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TOMISON, WILLIAM, fur trader; b. c. 1739 on South Ronaldsay, Scotland; d. there unmarried 26 March 1829.

Throughout a career spanning half a century William Tomison typified the strengths and weaknesses of the men who represented the Hudson’s Bay Company as it expanded westward from the shores of Hudson Bay in competition with enterprising traders from Montreal. His successes and his failures were those of the company as it attempted to adapt to the new conditions it faced once it abandoned its “sleep by the frozen sea.”

Little is known of Tomison’s early years in the Orkney Islands except that his origins were humble and that he received no formal education. In 1760, at age 20, he signed on as a labourer with the HBC. For the next seven years he was stationed at York Factory (Man.) or its subsidiary post Severn House (Fort Severn, Ont.), where he caught the eye of Severn’s master, Andrew Graham*. It was doubtless with Graham’s encouragement and assistance that the young Orcadian acquired a basic but serviceable education; by 1767 he had been promoted Graham’s steward.

In 1767 and again in 1769 Tomison was sent inland to winter with the Indians. On his first voyage he stayed near the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg (Man.) and was humiliated to find that he could do little to dissuade the Indians from selling their best furs to Montreal-based traders already well established in the area. During his second winter he travelled beyond Lake Winnipeg into the parklands south and west of Lake Manitoba. His reports of these two voyages constitute the earliest coherent accounts documenting the rapid expansion of Canadian traders into what is now southern Manitoba. His experiences gave him a knowledge of Indian customs and languages which few of his fellow employees could match, and he came to the attention of the governor and London committee of the HBC as a valuable man who knew the ways of the fur trade and was “greatly beloved by the Natives.”

For the next six years Tomison remained at Severn House as steward. In 1776 he was sent by the council at York Factory to assist Matthew Cocking*, master at Cumberland House (Sask.). Promoted inland master in 1778, Tomison began to implement the council’s new policy of establishing company posts close to those of the Canadian traders. Robert Longmoor* was sent out that September, but poor conditions forced him to winter at the Canadian settlement on the North Saskatchewan River. The following year he and Tomison established Hudson House (near Brightholme, Sask.), the first in a series of posts built by the HBC under the new expansionist policy. Returns from the inland posts soared and Tomison received almost universal praise from his superiors. HBC surveyor Philip Turnor* reported to London that without Tomison the inland activity of the company “would intirely loose its present spirit.” But Tomison’s character and quality as a leader were severely tested by two crises. In the winter of 1781–82 the native tribes of the plains were decimated by smallpox. Although Tomison and other traders did their best to bury the dead and care for the survivors, they could do little to stem the progress of the disease. Tomison’s account of the epidemic and its effects is the most detailed record of the first catastrophic epidemic known to have affected the native populations of the plains. Many of the trading Indians had perished and both the HBC and its Canadian rivals experienced a severe drop in furs collected. Prospects for a recovery by the HBC were seriously damaged with the capture of York Factory by the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup*] in August 1782. When Tomison and his men arrived there in the summer of 1783 they found the fort destroyed and the plantation abandoned. Forced to return inland without supplies, they faced a difficult winter made even harder to bear by the necessity of begging for supplies from Canadian rivals such as William Holmes*.

Despite these set-backs Tomison achieved some notable successes in the early 1780s. Adversity and the need to be more self-reliant helped him to transform an inexperienced body of Orcadian workmen into a cadre of skilled canoemen and winterers with a strong esprit de corps and with new forms of social organization and discipline which were less rigid and more egalitarian than those at posts on Hudson Bay. The death of the traditional trading partners of the HBC facilitated the opening of direct trade with Indians farther to the west, an opportunity which Tomison was not slow to grasp. By 1786 he had acquired a lucrative and virtually exclusive trade with the Bloods and Peigans.

In that year Tomison was promoted chief at York Factory with the unusual proviso that he should continue to reside inland where he would be able to supervise personally operations against the Canadians. Doggedly maintaining pace with the North West Company in the establishment of new posts while continuing the policy of sending promising young men such as David Thompson* and Peter Fidler to winter with the Peigans in order to learn their customs and language and to cement trading ties, Tomison continued to show solid trading results. When he returned on leave to London in 1789 he appeared to be at the peak of his reputation and influence within the company.

