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McDONELL, JOHN, Le Prêtre (1768-1850) – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada


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ISHAM, JAMES, HBC factor, naturalist; b.  c. 1716 in St Andrew’s parish, Holborn, London, England, to Whitby Isham and Ann Skrimshire; m. 1748 in London to Catherine Mindham; d. 13 April 1761 at York Fort (York Factory, Man.).

James Isham began his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1732 and served at the bay continuously, with brief visits to England in 1737, 1745, 1748, and 1758, until his death. Although his English style, grammar, and spelling are always eccentric, his writings stand out as essential source-material for any approach to the fur trade of the 18th century, for an understanding of the problems of the HBC as it faced challenge and opposition, and for a study of the flora and fauna of Rupert’s Land. Isham was at once a skilled and understanding trader, a perceptive planner and strategist, and a conscientious and observant natural historian.

He had received enough education to be employed at the HBC in 1732 as a “writer” and was sent to York Fort, there to be instructed in book-keeping. Later in his career Isham was to be accused of arbitrary rule, both in directing the trade of his post and in disciplining his men. Early reports, however, contain nothing but praise of his sober conduct, his industry, and the progress he made. In 1736, when he was only 20, he was appointed to be chief at York if Thomas White should insist on going home; and in 1737, when White departed, Isham took command. He himself was anxious to go back to England, and initially he was appointed only till a replacement could arrive from home; but he stayed on until 1741, gaining in competence as a trader and acquiring knowledge of the “French Indians” who came down from the posts which Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye was then establishing near Lac Ouinipigon (Lake Winnipeg). During this period Isham showed a shrewd independence of mind in his comments on the trade goods sent to him and in his answers to the many inquiries addressed to him. He revealed a subtle understanding of Indian character, he increased the trade of his post, he began systematic reports on the men under his command, and he started to develop his interest in the natural history of the region.

The record of Isham’s first serious contribution to this study comes from the naturalist George Edwards, who in 1750, in his Natural history of uncommon birds, pt.iii, said he was indebted to Isham for more than 30 species of birds; eight of Isham’s birds had never previously been described. Isham’s “commendable curiosity,” said Edwards, had led him to make a collection of birds, beasts, and fishes, as well as of the habits, toys, and utensils of the Indians. Isham brought the stuffed birds and beasts to London in good state in 1745. But his interest had been aroused earlier; he had done much of the work at York before 1741, and there he enjoyed the company of Alexander Light, shipwright, whose interest in natural history was equally deep and who also helped George Edwards in his publications.

Except that he had been overruled in his view that the old site of York Fort was too marshy to stand the weight of a stone building, everything was in Isham’s favour when he was transferred to Churchill (Man.) in 1741; and the move was an act of confidence since it was the company’s policy to concentrate trade behind the stone fortifications which were being erected at Churchill. York, though remaining to some extent the centre of an approach to the “Western Indians” and of a drive against French “encroachment,” was to be subordinate to Churchill. But earlier ideas for using Churchill as the spring-board for a search for the rumoured Coppermine River and for developing trade with the Eskimos and Northern Indians were in abeyance. They had been frowned on since Arthur Dobbs had persuaded Sir Bibye Lake, governor of the HBC, to send Captain James Napper* on a voyage north from Churchill to Rankin Inlet in 1737. Dobbs and Captain Christopher Middleton were not content to accept Napper’s inconclusive voyage as the end of the search for a northwest passage, and in 1741 they got two naval vessels on loan for a further expedition under Middleton’s command. As Isham went to Churchill in 1741 his orders from London were to give assistance to Middleton if he were in real distress or in danger of losing his ship. A supplementary order told Isham to give the best assistance in his power, and some more detailed instructions were given him verbally by Thomas White, freshly arrived from London to take over at York before Isham went to Churchill. Nevertheless Isham’s precise course of conduct was not laid down, and he was somewhat at a loss on his arrival at Churchill in mid-August 1741 to find the two naval vessels already anchored and their crews preparing to spend the winter there.

