McCLIESH, THOMAS (sometimes written Macklish, Maclish, Mack Leish, and Mack Clish), carpenter, overseas governor of the HBC; described as of Limehouse (now part of London), England, in 1734; fl. 1698–1746.
Nothing is known about Thomas McCliesh’s early life except that he was a carpenter like his uncle, also named Thomas McCliesh and a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee. According to his account in the London grand ledger the younger McCliesh began his career in the HBC in 1698 at Fort Albany (Ont.), which was then the only fort in the possession of the English, York Fort (York Factory, Man.) having been captured by Pierre Le Moyne* d’Iberville the preceding year. McCliesh served under governors James Knight* (1698–1700), John Fullartine* (1700–5), and Anthony Beale* (1705–7), working ashore and afloat. His “Extroardinary Service in Traveling to Gilpins Island [off the East Main] and back” early in the winter of 1702–3 to obtain news of the delayed supply-ship from London was rewarded by a gratuity of £10 about six months before he returned to England in the autumn of 1707.
By January 1708 McCliesh had agreed to go back to James Bay. Until sailing time in June he was employed aboard the Hudson’s Bay [II] and, because England was at war with France and Spain, protection against his possible impressment into the navy was obtained from the admiralty. Once at the bay he probably wintered with Henry Kelsey* off the East Main (the eastern coast of Hudson and James bays) in 1708–9. He served again under governors Fullartine (1708–11) and Beale (1711–14). When Kelsey began a short spell as governor in August 1711 McCliesh became master of the Eastmain sloop, and in 1712 Beale persuaded him “to continue one year as master of the sloop and trader to the East Main.” The next year (as in 1710 when his contract was first extended) no ships sailed from Albany, and he was unable to return to England until 1714.
McCliesh was re-engaged in the spring of 1715. After superintending the building of the Hudson’s Bay [III] he sailed in the Port Nelson (Capt. James Belcher) to Albany, where he succeeded Richard Staunton as chief factor. McCliesh was subordinate to governors-in-chief Knight (1715–18) and Kelsey (1718–21); their headquarters, except during 1717–18, were at York, which had been returned to the HBC by the French in 1714. McCliesh succeeded Kelsey as deputy governor in 1718, but was still stationed at Albany. His surviving reports to London during this third phase of his career indicate his chief concerns at Albany. The trade at that post was threatened by increased French competition in its hinterland. Zacharie Robutel* de La Noue had re-established a post at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in 1717, and in 1719 one was built near the mouth of the Nipigon River. Albany also suffered from Knight’s attempt to rehabilitate business at York by ordering that all “northward Indians and Christeens [Crees]” who had been coming to trade at Albany while York was in French hands should now deal at the more northerly post. As one means of offsetting these liabilities McCliesh tried to keep annual contact with the Indians of the East Main, who hunted the most valuable “small furs.” All his tasks were made more difficult by the indiscipline that had developed among the company’s servants during the war when labour was scarce. By the time McCliesh returned to England in 1721, the factory at Albany had been almost rebuilt and a permanent post established on Eastmain River.
In 1722 McCliesh succeeded Kelsey as governor-in-chief. He spent one trading season at York, which stood on “bogs worse than the bogs of Allen,” and where he lived “in a Scotch or Irish hut in comparison of new Fort Albany”; he was, however, “mighty well satisfied in all respects” because he commanded “a place of greater profit.” But he maintained that the subordinate post of Churchill (Man.), built to attract the distant Northern or Chipewyan Indians, gained its fur trade at the expense of York. He returned to England in 1726, leaving Anthony Beale in charge. After superintending the building of the Mary [II], of which his son-in-law William Coats was given command, McCliesh again sailed for Hudson Bay in 1727. The Mary was wrecked off Cape Farewell, Greenland, and crew and passengers reached Churchill and York in the Hannah (Capt. Christopher Middleton). McCliesh resumed his command at York, but in 1731 Churchill was made independent under another son-in-law Richard Norton. By 1734, when McCliesh returned to England, business at York was declining because of stiff rivalry from the posts established by the La Vérendrye family on the route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, and from the activities of coureurs de bois trading among the Indians. McCliesh had tried to meet this competition by requesting better quality trading goods from London and adequate supplies of “that cursed bewitching weed,” Brazil tobacco, but the French saved the Indians great inconvenience by taking goods inland and threatened force if necessary to wrest the trade from the English.
McCliesh was re-engaged in 1735 as “Governor in Hudson Bay” and sailed to Albany, where he was to have succeeded chief factor Joseph Adams* and to have supervised the business of Moose Fort (Moose Factory, Ont.), but severe illness made it necessary for him to return home. The following year he went out again, but once more ill-health obliged him to leave. Although he was again re-engaged in 1737 his contract was cancelled before the ships sailed. Some time later he left Limehouse, where his wife Mary and their numerous children had lived during his absence in Hudson Bay, and in 1746 he was living in “low Circumstances” at Woodbridge, Suffolk.
The course of McCliesh’s career in Hudson Bay was not altogether unusual during the early 18th century. Many HBC tradesmen, of course, remained just that, but McCliesh demonstrated his skills as a carpenter and seaman and because of his energy, reliability, and shrewdness earned promotion. His final qualification for command at Albany came with his initiation by Kelsey into the methods of trading with the Indians. So began his rise in the company.
[McCliesh’s surviving letters to the London governor and committee are printed in HBRS, XXV (Davies and Johnson), which also lists the pertinent sources in the HBC Archives. For background information, see Rich, History of the HBC, I. a.m.j.]