ATKINSON, GEORGE, HBC chief factor; d. 2 Oct. 1792 at Eastmain Factory (at the mouth of Rivière Eastmain, Que.).
Nothing is known of the life of George Atkinson before his engagement with the Hudson’s Bay Company, other than that he was probably born in Stockton-on-Tees, England. His first years of service with the company evidently occurred during 1751–54, when crew lists for the company ship Sea Horse, engaged in the supply of posts on Hudson Bay, regularly included his name. An unexplained 14-year gap followed, but in 1768 he was once more engaged by the company, this time to serve as a sailor at Fort Albany (Ont.) for three years at £15 per annum.
In 1769 Atkinson was appointed mate of the Eastmain sloop at £25 annually after George Isbister was removed for bad behaviour. Thomas Moore, master at Eastmain, found Atkinson “a Very Worthy Man” and had him hunt, fish, and carry letters to Moose Factory (Ont.) and Albany, as well as care for the sloop. When Moore went to England in late 1772, Atkinson took charge of Eastmain as well as of its sloop. His 1772–73 journal suggests that he was on cordial terms with the Indians.
In the fall of 1773 Moore resumed the Eastmain command, and until 1777 Atkinson continued his service on company vessels. His assiduity and “knowledge of the Natives” led to his being proposed as leader of inland expeditions in the fall of 1773 and again in late 1776. On both occasions circumstances prevented his going. In late 1777, however, Atkinson did go inland. Eusebius Bacchus Kitchin, chief at Moose, had hoped Atkinson’s party would travel up the Abitibi River (Ont.), but “the Ship arriving [at Moose] so late & the water being so shoal” defeated that plan. Instead, Atkinson wintered at Mesakamy Lake (Kesagami Lake, Ont.), only “half way to . . . [Lake] Abbitiby,” after a “Longe fatiguen Journey.” His letters to Kitchin document his problems there and the onset of the ill health he was to suffer thereafter. Disputing Kitchin’s charge of misuse of provisions, he wrote “what could I dou the Indians That you was pleased to Send with us had nothing to mentain thar Selve with.”
Kitchin ordered Atkinson to take the command of the Moose sloop in June 1778. In September Atkinson, being “very much beloved by the Natives there,” was appointed master of Eastmain, a command he would hold almost continuously until his death. The post grew in size and importance under Atkinson’s direction, and he was credited by Edward Jarvis, chief at Moose, with opening “new Channels of Trade, from the Northward to Richmond [on Lac Guillaume-Delisle] and Mistasin Lake [Lac Mistassini, Que.].” By September 1786 Eastmain had become independent of Moose and a “Factory distinct by itself.” It was as well a base for resistance to Canadian competition. In 1790 Atkinson sent John Clarke* to Lac Mistassini to gather intelligence about rival Canadian traders, who were encroaching upon Eastmain’s territory, and to recruit “any independent Men who wish to enter into this Service.” Atkinson’s salary suggests that his efforts were valued by the company: by 1791 he was receiving £130 per annum. His last years were beset by illness, however, and he returned to England in 1785–86 and in 1791–92. He was to survive his return to Eastmain in 1792 by only a few weeks, dying there in October.
Atkinson, like numerous other company officers of his time, had acquired a native family; to him and the Indian woman Necushin were born two sons and a daughter. The London committee, in an attempt to keep its posts free of traders’ families, had forbidden passage of European women to the bay and had long ordered its servants not to consort with Indian women. But by the 1770s the latter rule had been defied by company men such as Joseph Isbister, Humphrey Marten, Moses Norton, and Robert Pilgrim*. Long isolated from England, traders might accept Indian offers of female companionship for personal as well as commercial motives. By the time of Atkinson’s death the company was coming to accept the presence of native-born women and children at its posts. The Indians commonly considered these women to be married, and by the 1830s they were earning legal and company recognition as wives “according to the custom of the country.” The sons of these unions, if given paternal and company encouragement, could offer useful service to the HBC. Atkinson sent his son Sneppy to England in 1790, where he acquired his baptismal name George, in the hope that he would “shake of a little of the Indian & in so doing make him exert himself like a Man” on his return to Eastmain. Both of Atkinson’s sons served the company, as did other Hudson Bay youths like Charles Thomas Isham* and William Richards*. George Jr had a fur-trade career of some note and left a large family to carry on the Atkinson name in the James Bay area.
Durham County Record Office (Durham, Eng.), EP/Sto 2 (Holy Trinity Church, Stockton-on-Tees, register of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1707–80). HBC Arch. A.1/39, pp.14, 127, 240, 388; A.1/43, ff.58, 105; A.1/46, f.74; A.5/2, ff.145–47; A.6/13, ff.124, 153; A.11/57, ff.122–22d; A.30/1, ff.2, 17, 30; A.30/3, f.33; A.30/4, f.11; A.32/3, f.12; A.36/1B, ff.14–16; B.59/a/40, ff.15, 29, 40, 44, 45; B.59/a/44, ff.6–8, 19, 21, 24; B.59/b/l; B.59/b/6, ff.6, 14–15; B.59/b/9, ff.14–15, 16; B.59/b/10, f.22; B.59/b/12; B.135/b/5, ff.3, 5–6, 10; B.135/b/6, ff.6, 8–9, 16–17, 40. PRO, Prob. 11/1238, will of George Atkinson, proved 28 Nov. 1793. Moose fort journals, 1783–85, ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson, intro. G. P. de T. Glazebrook (London, 1954). Northern Quebec and Labrador journals and correspondence, 1819–35, ed. K. G. Davies and A. M. Johnson (London, 1963).