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STUART (Stewart), WILLIAM, HBC trader and explorer; b. c. 1678; d. 25 Oct. 1719.

William Stuart first went to Hudson Bay as a youth in 1691, serving as an apprentice of the Hudson’s Bay Company at York Fort and then at Albany. His term of apprenticeship ended in 1699, and he remained in the bay as a normal wage-earning servant of the company until his return to England in 1708. Stuart rejoined the company’s service in l 714, and sailed that year to York [Fort Bourbon] with Governor James Knight, who in September received the formal surrender of the post from the French under Nicolas Jérémie.

Thus far, Stuart’s career had been uneventful, but at York he soon found himself involved in Knight’s grandiose plans for an expansion of the fur-trade to the northwest. An essential preliminary was the making of peace between the Crees (the Home Indians, as they were called in the company journals) who lived along the shores of Hudson Bay from the Eastmain River to York Fort, and the Chipewyan or Northern Indians, just out of range of regular European contact in their country northwest of Churchill River. The Chipewyans lack of firearms made them easy prey for the Crees, who were equipped with muskets and ammunition by the company’s factors; the bloody defeats they had suffered at Cree hands made them wary of approaching the area of the English trading posts on the bay shores. Knight was determined to stop this destructive warfare, and by June 1715 he had persuaded about 150 Home Indians, accompanied by a Chipewyan captive, Thanadelthur, the Slave Woman, and by William Stuart, to head towards Northern Indian territory on a peace mission. Stuart’s knowledge of the Cree language made him an obvious choice, though later references by Knight to the inducements Stuart wanted before leaving make it unlikely that he volunteered for this hazardous venture.

Laden with trading goods, the peace party left York on 27 June 1715. Stuart took with him written instructions from Knight; he was to assist the Home Indians in their efforts to make peace, protect the Slave Woman, and if possible bring some Northern Indians back to York. Using the Slave Woman as his interpreter, he was to tell the Northern, Indians that the company intended to build a post at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1716, and that they should keep watch along the coast there for a company ship. Stuart was to look for a wide variety of furs among the Northern Indians, but “above all,” Knight told him, “you are to make a Strict Enquiry abt. there Mineralls . . . if you find any Mineralls amongst them You must seem Indifferent not letting them know nor the Indians as goes with You as it is of any Value but to bring back some of Every Sort you see.” Knight was anxious for information about copper deposits, but his real quest was for the “yellow mettle” or gold, which he was convinced existed in large quantities in the interior. On the ship out to York, Knight took crucibles and other apparatus for testing mineral ores, and his interrogation of the Chipewyan captives had confirmed his belief, rapidly becoming an obsession, that somewhere west of Hudson Bay lay another El Dorado.

The peace party made slow progress at first. Indians coming into York reported that at the beginning of August it had not got beyond the Churchill River, and that most of the Indians were already sick. No further news reached York during the winter, and when the first Indians from the peace party straggled into the post in April 1716 they told a grim story of sickness, starvation, and separation. Their last sight of Stuart and the Slave Woman had been as they continued towards Northern Indian territory, accompanied only by an Indian captain and a few of his followers. Other Indians who came in during the month gave Knight harrowing descriptions of the crossing of the “Barren Mountains,” where, in conditions of bitter cold, with drifting snow piling high above their shelters, they had neither fuel nor food. Some killed their dogs; others had lived on moss. On 22 April Indians arrived with a note from Stuart, but dated the previous October, when he was only about a hundred miles beyond the Churchill River. It made depressing reading: “Wee are in a Starving Condition at this time Wee still push on in our Journey The Captain is willing to go through but afraid that wee shall gett no provisions Wee have eat nothing this 8 days I do not think as I shall see you any more but I have a good heart.”

The next Indians to arrive brought even gloomier news. Though they had reached wooded country on the far side of the barren lands, they had attacked a party of Northern Indians there, killing some and capturing others. If this was to be the only encounter between Crees and Chipewyans then the peace mission had worsened rather than improved relations; but on 7 May Stuart himself arrived, accompanied by the Slave Woman. the Cree captain with his little band of Home Indians, and ten Northern Indians. Knight’s long, excited journal entry for the day tells the dramatic story of the party’s fortunes. When Stuart’s Indians, following tracks in the snow, came across the corpses of the nine Northern Indians slain by the other band of Home Indians, all prospects of success seemed at an end. The alarmed Crees were ready to make for home, and only the joint endeavours of Stuart and the voluble Slave Woman persuaded them to agree to remain for ten days with Stuart while the woman tried to make contact with the Northern Indians. As they sheltered inside a rough stockade in the snow Stuart was hard pressed to keep the Indians to their bargain, and on the tenth day they were on the point of departing when the Slave Woman returned with no fewer than 160 Northern Indians. The killing of the nine Northern Indians was explained, the two groups of Indians smoked the pipe of peace together, exchanged gifts and hostages, and after two days parted on good terms. Stuart experienced one major disappointment: although the Northern Indians he brought back with him had knives and ornaments of copper, their only knowledge of the “yellow mettle” was that it came from a land farther west.

