BLACK, SAMUEL, fur trader and explorer; baptized 3 May 1780 in the parish of Pitsligo, Scotland, son of John Black and Mary Leith, who married in 1781; d. 8 Feb. 1841 at Thompson’s River Post (Kamloops, B.C.).
Samuel Black was born into a Scottish trading family which had links with Canada: his maternal uncle James Leith was involved in the New North West Company (sometimes known as the XY Company). It may have been through this association that Black came to Montreal in 1802 and was employed as a clerk by the XY Company. He showed his independent spirit by “having words” with its leading partner, Sir Alexander Mackenzie*. In 1804 the firm was absorbed by the North West Company whose service Black then entered.
During his early years in the fur trade Black distinguished himself mostly as a bravo, using his great stature and fearless mien to intimidate the rival traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on whom he played many malicious and sometimes dangerous tricks. In 1803 he was sent to the Peace River country, where the XY Company had established itself, and then two years later to Fort Chipewyan (Alta) on Lake Athabasca to combat the incursions of the HBC men, whom he so successfully harried that in 1806 Peter Fidler* withdrew from Nottingham House. Black spent 15 years as a clerk in the Athabasca region, burning down the HBC post at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.) in 1811 and four years later taking part in an affray during which several HBC men were killed [see Joseph Howse*]. Two years afterwards he seized the rebuilt fort at Île-à-la-Crosse and later, at Fort Wedderburn (Alta) in 1818, he arrested and confined Colin Robertson on the orders of William McGillivray* and under the authority of the Canada Jurisdiction Act. Black was more hated by the HBC men than any other Nor’Wester; in November 1820 George Simpson*, who had taken over from Robertson the HBC’s campaign against the NWC in the Athabasca country, noted that “this Outlaw is so callous to every honourable or manly feeling that it is not unreasonable to suspect him of the blackest acts.”
By this time the tide had turned against the Nor’Westers, and in June 1820 Black had fled to the NWC post at McLeod Lake in New Caledonia (B.C.) to avoid arrest. On his return to Athabasca the following winter he found Simpson in charge and in 1821, when the two fur-trading companies united [see Simon McGillivray], the HBC men did not quickly forgive Black’s record of violence against them. Along with Alexander Macdonell* (Greenfield), Peter Skene Ogden*, and Cuthbert Grant*, Black was at first excluded from the reconstituted HBC. In 1822 he went to England, evidently to further his cause with the HBC’s London committee. Early the following year he was appointed a first-class clerk with the salary, but without the rank, of chief trader. He returned to the northwest later in 1823, assuming charge of Fort St John (near Fort St John, B.C.). The next year, when he became a chief trader, he carried out an exploration of the Finlay River and kept a journal, which was later published. His untiring curiosity and descriptive vividness make this account a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the northern regions west of the Rocky Mountains in the early days of exploration. Though his journey was partly inspired by the HBC’s intention of exploring the country as far as the Russian trading territory along the coast, Black found the area too unproductive and the river route too difficult for any development of the fur trade to result from his efforts.
Black wintered in 1824–25 at Fort Dunvegan in the Peace River country, returned to York Factory (Man.), and in July 1825 was appointed to Fort Colvile (near Colville, Wash.) on the Columbia River. Shortly afterwards he was sent as chief factor to Fort Nez Percés (Walla Walla, Wash.). This was an important post which maintained the HBC’s position against interloping American traders. As early as 1828 John McLoughlin*, head of the company’s Columbia district, regarded Black’s failure to get along with the Indians as a reason for moving him. It was not until the end of 1830, however, that he was transferred to Thompson’s River Post. George Simpson, in assessing Black’s nature in his celebrated “Character book” of 1832, described him as “The strangest man I ever knew. So wary & suspicious that it is scarcely possible to get a direct answer from him on any point, and when he does speak or write . . . so prolix that it is quite fatiguing to attempt following him. A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any Cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had any power. . . . Yet his word when he can be brought to the point may be depended on. A Don Quixote in appearance Ghastly, raw boned and lanthorn jawed, yet strong vigorous and active. Has not the talent of conciliating Indians by whom he is disliked, but who are ever in dread of him, and well they may be so. as he is . . . so suspicious that offensive and defensive preparation seem to be the study of his Life having Dirks, Knives and Loaded Pistols concealed about his Person and in all directions about his Establishment even under his Table cloth at meals and in his Bed.”
In 1837 Black made plans to leave the Columbia region, and was already on his way to York Factory that year when he was recalled and appointed chief factor in charge of the inland posts of the Columbia. It was a fatal turn in his fortunes, for now his failure to reach an understanding relationship with the Indians led to his death. Early in 1841 chief Tranquille of the Shuswaps quarrelled with Black over a gun, went home, and shortly afterwards died. His widow believed that Black had bewitched him and she worked on the feelings of the chief’s nephew, who came to Thompson’s River Post and on 8 February shot Black dead.
Black left a considerable fortune for a fur trader. He had £7,887 in credit with the HBC when he died, and this sum became the subject of lengthy litigation. His relatives in Scotland sought to appropriate it without making provision for the survivors among the eight children of Black and his two country wives, both Métis; his first wife had remarried but his second, Angélique Cameron, did not and remained a claimant. The dispute continued in and out of the courts until the 1850s, and it is not known for certain whether any provision was ever made for Angélique or any of the children. The contentiousness for which Black was notorious in life remained a feature in his affairs even after his death.
Samuel Black is the author of A journal of a voyage from Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River to the sources of Finlays Branch and North West Ward in summer 1824, ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson (HBRS, 18, London, 1955).
GRO (Edinburgh), Pitsligo, reg. of births and baptisms, 3 May 1780. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming); 4 (Rich); 6 (Rich). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams). Brown, Strangers in blood. Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1930). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (Thomas; 1973). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”. J. N. Wallace, “The explorer of Finlay River in 1824,” CHR, 9 (1928): 25–31.
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
George Woodcock, “BLACK, SAMUEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/black_samuel_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||George Woodcock|
|Title of Article:||BLACK, SAMUEL|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|