Isham and Middleton were, however, well known to each other and they had much in common in their scientific curiosity and in their contempt for charlatans. Middleton’s men, living in the old fort, suffered through the winter from frostbite, scurvy, idleness, and alcohol; 10 men died before spring. Isham found the explorers a distraction, a responsibility, and an annoyance; five of his men went with Middleton when he set forth in spring 1742, and he had to resort to thrashing and imprisonment to maintain his control over the remainder. But the two commanders appreciated each other, and while Middleton prevented his crews from trading furs Isham allowed his men to work for the expedition and accorded such fresh provisions and other amenities as he could afford. This sensible behaviour brought both men into disrepute, for Dobbs maintained that Middleton had been bribed to protect the company’s trade and the company suspected that Isham had been too complaisant for the wrong reasons.

On the departure of the expedition Isham settled down to develop the trade of Churchill, to supervise the building of the fort (on which he made some caustic but sound comments which showed his independence of judgement), and to endure the ill health that always plagued him there. He apparently suffered from a bronchial complaint and was lame from gout and a strained groin from 1741 to 1743; in the latter year he asked to come home on account of his health. He was recalled only in 1745, after he had renewed his contract for a further three years in 1744, and not for health reasons but to be questioned about his conduct towards Middleton. He brought not only his birds and beasts with him, but writings he had put together in 1743: a “Vocabulary of English and Indian,” an “Account of goods traded with discourses upon different subjects,” “Observations upon Hudson’s Bay,” and a “Small account of the Northward Indian language, with a description of that part of the country towards the copper mines.” In London he put these writings to the governor and committee. There is no evidence that they paid any attention to them, and the writings certainly did nothing to dispel the general ignorance about Hudson Bay since they were not published until 1949 [in HBRS, XII (Rich and Johnson)]. But the shrewd observation, wide knowledge, and naïvely attractive style entitle Isham to a high place in the literary history of Canada. His “Discourses” and his “Vocabulary of English and Indian” set out the essential phrases for the conduct of trade with the Crees, and his descriptions of the fur posts are invaluable. His notes on the flora and fauna, though sometimes fanciful, are a pioneer contribution to knowledge.

These are matters on which Isham’s writings were to gather significance; of more immediate importance were his views on rivalry with French traders, on exploration-cum-trading expeditions, and on the possibility of reaching the rumoured copper mine. His “Observations” clearly set out his view that the English ought to go inland, to the country west of Churchill and south of the Hayes River and also to “the head of Port Nelson River” (somewhere in the region of the later Cumberland House, Sask.); and he advocated that a few good men should be sent to travel with Indians to ascertain the locality of the copper mine. He thought this “might sooner be Discover’d by Land then by Sea” and thereby he anticipated the plan which took Samuel Hearne* to the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1771. Although he referred to Middleton’s attempts at astronomical observations and to a paper on “The effects of cold . . .” which Middleton had published, Isham did not, in his “Observations,” directly refer to the explorers except to say that “it’s not unlikely if a passage had been Discov’d in 1741 but the ships wou’d have fell in with the Copper Indians Country.”

There can, however, be no doubt that Isham was closely questioned about the explorers; for Dobbs had openly parted from Middleton and was preparing an attack on the charter and trading privileges of the HBC. In March 1745 Dobbs had pushed through the House of Commons a report on the “Discovery of a north west passage, through Hudson’s Straits” and a bill to reward any discoverer of the passage with £20,000. He and his backers then equipped two ships, the Dobbs Galley (Capt. William Moor) and the California (Capt. Francis Smith), for a voyage. It was to plan against this intervention that Isham had been called home, and it was in company with the Dobbs Galley and the California that he sailed to York again, to arrive late in August 1746.

Having come under suspicion for his conduct towards Middleton, and with strong instructions from his employers, Isham tried to avoid contact when the explorers decided to winter with him at York. Later, his conduct was called into question, and he was stung to write his “Notes on a voyage to Hudson’s Bay” in answer to the “things which is neither consistant with truth, Justice, nor honour” that had been published in A voyage to Hudsons-Bay . . . by Henry Ellis, agent for the proprietors aboard the Dobbs Galley. Isham’s journal, submitted to the governor and committee, leaves no doubt that he was as unhelpful as possible to the discoverers, that they were obstinate and ignorant, and that it was a dangerously uncomfortable winter for all concerned.

The voyage of the Dobbs Galley and the California in 1747 proved as inconclusive as Middleton’s had been; but again Dobbs refused to accept the evidence. He challenged the company’s charter before the privy council, the law officers of the crown, and ultimately before parliament. In March 1749 he secured the appointment of a parliamentary committee “to enquire into the state and condition of the countries adjoining to Hudson’s Bay and of the trade carried on there.” Isham would obviously be a key witness, and as pressure mounted the governor and committee ordered him home. He arrived in October 1748, and he gave valuable evidence before the parliamentary committee – evidence consistent with his long-held views that settlement by the shores of the bay was impossible since food crops could not be grown there, that inland posts were needed even at uneconomic costs in transportation, and that no practicable northwest passage existed.

