KEITH, JAMES, fur trader; b. 12 March 1782 at Netherthird in the parish of Auchterless, Scotland, son of James Keith and Isabella Bruce; d. 27 Jan. 1851 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
The rural gentry of northeast Scotland gave the North American fur trade many able officers including James Keith and his brother George, sons of an Aberdeenshire tacksman and farmer. The Keiths were brought from Scotland with Edward Smith and A. Wilkie as apprentice clerks in 1799 by Forsyth, Richardson and Company, the principal partner in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). James proceeded to Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) in 1800 and the following year he went to the English (upper Churchill) River department. He stayed on there after the merger of the New North West and the North West companies in 1804 [see Sir Alexander Mackenzie*], serving at various NWC posts, and was married by the custom of the country to the second daughter of Jean-Baptiste Cadot, a union he later described as “a much lamented though almost unavoidable consequence of the situation and Country.” Two daughters were born of this marriage, Helen in 1811 and Mary in 1814. Both were apparently raised under the supervision of James’s brother George.
In 1813 Keith was sent out to the Columbia River, with Alexander Henry* the younger and Alexander Stewart, to reinforce the NWC party on the Pacific coast, and he arrived at Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.) in November. He travelled east in early summer 1814 to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), where, at the July meeting of the company, he became a partner with four other clerks: Angus Bethune, Alexander Greenfield Macdonell*, John McLoughlin, and Edward Smith. Keith was back in the Columbia department by the end of the year, and, after a second trip to Fort William in 1815, he was placed in charge of the NWC business on the Pacific coast from 1816 to 1821. The Columbia trade was hobbled by poor relations with the Indians, dissension among officers, unsuitable employees, and disappointing markets in China. None the less, William McGillivray*, the chief director of the NWC, held Keith blameless for these troubles. With the merger of the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company in March 1821 [see Simon McGillivray*], Keith was named one of the 25 chief factors in the reorganized HBC, a commission he accepted on 11 July at the meeting of former NWC men and HBC officers at Fort William.
After a year’s sick leave in England, Keith was given charge of the Severn district and posted to Fort Severn (Ont.). The following year he was transferred to Fort Chipewyan (Alta), in the Athabasca country. His annual reports from both places showed a lively interest in Indian character and in the social consequences of the fur trade. He deplored the familiarity between company men and the Indians, and at Severn drafted rules, which were adopted by the Council of the Northern Department, for “the more effectual civilization and moral improvement of the families attached to the different establishments and the Indians.” In Athabasca he strove to change the natives’ work habits and economic customs by raising the price of furs, slashing gifts and autumn advances, and curbing the use of the “exhilarating cordial.” He acknowledged the “reverses and unsatisfactory results” which marked his trading activities in this district, but pointed to adverse circumstances and the company’s conservation policies to explain low fur returns. He retained the confidence of Governor George Simpson and in 1826, with the administrative reforms that brought all of the HBC’s North American activity under Simpson’s control, his talents as a desk officer were recognized by a posting to Montreal.
As superintendent of the Montreal department, Keith ran the HBC office at Lachine, Lower Canada, from early 1827 to September 1835, and, after a furlough spent touring Great Britain and the Continent, from April 1837 to his retirement in September 1843. The business of the department consisted of the often unprofitable trade of the Ottawa valley and the king’s posts, the hiring of winterers for the northwest, and a more remote supervision of the fur trade and fisheries of the lower St Lawrence and Labrador. Keith helped negotiate HBC leases of the king’s posts in 1830–31 and 1841–42, and shared important aspects of his Lachine duties, including government correspondence, with Governor Simpson. His most demanding and rewarding work, however, was his semi-official handling of family business and private investments for fellow officers isolated inland.
Keith returned to Scotland in 1843, and his resignation from the HBC became effective 31 May 1845. On 8 July 1845 he married his second cousin Susan Angus, and they lived in Aberdeen until his death in 1851. His estate was valued at £15,000, securely invested in shares and debentures of English, Canadian, and Scottish public and private corporations, and was divided among his Scottish relatives and North American descendants.
Bureaucratic diligence and rigid integrity underlay Keith’s success in the fur trade. Contemporaries stressed his intelligence, education, and at times stiff formality. Simpson’s 1832 “Character book” described him as “a scrupulously correct honourable man of a serious turn of mind, who would not to save life or fortune, do what he considered an improper thing”; somewhat more colourfully, Keith’s 1829–30 assistant at Lachine, Thomas Simpson, spoke of him as “a dried spider.” Keith knew his limitations; contemplating retirement after a quarrel with the governor in 1834, he confessed that “I have been a martyr to low spirits and certain nervous affections during the greater part of my residence in the Indian Country, which have made me always appear and often feel very awkward and uncouth.” This was a little harsh. His acerbic manner was balanced by his discretion, his invaluable service to colleagues while handling “private cash” accounts at Lachine, and his lifelong generosity to Scottish relatives and to the children and grandchildren of his brief country marriage. Keith belongs to that class of men who are remembered not for striking or colourful achievements, but for long and competent service in responsible though unspectacular positions.
Aberdeen Univ. Library (Aberdeen, Scot.), Davidson and Garden mss, James Keith’s estate trust papers. AUM, P 58. Can., Parks Canada, National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch (Ottawa), Nicholas Garry journal, 1821. GRO (Edinburgh), Auchterless, Reg. of births and baptisms, 20 March 1782. PAC, MG 19, A7; A41 (mfm.); B1; C1. PAM, HBCA, A.11/28: ff.18–171; A.36/8: ff.36–61d; B.134/b/1–9; B.198/e/6. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming). Alexander Ross, The fur hunters of the far west; a narrative of adventures in the Oregon and Rocky mountains (2v., London, 1855), 1. Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. H. H. Bancroft [and H. L. Oak], History of the northwest coast (2v., San Francisco, 1884), 2.