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d. 15 April 1906 in Central Falls, R.I.


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BETHUNE, ANGUS, fur trader and politician; b. 9 Sept. 1783 on Carleton Island (N.Y.) in Lake Ontario, son of the Reverend John Bethune* and Véronique Waddens, daughter of Jean-Étienne Waddens*; m. Louisa McKenzie, mixed-blood daughter of Roderick McKenzie*, and they had six children; also fathered at least two children by Indian women; d. 13 Nov. 1858 in Toronto.

Angus Bethune was the eldest son in an illustrious family; his brothers included Alexander Neil*, Donald*, James Gray*, and John*. As a child he moved with his family from Carleton Island to Montreal, and then in 1787 to Williamstown (Ont.). At an early age he joined the North West Company. In 1804–5 he served at the post on the Whitemud River, near the south end of Lake Manitoba, and the following year he was listed as a clerk at Lake Winnipeg. Attached to the brigade of Alexander Henry* the younger in September 1810, Bethune accompanied Henry to Rocky Mountain House (Alta). Late in the fall of 1810 David Thompson arrived at this post and Bethune helped him to set off on his expedition across the Rocky Mountains. As part of the NWC strategy to establish a transpacific trade from the northwest coast, Thompson had been instructed to reach the mouth of the Columbia River ahead of the Pacific Fur Company’s party, sent out by ship from New York. Bethune himself figured prominently in the NWC plans for the Pacific, and in 1812 or 1813 he was designated “as the Person to go to China to learn the Business & act as supercargo.”

In the fall of 1813 he arrived with John George McTavish* at Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.), where he acted as a witness in the sale of the post by the PFC to the NWC. He became a partner in the NWC in July 1814 and later that month embarked with a cargo of Columbia furs on the company vessel Isaac Todd for Canton (People’s Republic of China). From China the ship sailed to England with a lading of tea for the East India Company, leaving Bethune in Canton to await the arrival of a second company vessel. In March 1815 he boarded the NWC ship Columbia as supercargo and returned to Fort Astoria, renamed Fort George by the NWC. He made trading voyages to Monterey (Calif.) and Sitka (Alaska), as well as another round trip to China, before leaving the vessel at Fort George in August 1816. These commercial ventures proved disappointing and expensive, and the NWC abandoned its attempt to employ its own vessels and personnel in the China trade, deciding instead to contract with the Boston firm of J. and T. H. Perkins for this sector of their business.

In April 1817 Bethune left Fort George headed for Montreal via Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) with an overland party including Duncan McDougall*, Joseph McGillivray, Alexander McTavish, and Ross Cox. The journey, which was later chronicled by Cox, was marked by perils, hardships, and death. Bethune left the party in June 1817 at the English (upper Churchill) River, and his whereabouts are not known until November 1818 when, according to James Keith, he unexpectedly turned up at Fort George with an “unusual accession of Gentlemen of one kind or other.” Bethune likely remained at Fort George until the following spring.

He spent the winter of 1819–20 at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), where in February he welcomed members of Captain John Franklin*’s overland expedition to the northern coast of North America. At this post he was faced with strong opposition from John Clarke of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and at the close of the season it became evident that Bethune had lost considerable ground to the aggressive Clarke.

In July 1820, at Fort William, Bethune and Dr John McLoughlin were deputized by a group of 18 wintering partners to pursue negotiations towards an agreement with the HBC, in defiance of the NWC Montreal agents under the direction of William McGillivray*. To this purpose, the pair left for England in the fall of 1820. The impact of their representations on the coalition agreement, signed on 26 March 1821 by William and Simon* McGillivray and Edward Ellice* for the NWC, and by William Smith for the HBC, is difficult to assess; both, however, were named chief factors in the new HBC by the terms of the deed poll which followed. Bethune sailed to New York with HBC director Nicholas Garry, and then continued on to Fort William for the July meeting of chief factors and traders to assign posts for the coming winter. At this gathering of former NWC partners and HBC employees he was insulted and ostracized.

His first appointment as chief factor was to Moose Factory (Ont.) in the Southern Department. In the summer of 1822 he became superintendent at Fort Albany and in 1824 was placed in charge of the provision depot at Sault Ste Marie. From all of these posts he waged a running battle by correspondence with the Southern Department governor, William Williams*, and contributed to the unruliness of the department council which led to the amalgamation, under Governor George Simpson, of the Northern and Southern departments. Simpson was more adept at managing Bethune, but nevertheless was as unimpressed by him as Williams had been, judging him “a very poor creature, vain, self sufficient and trifling” in his 1832 character book.

