FROBISHER, BENJAMIN JOSEPH, fur trader, politician, jp, and militia officer; b. 26 March 1782 in Montreal, second child of Joseph Frobisher* and Charlotte Jobert; d. 18 March 1821 at Quebec.

As was the custom among wealthy English-speaking families in the province of Quebec, Benjamin Joseph Frobisher was sent to England in 1791 to continue his studies. He was placed in the care of his uncle, Nathaniel Frobisher, who was instructed by the boy’s father to “put Ben to some good school & to spare no expence for his education.” In 1799, when he was 17, Benjamin Joseph went into the service of the North West Company and was sent to the west to do his apprenticeship in the fur trade. Within a few years he was promoted to the post of clerk in the English River department, which bordered on the Athabasca department.

In 1804 Frobisher was living at Quebec, where he called himself a merchant but appears to have been working as a clerk for a merchant who was probably connected with the NWC. There, in an Anglican ceremony on 6 February he married Isabella Grant, a young woman of about 18 who was the niece of Sir William Grant, master of the rolls in England, and stepdaughter of the deputy commissary general, John Craigie*. That year Frobisher was elected to the House of Assembly for Montreal, the riding he represented until April 1808. He ran again in 1810, in Dorchester riding, but withdrew before the polling was over, having received fewer votes than his three opponents in a contest that John Caldwell* won. In 1805 Frobisher was a director of the Quebec Assembly, a social club, and from 1806 to 1812 he was a member of the Fire Society in Quebec. He received a commission as justice of the peace for the district of Trois-Rivières in July 1805, which was renewed in December 1811 and July 1815, and was given one for the district of Quebec in November 1815. He also served in the district of Trois-Rivières militia, first as captain (1810) for the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan, then as major (1812) and lieutenant-colonel (1815) of the Sainte-Anne battalion. In addition he was given the office of paymaster of the battalion in April 1815. That year he became provincial aide-de-camp to Administrator Sir Gordon Drummond*, and from 1816 he carried out the same duties with the new governor, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke.

Frobisher continued meanwhile to work for the NWC. His relations with the company were more like those of his uncle Thomas, the voyageur, than those of his uncle Benjamin* or even his father. From his father’s death in 1810 until 1814 the company paid Benjamin Joseph £500 a year for the share he had inherited, but he remained until the end of his life a minor employee, often travelling and working in the trading regions. In 1806, for example, he was Charles Chaboillez*’s clerk at Fort Dauphin (Man.); in 1812 he was at Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg), on his way to Lake Athabasca.

Frobisher was engaged in the trade at the period when the fur economy was declining. Pressure from American competitors was steadily mounting and the struggle against the Hudson’s Bay Company was becoming violent. Not only did a change in the HBC’s trading strategies worry the NWC partners, but the establishment in 1812 of the Red River colony by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], a major shareholder in the HBC, brought the two rival companies into a conflict that quickly took on the dimensions of a private war. Miles Macdonell, who had been appointed governor of Assiniboia by the HBC, did not confine himself to helping the settlers get established when they began to arrive at the beginning of the autumn of 1812; he set in motion a strategy that undermined the system by which the NWC partners maintained their supply of provisions. In 1816 Colin Robertson*, an officer of the HBC, attacked and demolished Fort Gibraltar, and his men seized Fort Daer (Pembina, N.Dak.). The situation continued to worsen and led to the massacre at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816 [see Cuthbert Grant*].

Frobisher became directly involved in the ongoing hostilities. In 1817 he was sent with a group of NWC employees to attack the HBC fort at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.); he challenged his adversaries to come out and fight, but to no avail. Two years later the new HBC governor, William Williams*, anxious to cut his rivals’ communications, decided to seize Grand Rapids (Man.). It was the obvious target, since, according to Samuel Hull Wilcocke, a writer in the service of the NWC, “the only practicable route to and from Athabasca and the northern departments of the fur trade . . . is through the northwestern outlet of Lake Winipeg, leading through Cedar or Bourbon Lake, to the River Saskatchewan. Between that lake and Lake Winipeg is the Grand Rapid.” There, on 18 June 1819, the canoe transporting John Duncan Campbell and Frobisher was stopped. Frobisher was beaten because he protested against Williams’s conduct and he suffered a severe head injury. Then he was taken with the other prisoners to York Factory, which he reached on 1 July. His detention under particularly harsh conditions lasted until 30 September, when he escaped with two other prisoners. In the account that Wilcocke gave of these events he claimed that Frobisher was forced through exhaustion to stop on the shores of Cedar Lake, where his body was found on 27 November. In reality Frobisher returned to Quebec, but his health had probably been undermined, because he died less than two years later at the house he lived in on Rue Mont-Carmel. He was buried on 21 March 1821, and on 24 April his wife renounced his estate in the name of their only child, James Joseph.

Fernand Ouellet

ANQ-M, CE1-63, 31 mars 1782. ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 6 févr. 1804; CN1-230, 9 avril 1821; CN1-262, 6 févr. 1804. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 1: 115–54; 2: 179–226. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 300, 446. Quebec Gazette, 9 Feb. 1804; 10 Jan., 28 Nov. 1805; 12 June 1806; 2 July 1807; 21 Jan. 1808; 5, 12 April 1810; 26 Dec. 1811; 2 July 1812; 20 April, 26 June 1815; 18 July, 8 Aug. 1816; 9 Aug. 1819; 7 Jan. 1821. F.-J. Audet, Les députés de Montréal, 357–59; “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” Desjardins, Guide parl., 133. Quebec almanac, 1805: 15; 1810: 34, 53; 1815: 60, 104; 1820: 106. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Wilkins Campbell, NWC (1973), 32, 70, 198–253. W. S. Wallace, “Northwesters’ quarrel,” Beaver, outfit 278 (December 1947): 9.

Cite This Article

Fernand Ouellet, “FROBISHER, BENJAMIN JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2024,

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:

Author of Article:   Fernand Ouellet
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   July 25, 2024