UMFREVILLE, EDWARD, HBC and NWC furtrader and author; b. c. 1755; fl. 1771–89.
Nothing is known of Edward Umfreville’s life prior to 1771, when he was engaged by the Hudson’s Bay Company to serve as a writer. He shipped to York Factory (Man.) but was soon transferred to Severn House (Fort Severn, Ont.). Severn’s master for the 1772–73 season, Andrew Graham*, was impressed by Umfreville, writing that he was “A very pretty Accountant and does very well at Severn.” The two men worked together in drawing up a remarkably detailed loading-table of requirements for the inland posts the company proposed to establish, a project to which Graham had only recently been converted. He and Umfreville shared the conviction that success depended on the use of Canadian servants and the large birch-bark canoes developed by the Canadian pedlars. While at Severn in 1774 Umfreville met Samuel Hearne, who had come to confer with him and Graham about the requirements of the proposed post at Pine Island Lake (Cumberland Lake, Sask.).
The next year Umfreville was transferred to York. His time there was not happy, for he was under the command of Humphrey Marten, who was by 1775 a sick and irritable man. Marten, for his part, described Umfreville in 1778 as diligent and sober, but of a violent temper, and early the next year he banished him from the officers’ table for insolence. Umfreville was given command of the post, however, when Marten’s health gave way. He subsequently served as second to Marten until 1782 when the post was captured by the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup], and its officers and men taken prisoner to France.
After the treaty of Paris in 1783 Umfreville made his way to London. His salary had not been credited to him while he was a prisoner, and it was almost inevitable that when he had drawn the small balance due to him “some disagreement . . . in point of salary” should have arisen between him and the company. He quit the HBC and probably wrote the letters to the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser that appeared in April 1783, describing the capture of York in terms highly critical of both the company and Marten. That month Umfreville sailed for Quebec, arriving there in June. By May 1784 he had joined the North West Company and was engaged in an attempt to find an alternate way from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, part of the traditional route via the Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) having been placed within American territory by the recent treaty. Although Umfreville succeeded in finding a route via Lake Nipigon (Ont.), the Nor’Westers continued to use the old one since the American claims were not enforced.
From 1784 until 1787 Umfreville served the NWC on the North Saskatchewan, commanding at its most westerly post (near Frenchman Butte, Sask.). From that vicinity he wrote in 1785 to Edward Jarvis, master of the HBC’s post at Albany (Fort Albany, Ont.), and made clear to him that the Nor’Westers’ ability to compete successfully with the HBC rested on the provisions that could be got from the “Fire Country” north and northwest of Kaministikwia (Thunder Bay, Ont.). Though in the employ of the NWC he urged the HBC to push into this country from Gloucester House (Washi Lake, Ont.), its most southerly post. His suggestion was given added credibility by John Kipling, master of Gloucester, who wrote in 1786 that Umfreville was able to stay inland all year and drive a good trade.
In line with these personal contacts, Umfreville had decided by 1788 to leave the service of the NWC. He communicated his desire to re-enter the employ of the HBC to William Tomison*, chief inland. He then left his post in May to travel via Lake Superior, Montreal, and New York to London, where he proposed himself to the London committee in letters of 23 January and 22 April 1789. Tomison had recommended him the previous July as “a fitt Person for Inland service, being hardy and durable, strictly sober, and has a thurrow knowledge how business is carried on by the traders of Canada,” but Umfreville and the company could not agree on terms for his re-employment. This failure marked the end of his career as a fur-trader. Even if terms had been settled, it is unlikely that he would have made a satisfactory employee, for he had presumably written The present state of Hudson’s Bay . . . before his negotiations with the company had come to an end. The book, published in 1790, was marked by a knowledge of the country that most writers on Canada in the late 18th-century lacked. It was also characterized, however, both by extensive plagiarism from the works of other HBC officers, especially Andrew Graham, and by bitter attacks on them and the company. Umfreville’s former friend, Samuel Hearne, ascribed the book’s ill nature to the author’s disappointment over not “succeeding to a command in the Bay, though there was no vacancy for him.”
Umfreville had been “under the necessity of going abroad” even before the publication of his book, but where he went, where he lived thereafter, and where and when he died are not known.
Edward Umfreville, The present state of Hudson’s Bay . . . (London, 1790; new ed., ed. W. S. Wallace, Toronto, 1954).
HBC Arch. A.6/10, ff.123, 126d; A.11/115, f161. HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson), XXVII (Williams). Hearne, Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort (Tyrrell). Nipigon to Winnipeg: a canoe voyage through western Ontario by Edward Umfreville in 1784, with extracts from the writings of other early travellers through the region, ed. Robert Douglas (Ottawa, 1929). [David Thompson], David Thompson’s narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). Morton, History of Canadian west. Rich, History of HBC.