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FINLAYSON, DUNCAN, HBC officer and governor of Assiniboia; b. c.1796, possibly in Dingwall, Scotland; d. 25 July 1862 in London, England.

Duncan Finlayson and his elder brother, Nicol*, sailed from Orkney in 1815 for three years’ service as writers (the apprentice rank below clerk) in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After working under James Curtis Bird* at Red River, “the seminary for men of talent” according to Governor George Simpson*, Duncan Finlayson succeeded Colin Robertson* in 1820–21 as supervisor of the Peace River District. During the next four years, he won the attention of the governor and received consistent reports as a “highly respectable well educated good clerk & Trader, [who] looks to promotion through merit.” However, an accidental gunshot wound forced him to go to England for medical treatment in 1825 and perhaps influenced his appointment as clerk at Red River from 1826 to 1831. Under the wise direction of Chief Factor Donald McKenzie*, Finlayson was promoted chief trader (1828), attended the councils of the Northern Department (1828 and 1830), and assisted with trade at Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Rapid promotion (he became chief factor in 1831) was proof of his high reputation with his colleagues and Simpson’s private assessment in 1832 was even greater tribute: “A highly upright honorable correct man of good Education and superior abilities to most of his colleagues. Has great influence with and is much liked by his Equals, inferiors and the Natives. . . . Firm cool and decisive, one of our best Legislators and most effective practical men . . . he may be ranked high among the most respectable and efficient men of his class.”

After his promotion in 1831 Finlayson travelled west to the valuable Columbia River Department which he was to supervise upon the departure of Dr John McLoughlin*. Unexpectedly, McLoughlin chose to remain on the Columbia. Finlayson went on leave in 1834–35 and left the district in the spring of 1837. His chief contribution there was in the coastal trade. He purchased the brig Lama from William Henry McNeill* in 1832, sailed three times to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), supervised the Beaver’s first trip in 1836, and recommenced negotiations with the Russians to supply provisions at Sitka (Alaska) and thereby undercut American competition for furs. He also surveyed the agricultural potential of the Puget Sound area (Wash.) and founded Fort McLoughlin on Dowager Island (B.C.) in 1833.

Evidence concerning Finlayson’s relationship with McLoughlin, who kept command of the Columbia Department until 1846, is scanty but one can surmise that the two chief factors maintained at least formal politeness. They did, however, differ on several occasions. Finlayson’s criticism in 1833 of the Stikine post project and, more important, his support for the Beaver in 1836 conflicted with McLoughlin’s plans to establish posts rather than conduct trade from ships. Both McLoughlin and Finlayson were to be in London, however, in 1838–39 during company negotiations with the Russians concerning provisions and trade on the Pacific coast.

Finlayson had travelled to Scotland in 1837. He dined at the Simpson family home in London almost daily from February to May and the entry in his journal for 25 May, “Heard first intimation from a certain quarter,” might have been anticipated. Isobel Graham Simpson*, George Simpson’s sister-in-law, married Duncan Finlayson in Bromley-by-Bow, Middlesex, on 10 Nov. 1838, in the presence of Simpson and McLoughlin. The marriage settlement provided income and dividends from a portfolio of investments, and perhaps a dowry from the Simpson family.

Finlayson became the governor of Assiniboia in the spring of 1839. Joined by his wife a year later, he supervised the Red River community, oversaw HBC interests, and contributed to the stability and grace of local society throughout his five years at Upper Fort Garry. During his tenure the judicial system of the colony was reorganized by the newly appointed recorder, Adam Thom*. At the same time agriculturalists were encouraged to develop methods and products appropriate to the environment. Finlayson recruited settlers for the proposed HBC colony in Puget Sound and, in 1841, he sent 23 families to the Pacific under James Sinclair* in a vain attempt to stave off American penetration of the disputed territory. He faced continual problems related to “freedom of trade” but carefully avoided open confrontation. Challenges from merchants James Sinclair and Andrew McDermot*, and from Pembina trader Norman Wolfred Kittson*, had only begun when Finlayson left Red River [see Alexander Christie*]. His term was considered a success; Alexander Ross* concluded that he had “laid a solid basis, not only for the prosperity of the white man, but also for the Christian civilization of its aboriginal inhabitants.”

In 1844 Finlayson and his wife moved to Lachine, Canada East, where he was to supervise the Montreal Department and assist George Simpson. They soon found that they were to live with, and help, the Simpson family. A small, ill-contrived house, Finlayson’s continuing ill health, and, no doubt, the governor’s temper, encouraged them to spend at least three winters in England during the next decade. In addition to the daily administration of the department, Finlayson travelled to Washington in 1848 with Simpson and Henry Hulse Berens for negotiations on company land claims, and assisted when in England with the publication of two books on Red River and the fur trade by Alexander Ross. He retired from service on 1 June 1855 but, at his own request and with the strong support of Simpson, he was reappointed to the Lachine post six months later. When he retired in 1859 and took up permanent residence in London, he was elected to the committee of the company.

A dominant feature of Finlayson’s personality was his firm adherence to a high standard of personal conduct. Combined with moral uprightness was a sincere concern for the native peoples within the fur trade empire. In his record of the 1831 trip to the Columbia, Finlayson had condemned the treatment of the natives by his “licentious” Canadian crew. In Columbia and Red River he supported the missionary enterprises as best he could. His principal heir, after the death of his wife, was the Church Missionary Society of England, which, according to Finlayson’s wishes, was to establish additional missionary stations in HBC lands for the conversion of natives to Christianity.

Finlayson rose from apprentice clerk to director of his company and acquired many luxuries. His postings in later years were doubtless affected by the influence he acquired by marriage but were also due to his own abilities. His influence upon the administration of the company was undoubtedly dependent upon the will of the governor but no one was closer to Simpson after 1840. In Finlayson, ability was linked with fortune.

Gerald Friesen

HBC Arch. A.1/70, p.83; A.10/38; A.34/1, p.27; A.34/2, no.25; A.36/6; D.6/3; E.12/1; E.12/2, add. m/2; E.12/3–4. PABC, Donald Ross papers, letters of Duncan Finlayson to Donald Ross, 1845–52. PAM, MG 2, B5, Andrew McDermot to Alexander Christie, 30 Nov. 1846; C14, letters of Duncan Finlayson to Alexander Ross, 59, 124–25. PAC, RG 31, 1851 census, Lachine. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, 35–78, 262. Documents relating to NWC (Wallace). Hargrave correspondence (Glazebrook). HBRS, I (Rich); III (Fleming); IV (Rich); VI (Rich); XXIV (Davies and Johnson). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). I. [G. Simpson] Finlayson, “York Boat journal,” ed. A. M. Johnson, Beaver, outfit 282 (September 1951), 32–35; (December 1951), 32–37. Times (London), 1 Aug. 1862. Rich, History of HBC, II. Ross, Red River Settlement (1972), 121, 3412.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gerald Friesen, “FINLAYSON, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/finlayson_duncan_9E.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/finlayson_duncan_9E.html
Author of Article:   Gerald Friesen
Title of Article:   FINLAYSON, DUNCAN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   December 4, 2023