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SIMPSON, ÆMILIUS, hydrographer, surveyor, fur trader, and ship’s captain; b. 27 July 1792 in Dingwall, Scotland, son of Alexander Simpson and Emilia MacIntosh; d. unmarried 2 Sept. 1831 in Fort Simpson, on the Nass River (B.C.).

Son of the Dingwall parish schoolmaster and a farmer’s daughter who died soon after his birth, Æmilius Simpson was both a schoolfellow and a family connection of George Simpson*, whose aunt Mary Simpson was to become Æmilius’s stepmother in 1807. Æmilius entered the Royal Navy on 13 April 1806 as a volunteer first class and served throughout the Napoleonic Wars, receiving his lieutenant’s commission on 2 March 1815. Post-war retrenchment cut short his career; on 5 Dec. 1816 he was placed on hall pay and went back to Dingwall, where for ten years he chafed under “the exclusion . . . from active employment in the service . . . he idolized.” His young stepbrother, Alexander Simpson*, remembered him as “naturally irascible” but “a man of warm affections.” He formed a connection with Margaret McLennan, and in 1821 they had a son, baptized Horatio Nelson, the sole beneficiary named in his will.

Early in 1826 George Simpson, now governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories in North America, offered Æmilius a post as hydrographer and surveyor. The Admiralty granted Æmilius a three years’ leave of absence and the appointment was made on 1 March 1826. Four days later the two Simpsons sailed from Liverpool for New York, continuing from there via Montreal to Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Æmilius’s first assignment was to check the boundary, the 49th parallel, at Pembina (N.Dak.), in order to prevent HBC fur traders from encroaching on American territory. He confirmed the survey made in 1823 by Major Stephen Harriman Long for the American Department of War.

On 25 June 1826 Æmilius was appointed hydrographer and clerk in the Columbia district. His specific task was to take command of the vessel being sent out from England to carry on the coastal trade which the governor had determined to develop. Leaving York Factory (Man.) with the autumn brigade on 14 July 1826, he made a detailed survey of his route and reached Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) on 2 November. He then supervised work on two vessels already under construction on the Columbia River and charted the river from Cape Disappointment to Fort Vancouver. On 8 June 1827 he assumed command of the newly arrived Cadboro; in the course of supplying transportation and protection for the land party that established Fort Langley (B.C.) in the summer of 1827 [see James McMillan*] he made the first hydrographic chart of the lower Fraser River.

For several years Simpson traded along the coast from Sitka (Alaska) to Monterey, Calif., and in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. In October 1829 he was appointed superintendent of the marine department of the HBC, occupying what Governor Simpson later called “the most dangerous post in the Service.” In August 1830 he selected the site for a fort on the Nass River, “the grand mart of the Coast both for Sea Otters and Land Skins” – a hazardous enterprise which the governor thought “necessary for the Salvation of our interior Trade in the event of our being excluded from the Columbia.” Promoted chief trader and given command of the Dryad, Simpson spent the summer of 1831 helping chief trader Peter Skene Ogden* to establish the fort on the Nass. He then went farther north on a “very successful” trading cruise; illness forced his return to the fort, named after him, and on 2 Sept. 1831 he died of “his old enemy, the liver complaint.” He was buried outside the stockade, but when in 1834 the establishment was moved to a more convenient site (present-day Port Simpson, B.C.), his remains were reinterred there.

During his four-year sojourn on the Pacific coast Simpson had not been “over popular” in the HBC service: he owed his appointments directly to the governor, he did his best to maintain in a frontier setting the “tight discipline” of a British man-of-war, and in contrast with other HBC captains he appeared “excessively the gentleman.” His courage and his efficiency as a seaman and fur trader were never questioned. Governor Simpson had always had “a very great respect for his character & high opinion of his worth” and privately called him “as good a little fellow as ever breathed, honourable, above board and to the point. He may be a disciplinarian but it was very necessary among the Vagabonds he had to deal with. The Drunken wretched creature [Thomas] Sinclair [first mate of the Cadboro] could afford him no support, he was therefore under the necessity of doing all the dirty work of cuffing & thunking himself.”

A well-established local tradition, substantially confirmed by contemporary evidence, maintains that the cultivation of apples and grapes in the Columbia River valley originated with this Scottish exile from the Royal Navy, who won chief factor John McLoughlin*’s “Respect and Esteem” by his “Gentlemanlike conduct and zealous discharge of his duty.”

Dorothy Blakey Smith

General Reg. Office (Edinburgh), Dingwall, reg. of births and baptisms, 22 Oct. 1821. PABC, AB20, L2. PAM, HBCA, A.36/12: ff.35, 35d. PRO, ADM 1/3155: 24; ADM 9/174/5056. HBRS, 3 (Fleming); HBRS, 4 (Rich). Alexander Simpson, The life and travels of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic discoverer (London, 1845). George Simpson, “The ‘Character book’ of Governor George Simpson, 1832,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. Walbran, B.C. coast names. G. P. V. and H. B. Akrigg, British Columbia chronicle, 1778–1846: adventures by sea and land (Vancouver, 1975). H. H. Bancroft, History of British Columbia, 1792–1887 (San Francisco, 1887). J. A. Hussey, The history of Fort Vancouver and its physical structure (Tacoma, Wash., 1957). Wash. Hist. Quarterly (Seattle), 1 (1906): 265; 2 (1907): 42–43.

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Cite This Article

Dorothy Blakey Smith, “SIMPSON, ÆMILIUS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/simpson_aemilius_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/simpson_aemilius_6E.html
Author of Article:   Dorothy Blakey Smith
Title of Article:   SIMPSON, ÆMILIUS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   April 16, 2024