The parliamentary inquiry vindicated the HBC, but when Isham was sent out again to York in 1750 it was not yet certain that opposition was over. He was therefore not appointed to York itself but to a small outpost, Flamborough House, planned to fight off interlopers from the sea. Isham took command at York on his arrival, however, since chief factor John Newton had drowned. He remained in command there until his death, with a brief return home for health and family reasons during 1758 and 1759.

At York during this last period Isham gave constant thought to French opposition, and he set the pattern that took English traders inland, to Lac Ouinipigon, to the Paskoya (Saskatchewan) River and the prairies, and even to the Rockies, in the next generation. He supported the building of a post at Severn River and the maintenance of Henley House (at the junction of the Albany and Kenogami rivers) as means of luring Indians away from the French, and he began a policy of sending adventurous men inland to make peace between warring Indians, to counteract French enticement, and to draw the Indians down the rivers past the French to trade at the bay. In 1754 he sent Anthony Henday in company with a band of Crees on an epic journey which took him to the Saskatchewan River, the prairies, the buffalo-hunts, and the horsed Siksika (Blackfoot) Indians, and in subsequent years sent him inland again several times. Isham’s trade at York improved greatly as a result of such voyages, and he fostered a notable group of inland travellers (Joseph Smith, Joseph Waggoner, William Grover, Isaac Batt*, and George Potts); he instilled his ideas into two later masters, Andrew Graham* and Humphrey Marten*, who always acknowledged their debt to him as the “beloved Friend” and “worthy Master” of their generation. Indeed, Isham’s ideas were in advance of the governor and committee, for in 1756 he ordered Henday to choose a site for a post about 500 miles up-country. This was the thinking which went into the ultimate plan to establish Cumberland House.

Isham’s detailed knowledge was unrivalled, but it did not obstruct perception. An acclaimed master to the traders, he was mourned at his death as “the Idol of the Indians.” His comments and proposals were sound and shrewd; though they were not always adopted, they were never resented by his employers. But one thing was held against him – his Indian family. He had relations in England, and a daughter and his wife figure in his correspondence until the latter died in 1760, but on his death at York, 13 April 1761, he left all his property to his halfbreed son Charles Thomas Price Isham*, himself destined to become a redoubtable traveller and trader in the service of the HBC.

E. E. Rich

HBC Arch. A.6; A.11/2, A.11/13, A.11/114; B.42/a; B.239/a; Arthur Dobbs folder. [William Coats], The geography of Hudson’s Bay: being the remarks of Captain W. Coats, in many voyages to that locality, between the years 1727 and 1751, ed. John Barrow (Hakluyt Soc., 1st ser., XI, London, 1852). Arthur Dobbs, An account of the countries adjoining to Hudsons Bay in the north-west part of America (London, 1744; repr. New York, 1967); Remarks upon Middleton’s defence. George Edwards, A natural history of uncommon birds, and of some other rare and undescribed animals . . . (4pt., London, 1743–51), pt.iii. Henry Ellis, A voyage to Hudson’s-Bay by the Dobbs Galley and California, in the years 1746 and 1747, for discovering a north west passage . . . (London, 1748). G.B., Parl., Report from the committee on Hudson’s Bay. HBRS, XII (Rich and Johnson), XXV (Davies and Johnson), XXVII (Williams). Christopher Middleton, “The effects of cold; together with observations of the longitude, latitude, and declination of the magnetic needle, at Prince of Wales’s fort, upon Churchill-River in Hudson’s Bay . . .” Royal Society Philosophical Transactions (London), XIII (1742–43), 157–71; A vindication of the conduct of Captain Christopher Middleton . . . (London, 1743). [Charles Swaine (T. S. Drage)], An account of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage . . . (2v., London, 1748–49). Morton, History of the Canadian west. Rich, History of the HBC, I.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

E. E. Rich, “ISHAM, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/isham_james_3E.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/isham_james_3E.html
Author of Article:   E. E. Rich
Title of Article:   ISHAM, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   April 17, 2024