In the summer of 1832 Bethune was appointed to Michipicoten (Michipicoten River, Ont.), in charge of the Lake Superior district, to fill a vacancy caused by the illness of Chief Factor George Keith. Under some protest, he returned to the Sault in June 1833, and later that year had the Lake Huron district added to his responsibilities while Chief Factor John McBean was on furlough. During this season he quarrelled bitterly with the Church of England missionary at Sault Ste Marie, William McMurray*. After a furlough in 1834 Bethune was reappointed to Michipicoten and then, in 1836, obtained a year’s leave of absence because of “serious indisposition.” In 1837 he again took charge of the Lake Huron district and was stationed at Fort La Cloche (Ont.), where he remained until his retirement from active service in 1839. He officially retired from the company in 1841.

Bethune settled in Toronto in 1839 or 1840, where he became a director of the Bank of Upper Canada. He also took an interest in municipal politics, and in the Toronto City Council election of 1845 defeated the incumbent alderman for St David’s Ward, Dr Alexander Burnside. During the two years that Bethune sat on council he clashed with fellow St David’s Ward alderman Henry Sherwood. It is reported that in 1845 Bethune met the painter Paul Kane* and, providing him with a chilling account of the inhospitality of HBC officers, nearly deterred Kane from his journey to the northwest coast.

Having lapsed into senility towards the end of his life, Bethune died in Toronto at the age of 75. His estate was valued at more than $56,000 and included two houses, stocks, mortgages, and 1,500 acres left to him by his father. His son, Dr Norman Bethune*, served as executor. In spite of the prominent positions Angus Bethune attained during his many years in the fur trade, his long career, which was full of adventure, turbulence, and controversy, was not crowned by many personal successes.

Hilary Russell

AO, MS 107, Reg. of baptisms and marriages, 7, 9 Sept. 1783; MU 129; RG 22, Court of Chancery, case files, city suits, no.129/1878; ser.302, Angus Bethune. PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1, 17–18; E1, ser.1, 9, 18, 21, 23–24, 28–31 (copies); MG 24, L3, 15–16 (copies). PAM, HBCA, B.3/a/127–128; B.3/b/51b–53; B.3/e/8–11; B.129/a/16–19; B.129/b/6–11; B.129/e/9–13; B.135/k/1; B.194/a/1–8; B.194/b/1–10; B.194/e/1–8; D.1/4–10; D.2/1; D.4/1–71; 88–108; D.5/1–15; F.3/2; F.4/4–10. Peter Corney, Voyages in the northern Pacific; narrative of several trading voyages from 1813 to 1818, between the north west coast of America, the Hawaiian Islands and China . . . , ed. W. D. Alexander (Honolulu, Hawaii, 1896). Ross Cox, The Columbia River; or scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. . . . ed. E. I. and J. R. Stewart (Norman, Okla., 1957). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). Nicholas Garry, “Diary of Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822–1835: a detailed narrative of his travels in the northwest territories of British North America in 1821 . . . ,” ed. F. N. Garry, RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 6 (1900), sect.ii: 73–204; new ed., The diary of Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company: a detailed narrative of his travels in the northwest territories of British North America in 1821, ed. W. J. Noxon (Toronto, 1973). G.B., Foreign Office, Certain correspondence of the Foreign Office and of the Hudson’s Bay Company copied from original documents, London 1898, ed. [O. J. Klotz] (Ottawa, 1899). J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871; repr. Altona, Man., 1977). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming). Paul Kane, Paul Kane’s frontier, including wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America, ed. J. R. Harper (Toronto, [1971]). New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. British Colonist (Toronto), January 1845–January 1846. Middleton, Municipality of Toronto. Rich, Hist. of HBC. P. [A.] Baskerville, “Donald Bethune’s steamboat business: a study of Upper Canadian commercial and financial practice,” OH, 67 (1975): 135–49. T. C. Elliott, “Sale of Astoria, 1813,” Oreg. Hist. Quarterly (Salem), 33 (1932): 43–50. F. W. Howay, “A list of trading vessels in the maritime fur trade, [1805–1819],” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 26 (1932), sect.ii: 43–86; 27 (1933), sect.ii: 119–47. Marion O’Neil, “The maritime activities of the North West Company, 1813 to 1821,” Wash. Hist. Quarterly, 21 (1930): 243–67. Hilary Russell, “The Chinese voyages of Angus Bethune,” Beaver, outfit 307 (spring 1977): 22–31.

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Cite This Article

Hilary Russell, “BETHUNE, ANGUS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bethune_angus_8E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bethune_angus_8E.html
Author of Article:   Hilary Russell
Title of Article:   BETHUNE, ANGUS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   April 15, 2024