by Bruce Cherney
It was a mystery that would have tested the skills of a detective with the shrewdness of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. But, a cold trail and an absence of hard facts means the case remains mostly unresolved to this day.
Thomas Simpson, Arctic explorer and cousin of Hudson’s Bay Company governor George Simpson, met an untimely death on June 14, 1840 while returning to the Red River settlement.
The nature of his death became a matter of speculation in the settlement. Was it murder or suicide? The official ruling was that Simpson killed two of his companions and then committed suicide, but this was never clarified to the satisfaction of many, including his brother Alexander, who wrote the book, The Life and Travels of Thomas Simpson the Arctic explorer, which attempted to exonerate the HBC employee.
Simpson was born on July 2, 1808 in Dingwall, Scotland. His father, a parish school master and chief magistrate, died in 1821, leaving his family destitute. But, Simpson was identified as a 17-year-old youth of promise and was given a bursary to study for the clergy at King’s College in Aberdeen. He was an excellent student who excelled in the sciences and mathematics, obtaining an MA in 1828.
Simpson may have had the makings of a scholar, but he was far from ready to devote his life to the church. It was his cousin, George, who convinced him that there was a better opportunity in the HBC. After excepting the offer, he was made secretary to the governor. Because of his advanced education, and undoubtedly his relationship to his cousin, the need to apprentice for three to five years in the service of the Company was waived.
In 1830 at a mere 21 years of age, Simpson was put in charge of the 1830 western fur trade brigade and led an expedition to Thunder Bay.
Another feat was travelling from York factory to the Red River Settlement in the dead of winter. He accomplished this 1,100-kilometre trek in just 20 days in 1830.
He eventually settled down at the HBC post in Fort Garry as an accountant. The settlement was governed by a council of “officers” of the Company. At the Council of Assiniboia’s head was governor Alexander Christie who supervised the rebuilding of Fort Garry with stone.
It was during his five years at Red River that Simpson’s arrogance began to show. In particular, he was openly in contempt of the Metis. At this time, the Metis were grumbling about the restrictions on trade imposed by the HBC. By 1849, the grumblings came to a head with the “free trade” trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer.
Simpson gained the wrath of the Metis when he hit a man named la Rocque “for being insolent,” during a dispute over pay in Simpson’s office in 1834. La Rocque received a bloody nose and a black eye.
The Metis surrounded Fort Garry, demanding Christie hand over Simpson to them for punishment — a flogging was deemed appropriate. This incident was smoothed over when Christie, chief factor Cameron, Robert Logan and Alexander Ross visited the Metis camp with money and gifts for la Rocque at the instigation of HBC governor George Simpson who happened to be visiting the settlement at the time. A condition imposed by the Metis was that the younger Simpson be removed from the settlement.
It took a while to find gainful employment outside the Red River Settlement for Simpson. In 1836, he readily accepted an offer to journey to the Far North.
At this time, the charter for the Company was up for renewal. To strengthen its claim, the HBC decided that money should be spent to explore the Arctic Coast and discover the Northwest Passage which had eluded such famed explorers as Frobisher and Franklin. Simpson was named second-in-command of the party which was under the leadership of HBC chief factor Peter Warren Dease, a Metis with experience in the North. Dease had earlier served with Sir John Franklin.
In 1837, after travelling for 62 days from Red River, Simpson joined Dease at Fort Chipewyan. Travelling on his own, Simpson claimed Barrow Point in August for Britain.
Simpson had no liking for Dease, who he claimed in a letter to his brother to be an “indolent, illiterate soul.”
After three years of treks in the North, Simpson returned to Fort Garry and demanded that his cousin grant him the right to explore the Arctic region with a party under his direction.
“I am destined to bear the Honourable Company’s flag fairly through and out of the Polar Sea,” he wrote to his brother Alexander. “Fame I will have but it must be alone ... free from the extravagant and profligate habits of half-breed families, I have an insuperable aversion.”
Dease, to the chagrin of Simpson, while in charge of the previous expeditions travelled in the company of his family.
“I and I alone, have the well-earned honour of uniting the Arctic to the Great Western Ocean ...,”
he wrote to Alexander, claiming discovery of the fabled NorthWest
After being refused his request by his cousin, Simpson wrote a letter to the HBC authorities in London to plead his case. Impatiently, he journeyed south with a party of settlers headed for St. Paul, Minnesota with the intent of heading to London and pleading his case in person.
If he had waited, he would have
received confirmation from London that his proposal had been accepted. The same letter also included news that he had received the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his Arctic success and the British government had awarded him a £100 annual pension. But in his haste, he would set off a chain of events that would lead to murder and mayhem.
George Bryce, an author who came to Winnipeg in 1871, wrote in his book, The Celt in the North-West, described Simpson’s death as “one of the most melancholy episodes of Northwestern exploration.”
Five days into his journey after covering a mere 80 kilometres, Simpson and his companions had crossed the American border into Minnesota. The fact that he was able to cover tens of kilometres in a single day while conquering far more arduous routes irked Simpson, who in the company of four Metis riders pushed on ahead of the slower party. Those who were to be left behind warned Simpson that he shouldn’t push his horses to the point of exhaustion by quickening the pace, but they were ignored since he was impatient to reach England.
“Of what happened that fearful night but one of two survivors has ever told us,” wrote Alexander McArthur in an 1886 paper for the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba. “He was with the others when he heard the report of a gun. On turning round he saw Simpson shoot, first John Bird and then Antoine Legros, senior. Bird fell dead; Legros had time to to give his son a last embrace.
“According to the witness, Simpson then spoke for the first time, asking if a witness knew of any plot to steal his papers, to which a negative reply was given.”
James Bruce reported that Simpson had declared, “I am justified by the laws of England in killing these two men; for they have conspired to kill me this night, and carry off all my papers.”
