KEITH, GEORGE, fur trader; b. 29 Dec. 1779 at Netherthird in the parish of Auchterless, Scotland, son of James Keith, farmer, and Isabella Bruce; d. 22 Jan. 1859 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
With his younger brother James, George Keith came to North America in 1799 as an apprentice to Forsyth, Richardson and Company, a partner in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). Until 1806 he served in the Athabasca country, joining the North West Company after its merger with the New North West Company in 1804. From 1806 to 1815 he was stationed in the Mackenzie River department, where he worked under John George McTavish* and then Simon Fraser*, becoming a partner in the NWC in 1813. Although few details of his life during these years are known, his observations on the geography of the area and the Athapaskan-speaking Indians around his post on the Liard River and, after 1810, at the west end of Great Bear Lake and on the Mackenzie River, have survived in a series of letters addressed to Roderick McKenzie*. His descriptions of the Beaver (Slave) and Long-Arrowed (Hare) Indians are literate and detailed.
From 1816 to 1821 Keith served at Fort Chipewyan (Alta), on Lake Athabasca, assuming charge of the Athabasca department in 1817. These years were marked by keen, and sometimes violent, competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company men at nearby Fort Wedderbum, on Coal (Potato) Island. In late 1816 Keith was one of a party of Nor’Westers sent by Archibald Norman McLeod to harass the HBC fort’s fishery. While HBC officer Colin Robertson* was a prisoner at Fort Chipewyan during the winter of 1818–19, Keith confided in him about the strained relations between the NWC wintering partners and their Montreal agents, McTavish, McGillivrays and Company. Keith and his brother James were, according to Robertson, among the few Nor’Westers with any “firmness of character” in that dispute: “A good dinner, a few fair promises would waltz the remainder about, to any tune the McGillivray’s chose to strike up.”
After the HBC–NWC coalition in 1821, Keith was named chief factor and given charge of the English (upper Churchill) River district, based at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.). Following a leave of absence in 1826–27, he was placed in command of the Lake Superior district, based at Michipicoten (Michipicoten River, Ont.). With the exception of another furlough in 1832–33, he remained at this post until 1835, when he was transferred to Moose Factory (Ont.). Keith returned to Michipicoten for the period 1839–43 before taking a two-year leave of absence and then retiring to Scotland in 1845.
Keith ranked among the more respected HBC officers of his time. In 1832 Governor George Simpson portrayed him as “a man of highly correct conduct and Character and much attention to his business; well Educated and respectably connected.” He was “not wanting in personal courage when pushed,” but considered to be “rather timid, nervous and indecisive on ordinary occasions.”
Like many of his NWC and HBC colleagues, Keith took a country wife and had a large family during his fur-trade career. Between 1807 and 1838, six daughters and three sons were born to him and Nanette, the country daughter of James Sutherland, a NWC clerk. Keith was devoted to his family and in 1844, before sailing for Scotland, he formalized his marriage by Christian rite to protect their interests. His marrying and retiring with his fur-trade wife contrasted with the domestic behaviour of several of his contemporaries, such as William Connolly*, John George McTavish, George Simpson, and John Stuart*; it was unusual for fur traders to suffer the stress encountered in introducing their native wives to the “civilized world.” The Keiths, however, survived the adjustment well. In 1847 Keith reported to Simpson that “the Gud-wife . . . has acquired a considerable smattering of the English language, together with some comparative degree of civilised polish” and the following autumn wrote that “all things considered I think she deserves some credit for acting or playing her part so well as she does.” On the acre of land around their home, Morningside Cottage, near Aberdeen, Nanette tended a garden, selling produce and eggs; her native handicrafts were also admired. When, in 1850, Chief Factor Alexander Christie* brought his mixed-blood wife, Anne Thomas, to settle near Aberdeen, Nanette gained a close friend. After her husband’s death in 1859, her whereabouts are not known, although it is thought that she may have returned to North America to live with her daughter Betsey, wife of Chief Factor John Swanston.
Aberdeen Univ. Library (Aberdeen, Scot.), James Keith papers (mfm. at PAC). Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Moosonee Arch. (Schumacher, Ont.), Moose Factory Anglican and Methodist mission records, 1780–1906, 22 June 1838 (mfm. at AO). PAM, HBCA, A.36/8: ff.9–30; A.44/4: ff.45–46; D.5/20: f.308; D.5/23: ff.88–88d; MG 7, B7 (mfm.). Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), vol.2. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. Sylvia Van Kirk, “The role of women in the fur trade society of the Canadian west, 1700–1850” (phd thesis, Univ. of London, 1975).