NELSON, GEORGE, fur trader and author; b. 4 June 1786, probably in Montreal, eldest child of William Nelson* and Jane Dies; d. 13 July 1859 in Sorel, Lower Canada.
George Nelson’s boyhood was spent initially in Montreal and then in William Henry (Sorel), where his father was a prominent schoolmaster. In 1802, when not quite 16, Nelson was apprenticed as a clerk for five years at £15 per year to the firm of Parker, Gerrard, and Ogilvy, which was associated with the New North West Company (sometimes known as the XY Company). His reminiscences of his first two seasons, spent in northwestern Michigan Territory (Wisconsin), reveal not only the anxiety and homesickness of a real greenhorn but also an early propensity for close observation of the Indians and their customs. During the fall of his second season, Nelson took his first Indian wife, the daughter of his guide, the Commis. This union was short-lived, however, because marriage according to the custom of the country was forbidden by the XY Company, and Nelson was forced to give up his wife when he came out to Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.).
In 1804, after being posted to Lake Winnipeg (Man.), Nelson became a clerk in the North West Company, the XY Company having been absorbed into the NWC. For the next nine years he served at various posts around Lake Winnipeg, principally on the Dauphin River (1807–11) and at Tête au Brochet (1811–13). In September 1807 he was seriously burned when a keg of gunpowder exploded while the brigade was encamped. His survival, apparently without much disfigurement, was credited to the application of native remedies: immediate submersion in the lake, a purgative recommended by the Ojibwa leader, Ayagon, and the treatment of his burns with swamp tea and larch-pine salve.
In the summer of 1808 at Bas-de-la-Rivière (Fort Alexander) Nelson married according to the custom of the country Mary Ann, an Ojibwa of the loon clan; this union was later formalized on 16 Jan. 1825 in Christ Church, William Henry. His new wife, who was related to the Ojibwa wife of NWC partner Duncan Cameron*, proved a valuable helpmate, especially after Nelson was given charge of a small outpost on Manitonamingan Lake (near Long Lake) in the Pic department, north of Lake Superior. By 1813 the competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company had become severe, and Nelson’s surviving journals present a fascinating picture of intrigue and harassment on the part of both companies and of the defection of some employees. Lamenting that “deep villiany is not the least essential part of a trader’s attributes here,” he himself had little stomach for the fight and in the summer of 1816 he took his wife and four daughters to William Henry. He had hoped to retire but financial need forced him to return to the NWC’s service two years later. He was given charge of his old post Tête au Brochet in 1819 and was transferred the next season to the post at Moose Lake (Man.) in the Cumberland House department.
By 1820 Nelson, still an underpaid clerk, wrote to his superiors pressing his right to promotion. The partners had little time for his claims, however, since they were preoccupied with the pending coalition with the HBC. Nelson did not hear that the arch-rivals had been united until June 1821. In a journal written in code, he freely gave vent to his anger at the way in which “old & faithful” servants such as himself had been betrayed; it galled him that the English company, with its muddled operations, should now have the upper hand. “Surely some secret power must aid & assist them otherwise how could they stand . . . out so long against us.” In the fall of 1821 Nelson was placed in charge of distributing dry goods at Cumberland House (Sask.), but the next year he was given charge of Fort Lac la Ronge (La Ronge) in the Cumberland House department. There he penned his detailed and sympathetic record of Cree and Ojibwa legends, one of the finest early ethnographic documents of its kind. But although he was a “Good Clerk and Trader,” the union had made him redundant, and he was forced to quit the HBC service in 1823.
Nelson’s subsequent life in Lower Canada was marred by family tragedy and blighted hopes. In his absence, three of his eight children, one an infant whom he had never seen, had died. By 1831 his wife was dead, as were four other children. Nelson also became estranged from his brothers, especially Wolfred*, a leader of the rebellion of 1837. In his own account of the rebellion, George emphasizes that, in spite of their grievances, his brothers Wolfred and Robert* were not justified in resorting to treason against the British crown. Nelson had returned to the vicinity of William Henry and during the period 1825–36 he engaged in several business ventures, but all were failures. Ultimately he found solace in writing reminiscences of his days in the Indian country, which he worked on sporadically between 1836 and 1851. It was his intention “to inform” as well as “to charm,” and one of his main purposes was to record his impressions of Indian society. His observations contain much philosophizing on the shortcomings of “civilization,” which he contrasts unfavourably with the simplicity and egalitarianism of Indian life. Plagued by ill health through the 1850s, Nelson died in 1859, survived by one unmarried daughter, Jane.
Although George Nelson enjoyed little success as a fur trader, his writings, which consist of journals, letters, and reminiscences, make an outstanding contribution to the record of fur-trade life.
ANQ-M, CE3-1, 16 janv. 1825, 15 juill. 1859. AO, MU 842, George Nelson, Tête au Brochet diary. MTL, George Nelson journals. PAC, MG 19, E1, 22: 8638–40. Jennifer Brown, “Man in his natural state: the Indian worlds of George Nelson,” and Sylvia Van Kirk, “George Nelson’s ‘wretched’ career, 1802–1823,” in Rendezvous: selected papers of the Fourth North American Fur Trade Conference, 1981, ed. Thomas Buckley (St Paul, 1984), 199–206 and 207–14 respectively.