KITTSON, WILLIAM, militia officer and fur trader; b. c. 1792 in Lower Canada; d. 25 Dec. 1841 at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.).
William Kittson was the adopted son of George Kittson of William Henry (Sorel), Lower Canada. He served during the War of 1812 with the Voltigeurs Canadiens, becoming a second lieutenant in February 1815 and going on half pay in July. In 1817 he joined the North West Company as an apprentice clerk and was sent to the Columbia department. Two years later he was at Fort Nez Percés (Walla Walla, Wash.) with Alexander Ross*, who later related how Kittson had received his initiation into the country when he was sent with supplies for the trapping expedition of Donald McKenzie* in the Snake River country. Kittson was over-confident and trusting as to the ways of the natives; as a result, all of the party’s horses were stolen and Kittson and his companions had to complete their journey on foot. They wintered with the expedition at Day’s Defile (Little Lost River, Idaho) in 1819–20. From 1820 to 1821 he was at Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.) and, following the amalgamation of the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 [see Simon McGillivray], he was retained by the HBC.
In 1824–25 Kittson was second in command of the Snake country expedition under Peter Skene Ogden*. Kittson’s journal from 20 Dec. 1824 to 26 Aug. 1825 and his map of the area both help to verify the travels of the Ogden party. He proved equal to the demands of the expedition and his previous experience with the NWC stood him in good stead. Ogden had trouble with his men, most of whom were freemen and proved unreliable, but Kittson supported him in his dealings with them and with the American traders they met. Kittson would “face anything in the shape of danger,” Governor George Simpson* noted in 1825. As well, he spoke Kootenay and other Indian languages and had become a good man of business.
From 1826 to 1829 he was in charge of Kootenae House near Windermere Lake (B.C.) and in 1830–31 he was at Flathead Post (Mont.). In 1831 he returned to Kootenae House, remaining in charge there for three years. He appears to have discharged these assignments well, drawing a favourable description from Simpson in his “Character book” of 1832: “A sharp, dapper, short tempered, self sufficient petulant little fellow of very limited Education, but exceedingly active and ambitious to signalize himself. . . . Conducts the business of his Post very well.”
In 1834 Kittson was entrusted with the management of trade, farming, and stock raising at Fort Nisqually (near Tacoma, Wash.). The fur returns there had been declining, a circumstance which Kittson ascribed to disease among the Indians. Under his adept management, returns began to improve and the farming operation was successful, though the soil was not entirely suitable for the cultivation of crops. In 1839 Kittson treated a small field with manure and took off 250 bushels of wheat as a result. He remained in charge until October 1840, when he was obliged to go to Fort Vancouver on account of ill health which had plagued him since the previous spring. He declined steadily and died on 25 Dec. 1841. Kittson had had a country wife, a Walla Walla woman. He later married Helen, the daughter of Finan McDonald, another fur trader, and they had three sons and one daughter, who were named as beneficiaries in his will.
The account William Kittson wrote of the Snake country expedition has been published as “William Kittson’s journal covering Peter Skene Ogden’s 1824–1825 Snake country expedition,” ed. D. E. Miller, Utah Hist. Quarterly (Salt Lake City), 22 (1954): 125–42.
HBRS, 3 (Fleming); 4 (Rich); 13 (Rich and Johnson); 28 (Williams). Alexander Ross, The fur traders of the far west, ed. K. A. Spaulding (Norman, Okla., 1956). Select British docs. of War of 1812 (Wood), 2: 372. George Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams); Fur trade and empire: George Simpson’s journal . . . 1824–25, ed. and intro. Frederick Merk (rev. ed., Cambridge, Mass., 1968). Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving), 107, 109. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Rich, Hist. of HBC (1960), vo1.3. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”.