BARNSTON, GEORGE, HBC fur-trader and naturalist; b. c. 1800 in Edinburgh, Scotland; d. 14 March 1883 in Montreal, Que.
After apparently being educated as a surveyor and army engineer, George Barnston joined the North West Company as an apprentice clerk in 1820. He was taken into the Hudson’s Bay Company following the union of the two companies in 1821, and served as a clerk at York Factory (Man.); he was described as having an excellent education, and showed great promise. During the 1825–26 season he was at Red River and Fort Bas de la Rivière (Man.), and in 1826 he was transferred to the Columbia District to help Æmilius Simpson* survey the Pacific coast. Finding Simpson an incompetent surveyor, he was obliged to conduct most of the work himself. He then helped James McMillan* establish Fort Langley (near present day Fort Langley, B.C.) in 1827, and served there and at forts Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) and Nez Percés (Walla Walla, Wash.).
The records for the period 1825 to the mid 1830s reflect Barnston’s frustration and unhappiness. He had entered the fur trade with prospects of a £100 salary at the end of a six-year apprenticeship. A long way from this goal in 1825, he became, according to Governor George Simpson*, “touchy . . . and so much afflicted with melancholy or despondency, that it is feared that his nerves or mind is afflicted.” In 1831, although he was then in charge of Fort Nez Percés and had reached the salary level he had sought, a sharp dispute with Simpson over his next appointment and rate of advancement caused him to resign. He attacked Simpson and accused the company’s agents in the Indian country of “ingratitude and dishonorable conduct.” Anxious not to lose Barnston, Simpson, despite “a half impertinent Letter” from him, was already in the summer of 1831 instructing that he be re-engaged “if he be at a loss to find employment in Canada.” Barnston rejoined the service in 1832.
Barnston’s frustration with his career was perhaps augmented by a concern for his family. In early 1829 he had taken as a wife “in the custom of the country,” Ellen Matthews, a mixed-blood daughter of an American Fur Company employee; James, the first of their 11 children, was born in July 1831. Barnston’s writings and other records of these years also reflect much personal sensitivity and introspection, and a strong moral sense which was respected by Simpson, who described him as “high Spirited to a romantic degree, who will on no account do what he considers an improper thing, but so touchy & sensitive that it is difficult to keep on good terms or to do business with him. . . . Has a high opinion of his own abilities which are above par. . . .” This portrait is reflected in the one Barnston gives of himself in his letters to his friend and fellow trader James Hargrave*.
In the ten years following his reunion with the HBC, Barnston served in the Albany District. After a season at Fort Albany, he founded Fort Concord in 1833 “on the Banks of Wawbickoobaw Lake” (Wapikopa Lake, Ont.) to extend the company’s trade into the Winisk River area. In mid 1834 he was ordered to Martin Falls where he remained for six years; he then transferred to the charge of Fort Albany and was promoted chief trader. His long-continued discontent at Simpson’s earlier treatment of him was followed, as a colleague James Douglas* wrote, by “a break in the clouds” and a developing friendship between them in the 1840s.
After a year’s furlough in England, Barnston was appointed to Tadoussac in 1844. The move brought him nearer to means of “having my children better educated, an object ever near to my heart.” James particularly gained: he had schooling in Lachine, and then in 1847 went to Edinburgh for a medical degree; at his death in 1858 he was a professor of botany at McGill College in Montreal. For his father, Tadoussac was “an extended, troublesome, and complicated” charge, as Simpson warned, one beset by free traders, smugglers, and encroaching settlement. But it was an opportunity for Barnston to prove his abilities and justify Simpson’s confidence in him, and in March 1847 he was promoted to chief factor.
