LEITH, JAMES, fur trader; b. 1777 in Glenkindie, Scotland, and baptized 3 August in the parish of Strathdon, son of Alexander Leith and Mary Elizabeth Gordon; d. 19 June 1838 in Torquay, England.
James Leith’s family was wealthy and well connected. James probably came to Lower Canada in 1794 in company with George Leith, a Detroit merchant who was involved in 1798 in the formation of the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). By 1 Dec. 1799 James was one of its wintering partners, and by 1801 he was on the Peace River (Alta/B.C.). He remained a partner after the firm’s merger with the North West Company in 1804.
Leith spent much of his NWC career east of Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), wintering at “Folle Avoine” (1806–7), Michipicoten (1807–10), and Monontagué and Lake Nipigon (1812–15). West of Lake Superior, he spent one winter at Red River (1811–12) and three at Rainy Lake (1810–11 and 1815–17). Leith and John Haldane* split the NWC’s council in 1815 by their hostility toward the company’s Montreal agents. The following year Leith became embroiled in the troubles between Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and the NWC. He was one of the 11 partners who accompanied former partner Archibald Norman McLeod to Red River to retaliate for Colin Robertson’s seizure of Nor’wester Duncan Cameron, and to distribute presents to the Métis who had taken part in the killing of HBC territorial governor Robert Semple* and others at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg). In 1817 Leith was again sent to Red River to help the special commissioners William Bacheler Coltman* and John Fletcher reconcile the factions there as the Colonial Office had demanded.
In October 1818 Leith was in York (Toronto) for the trials of two participants in the Seven Oaks incident [see Douglas], and in the autumn of 1819 he assisted McLeod’s efforts in Lower Canada to secure speedy trials of various Nor’Westers or the dismissal of charges being pressed by Selkirk against them. Leith himself was named in some indictments, but he was one of the least belligerent partners. The NWC’s council chose him in 1820 to take charge of the Athabasca River department; he made his headquarters on the Peace River, which then enjoyed an unusually quiet winter.
Leith benefited from the merger of the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, becoming a chief factor. His non-partisanship in the struggle with the HBC had annoyed some NWC colleagues without earning him friends in the opposite camp. But Colin Robertson, speaking in 1822 of Leith’s resistance to “undue influence,” now summed him up well: “This gentleman, though not possessed of bright parts, has strong natural acquirements, good sound sense, and highly honourable principles.” He returned to the Athabasca country for one season (1821–22). The rest of his career, to 1829, was passed in charge of Cumberland House district (Sask.), where he had few important duties except to assist the transports of other districts in summer.
Granted furlough in 1829 and 1830, he sailed for London on 15 Sept. 1829 and retired officially on 31 May 1831. The previous year he had transferred Colquoich, the thousand-acre estate which had been settled on him, to his elder brother, Sir Alexander Leith. James took lodgings at Torquay, but kept in touch with former fur-trade colleagues, including Chief Factor John Stuart. The two toured the Continent together in 1836–37.
An aloof and colourless individual, Leith did nothing remarkable during his lifetime, but he is remembered for a charity set up after his death. He left half of his estate in trust for “establishing propagating and extending the Christian protestant Religion in, & amongst the native aboriginal Indians in . . . the Hudson’s Bay Territory.” His interest in religion and the Indians is on record from the early 1820s. He canvassed for the Rupert’s Land Bible Society, and his views in 1823 on the Indians of the Cumberland House district were enlightened for the time: “Their ideas on many points of what the civilized world terms honourable conduct will not bear to be strictly examined into, entirely from circumstances and their situation in life and not to defaults in the gifts of nature.” No reliable source has been found for a tradition that Leith, who may have married according to the custom of the country, established the trust because Indians had killed his wife and children at The Pas (Man.). Some such event may have occurred before 1805, but a tale told to John Henry Lefroy* in 1843 at The Pas, evidently by Henry Budd*, is the source of all published accounts of Leith’s “noble revenge.”
Leith’s trust was to be administered by his brother William Hay and, ex officio, the Anglican dean of Westminster, the bishop of London, and the governor and deputy governor of the HBC. Two trustees declined to act; this refusal and family protests threw the estate into the Court of Chancery. About £15,000 was released in 1848 to endow the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land [see David Anderson*] and a year later the HBC pledged an annual grant of £300 to launch the charity properly. Appropriately, a portrait of Leith hangs at Bishopscourt in Winnipeg.
PAC, MG 19, A35, 7, pt.iv: 31–41; E1, ser.l: 2761–62, 3962–64, 3984–85; E2, item 95, Ready to McLeod and Leith, 5 Oct. 1819; MG 24, A2: 913–17; L3: 25629–43; RG 4, B46: 1442–46, 1458–68. PAM, HBCA, A.36/8: ff.225–28 (copy); A.38/27–30; B.39/e/4; B.49/a/42–44; B.49/e/3; C.1/916. UTFL,