ISBISTER, WILLIAM, HBC sailor, carpenter, fl. 1739–51.
A William Isbister, labourer, was sent home from York Fort (York Factory, Man.) in 1735; he appears to have been a different person from the subject of this biography, who was hired as a sailor by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1739. Isbister the sailor served on the Eastmain sloop out of Fort Albany (Ont.) for three years. During the 1742–43 season he was at Moose Fort (Moose Factory, Ont.) repairing the Beaver sloop. In July 1743 he was recalled to Albany by his brother Joseph*, who on his own initiative had decided to found the company’s first inland post.
The spring trade at Albany in 1743 had been a disaster. Some French traders had established a camp near the junction of the Kenogami and Albany rivers and had intercepted the Indians on their way to the bay. Even the Home Indians (Crees), who lived nearest the bay, arrived dressed in French cloth. They reported that the traders intended to return to build a permanent post. Should they do so, wrote Joseph Isbister, “then may we Shut up Shop and go home.” So on the north side of the junction he began constructing Henley House.
On 16 July 1743 William was appointed master of Henley and dispatched upriver to finish the project. The London committee issued strict instructions that the post’s function was to stop the French from intercepting Indians on their way to Albany. Trading was to be kept to a minimum – to be done only in winter and to be in nothing but necessities such as powder and shot. For their part the Indians could never understand why they should make the long journey to Albany.
The loneliness of the site and the fear of an Indian or French attack on the little garrison may have contributed to William’s attack of delirium tremens in the fall of 1745. Joseph reported that his brother was “taken ill with light-headedness and a sort of frenzy . . . got a fright.” In fact, through continual drinking William had lost his senses and threatened to blow up Henley with gunpowder. His men had overpowered him and brought him handcuffed to Albany, where he talked like a madman all night. When he recovered, Joseph sent him back to Henley.
William kept his drinking under control for the next few years, although the situation at the post was difficult. In 1745–46 some French traders wintered upriver and carried off the trade of the upland Indians. During June and July 1746 the men were kept indoors at Henley in anticipation of an attack which never came. William had a relapse in 1749, when he stove in a barge loaded with goods for the post because he fell into a drunken stupor at the helm. Optimistically, he had requested a raise in pay to begin in 1750, but the HBC refused. In June 1750 he was reported to be mad drunk with brandy, and the men at Henley stated they would rather go back to England than stay with him another year. He voluntarily returned home in 1751. Had he not done so, the London committee was prepared to order him back because of his “sottishness and ill Conduct.”
HBC Arch. A.6/6, f.33d; A.6/7, ff.16, 34, 70d, 76, 103d–5, 155, 161; A.6/8, f.63d; A.11/2, ff.111d, 116, 121, 124d, 128, 132d, 136, 140–41, 146, 148–48d; B.3/a/29–43, B.3/b/1, B.3/d/48–58, B.59/a/4–6, B.86/a/1–7. HBRS, XXV (Davies and Johnson), 326. Rich, History of the HBC, I.