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HARGRAVE, JAMES, HBC chief factor; b. 19 Nov. 1798 in Hawick, Scotland, son of Joseph Hargrave and Jane Melrose; d. 16 May 1865 at Brockville, Canada West.

The son of a humble, devout Lowland Scot, James Hargrave received a good education and a strict upbringing. After graduating from Fysshe’s Academy in Galashiels at 18, he began teaching school in a nearby village. In 1819 he persuaded his father, an estate manager, to follow the example of relatives and emigrate to Canada where he believed the family was assured of a brighter future. Hargrave himself arrived in 1820 and entered the service of the North West Company; he helped his parents to settle comfortably on a farm near Beauharnois, Lower Canada.

During his first winter in the fur trade, Hargrave served as an apprentice clerk at Sault Ste Marie (Ont.). In the spring of 1821 he travelled to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) where he attracted the notice of the influential Nor’Wester John George McTavish*. After the union of the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies in 1821, Hargrave was retained as a clerk by the HBC and spent the next season at York Factory under McTavish, now a chief factor. In 1823, Hargrave was appointed to the Lower Red River District. Here he spent the next four winters but travelled with the brigades to York every summer. In 1827, having distinguished himself as a “Clerk, Warehouse & Shopkeeper,” he was stationed permanently at York Factory, the company’s entrepôt on the shores of Hudson Bay. During the hectic summer months which saw the arrival of the fur brigades from the vast Northern Department and the annual ships from England, Hargrave had to cope with piles of invoices and accounts or heaps of trade goods to be sorted for the various districts. The departure of the fur-laden ships in early fall signalled a welcome period of relaxation. Hargrave derived particular pleasure from the newly arrived books and newspapers, “those precious fruits of civilization,” which helped to beguile many a long winter evening. Hunting also broke the monotony of the counting-house. He wrote jauntily of sallying forth on snowshoes “wrapt up in treble folds of Duffle & DeerSkin” to brave “the terrors of an Arctic sky.”

Governor George Simpson* was impressed by Hargrave, whom he described as a man of “highly correct conduct and character,” with a “clear headed” grasp of general business. Simpson favoured his early promotion, but Hargrave lacked experience in trading with the Indians, could speak none of the native languages, and had a reputation for being sour-tempered. Although he secured a chief tradership in January 1833, when he assumed the management of York, he was not officially given charge of the York Factory District until 1835.

Hargrave, who suffered from ill health, took a year’s furlough in 1837. While touring in Scotland, he was warmly received by the family of his friends William and Dugald Mactavish*, both of whom were in the HBC’s service. Hargrave soon felt he had found the ideal wife in their older sister Letitia*. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hargrave had resolved not to marry a native woman because he was determined to leave the Indian country as soon as he had accumulated enough money to live in comfort. He was unexpectedly called back to York Factory early in 1838, but returned to Scotland in the fall of 1839, and married Letitia on 8 Jan. 1840. Hargrave brought his bride to York Factory by the annual ship and was extremely gratified that she adapted so readily to life on Hudson Bay. He was to find much happiness in their four children, all born at the Factory.

Family considerations urged James Hargrave to press for a long-promised chief factorship. For nearly a decade he had managed an important and burdensome post, but with the decline of the fur trade in the 1840s, he began to despair of achieving financial security. Moreover, he felt frustrated by the governor’s refusals to allow him to attend the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department at Norway House (Man.) because his services were too essential to permit even a short absence from York. Promotion to chief factorship eventually came in January 1844. By this time Hargrave longed to move his family to a post nearer “the civilized world.” York’s severe climate often left him crippled with rheumatism, and he had grown excessively corpulent under the sedentary routine. In 1846, when he returned from his only trip to the council, he went on furlough with his ailing wife. A firm believer in “a good moral & religious education,” Hargrave placed his son Joseph James* at school in Scotland. The family returned to York Factory in the summer of 1847, and remained there, to Hargrave’s chagrin, for another four years. He was increasingly aggravated by the lack of trained men, the heavy demands of private orders from the Red River colony, and the loss of the supply ship Graham in 1849 which threatened his carefully regulated system. In the summer of 1851, Hargrave gratefully relinquished York to William Mactavish and journeyed overland to take charge of Sault Ste Marie, the supply depot for the districts of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. His wife joined him the next summer.

Sault Ste Marie brought only disappointment and sorrow to James Hargrave. A kind, genial man in private, he observed strict propriety in business, and so irritated his easy-going American customers. His private expenses were also much greater than anticipated. Hargrave’s grief at the sudden death of his wife in September 1854 was compounded by the loss of his youngest child a few months later. He left the Sault in the summer of 1855 for Scotland, where the affairs of his wife’s family devolved heavily upon him. Refused further leave because the governor deemed him the only man qualified to replace the ailing William Mactavish at York, Hargrave returned to his old post in 1856. He finally retired officially from the company’s service 1 June 1859 after a year’s leave of absence in Scotland.

Throughout his career Hargrave was a prodigious letter writer, corresponding with officers all over the HBC’s vast domains. His draft letter books, which give much detail about the logistics of the trade, reveal his assiduous attempts to satisfy the needs of every district with fairness and economy. His private letters, where he appears as esteemed friend and confidant, constitute the richest surviving record of life in western Canada during the first half of the 19th century. Besides providing valuable commentary on fur trade society with its blend of Indian, British, and French customs, these letters also contain much specific information about the personal lives of many of Hargrave’s contemporaries.

Paradoxically, Hargrave himself remained aloof from the main stream of fur trade life – he was never the trader who spent the winter bartering pelts and the summer travelling hundreds of miles by canoe and York boat. Rather he served as the administrative king-pin whose efficient management at York was crucial to the success of the far-flung trade of the HBC.

In June 1859, shortly before returning to Canada from Scotland, Hargrave was married again, to Margaret Alcock. After a year in Toronto, he settled on a substantial property, Burnside House, at Brockville. Hargrave did not have long to enjoy the fruits of his labours: he died five years later at the age of 66 and was buried beside his first wife in St James’ cemetery, Toronto.

Sylvia Van Kirk

[The correspondence of James Hargrave, which amounts to 26 volumes, is preserved at PAC (MG 19, A21, ser.1). Of the letters written to Hargrave (vols.1–20), only a small number have been published in Hargrave correspondence (Glazebrook). Hargrave’s own letter books (vols. 21–26) are unpublished.  s.v.k.]

HBC Arch. A.33/3, ff.210–24; A.34/1, f.104; A.34/2, f.34; A.36/7 (will and papers concerning the Hargrave estate). McGill University Libraries, Dept of Rare Books and Special Coll., ms coll., James Hargrave diary (mfm. at HBC Arch.). PABC, Donald Ross papers, James Hargrave letters, 1839–51. PAC, MG 19, A2, ser.2, 1, pp.111–65. Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Sylvia Van Kirk, “HARGRAVE, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hargrave_james_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/hargrave_james_9E.html
Author of Article:   Sylvia Van Kirk
Title of Article:   HARGRAVE, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   November 29, 2023