William Sinclair of Orkney, a descendant of the first William Sinclair of Roslin and of Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, was born in 1766 in Harray Parish, Orkney Islands (outlined in map of Scotland below), a chain of islands which has played a major role in the Sinclair family since the 13th century. He came to Rupert's Land, Canada with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1792. He died in 1818, and was buried at York Factory, Manitoba where his grave marker still stands. This is the story of his life.

      Neil Ray of Goulais River near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, great great great great grandson of William Sinclair, has spent several years researching the life and children of William Sinclair. He has graciously provided these materials for posting at this site. If you have further information about William Sinclair or his ancestors or descendants, or are interested in more information please contact Mr. Ray. If you would like to publish Sinclair related materials at this site, please see the submissions page for further information.


Author's Foreword

     In the summer of '63, I was in my teens and I was reluctantly dragged off for what I thought would be another one of those boring family visits. This time it was to see my Great-Uncle Joe Naylor and his wife Elise in Caledon East, Ontario. This visit turned out to be anything but boring.

      My Aunt Elise was a somewhat eccentric and outspoken member of our family and she told us the story of a fur trading ancestor on Uncle Joe's side who married an Indian Princess whose father was a Great Chief. She also explained that the reason no one in the family spoke of it was because they had been married "without benefit of clergy." This arrangement was common in those days because there were neither white women nor clergy in that part of the country at that time.

     I was intrigued and when we returned I wanted to learn more, but my mother was just as uninformed as I was. So she wrote to my aunt requesting further information and that November she wrote back to my mother to give further details:

November 13, 1963

Dear Joan,

     . . . And now about the family history. Now this is what Joe's brother told me as I understand it. Great grandfather John Spencer was born in England around 1799, was educated at Christ's Hospital. He was sent to run the trading post at Moose factory for Hudson Bay Co. at James Bay, was married to an Indian girl there, and had two sons. One stayed with him - that is Joe's Grandfather Rupert Spencer.

Love
Aunt Elise

     This letter written to my mother was the beginning of an intensive search by my Aunt Adele Dowds which provided the first solid stepping stone for this material. Aunt Elise's version of the family history turned out to be surprisingly accurate. We were able to trace Rupert Spencer to his father John Spencer. We also found that John Spencer had a wife Anne (née) Sinclair. Her father was William Sinclair and her mother's English name was Margaret, although she continued to use her Native name, Nahovway. This was verified in another book called "Strangers in Blood" by Jennifer Brown on page 70-71:

     "According to a strong tradition still preserved in Selkirk, Manitoba, in the early 1970s, ... Margaret (Nahoway) ... sometime in the 1790s, became the wife of William Sinclair I, an officer from the Orkneys, ... these family recollections are all plausible and in accord with known history."

     We were very fortunate that many of our ancestors worked for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The company clerks were meticulous in keeping detailed records about activities and movements of employees. However, spelling and grammar was often inconsistent or inaccurate due to the lack of uniform education at the time. I have quoted the material as I found it to give the reader the flavour of the period. In some cases when I felt it was necessary to briefly clarify a word or phrase I have used square brackets [...] following the item to make my comments. More detailed explanatory material is contained in footnotes. What follows is the life story of William Sinclair and his family.


The Life of

WILLIAM SINCLAIR

(the Elder)


Much of the following material is edited
from "West of the Mountains" by D. Geneva Lent
The Children of William Sinclair of Orkney

William Comes to Rupert's Land

     William Sinclair, known as "the elder," was born in the Orkney Islands in 1766 on the family freehold croft, called East-on-quay. It was situated on the island of Pomona, close to the ancient port of Stromness... William Sinclair was the fortunate one in his family. After completing his schooling in Edinburgh [University], he joined the Hudson's Bay Company at the age of twenty-six. Sinclair set sail from Stromness in the Summer of 1792; he reached the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at York Factory on Hudson Bay in August of that year.

     Sinclair was employed as a ledger writer for the entire season of 1792-93. It had to be endured if he were to receive advancement in the company's ranks, but he was deeply grateful when in 1794 the commanding officer at York released him from his desk and sent him out as a "trader inland from York" to establish new trading posts. In a few years he managed to establish and become master of several good trading posts in the region between the Churchill and the Nelson rivers, at Nestoowyan [later known as York House], Setting Lake, and Hulse House.

     Shortly after he established his first outpost at Nestoowyan [in 1794], Sinclair took to wife the half-Cree girl, Nahovway. He had married this young native woman "in accordance with the custom of the country." Nahovway was beautiful; she was skilled in the crafts of her mother's people; and she had been brought up in the camp of her grandfather, a Swampy Cree chief, with whom Sinclair traded advantageously. She was the daughter of a British [officer] who had been stationed for a time at Fort Prince of Wales during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The name of Nahovway's Cree mother is unknown.

