NORTON, RICHARD, overseas governor of the HBC; b.1701; m. c. 1730 to Elizabeth McCliesh; d. October or November 1741. In his will, dated 17 Jan. 1734, Norton described himself as of Limehouse (now part of London), England, and gave his mother’s name as Sarah.
Apprenticed to the HBC for seven years, Richard Norton arrived at York Fort (Fort Bourbon; now York Factory, Man.) in September 1714 and must have witnessed its restoration to the English by the French governor, Nicolas Jérémie*. Norton was with the advance party that left York in June 1717 for Churchill River, where governor James Knight* intended to establish a new post for trading with the distant Chipewyan or Northern Indians. A party of these Indians had already arrived to trade however and had turned homewards disappointed. Norton, an active, hardy lad, who much preferred outdoor life and Indian company to the study of writing and accounts, was sent after them on 18 July with orders to go, if necessary, “into thare own Country.” Travelling with a Northern man and woman, he went north along the coast by canoe before going inland on foot. He caught up with about 12 or more of the tribe (including one who was later rewarded for caring for “the Boy Norton . . . when he was froze”), and they arrived back at Churchill during the winter of 1717–18 in a starving condition. Exactly where and how far he had travelled remains unknown. William Coats, who later questioned him about the journey, recorded during the 1740s that “I did not find anything remained on his memory, but the danger and terrour he underwent.” In 1749, eight years after Norton’s death, it was claimed that he had reached the Coppermine River, but the limited time he was absent from Churchill makes the assertion impossible. Arthur Dobbs’ account of the journey, published in 1744, is nearer the truth in relating that Norton went north no farther than latitude 60°, and then struck inland to the southwest.
Norton served at Churchill under Richard Staunton (1718–22) and Nathaniel Bishop* (1722–23). His knowledge of the Northern Indian language was put to use in the fall of 1718 when Staunton sent him to Seal River, north of Churchill, to keep the peace between local Chipewyans and a hunting-party of Crees from Hayes River. In the spring of 1721 Norton made a trip inland, and later that year he and a Chipewyan accompanied Henry Kelsey* on a voyage to the north, their object being to find the source of the copper seen in the possession of the more distant Northern Indians who traded at Churchill. Norton went on a similar voyage with John Scroggs* the following year. Both voyages were unsuccessful, and evidence was found that Knight’s ships, which had sailed from London in 1719 in search of copper and gold, had been wrecked.
When Bishop died in June 1723 Norton and Thomas Bird*, acting under instructions from Thomas McCliesh at York, took joint charge at Churchill. Later that year, on learning that the HBC had intended Norton to be chief trader under Bishop, McCliesh appointed him to the command of Fort Prince of Wales, the name given to the post on Churchill River in 1719. As a trader Norton was unsuccessful. He was unwilling to relinquish old, and less profitable, terms of barter previously used at Churchill, thereby causing McCliesh to write to London in 1725, “I wish that Mr Norton had more discretion in him in the management of your affairs.” As the profits from Churchill remained unsatisfactory the HBC transferred Norton in 1727 to York where, as “second” to McCliesh, he could learn more about trading methods and accounts. In the following year he applied for reinstatement at Churchill, but his request was refused because Anthony Beale* was successfully putting affairs there into a better condition. So Norton remained at York, where he “behaved himself with honesty and fidelity” until he sailed for England in 1730. There he married McCliesh’s daughter Elizabeth.
Norton returned to Hudson Bay in 1731 as chief factor and commander at Fort Prince of Wales, which was now independent “of the Governour of any other Factory.” Thomas Bird, acting chief there following Beale’s death earlier in the year, became Norton’s deputy. Immediately on arrival Norton began preparatory work at Eskimo Point (about six miles below the existing wooden fort), where he had been ordered to build a stone fort “both for the advantage of the Compies. Trade as well as Defence” in the event of a war with France. Although the construction of this stone fort (originally designed by Captain Christopher Middleton and later modified by Captain George Spurrell) occupied much of Norton’s attention, the work was unfinished at the end of his career, and a great deal had to be rebuilt in the following decade. Norton, as the London committee knew, was without experience of such specialized work; nevertheless his unbounded self-confidence and eagerness to please his employers led him to reject the advice of the knowledgeable but arrogant stonemason Joseph Robson, and to use unsuitable materials as a means of expediting the building. Yet Norton’s letters reporting the progress of operations show that during the season when outdoor work was possible there were never enough labourers or animals to assist the masons; and some of the latter, according to Robson, were without skill in, or experience of, the type of construction required of them.
By 1739 the London committee members had become critical of Norton’s behaviour towards themselves and of his management of their affairs. In particular he was reprimanded for disregarding their orders and for flatly refusing to disclose his method of obtaining the “overplus,” or profit, on the furs and other produce he traded. He angrily requested return home in 1740. The committee, obviously using his own expressions, replied, “We do assure you we had not no thoughts of Embracing the Service of Birds raired to pluck out your eyes, or of depriving you of your dependence by Employing those at Considerable less Wages who thought they were Equally Capable of Serving the Company,” but reminded him that he would suffer financially if he broke his contract. So he remained at Churchill until 1741 when he was succeeded by James Isham. Norton, now a sick man, arrived in the Thames early in October and died before 9 November, when his will was proved. A halfbreed son Moses* later commanded at Churchill.
[Norton’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. Brief extracts from correspondence between the governor and committee and Norton are printed in G.B., Parl., Report from the committee on Hudson’s Bay, 271–72. For background information see Rich, History of the HBC, I.
The only contemporary references to Norton’s journey of 1717 are in [James Knight], The founding of Churchill . . . , ed. J. F. Kenney (London, 1932), and in the Churchill account book for trading season 1717–18, HBC Arch. B.42/d/1, f.2d. Arthur Dobbs’ account of the journey is in his Remarks upon Middleton’s defence, 25.
Norton’s part in the 1721 voyage to the north of Churchill is briefly referred to by Henry Kelsey in The Kelsey papers, ed. A. G. Doughty and Chester Martin (Ottawa, 1929), 116. The Churchill journal entry for 19 June 1722 (HBC Arch. B.42/a/2) states that Norton accompanied Scroggs on the 1722 voyage northwards. For background information on these and later voyages northwards of Churchill, see Williams, British search for the northwest passage.
Norton’s “plan of The Work That was Done att The New Fort on Askimay Point att Churchill River . . .” dated 18 Aug. 1735 is in HBC Arch. G.1/88. As Norton was in England in 1735 and 1736 and had retired in 1741, all mentions of “the governor” in Joseph Robson’s An account of six years residence in Hudson’s-Bay, from 1733 to 1736, and 1744 to 1747 . . . (London, 1752) should not be taken as references to Norton.
Norton’s will dated 17 Jan. 1734 and proved 9 Nov. 1741 is in PRO, Prob. 11/713, f.314. Moses Norton’s will is in Prob. 11/994, f.374. a.m.j.]