsula explains much of the journey’s success. Hendry had no experience of inland travel, and although he complained of Atkinson’s unpredictable behaviour, the mixed-blood’s knowledge as guide and interpreter was invaluable. Soon after his return Atkinson moved to the Red River settlement, where he died in 1830. He left a widow and 14 children, 2 of them at least from his first marriage. Despite the problems which he caused his superiors and associates in the fur trade, Atkinson played a substantial part in securing the trade of the Indians in the Eastmain during a period of competition. His inland surveys of 1816 and 1818 were the precursors of more ambitious ventures which in the next 25 years were to open up Labrador.
PAM, HBCA, G.1/40, 6.1/42. HBRS, 24 (Davies and Johnson). Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz, Partners in furs: a history of the fur trade in eastern James Bay, 1600–1870 (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1983).