     William Sinclair seems to have regarded his "marriage of the country" as a sacred and binding obligation for the remainder of his life. Nahovway, in turn, performed her wifely duties faithfully to Sinclair for the twenty-five years they were together, bearing him some eleven children and remaining with him through all of his vicissitudes.

Life at Oxford House

     On July 5th, 1798, Sinclair was sent with four or five canoes and provisions to build a substantial house. Explicit instructions were given to build a good house, a stone house for trade goods and for a dwelling. Timber was to be prepared and care taken against fire. "Stockadoes" were to be built as a prevention from attack by the Indians. Oxford House was 42 feet by 24 feet in size, and the height of the upper storey was 9 feet under the ridge poles. [The] work was done by August 9th, 1798... From that date William Sinclair was continually in charge at Oxford House until 1814.

     It was for greater safety that Sinclair had built his post on the island in the middle of Oxford Lake. ... The Indians spoke of the island as "Pathepow Nippi," meaning in Cree "Bottomless Water." To the white men it was "Holey Island," so called from and Indian legend that a deep cavern leading to the nether world was hidden somewhere on the island.

     At his own expense, Sinclair sought to make his post not only exceptionally efficient and well defended but a comfortable homestead for himself as well. Sinclair's orders show such items charged to his personal account as fine household linens, silver, crockery, good clothing for himself, Scotch shawls, and bolts of cloth or suitable cotton prints to be made into apparel for his wife and children. Books for himself - both current and classical - were also ordered for his personal library at Oxford House.

     William Sinclair found that his island had patches of fairly fertile soil worth cultivating. He therefore ordered seeds to be sent to him from Britain on the next company ship-of-the-year in order that he might plant a garden and a field of grain at his post as soon as possible. When he had raised sufficient fodder he imported some cattle from the Orkney Islands at his own expense. The stock survived the long ocean voyage to York Factory, and Sinclair accomplished the all-but-impossible feat of transporting a bull and several cows, while they were yet calves, up the difficult Hayes River route to Oxford House in York boats. ... Sinclair thus established a small dairy at his post - surely the first of its kind in all Rupert's Land - in order that he might have fresh milk and butter for his family.

     In the year 1810, when drastic reorganization of the company affairs was undertaken, William Sinclair was made a governor and chief factor of an important part of Rupert's Land. This new appointment designated Sinclair as "Chief Factor of the West Winnipeg Factory and its dependencies, including Cumberland House, Swan River, Fort Dauphin and Brandon House."

The Red River Settlers

     In August, 1813, a party - the third since 1812 - of ragged, weary Highlanders [evicted crofters sponsored by Lord Selkirk] had passed through Oxford House, on their way to their new settlement at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. ... feeling close kinship with these unhappy people, William Sinclair had extended to them every courtesy and benefit his establishment at Oxford House could afford. He replenished their limited stocks of food and presented the leader of the expedition with a fine bull and heifer [named Adam and Eve by the colonists] from his own small herd in order that the women and children, expected to reach the settlement later, might have milk and butter on their scanty board.

     With the second party of Selkirk settlers to reach Oxford House in 1813 was a jovial, fiery-tempered, very clever young Irishman named Andrew McDermot. ... It had so happened that Sinclair had taken an instant liking to McDermot and felt impelled to give him a chest of his own China tea. Agreeably surprised at Sinclair's impulsive show of generosity, McDermot left Oxford House with his prize tied in a calfskin and slung triumphantly over his shoulder - this prize, he later said, became the basis of his free trading with the Indians.

     Once these unhappy strangers had left his outpost Sinclair felt deep concern for their safety. ... So troubled was Sinclair for the settlers' welfare that he set out in the dead of winter to visit them at their proposed headquarters, Fort Douglas, at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. When Sinclair reached Red River he did not find the settlers at their new fort, but at a pathetically inadequate encampment farther to the south, near Pembina. There the Selkirk people had set up a group of hastily constructed shelters, which they called Fort Daer, close to the buffalo plains.

     To commemorate Sinclair's visit to the Selkirk people at Fort Daer in the winter of 1813-14, Captain Macdonell wrote in his journal:

     "Assembled our people. Mr. Sinclair asks for a holiday for them, and also liquor for them to drink. The people enjoyed themselves much and kept it up for the greater part of the night. The gentlemen did the same."

     The ship that brought the papers in the autumn of 1813 for delivery to Captain Miles Macdonell also carried a dispatch ordering Sinclair to London by the next company ship bound for Britain.