The seeds of the strife and bitterness which marred the later years of Tomison’s long career, however, had already been sown. The comparative isolation of the inland posts had tended to solidify his natural preference for a solitary and Spartan existence. He showed little interest in social intercourse with his fellow officers and they in turn grew to dislike and then to resent deeply his parsimonious ways and his growing rigidity. When Tomison returned to York Factory in 1790 his powers had been reduced to extend over the inland posts only. In addition, the company had asked Turnor to lead an expedition, which included Fidler and Malchom Ross*, to the Athabasca country in a major attempt to break the Canadian monopoly there. As a result of this divided authority in the field, the coordination of inland activities broke down and relations between senior officers were embittered as they competed for a limited supply of men, canoes, trade goods, and supplies. Because of his tenacious defence of his interests in the Saskatchewan country and his unwillingness to support the projects of his fellow officers, Tomison came under increasing criticism. He reacted by withdrawing further from the company of his fellow officers. In the mean time the Athabasca project started by Turnor was continued by Ross and Thompson, but their attempts to find a shorter, more direct route to Lake Athabasca were obstructed by Tomison and finally came to an end in the maze of lakes and rivers northwest of Reindeer Lake. When Tomison returned to London in 1796 it appeared to his peers that he had finally lost the confidence of the governor and London committee and that his long career had come to an end.

One can imagine his colleagues’ consternation when Tomison returned in 1797 to his position as inland chief. George Sutherland*, who had taken Tomison’s place on the Saskatchewan, was publicly humiliated by Tomison in 1798 and left the company’s service. In that year Joseph Colen*, chief factor of York Factory, was recalled by the London committee to account for his management of affairs at the bay. The responsibility for trade in the Athabasca was transferred to Fort Churchill (Churchill, Man.), and once again Tomison’s beloved Saskatchewan country, with posts stretching from Cumberland House to Edmonton House (near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta), assumed pre-eminence in the trade directed from York Factory. It proved to be a somewhat hollow victory. Trade returns began to decline after 1797 now that the competing posts had tapped the resources as far as the Rockies, and a new and even more bitter phase in fur trade rivalry was beginning with the entry of new Canadian-based companies such as the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). Increasingly rigid and petty and in deteriorating health, Tomison expended more energy in pointless disputes than in effective competition for the declining trade. In 1799 he returned to England once again.

After a visit to the Orkney Islands, however, he appears to have found the thought of retirement less appealing and he persuaded the governor and committee to send him out for one further term with instructions to make another attempt to break into the Athabasca using Cumberland House as an advanced base. Wartime conditions did not favour a rapid or effective prosecution of this policy, although sufficient resources were assembled to send Fidler north to Lake Athabasca in 1802. Tomison himself stayed at Cumberland House, where he was shunned more and more by a new generation of officers and by the Indians who regarded his growing reluctance to dispense brandy as the mark of an ungenerous man. In 1803 Tomison retired; but once again he soon wearied of playing the role of the retired “governor” in his native land. In 1806 he induced the company to allow him to mount an expedition to the Athabasca on their behalf, asking only to be granted a percentage of the returns. The proposal was a departure from established company procedures, but it was not to get a fair trial. With the renewal of hostilities between Britain and France, Tomison was unable to recruit enough men for an effective expedition. Despite that, he came out to Hudson Bay, in hopes of enjoying better health, and for the next four years he occupied a succession of minor posts northeast of Cumberland House. Once again he was avoided by officers of the company and most of the Indians. Finally, in 1810, he returned home to stay.

Tomison’s final years were spent in Dundas House, an imposing residence he had built for himself in his home parish. Since 1793 he had been providing money to support a school and other charities in the parish but his relations with his neighbours appear to have been characterized mainly by aloofness and disputes. Nevertheless, lacking a direct heir, he bequeathed a major portion of the considerable fortune he had accumulated in years of frugal living to support the establishment of a free school for the poor of his native land.

John Nicks

Orkney Arch., Orkney Library (Kirkwall, Scot.), 346Y. PAM, HBCA, A.5/1–3; A.6/10–15; A.11/116–17; B.49/a/13–22; B.198/a/1–18; B.239/a/48–95; B.239/b/36–58. HBRS, 14 (Rich and Johnson); HBRS, 15 (Rich and Johnson); HBRS, 26 (Johnson); HBRS, 27 (Williams). Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1934; repr. New York, 1968). J. S. Nicks, “The Pine Island posts, 1786–1794: a study of competition in the fur trade” (ma thesis, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, 1975). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vo1.2. J. S. Clouston, “Orkney and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Beaver, outfit 267 (December 1936): 4–8; (March 1937): 39–43; outfit 268 (September 1937): 37–39. E. W. Marwick, “William Tomison, pioneer of the fur trade,” Alberta Hist. Rev. (Edmonton), 10 (1962): 1–8. J. S. Nicks, “William Tomison, a quintessential Orcadian servant? An analysis of his leadership style” (paper delivered to the Scottish Studies Conference, Saskatoon, Sask., 1979).

General Bibliography

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John Nicks, “TOMISON, WILLIAM,” in EN:UNDEF:public_citation_publication, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tomison_william_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tomison_william_6E.html
Author of Article: John Nicks
Title of Article: TOMISON, WILLIAM
Publication Name: EN:UNDEF:public_citation_publication, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: September 30, 2014