COATS, WILLIAM, HBC captain and explorer; m. Mary McCliesh, daughter of Thomas McCliesh; d. January 1752.
William Coats entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in November 1726, and on his first voyage to the bay in 1727 lost his new command, the Mary, off Cape Farewell, Greenland. The misfortune was repeated nine years later when ice at the entrance to Hudson Strait beset the Hudson’s Bay “and crush’d our sides in, and sunk her in twenty minutes.” Despite these disasters, and accusations in 1742 that he had traded brandy with the garrison at Albany (Fort Albany, Ont.) (where, according to Joseph Isbister*, its factor, the captain “can in one day oversett a reformation of 2 years”), Coats retained the confidence of the London committee. He continued to sail one of the HBC ships to the bay each year and was awarded a gratuity of 50 guineas in 1744 for his “Services and fidelity for many years past.” At about this time he began compiling a geography of the Hudson Bay region, since “no other person before my time ever collected so many notes, and but few have had more experience nor better opportunity to explain this geography.”
In 1749 the HBC selected Coats to renew the exploration of the East Main (the eastern coasts of Hudson and James bays) begun five years earlier by Thomas Mitchell and John Longland, both of whom sailed on this later venture. Rumours in England that silver and furs were to be found along the East Main and that Richmond Gulf (Lac Guillaume-Delisle, Que.), discovered in 1744, perhaps led through the Labrador peninsula to the Atlantic coast made it essential for the company to complete its exploration of the coastal area. Although the official journals kept on the voyage have disappeared, Coats’ private notes, his splendid manuscript maps, and his report to the HBC, show that he explored almost 500 miles of coastline from Cape Digges at the entrance of Hudson Strait to Richmond Gulf. In the sheltered waters of this gulf Coats was convinced he had found a suitable spot for a post, farther north than any other existing at this time; and the next year he was sent back to supervise the establishment of Richmond Fort, which he also visited with supplies in 1751. This was his last voyage for in November 1751 the London committee was informed that Coats had regularly engaged in illicit trade while in Hudson Bay, and after pleading guilty to this charge he was dismissed. He had been treated generously by the company, with gratuities amounting to £180 over and above his normal salary in the previous two years, but he had abused his position in a systematic and cynical way.
Within a few weeks Coats was dead. No firm evidence of suicide has been found, and the parish register of his local church in East London, St Anne’s, Limehouse, records his burial on 13 Jan. 1752 without comment. The parish registers and his will show that Coats was a family man of some substance. He had six children, a wife whose father had been an important HBC officer in the 1720s, and three houses – two in East London and one in Durham. His ownership of the latter, which had belonged to his mother, suggests that Coats’ family home was on Teeside, a nursery of sailors from which three of his fellow captains came. Whatever the cause of death, William Coats’ end was a singularly melancholy one. He died dismissed and disgraced. The notes painstakingly collected for his projected geography of Hudson Bay, and his maps of the East Main, lay unpublished and forgotten; and not until the rescue of his manuscript jottings by the Hakluyt Society in 1852 did this enterprising seaman begin to achieve recognition as an observer and explorer.
[Coats’ career with the HBC is outlined in HBC Arch. A.1/34–38, A.1/120–22. Personal information about him and his family is in his will at PRO, Prob. 11/792, and in St Anne’s Parish (Limehouse, East London), Parish registers, 1734–52. Six of Coats’ manuscript maps have survived: five in HBC Arch. G.1/14–18, and one in G.B., Admiralty, Hydrographic department (Taunton, Eng.), A/344, Ai/1. His notes came into the possession of the Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry*, who gave permission for their publication in 1852 as The geography of Hudson’s Bay: being the remarks of Captain W. Coats, in many voyages to that locality, between the years 1727 and 1751, ed. John Barrow (Hakluyt Soc., 1st ser., XI, London); they then disappeared once more. Two of Coats’ maps are reproduced in an article by Glyndwr Williams, “Captain Coats and exploration along the East Main,” Beaver (Winnipeg), outfit 294 (winter 1963), 4–13. The nomenclature on the maps is analysed by the same writer in “East London names in Hudson Bay,” East London Papers: a journal of history, social studies and the arts (London), VII (1964), 23–30. g.w.]