Years of Hardship

     In obedience to the order, "in the autumn of 1814, Mr. Sinclair returned to England by the Company's ship-of-the-year," which also carried Superintendent William Auld to receive his own dismissal. William Auld, then officer in charge of company affairs at York Factory, had vociferously opposed the grandiose plans of the astute if idealistic Lord Selkirk to place a colony of evicted Highland crofters at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, which chanced to be within William Sinclair's new sphere of administration.

     Auld's opposition to Lord Selkirk and his faction surely brought about his downfall and was a factor in the demotion of his friend William Sinclair as well. The latter was actually in sympathy with, and did all in his power to aid, the unhappy Selkirk people after their arrival in his territory. The rebuff Sinclair was given was somewhat less final than Auld's, for he was instructed to "return to Hudson Bay as a Chief Trader," but his post would be "determined upon by the Governor of the Country." This provided a poor prospect for Sinclair, since he did not stand in the same favour with Auld's successor at York Factory, Governor Thomas Thomas.

     Furthermore, as if to somewhat soften the company's action toward Sinclair, Andrew Wedderburn - now known as "Colvile," and a man of growing influence in company affairs - in recognition of Sinclair's kindness to the Selkirk people, signed a document appointing him "one of the Councillors of Governor Robert Semple," who had replaced Captain Miles Macdonell as leader of the Selkirk settlement.

     But Sinclair was not permitted to enjoy this belated honour. He returned to York Factory in August, 1815, to be assigned by Governor Thomas to an inferior post at Knee Lake, with the title of "Chief of the Island Lake Trading District,"... Sinclair's post at Knee Lake was an old establishment on an almost abandoned waterway between Oxford House and Hudson Bay. ... The only compensation the place afforded was that it was comparatively near his old post at Oxford Lake. There his wife and children had remained during Sinclair's absence in Britain, in the care of his oldest son, William, whom he had trained to be an efficient assistant trader. Two of Sinclair's daughters had also married resident traders at his old home post.

     The harsh demands now made upon him with advancing age, seriously impaired health, and the frustrating conditions experienced in his demotion took their toll, and he determined to return to Britain. He was evidently anxious not only to seek competent medical aid but to once more place his case before Colvile and the company's London committee in the hope of securing a more promising post. He succeeded in reaching York Factory in the autumn of 1816, accompanied by his eldest son William, in time to board the company's annual ship bound for Gravesend.

Voyage of Disaster

     The ship bearing them to Britain had been unusually late that year in setting out from York Factory. September 23 had long been considered the latest possible date of sailing in order to avoid being trapped for the winter in the ice of Hudson Bay. For some reason, in the year 1816 the ship did not leave port until October 6; she was out of York Factory but seven days and racing against time when she was overtaken by a severe storm near Mansell Island. The entrance to Hudson Bay was already closed by floe ice, which had formed over an old, unthawed ice ridge that had remained from the year before. No means of escape from the Bay was left for the ship. A fierce northeast gale suddenly drove the ship back the full length of Hudson Bay. ... The experienced captain wisely sought shelter at Charlton Island, near Moose Factory in James Bay, the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company's southern department.

     At Charlton, the ship's company was removed across the narrow channel from the island to the mainland in small boats, for the water there was still free of ice. The party from the ship arrived at Moose Factory on October 28, 1816. ... William Sinclair, the elder, was immediately placed in the company's service at Moose Factory.

     Sinclair knew this part of the country well from former trading expeditions through it. He was at once set carrying dispatches and escorting parties between posts despite his failing health. The Moose Factory journal of November 6, 1816, states: "despatched to Severn William Sinclair with news of this unfortunate event," meaning the detention of the ship at Charlton and the holding of the passengers, crew, and furs in and near Moose Factory for the duration of the winter.

     The officer commanding Moose Factory decided to send Sinclair's son, William, with other of the ship's passengers including one woman and twenty men, to a nearby goose [hunting] camp at Capusco for the duration of the winter. ... William Sinclair, the elder, was kept busy transporting goods and carrying dispatches from Moose as far as Albany Post - another outpost halfway between Moose and Severn House - from the end of October to December 10, 1816.

The Final Years

     On December 12, 1816, Jack Corrigal - the master of Albany Post - wrote the following instructions for Sinclair:

     Having received instructions to despatch you to the N'ward Department as soon as possible with news of the unfortunate event of the ship's wintering in the country, I have, therefore, engaged and Indian, (Nequal), to guide you to Severn, and being much disturbed for want of provisions, I am under the necessity to send the following returned passengers along with you. They are able men, and I hope you make a quick journey.

