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CONNOLLY, WILLIAM, fur trader; b. c. 1786 in Lachine, Que.; d. 3 June 1848 in Montreal.

William Connolly entered the North West Company as a clerk in 1801 and went west, where he would remain for 30 years. In 1802–3 he was at Nelson House (Man.) and the following winter a short distance away at Rat River House. On 9 Oct. 1804 David Thompson* met him at Southern Indian Lake, where Connolly was wintering with five men, and described him as “a young man who has seen little else than bad and extravagant example.” In 1810 he was again trading at Nelson House.

By 1817 Connolly had been promoted senior clerk and the following year he was made a chief trader. From 1818 to 1821 he was in charge of Cumberland House (Sask.) in opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company. In December 1819 Connolly accused the HBC’s governor, William Williams, of indirect responsibility for the extreme sufferings of Benjamin Joseph Frobisher*, the Nor’Wester who had escaped after his capture by Williams the previous summer and who Connolly believed had died.

On 1 Dec. 1820, at a time of intense rivalry between the NWC and the HBC, Connolly made an agreement with his rival at Cumberland House, Thomas Swain, by which “neither party are to have any dealings with the Indians who trade with the other . . . and neither party is to send after Indians without 12 hours previous notice to the other.” The next year amalgamation ended the struggle between the companies [see Simon McGillivray] and Connolly continued as a chief trader in the new organization.

In August 1821 the Council of the Northern Department placed him in charge of the Lesser Slave Lake district. There he remained until 1824, when he was given a more challenging assignment: the management, together with Chief Trader William Brown, of New Caledonia (B.C.), in which district “serious differences and insubordination” had occurred. Connolly’s headquarters were first at Fraser Lake and later at Stuart Lake. Brown (who would leave the district in 1826 because of illness) was directed by Governor George Simpson* to assert the HBC’s presence in the remote Babine River country. Simpson was of the opinion that the amount of furs returned from New Caledonia could be increased. A major problem was transportation. Overland travel was difficult, and horses and leather for gear were scarce. In 1825, in which year Connolly became a chief factor, Simpson obtained approval to annex New Caledonia to the Columbia district for purposes of supply and transportation. That December Connolly, with pack horses, followed the Fraser River southward, then turned northwest to follow the Chilcotin River to its upper reaches, where he discovered that horses could be sent across the Coast Mountains. This route was regarded by Chief Factor John McLoughlin* as the “Shortest communication . . . Between New Caledonia and the sea.” The following spring, on instructions from Simpson, Connolly took his district’s furs to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) instead of to Hudson Bay. In 1828 he lost three men in the Columbia River while transporting furs to the ocean, and two were killed by Indians. Writing to James Hargrave* at York Factory (Man.), Connolly said that these losses and the scarcity of provisions had made 1828 the most unhappy year of his life.

In 1829 Simpson found New Caledonia well administered. He noted in his dispatch to the HBC’s London committee in March that “the present state of the affairs of New Caledonia, manifests excellent management, and if its revenue has not encreased so rapidly as could have been wished, it can alone be ascribed to misfortunes over which Chief Factor Connolly had no controul.” In June the Northern Council instructed Connolly “to use his best endeavours to extend the Trade” into the region of New Caledonia “Westward and Northward of Babine and Simpsons River, which fall into the hands of the American & Russian traders.” He was at Fort Vancouver in August when word was received that the HBC’s cargo ship William and Ann had been wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia and plundered by the Clatsop Indians. McLoughlin sent Connolly with a party to reclaim the goods. Three Indians were killed in the fighting which resulted, and when the cargo was found, the Indian village in which it had been hidden was burned on Connolly’s orders. Connolly turned New Caledonia over to Peter Warren Dease* in 1831, and Charles Ross, a trader there, wrote that he “leaves the district in a much more flourishing condition than he found it.”

Connolly returned to Lower Canada on furlough that year, taking with him Suzanne*, the Cree woman he had married about 1803 according to the custom of the country, and their six children. On 16 May 1832, after repudiating Suzanne, he married his second cousin, Julia Woolrich. In June, while still on furlough, he was placed in charge of the 1832–33 outfit for the king’s posts, a trading area which the HBC rented from the province of Lower Canada. With his new wife he left in 1832 for Tadoussac, on the north shore of the lower St Lawrence River. Six years later his territory was enlarged to include the seigneury of Mingan.

Connolly’s last years in the fur trade were not ones of contentment. First there was the worry of supporting his Indian family, who lived in Montreal but were unable to adjust to white civilization. Then there was Julia, sometimes sickly and always yearning for the amenities of the city. The Connollys’ frequent absences from the trading post did not meet with Simpson’s approval. As well, trade at the king’s posts and adjacent seigneuries, Simpson observed to Connolly in April 1841, had become “exceedingly unproductive” and was then “absolutely unworthy of attention for any other object than as a protection . . . to those parts of the Honble. Company’s territories as are most contiguous to them.”

On short notice later that month, Connolly asked for a furlough. Simpson was not satisfied that he was entitled to one, and proposed to the London committee that he be pushed into retirement by being asked to choose between a posting to Fort Albany (Ont.) or a two-year leave terminating in retirement. The governor knew that Julia would not allow her husband to accept an appointment to a post so distant from Montreal. Connolly accepted the leave, retiring on 1 June 1843 and retaining full interest in the outfit for 1843–44 and a half interest in the succeeding six outfits. In retirement William and Julia lived in Montreal “in great style”; Suzanne had taken up residence at a convent in St Boniface (Man.) in 1841. When Connolly died in 1848 he willed his considerable estate to Julia. In 1864 John Connolly, Suzanne’s eldest son, challenged the will, thus launching a series of court actions to establish which marriage was valid. The courts supported his claim.

Connolly, who called himself a “bit of an Irishman, and . . . a most devout Catholic,” was described in 1817 by Ross Cox*, a former Nor’Wester, as “a veritable bon garçon, and an Emeralder of the first order.” Simpson, in his “Character book” of 1832, regarded Connolly as “an active useful man whose Zeal and exertions have generally been crowned with success, whose Word may be depended on in most things, and whom I consider incapable of doing anything that is mean or dishonorable.” The governor further depicted him as “at times Hypochondriacal,” proud, hot-tempered, and “rather domineering and Tyrannical.”

Bruce Peel

PAM, HBCA, B.49/a/35–36; B.141/a/1, 4; B.179/a/5; B.188/a/5; D.4/119: ff.58–58d. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 2: 225–26. 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). John Franklin, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the polar sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22 . . . (London, 1823; repr. Edmonton, 1969). Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming), 4 (Rich); 10 (Rich); 18 (Rich and Johnson); 29 (Williams). New light on the early history of the greater northwest: the manuscript journals of Alexander Henry . . . and of David Thompson . . . , ed. Elliott Coues (3v., New York, 1897; repr. 3v. in 2, Minneapolis, Minn., [1965]), 3. Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams). The Lower Canada jurist (35v., Montreal, 1857–91), 11: 197–265. Brown, Strangers in blood. Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce Peel, “CONNOLLY, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/connolly_william_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/connolly_william_7E.html
Author of Article:   Bruce Peel
Title of Article:   CONNOLLY, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   September 30, 2023