Simpson believed the papers he carried held the secret of the Northwest Passage.
Bruce and the younger Legros fled the scene. The next morning, Bruce returned with a five men and crept into the camp. Evidence of what then happened was related by Bruce, Robert Logan and James Flett.
Bruce gave his evidence on July 13, 1840 nearly a month after the incident to a Mr. Sibley at St. Peter’s on the upper Mississippi. Logan’s
evidence was heard by Alexander Ross, a justice of the peace at Red River on October 14, 1840 and Flett related his tale to John Bunn, the settlement’s magistrate on October 11.
It took until October for the news of the deaths to reach the Red River Settlement. No one knew what happened until after the initial party of travellers returned from America after conducting their business.
Bruce said that when he and the others returned to the camp, one of them shouted out Simpson’s name and a shot was heard. They snuck up to Simpson using a cart for cover and saw Simpson lying in a bed beside the cart with a dog lying under the cart.
Bruce and the party, “Continued to call on Simpson by name, and receiving no reply they fired at the said dog (Bird’s) and drove him away. They then discharged their guns at the top of the cart with the intention alarming the said Simpson if still alive. The witness then asked one of the party to go with him to the cart, and the witness found that Simpson had shot himself through the head. He was quite dead.”
Logan said that when the report of a gun was heard, a ball whistled above their heads ... “all halted and felt confused, supposing that Mr. Simpson had fired at us.”
Logan said they decided to fire
in the air above the camp to see if Simpson would respond. “Gaubin fired first, Michael Richotte the
second shot and by it the dog was wounded, then all the party fired — we all fired twice but saw nothing more, Richotte then mounted his horse and rode swiftly by the
camp to see if he could observe Mr.
“After passing the spot we all joined again, when Richotte said he saw Simpson lying across as if dead. His body was lying stretched out with one leg across the other, and the butt end of his double barreled gun between his legs, the right hand with the glove off directed to the trigger, the left hand with the glove holding the gun near the muzzle on his breast. All the head above the nose was blown off, and we found a white night cap lying ten or fifteen yards off with a hole in it, as if made by a gun shot, and singed by fire and some of the hair sticking to it ... We turned the body and found it warm, but no signs of life.”
Flett recalled that the party approached the Simpson camp cautiously and called him by name when they were about 200 metres away. He also recounted the episode of a shot whistling above their heads which prompted them to return fire.
“We then approached and saw him (Simpson) lying with his face downward, near but not on a blanket, which was spread alongside
of the cart. I do not know how
many shots were fired, as we did
not all fire together. Do not believe any hit him. His eyes were not
blown out. Was told one of his hands was grasping the barrel of the gun and the other, that is his right hand, down towards the trigger, but this I did not see, at least do not remember if I did.”
The evidence given related that Simpson had become unhinged, shot the two men and then took his own life. The men who came the next day buried the three bodies in a common grave.
It was only in the autumn of the following year that it was deemed necessary to perform an autopsy on Simpson’s body, accordingly Bunn was sent to uncover the common grave. But, by this time, wolves had dug up the corpses and they were in a state of severe decomposition. Bunn returned, saying the decomposition was too great and thus could not file a report on the cause of death.
Simpson’s body was returned to Red River for reburial. The funeral was left to the Company’s carpenter and the governor instructed that Simpson’s grave be unmarked.
McArthur pronounced that at least the verdict on the case should be “not proven” that Simpson had committed murder and then suicide.
Whispers in Red River following the news of Simpson’s death said
the explorer had killed Legros Sr. and Bird in self-defence. This is possible, since Simpson was judged a scoundrel by the Metis and they may have come up with a plan to kill him on the lonely plain with few witnesses on hand.
It is also possible that Simpson was insane with fear that one of his fellow travellers might report the results of his discoveries. The claim that he was fearful of his “papers” supports this supposition. But, then we only have the word of three witnesses.
“To my own mind the evidence carries the conviction which would justify me in giving the most strong verdict of ‘not guilty,’” wrote McArthur. “The contrary nature of the evidence; the fact that no report of his death was carried back to Fort Garry; the apathy of the participants in the events; the careful procrastination of the Company; the carelessness of the investigation, if such could be called, all point to a dread of other revelations.”
The “carelessness” of the investigation can be attributed to the existing tensions between the Metis and the Company. The HBC had little desire to rock the boat by implicating members of the Metis community in murder most foul. If they had really been concerned about the case, they would have tried to interview more players in the events of June 14 and 15, instead of just three.
Just as the governor had attempted to smooth over earlier tensions provoked by his cousin, George Simpson probably sought to avoid further trouble by conveniently ignoring the case. The appropriate outcome in his mind would be that his cousin had a temporary case of insanity and killed the two men and then, in realizing the enormity of his crime, committed suicide.
It would also appear that the
governor was becoming increasingly disillusioned by his headstrong cousin. The incidents of near insubordination had piled up. The
elder Simpson had an empire to run and thus did not have the time to babysit his cousin of many foibles and demands. He may have even considered his cousin’s death a
small price to pay for peace in the community.
The same could be said of the Metis. Their animosity towards Simpson and the HBC was placated — at least temporarily in the case of the HBC until the Sayer episode nine years later — by Simpson’s death. The fact that the deaths weren’t reported in the settlement until October seems to indicate that it was case closed for the Metis. If they were overly concerned, they would have rushed back to Red River with news of what had happened.
The gap between the incident and its reporting would also have given the three primary witnesses an opportunity to get their stories straight. Some of the evidence is contradictory, but for the most part it upholds the claim of a double murder and then suicide.
Did they shoot Simpson for killing their two companions? We’ll never know.
Murder? Self-defence? Suicide?
The jury is still out.