Knight was naturally eager to learn the geography of the country to the northwest, but Stuart’s report was far from trustworthy. He informed Knight that they had travelled north-northwest 400 miles from York to latitude 63°N; from there they had headed northwest across the Barrens, and then west-northwest to a country abounding in wild life. This was the land of the Northern Indians, bordered on the south by mountainous country dotted with lakes. Stuart estimated that he and his party had travelled a thousand miles and were in latitude 67°N when they met the Northern Indians. Apart from a compass, Stuart probably had none of the instruments which later explorers took for granted, nor does he seem to have kept a journal; and Knight rightly suspected that he had placed his final position much too far north. From the descriptions given by Stuart, he appears to have reached the region just southeast of Great Slave Lake; certainly he did not go farther north than latitude 63°N. Like Samuel Hearne* on his travels across this region, Stuart was dependent on his Indian guides and hunters; and in the scanty reports of the journey it is the Chipewyan Slave Woman who emerges as the dominant character when the little party approached her home territory. Even so, Stuart played an essential supporting role during the anxious ten-day wait with the Home Indians while the Slave Woman searched for her countrymen; and during the crossing of the Barrens he must have shown a dogged, if unrecorded, perseverance. His leadership of the mission also gave an air of authority to the inducements held out to the Chipewyans to trade with the company; the Slave Woman reported to Knight that many more Northern Indians had been eager to accompany her back to the Cree camp “to see the English Man.”

For Knight the Stuart expedition was a reconnaissance. It had achieved its main objective of bringing about a truce with the Northern Indians, but the hardships suffered and the length of time that Stuart was away demonstrated that although the prospects of trade to the northwest might be good the difficulties were proportionately great. While Knight’s long-term plans turned increasingly to a sea rather than a land approach, he made preparations to establish the post at Churchill promised by Stuart to the Chipewyans for 1716. In this task Stuart was once more employed. He was the only company servant at York, other than Knight and his deputy, Henry Kelsey, to speak any Indian language, and in 1717 he accompanied the advance party north to the Churchill River, charged with “ye Manngement of the Indian Affairs.” Unfortunately for Knight’s hopes, the failure of the annual supply ship from England to arrive at York in 1715 [see Joseph Davis] had delayed the Churchill enterprise for a year, and by the time Stuart arrived at the mouth of the Churchill River the disappointed Chipewyans had gone. When Knight arrived on the scene in July he decided to try to regain contact, but sent out on this task the young Richard Norton* rather than Stuart. It may have been that Stuart’s health was declining, for he was now ordered back to assist Kelsey at York. There he suffered a complete breakdown. In June 1718 Kelsey wrote to Knight from York that Stuart had “been lunatick 3 or 4 times insomuch that wee have been forct to tye him in his bed,” and in October 1719 he died after further bouts of insanity.

Stuart’s importance in the annals of the HBC lies in the part he played in bringing about a peace between the York Crees and their Chipewyan neighbours, which, though not unbroken, encouraged the gradual extension of the company’s trade westward towards the Athabaska region. His more general claim to fame is that he was the first European to cross the Barrens and reach the vicinity of Great Slave Lake. It is a measure of his achievement that not until Hearne’s journeys more than 50 years later did another company servant penetrate as far inland in a northwesterly direction as Stuart had done.

Glyndwr Williams

The details of Stuart’s journey are in the York Fort journals for 1714–15 and 1715–16 kept by James Knight (HBC Arch. B.239/a/1, 2). Mention of Stuart’s part in the establishment of a post at Churchill is in HBC Arch. B.239/a/3, which has been edited and published as The founding of Churchill (Kenney). References to Stuart’s illness and death are in HBC Arch. B.239/a/5.

The first historian to give Stuart his proper due as an explorer of the Canadian northwest was Morton, History of the Canadian west. A biographical sketch of Stuart will be found in HBRS, XXV (Davies and Johnson). Concise histories of the Crees and the Chipewyans are most easily available in Jenness, The Indians of Canada.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Glyndwr Williams, “STUART, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stuart_william_2E.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/stuart_william_2E.html
Author of Article:   Glyndwr Williams
Title of Article:   STUART, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1969
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   February 20, 2024