     Sinclair made this trip to Severn House and on to York Factory in the dead of winter to bear the news of the ship's misfortune to the company's northern headquarters. For the remainder of the winter he appears to have resumed his trading between York Factory and his post at Knee Lake. There is proof of this in his somewhat remarkable "Journal, York Factory to Oxford House, 1816-1817," which gives striking evidence of the difficulties and suffering he experienced at this time with increasingly poor health. His ailment seems to have been an advanced form of dropsy [edema] in the legs [a symptom of heart failure]. ... Somehow he was able to cover the long distance to the post at Brandon House beyond the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to see once more his old friend, the famous trader, Peter Fidler. On December 30, 1817, Fidler wrote in his journal, "Sinclair's dropsy very bad. Twice tapped for it."

     It was evidently Fidler who saw that Sinclair, now gravely ill, was transported by sled with a party of company men, travelling with a winter packet to York Factory up the ice of Lake Winnipeg and along the Hayes River route, for Sinclair died at York Factory on April 20, 1818. He was buried "across Schooner Creek where the Company's small trading ship was laid up for the winter outside of the old Indian graveyard upon which the Hayes River was encroaching and eating away the banks." This simple tribute was paid Sinclair by the company's officers at York: "He was a good trader, a steady man, and beloved by the natives."

William Sinclair Bequeaths

     During the period of Sinclair's misfortunes and wanderings, his native wife, Nahovway, had remained mostly at Oxford House to care for their children as best she could. Time and again Sinclair seems to have returned for a short visit with his family and to add another child to the brood - the last son, Colin, being born several months after the death of his father.

     The oldest son, William [the Younger], was now twenty-four and doing well in the company's service at a post near Lesser Slave Lake. Between William and the infant Colin ranked the other nine children of the Sinclair family - most of them girls. To all of these children William Sinclair, the elder, left bequests in his peculiarly involved will, except to one, his daughter Elizabeth, known familiarly in the records as "Betsy" Sinclair.

     He ordered that "all my papers of every description be immediately destroyed ... all that is not relative to monies." ... The freehold property in the Orkneys that Sinclair had inherited on his native island of Pomona [Mainland], and which endowed him with a kind of lesser nobility, he bequeathed to his brother, Thomas, with the instructions that he should care for his two unmarried sisters [Ann and Mary] for the remainder of their lives.

     [Further information on this will was found in "A Londoner in Rupert's Land" by Denis Bayley, pg. 36.]

     In the first few days of 1818, a weary traveller arrived at York at the end of a long journey. He was seriously ill. It was William Sinclair, Thomas Bunn's great friend and father-in-law. [Wm.] Sinclair executed his Will on 5 January, James Swain, Thomas Bunn and William C. Woodthorp being witnesses. He died on 20 April, and was buried in the graveyard at Schooner Creek. Delay was inevitable before the lawyers in London could prove the Will, which was eventually effected in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 27 November 1819. By its provisions, Phoebe Bunn [nee Sinclair] received a legacy of £50 from her father; and a codicil, dated 1 April 1818, added 'To my beloved friend Mr. Thomas Bunn, I leave the Sum of Eight Guineas to purchase a ring which he will keep in remembrance of me', and it desired that all his crockery ware be divided equally between Thomas Bunn [married to his daughter Phoebe], James Kirkness [married to his daughter Jane] and Joseph Cook [married to his daughter Catherine], and 'All my private papers of every description to be put into the hands of Messrs. Cook and Bunn, and they will immediately destroy all that is not relative to monies'.


Footnotes:

  1. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was established by royal charter in 1670. It is one of the oldest and longest continuing corporations ever formed. It was often referred to as the "Here Before Christ" company, which in a sense was true because there were no clergymen in the area of Canada where William Sinclair worked until the mid 1800s. [Back to text.]

  2. Rupert's Land was all the land given to Prince Rupert and the Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson's Bay (HBC) by King Charles II in the royal charter of 1670 which established HBC. It involved all the land bordering on rivers draining into Hudson's and James Baies. This meant most of present day Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and part of the North West Territories. [Back to text.]

  3. A "Factor" or "Chief Factor" (sometimes "Governor") was the HBC officer in charge of a very large factory or fur trading post such as York Factory or Moose Factory. It was a step above Chief Trader, the only men allowed to barter furs. The rank went from laborer at the bottom to apprentice clerk, clerk, chief trader and then chief factor. [Back to text.]

  4. "Crofter" is a British term referring to a tenant farmer who worked a small, usually very poor farm. Many of these farmers lost their lands in the "Highland Clearances" when English lords took over their property. [Back to text.]

All original material on this page is copyright © Neil Ray 1997.

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