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COOK, WILLIAM HEMMINGS, fur trader, settler, and politician; baptized 30 May 1768 in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn, London, son of John Cook and Elizabeth ; d. 23 Feb. 1846 in the Red River settlement (Man.).

William Hemmings Cook came from London to Rupert’s Land in 1786 in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He worked as a writer (clerk) at York Factory (Man.), starting at £15 a year, until September 1790, when he was sent inland up the Nelson River with nine company men, but only one steersman, and some Indians to establish a post at Duck Lake. The early onset of winter compelled most of the Indians to go back to their families, so he sent on a party under his one experienced man, James Spence, who wintered at Split Lake, while with one man and an Indian he returned to York. On 1 July 1791 he set off again up the Nelson and Grass rivers to Wintering Lake, where he established Chatham House in opposition to William McKay* of the North West Company.

After three years at this and other outposts in the area, Cook went back to England. Returning in 1795 as an inland trader at a salary of £60 a year, he took charge in 1797 of the HBC posts on the upper Nelson, with headquarters at Split Lake. As second in command at York in 1809, he won the approval of Chief Factor John McNab, with whom he worked in 1808–9 on a relay system of inland transportation. Appointed chief factor in 1810, Cook was responsible, under the command of William Auld*, superintendent of the Northern Department, for York’s “dependencies,” including Fort Severn (Ont.) and the inland posts. During the winter of 1811–12 he struggled with problems of provisioning and transport for the Selkirk settlers – Scots and Irishmen who, under Miles Macdonell* and William Hillier, were wintering at York on their way to the Red River settlement.

Cook now earned £100 a year plus at least £50 under the HBC’s new “Share of Profits” scheme, but in 1813 the company’s governor and committee allowed him to resign and, in view of his long and faithful service, to settle on the Nelson with his family on a private and temporary basis. They were, however, annoyed because he had absented himself from York in 1812–13 while still receiving the emoluments of a chief factor. He was at York again in 1813–14, and he seems to have been at or near Oxford House in 1815–16. From 1816 he was back in the service of the company in the Nelson River district, at half his old salary. In 1818 he was sent to the Swan River district with headquarters at Fort Hibernia (Sask.). The following year he resigned again to try his fortune once more as a settler, this time at Red River.

Cook and many of his company colleagues, including his eldest son Joseph, had long been concerned to secure “a retreat for our children.” By 1815 Cook had ten sons and daughters, children of three or possibly more country wives. One of these wives had died by 1821. Another, Matthew Cocking*’s daughter Mith-coo-coo-man E’Squaw (Agathas or Mary), he married formally on 8 March 1838, thus fulfilling what Thomas Simpson had described in a private letter of 1836 as his “intention of bringing his 35 years courtship to an early close.” A third wife seems also to have been one of Cocking’s daughters, Wash-e-soo E’Squaw (Agathas, Aggathas).

By 1821 Cook was established in the Red River settlement, where the HBC made him a free grant of 500 acres and paid him an annuity of £100 for seven years. He apparently worked as a “petty trader” (retailer) and freighter. Appointed a councillor to the governor of Assiniboia on 29 May 1822, he attended six meetings. On 27 Feb. 1839, three years after ownership of the district passed from the estate of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] to the HBC, he was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia in spite of the fact that in the 1820s Governor George Simpson* had considered Cook to be “timid and weak,” “useless from age and want of firmness” and from fear of losing popularity, a “most extraordinary mixture of generous eccentricity, Religion, Drunkeness and Misanthropy.” According to Simpson in 1822, he had changed “his residence about a Doz. different times for as many absurd reasons.” Though Donald Gunn* thought of him as a “kind hearted gentleman,” Cook was often at odds with other principal settlers at Red River who had been his colleagues in the HBC, and in 1838 he quarrelled with Andrew McDermot* over a freighting bill and damaged goods. By 1843, when his name last appeared in the census returns, he had only 20 acres under cultivation.

Cook’s will provided an income for his “beloved wife Mary” and bequests for four sons, seven daughters, and a granddaughter. His land was divided equally among ten of his children. It was his children and their progeny who constituted his most notable contribution to western Canada. His descendants included not only countless Cooks but also Garriochs, Budds, Settees, Calders, Wrens, and Erasmuses. Recording Cook’s death, Peter Garrioch, a grandson and a trader and freighter at Red River, called him “the Father of us all.”

Irene M. Spry

Guildhall Library (London), ms 6667/11 (St Andrew, Holborn, London, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials), 30 May 1768. PABC, Add. mss 345, file 56; Add. mss 635, box 7, folder 201, Thomas Simpson to Donald Ross, 20 Feb. 1836. PAC, MG 19, El, ser.1, 1, 18, 46–47. PAM, HBCA, A.6/15–19; A.30/4–17; A.31/9; A.32/3–17; A.36/5: ff.5–72; B.32/a/1; B.159/a/7; B.235/d/19–20; B.239/b/48–86d; B.239/c/1–2; B.239/d/19–20, 124, 129–30; B.239/x/3; C.1/398; E.4/la–2; E.5/1–11; E.6/2, 7; E.8/5; MG 2, C38, Garrioch journal, 23 Feb. 1846. Canadian north-west (Oliver), 1: 57, 258–60. HBRS, 3 (Fleming). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2.

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Cite This Article

Irene M. Spry, “COOK, WILLIAM HEMMINGS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cook_william_hemmings_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/cook_william_hemmings_7E.html
Author of Article:   Irene M. Spry
Title of Article:   COOK, WILLIAM HEMMINGS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   April 14, 2024