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d. 16 June 1848 at Quebec


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WILLIAMS, WILLIAM, governor of the HBC; d. 14 Jan. 1837 in Brixton (London), England.

Before William Williams joined the Hudson’s Bay Company he served in the East India Company, possibly as a ship’s captain. In an affidavit in the East India’s records a person with the same name declared that he had been born in Shirley (London), on 3 April 1771, and a William Williams is listed for voyages to India between 1788 and 1799. Whatever the details, there appears to be no doubt that our subject was a seafaring man; in the 1820s Captain John Franklin called him an “expert sailor.” Williams was engaged by the HBC as governor-in-chief of Rupert’s Land on 20 May 1818 at a salary of £1,000 a year. He was described by the company as a man who had an “Enterprising and active mind & whose talents & habits of life are calculated to command obedience & to insure strict Discipline in all under his authority.”

Williams arrived at York Factory (Man.) aboard the Prince of Wales in August 1818, and made his headquarters at Cumberland House (Sask.). He spent the winter writing letters of introduction to his officers and encouraging them in the various aspects of the trade. The Athabasca campaign, which pitted Colin Robertson, John Clarke*, and other HBC men against the North West Company, was tactically important. The HBC had been driven from the area in 1815–16, but was now determined to succeed there. Nevertheless, the winter of 1818–19 was a trying one for the HBC men owing to the harassments of the NWC, which included the arrest of Robertson at Fort Wedderburn (Alta) by Samuel Black and Simon McGillivray. Williams learned of this “illegal aggression” on 30 December, and decided to act. He arrived in the Red River settlement (Man.) in the spring of 1819 and collected a force of 30 men. In June, under his direction, a number of Nor’Westers were captured at Grand Rapids as they made their way to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.). Williams executed bench warrants, which had been secured from Montreal, on bills of indictment found by a grand jury in Lower Canada against several Nor’Westers for murder, robbery, and burglary. He also issued his own warrants, as a magistrate of Rupert’s Land, for the arrest of John George McTavish, Angus Shaw*, and others for offences in Athabasca. In response the NWC had a bill of indictment preferred against Williams at Quebec for assault and false arrest. The warrant was not served but Williams escaped capture in the spring of 1820 only because he passed Grand Rapids the day before the Nor’Westers arrived.

Williams had exceeded his authority in issuing bench warrants for offences committed outside the HBC’s chartered territory. In his defence it might be said that the unlawful arrest of Robertson was simply the latest unnecessary act in a long list of provocations. As well, there is sufficient evidence to support the company’s statement in 1820 to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst that they had “in vain, laid before his Majesty’s Government year after year undeniable proof of the most unlawful outrages committed by the North West Company” which had never been redressed.

Following the amalgamation of the two companies in 1821 Williams was appointed governor of the HBC’s Southern Department [see Thomas Thomas*] at an annual salary of £1,200. This department comprised the territory to the east of Rainy Lake (Ont.), including Fort William, Moose Factory, and Eastmain Factory (Eastmain, Que.). The larger and more valuable Northern Department was given to George Simpson*, but Williams was to be the senior governor when both attended councils. These delicate appointments were arranged by Nicholas Garry*, who had been named in London to implement the merger of the companies and who thought it expedient that Williams be transferred from the Northern Department because he was a disruptive force. Williams was relieved to be offered the Southern Department, but why is open to conjecture. He may have considered that, though over-trapped, it would be easier to manage or, as he had a wife and daughter coming out from England (they arrived in 1822), he may have wanted to distance himself from his country wife Sally (daughter of Peter Fidler*) and their two children.

Williams spent the winter of 1821–22 at Cumberland House and arrived at Moose Factory on 10 July to take command of the Southern Department. The officers who formed its council, among them Thomas Vincent* and Angus Bethune*, were all veterans of the fur trade, and were reluctant to acknowledge, as the company’s deputy governor and committee in London had lamely instructed, that “an efficient and oeconomical manner” of management had to be implemented. They attempted to overrule Williams’s specific orders by writing directly to the governor and committee in London, whose ire they incurred by making recommendations in areas not within their jurisdiction. Williams had neither the knowledge of the fur trade nor the business ability to control these well-entrenched officers.

Given the nature of the two governors, friction between them was inevitable and disagreements soon arose over a number of issues, including the boundaries of their departments and methods of transport. Williams, who knew ships, contradicted Simpson on a number of matters involving coastal vessels at York and Moose factories. In his personal communications to the Southern Department Simpson was sarcastic, demeaning, and unhelpful. But Simpson, suave and diplomatic, had the complete confidence of Andrew Colvile, one of the most powerful members of the company’s London committee, and easily outmatched the outspoken Williams.

At the request of the governor and committee Simpson travelled to London in the fall of 1825 for a “personal Conference . . . on many subjects connected with the interests and welfare of the Trade.” They discussed in detail the business of the Southern Department, which had not been “conducted to our satisfaction.” Simpson left London in February 1826 carrying the dispatch which recalled Williams to London since the company intended “to make considerable changes in the system of conducting the trade.” Williams left Moose Factory on 9 Sept. 1826 with his family, which included a son born at Moose.

On his return to London Williams was released from the company and given a retirement allowance of £300 a year for six years. By August 1835 he was destitute owing to the financial failure of Rowland Stephenson, the firm in which he had invested his retirement allowance. He died at Brixton on 14 Jan. 1837.

Williams’s appointment in 1818 appears to have been an act of desperation on the part of the HBC’s governor and committee since his aggressive and outspoken manner, coupled with his lack of business experience, made him an unusual choice for governor-in-chief of Rupert’s Land. The company, however, evidently realized that the passive measures practised by its officers could no longer prevail over the NWC. It then turned to a man of great personal courage who was determined to defend the rights of the company during a period when the officers in Rupert’s Land were faring badly against the Nor’Westers. Like numerous fighting men before and after him, Williams was not suited for the rigorous, economic management which characterized the peaceful exercise of monopoly by the HBC after the termination of hostilities in 1821.

Shirlee Anne Smith

BL, India Office Library and Records [East India House Arch.], IOR, L/MAR/C/656: 207; L/MAR/C/657: 54, 209; L/MAR/C/669, no.293. PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1: 8037–38 (mfm. at PAM). PAM, HBCA, A.1/51: f.114; A.1/52: f.107; A.1/53: f.39d; A.1/55: f.85; A.5/7: 51; A.5/8: 314; A.6/19: ff.64d, 90, 113; A.6/20: f.26; A.6/21: ff.38, 71d, 83; A.8/1: ff.83, 83d–84; pp.164, 170; A.10/3: f.369; A.10/4: f.25; B.22/a/21: f.47d; B.39/a/14: f.23; B.49/a/34: f.15; B.49/a/37: f.38; B.51/a/2: ff.4d, 5; B.135/k/1: 40–41; C.l/229: ff.5d, 42; C.1/787; C.1/788: ff.2d, 49; D.1/1; D.1/4: ff.26–30, 31–31d; D.1/7: ff.6d, 17, 17d, 18; D.1/c/1: ff.63–68. John Franklin, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the polar sea in the years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 . . . (2nd ed., 2v., London, 1824), 1: 100. Nicholas Garry, “Diary of Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822–1835: a detailed narrative of his travels in the northwest territories of British North America in 1821 . . . ,” ed. F. N. A. Garry, RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 6 (1900), sect.ii: 155, 166. HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1960). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Shirlee Anne Smith, “WILLIAMS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_william_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/williams_william_7E.html
Author of Article:   Shirlee Anne Smith
Title of Article:   WILLIAMS, WILLIAM
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 16, 2024