SIVERIGHT, JOHN, fur trader; b. 2 Dec. 1779 in Drumdelgy, parish of Cairnie, Scotland, son of John Siveright, farmer, and Jannet Glass; d. 4 Sept. 1856 in Edinburgh.
John Siveright entered the fur trade in April 1799 as an apprentice clerk with the Montreal-based Forsyth, Richardson and Company, one of the firms in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), on a seven-year contract for service in the northwest. When the New North West Company merged into the North West Company in 1804 he stayed on. In 1806 he was posted as clerk to the Monontagué department, near Lake Nipigon (Ont.), under John Haldane. In 1815, when he was at Portage la Prairie (Man.), the Hudson’s Bay Company considered him party to the NWC conspiracy to destroy the Red River settlement (Man.). He was with Duncan Cameron* at the NWC’s Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg) on 17 March 1816 when the latter was taken prisoner by Colin Robertson* of the HBC, and he was still in the colony at the outbreak of violence in June that culminated in the killing of Governor Robert Semple* and about 20 settlers at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg). As a result of these events Siveright was one of those, including Allan McDonell, charged as an accessory in the murder of Semple, for which Cuthbert Grant and other Métis were to be tried. His friendship with Grant, later eroded by time and distance, was regarded as suspicious in itself. But, in the trials at York (Toronto) in October 1818, it was apparent that his involvement was peripheral at most, and the charges against him were not upheld after the acquittal of the principals. Siveright had apparently killed a man early in his career. Although no details have been found concerning this incident, HBC governor George Simpson noted in 1832, “1 believe he was more influenced by personal fear and want of Nerve than any worse feeling.”
From 1816 to 1823 Siveright served at Sault Ste Marie, Upper Canada, employed as a clerk by the NWC until 1821 and then, after the coalition, by the HBC. James Hargrave* was stationed there during the 1820–21 season and a friendship that lasted the length of Siveright’s career was quickly forged between the two men. In 1823 he was transferred, to his regret, from Sault Ste Marie to take charge of the Fort Coulonge district, at Fort Coulonge, Lower Canada, on the upper Ottawa River.
From the early 1820s the HBC monopoly in the Ottawa valley was being threatened by the activity of lumbermen and tavern-keepers who conducted a petty trade in furs. At first both Simpson and Chief Trader Angus Cameron* at Fort Timiskaming (near Ville-Marie, Que.) believed Siveright was not strict enough in his application of company rules. But within a few years it became evident that he was at least securing the furs which might well have been diverted to other hands and in 1828 he was promoted chief trader. By 1831 Simpson was able to report to the London committee of the HBC that Cameron and Siveright had driven out the opposition on the Ottawa. Simpson’s conclusion, however, was premature. The lumbering operations of George McConnell and his sons from Hull had penetrated to Lake Timiskaming by 1836, and Cameron suggested that the HBC undertake lumbering of its own on the lake to discourage any further encroachment. When queried by Simpson about this possibility in 1839, both Siveright and Chief Factor James Keith, in charge of the Montreal department at Lachine, were unenthusiastic about the prospects. Simpson none the less went ahead and from 1840 to 1843 Cameron combined lumbering with his fur-trade activities at Timiskaming. In the fall of 1843 Siveright was placed in charge of the Timiskaming district, and until Fort Coulonge was closed in 1844 he combined the direction of both districts. The collapse in the Canadian timber trade, anticipated following the reduction in 1842 of the protective tariff granted colonial wood, did not materialize and, when in 1844 Siveright reported renewed activity on the part of the McConnells and the prospect that Allan Gilmour and Company [see Allan Gilmour*] would also begin operations in the Timiskaming area, Simpson once again thought of moving into the field. Losses from the earlier operations and the arrival of John Egan and other lumbermen finally forced the abandonment of Simpson’s project, and Siveright was directed to meet the competition for furs with superior trading.
He stayed in Timiskaming until 1847, having been promoted chief factor in 1846, and after two years’ furlough he retired from the HBC in 1849. During his more than 20 years’ tenure in the Ottawa valley, Siveright appears to have recognized far sooner than the aggressive Simpson that HBC control over the region would inevitably be weakened by the advance of Canadian business interests, and from Fort Coulonge and Timiskaming he successfully conducted a rearguard action against the competition.
In spite of Simpson’s conclusion in 1832 that the “sickly Deaf & Worn out” Siveright should retire, he had remained in the service a further 17 years. Simpson had at times criticized him for “subterfuge” and “evasion” in the fulfilment of his duties, and, in Simpson’s dismissal of clerks under Siveright’s direction without his having been consulted, as in the case of Roderick McKenzie, son of Chief Factor Roderick McKenzie, in 1845, there is a suggestion that he doubted Siveright’s judgement. Others, such as Keith, had a higher opinion of his abilities, and he served temporarily in the Lachine office as Keith’s replacement in 1835–37. Simpson himself seems to have modified his assessment, and in the 1840s he advised Siveright to defer his retirement in order to secure a chief factorship; indeed, by the time Siveright chose to retire Simpson would have preferred that he remain in the service a little longer. His honesty and attention to duty were thus recognized even by those whom his mannerisms never failed to irritate.
Siveright died of a disease of the kidneys and was buried in Warriston cemetery, Edinburgh. He was survived by several children, including a son and a daughter born of Indian mothers in the Timiskaming district, and a daughter, Josephte, born of a Métis mother at Sault Ste Marie. Josephte married Alexis Goulet of St Boniface (Man.) in 1833 and was the mother of Elzéar* and Maxime Goulet.
PAM, HBCA, A.31/9; B.134/c/4: ff.107–8d, 189; B.134/c/28; B.134/c/35; B.134/c/44: ff.204–5; D.4/1: ff.26–30; D.5/1: f.20d; D.5/14: f.173. Private arch., E. A. Mitchell (Toronto), Æneas and Angus Cameron papers (mfm. at AO). Andrew Amos, Report of trials in the courts of Canada, relative to the destruction of the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement on the Red River; with observations (London, 1820). Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). HBRS, 3 (Fleming). John McLean, John McLean’s notes of a twenty-five year’s service in the Hudson’s Bay territory, ed. W. S. Wallace (Toronto, 1932). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. [S. H. Wilcocke], A narrative of occurrences in the Indian countries of North America . . . (London, 1817; repr., East Ardsley, Eng., and New York, 1968). E. A. Mitchell, Fort Timiskaming and the fur trade (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2. C. C. J. Bond, “The Hudson’s Bay Company in the Ottawa valley,” Beaver, outfit 296 (spring 1966): 4–21.