BLENKINSOP, GEORGE, HBC employee, businessman, and Indian agent; b. 1822 in Penryn, England, son of Robert Blenkinsop, an excise officer, and Mary —; m. first July 1846 Helen McNeill, daughter of William Henry McNeill*, in Sitka (Alaska), and they had two daughters and seven sons; m. secondly August 1884 Emma Otsokorie at Alert Bay, B.C., and they had two daughters and two sons; d. 2 June 1904 in Fort Rupert (near Port Hardy), B.C.
George Blenkinsop joined the marine service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London as a steward on 24 Aug. 1840 and was sent on the Cowlitz to the company’s Columbia district the next day. Calling him a young man “of good education . . . & steady correct conduct,” Governor Sir George Simpson* appointed him postmaster at Fort Stikine (Alaska) under Charles Dodd* in 1842. Promoted clerk in 1846, Blenkinsop remained at the fort until 1849 when it was abandoned. Along with chief trader McNeill, he was transferred to Beaver Harbour, on Vancouver Island.
At the new location he helped build Fort Rupert, the company’s coalmining establishment, and soon became involved in a set of controversial events. In April 1850, while McNeill was absent in Victoria, Andrew Muir* and some other miners refused to work, complaining of the harsh conditions. On returning, McNeill locked Muir and another man in irons for six days. In July they and others slipped away from the fort by night. Blenkinsop, acting according to standard HBC practice on the west coast, offered a reward. Muir later accused him of asking for them “dead or alive” and of thereby causing the deaths of three sailors whom Indians mistook for them. The London committee initially criticized Blenkinsop’s conduct, but subsequent scrutiny of the incident by Governor Richard Blanshard*, magistrate John Sebastian Helmcken*, the Royal Navy, the Colonial Office, and the HBC failed to support Muir’s accusation.
With the failure of Fort Rupert coal in 1850 and the discovery of excellent deposits at Nanaimo [see Joseph William McKay*], Blenkinsop shifted to the development of other resources. For example, by 1855 he had turned the fort into a centre for shingle production, with some half a million shingles being made annually by native people for export to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. In that year he was also the HBC’s agent at the Sitka ice-fields, which had been leased from the company by a San Francisco firm intending to export ice to California. As early as 1851 Blenkinsop’s “zeal and activity” had been noted by HBC governor Eden Colvile*, and he was promoted chief trader in 1855. Where it could, the HBC discouraged private entrepreneurial activities by its employees, but taking advantage of his status as a resident of Vancouver Island, from 1849 a British colony, Blenkinsop was involved on his own in several other ventures. He shipped squared timber to San Francisco, invested in the Vancouver’s Island Steam Saw Mill Company [see McKay], acted as Fort Rupert agent of William Brotchie’s sparcutting company, and bought a 900-acre farm near Victoria.
Blenkinsop left Fort Rupert in December 1856 and in May 1857 took charge of Fort Colvile, in United States territory on the upper Columbia River. The presence of American miners passing through Fort Colvile prompted Blenkinsop to sell cattle and mining equipment on his own account. Here he did not have the status of colonist that he had enjoyed on Vancouver Island. Chief factor James Douglas* learned with “unmitigated surprise” of his private trading and gave him a severe reprimand. In March 1858 Blenkinsop completed building an outpost, Fort Shepherd, on the river just north of the 49th parallel.
Blenkinsop arrived in Victoria in December 1859 and was posted immediately to Fort Langley (near Langley), the charge of which he assumed on 2 Feb. 1860. In June he and two partners opened a dairy operation nearby, in competition with Fort Langley’s farm. Viewing this activity as a conflict of interest, chief factor Dugald Mactavish* told Blenkinsop to “please hold yourself in readiness to proceed for service on the East Side of the Rocky Mountains.” Blenkinsop chose retirement over banishment, and left the HBC on 1 June 1861.
Then began a 15-year struggle to make a secure living. Blenkinsop called Victoria his home in the 1860s and 1870s, but he is to be found working in various other locations during this period. For example, in 1862 he was a merchant at Shakesville, a mining community on the Stikine River near Glenora. In 1863 he was mining in the Cariboo district. Farming and business ventures failed, and he returned gradually to the native world where his expertise lay. From May 1865 until October 1866 he worked on the line being put in by the Western Union Telegraph Company [see Peter John Leech*]. He did some exploring of the route and was in charge of buying pack-mules to transport telegraph poles and of hiring native people for a number of jobs. In 1868 he was a government interpreter near Fort Simpson (Port Simpson), and between January 1870 and July 1871 he worked as a woodcutter and baker at Craigflower Farm near Victoria [see Kenneth McKenzie*].
Confederation brought federal government work, and eventually a permanent position. In July 1871 he was taken on as a member of the exploratory survey for the promised transcontinental railway. In the summer of 1874 the Indian affairs branch sent him to Barkley Sound. He did a careful census there and recommended the creation of substantial reserves. His report has been identified as an early piece of indigenous ethnography. Between 1876 and 1879 he worked for a federal-provincial commission appointed to settle the “British Columbia Indian Land Question” [see Gilbert Malcolm Sproat*]. On its behalf he enumerated the natives of the coast and interior from Comox to the Okanagan valley, thus conducting the first systematic nominal census of the province’s native people.
In May 1881 Israel Wood Powell*, superintendent of Indian affairs for British Columbia, selected him as Indian agent of the Kwahkewlth agency, comprising much of northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland. Blenkinsop immediately established agency headquarters at Fort Rupert, then largely a native village. By this time his wife and eight of their nine children had died, and in 1884 he married Emma Otsokorie, a resident of the community. Blenkinsop was agent until August 1886, and he remained at Fort Rupert for the rest of his life.
During his years in office he protected native fishing rights, encouraged the native people to work in salmon canneries, took measures to abolish the illegal liquor trade on the coast, and attempted to eradicate the potlatch, which he considered a “pernicious system.” Then and later he corresponded with ethnographers, historians, and government officials. He provided valuable information to George Mercer Dawson, Franz Boas*, Charles Frederick Newcombe*, John Thomas Walbran*, and others.
Blenkinsop was called “a gentleman of great intelligence” by Douglas and “a courageous, good-natured, active intelligent Cornishman” by Helmcken. His career was not unlike those of other middle-ranking HBC officers who, instrumental in implementing the company’s resource-development policy before the gold-rushes, left to enter business as farmers or merchants, only to fail. Many such men later found their linguistic and managerial skills suited the work of federal Indian agents, and thus provided a substantial measure of continuity to certain aspects of the province’s history. Blenkinsop Lake and valley, Blenkinsop Bay, and Blenkinsop Islet are all named after this British Columbia pioneer.
Genealogical information from various English sources, including the Cornwall census returns for 1851 (in PRO, HO 107) and 1861 (PRO, RG 9) was supplied to the author by Betty Farrell of Falmouth, Eng., in her letters of 12 Feb., 11 and 13 March, and 27 June 1982.
BCARS, A/C/20/Vi4; A/E/Or3/B61; Add.