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SIMPSON, ALEXANDER, fur trader and author; b. 14 Jan. 1811 in Dingwall, Scotland; d. in or after 1845, probably in Scotland.

Alexander Simpson was the son of schoolmaster Alexander Simpson and his second wife, Mary Simpson. The younger generation of the Simpson family were all attracted to the fur trade. Alexander’s brother Thomas served in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northern Department and their half-brother Æmilius* in the company’s marine department. Their cousin George* (son of their mother’s eldest brother) became governor of the company in North America in 1826. When George had visited the family in 1825, Alexander, in his own words, “was so lured by the highly coloured descriptions of adventure to be encountered, and wealth to be won,” that he signed on with the HBC in 1827 and travelled overseas the following year.

His first assignment was as an apprentice clerk in the company’s office at Lachine, Lower Canada, where in 1830 he was put in charge of accounting. George Simpson was pleased with his performance, finding him in 1832 “Well Educated, attentive to business . . . correct in conduct and private character,” and of great potential utility to the company. As a lively young man, however, he frequently clashed with James Keith*, the superintendent at Lachine, and relations reached a breaking-point in 1834 in a dispute which apparently involved Alexander’s having “looked tenderly on one of the Maid Servants.” Keith decided to send him to Moose Factory (Ont.). He did not take kindly to the move, and persuaded Chief Factor John George McTavish to permit him to travel on a special express to Red River (Man.) so he could plead his case with George Simpson. The governor, though somewhat sympathetic to Alexander’s plight, was annoyed at this waste of time and energy, and he ordered him to walk back to Moose “by way of a cooler” and to remain there as an accountant. Accordingly, in March 1835 Alexander returned to Moose, where he kept the books, performed other office duties, and occasionally filled private orders for merchandise wanted by officers and servants. It was hardly the life of adventure he had anticipated.

Finally, after four years, George Simpson assigned him to more lively tasks at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.). The HBC had signed an agreement with the Russian American Company to divide the northwest coastal trade, and the London committee was developing plans to reorganize the company’s Pacific operation. Stores were to be established in California and at the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, and an endeavour called the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company was to produce wool, leather, tallow, and other products for the English and Pacific markets [see William Fraser Tolmie*]. Alexander was to assist Chief Factor John McLoughlin* with various aspects of these plans. In the fall of 1839 Simpson visited the Sandwich Islands to report on the prospects for business there; in 1840 he returned to Fort Vancouver via Monterey (Calif.) and San Francisco, where he purchased sheep for the agricultural company and scouted for information about resources, trade, and prices in California. McLoughlin was so pleased with his work that the young man was sent back to the Sandwich Islands to assist George Pelly in directing the HBC business at Honolulu. Two months after his arrival in January 1841, he was promoted chief trader.

Shortly after reaching the island of Hawaii, Simpson learned of the death of his brother Thomas, who had distinguished himself in Arctic exploration but had also become disliked for his petulant conduct and aversion to mixed-bloods. Alexander sailed to England to assist his bereaved family and to investigate the mysterious circumstances of Thomas’s apparent murder or suicide. Upon returning to Hawaii in 1842, he discovered that Sir George was planning to transfer him to the Northern Department. Still distressed over his brother’s death, Alexander was unwilling to move to a region with such unfortunate personal associations, and he told Sir George that he intended to resign after taking a leave of absence for the 1842–43 outfit. At first the elder Simpson was reluctant to agree to the resignation but Alexander soon became embroiled in an episode which made the governor reconsider.

Alexander was convinced that it would be in Great Britain’s interest to annex the Sandwich Islands, but neither the HBC nor the British government was particularly receptive to the idea because of the potential for international conflict, given American and French interests in the Pacific. The British consul in Hawaii did take up the case and when he decided to go to England in September 1842 to press it, he appointed Simpson “acting consul.” Simpson, by continuing to promote annexation, promptly became the centre of an international dispute which nearly burst into open battle, with British and American warships positioning themselves off Oahu. He finally left the islands in March 1843 after they had been occupied by the British, and the HBC was only too happy to recognize his resignation, effective 1 June.

Back in Scotland, he devoted his time to pressing several causes. In 1843 he published a book arguing the case for British annexation of the Sandwich Islands and edited Thomas’s Narrative of the discoveries on the north coast of America. For two years he corresponded with the London committee, attempting to clear his brother’s name and get a pension paid to his mother in light of Thomas’s service. The life and travels of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic discoverer, which Simpson published in 1845 to gain public sympathy, remains an interesting account of northern exploration. Little is known of Alexander’s later years. He apparently settled in Scotland, married, and died there, possibly in the early 1870s. According to retired fur trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson* in his 1878 manuscript History of the northwest coast,” Simpson had died “a few years ago.”

Kerry Abel

Alexander Simpson is the author of The Sandwich Islands: progress of events since their discovery by Captain Cook; their occupation by Lord George Paulet; their value and importance (London, 1843), The life and travels of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic discoverer . . . (London, 1845; repr. with intro. by John Gellner, Toronto, 1963), and The Oregon territory; claims thereto of England and America considered; its conditions and prospects (London, 1846).

Bancroft Library, Univ. of California (Berkeley), A. C. Anderson, “History of the northwest coast” (typescript at PABC). GRO (Edinburgh), Dingwall, reg. of births and baptisms, 26 Jan. 1811. PAM, HBCA, A.1/56; A.10/17–18; B.135/a/139–43; B.135/c/2; D.5/4–5, 7; Alexander Simpson file. Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). HBRS, 6 (Rich); 19 (Rich and Johnson); 30 (Williams). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Kerry Abel, “SIMPSON, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/simpson_alexander_7E.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_alexander_7E.html
Author of Article:   Kerry Abel
Title of Article:   SIMPSON, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   June 1, 2023