In 1851, after a year’s furlough, Barnston replaced Donald Ross in charge of Norway House (Man.). Discouraged by the activities of free traders in the area, particularly those of Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne, and the declining fortunes of the company, Barnston went on leave again in 1858–59, and then accepted charge of Michipicoten (Ont.) on Lake Superior where he remained from 1859 to 1862. After another year’s furlough, he retired to Montreal in June 1863. That year the HBC was bought out by the International Financial Society, headed by Edward William Watkin, and Barnston was much concerned for the future of the company. The company officers had not been consulted and were hostile to the change in management. Barnston corresponded with the London secretary in 1863 regarding the protection of the interests of commissioned officers of the company, and travelled to England the following year on what his friend James Hargrave called the “sleeveless errand” of telling the company directors that they had “treated their old officers of the Fur Trade very scurvily.”
Retirement freed Barnston to pursue scientific research, primarily in botany and entomology, areas in which he had already done much work in the field and as a writer. His botanical interests probably began with his exposure to the studies of David Douglas* in the Columbia District in the 1820s; he greatly admired Douglas, corresponded with him, and published a detailed sketch of his travels and discoveries in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist in 1860. At Martin Falls Barnston first studied insects and he also kept a journal of temperature, permafrost, flora, and fauna of the area for the Royal Geographical Society of London. On furlough in England in 1843–44, he visited several scientific societies. “Finding that I was kindly received at the British Museum,” he wrote to George Simpson, “I handed over without reservation all my Collection of Insects to that Institution, at which the Gentlemen there expressed high gratification.” Over half his specimens were new to the museum. He later gathered an extensive herbarium at Tadoussac, which he described in his correspondence with Hargrave, and in 1849–50 sent a collection of plants to Scotland. He also supplied specimens to the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) and to McGill College. After 1857 he frequently published articles, mainly in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist. An active member of the Natural History Society of Montreal, he served as its president in 1872–73 and later became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882.
When Barnston died in Montreal in 1883, pallbearers and mourners at his “largely attended” funeral at Christ Church Cathedral included Donald Alexander Smith*, Dr Thomas Sterry Hunt*, John William Dawson*, and other prominent Montreal figures. The Royal Society of Canada paid tribute to Barnston as both a “diligent naturalist” and “a man of kind and amiable character, loved and respected by all who knew him.”
[A list of articles written by Barnston for the Canadian Naturalist and Geologistup to 1859 can be found in Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. Among the more important of his articles are the following: “Abridged sketch of the life of David Douglas, botanist, with a few details of his travels and discoveries,” Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, 5 (1860): 120–32, 200–8, 267–78; “On a collection of plants from British Columbia, made by Mr. James Richardson in the summer of 1874,” Canadian Naturalist and Quarterly Journal of Science, new ser., 8 (1878): 90–94; and “Recollections of the swans and geese of Hudson’s Bay,” Ibis: a Magazine of General Ornithology (London), 2 (1860): 253–59. Barnston’s correspondence with James Hargrave is at PAC, MG 19, A21. j.s.h.b. and s.m.v.k.]
AO, James McMillan file (unaccessioned). PAC, MG 19, A2, ser.2, 1. PAM, HBCA, A.16/42: f.254; A.34/1: f.62d; B.123/a/34–41, 42b; B.134/c/14: f.142a; B.135/c/2: 74; B.214/c/1: f.26; B.234/a/1; B.239/g/4: f.6; D.5/10: ff.28–29; D.5/11: ff.19–20, 85, 115–16, 129; D.5/12: ff.90–92, 206–7; D.5/31: ff.169–70. HBRS, XXX (Williams). Minutes of Council, Northern Department of Rupert Land, 1821–31, ed. R. H. Fleming (Toronto, 1940). RSC Trans., 1st ser., 1 (1882–83): liv. Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, 15, 17 March 1883. H. D. Munnick, “Louis Labonte,” The mountain men and the fur trade of the far west . . . , ed. L. R. Hafen (10v., Glendale, Calif., 1965–72), VII: 191–99. [H.] B. Willson, The life of Lord Strathcona & Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O. (1820–1914) (London and Toronto, 1915). G. A. Dunlop and C. P. Wilson, “George Barnston,” Beaver, outfit 272 (December 1941): 16–17. G. L. Nute, “Kennicott in the north,” Beaver, outfit 274 (September 1943): 28–32.