Thomas Simpson (explorer)

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Thomas Simpson
Thomas Simpson (explorer).jpg
Born(1808-07-02)2 July 1808
Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland
Died14 June 1840(1840-06-14) (aged 31)
Education University of Aberdeen
Occupation Arctic explorer
Employer Hudson's Bay Company
Frances Ramsay(m. 1829)

Thomas Simpson (2 July 1808 – 14 June 1840) was a Scottish Arctic explorer, Hudson's Bay Company agent and cousin of Company Governor Sir George Simpson. His violent death in what is now the state of Minnesota—allegedly by suicide after gunning down two traveling companions in the wilderness—has long been a subject of controversy.

Scottish people ethnic inhabitants of Scotland

The Scottish people or Scots, are a nation and ethnic group native to Scotland. Historically, they emerged from an amalgamation of two Celtic-speaking peoples, the Picts and Gaels, who founded the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Later, the neighbouring Celtic-speaking Cumbrians, as well as Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons and Norse, were incorporated into the Scottish nation.

Arctic exploration

Arctic exploration is the physical exploration of the Arctic region of the Earth. It refers to the historical period during which mankind has explored the region north of the Arctic Circle. Historical records suggest that humankind have explored the northern extremes since 325 BC, when the ancient Greek sailor Pytheas reached a frozen sea while attempting to find a source of the metal tin. Dangerous oceans and poor weather conditions often fetter explorers attempting to reach polar regions and journeying through these perils by sight, boat, and foot has proven difficult.

Hudsons Bay Company Canadian retail business group

The Hudson's Bay Company is a Canadian retail business group. A fur trading business for much of its existence, HBC now owns and operates retail stores in Canada, the United States, and parts of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. The company's namesake business division is Hudson's Bay, commonly referred to as The Bay. Other divisions include Galeria Kaufhof, Home Outfitters, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. HBC's head office is currently located in Brampton, Ontario. The company is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol "HBC".


Early life

Simpson was born in Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland, the son of magistrate Alexander Simpson (1751–1821), a schoolteacher, by his second wife Mary, who had helped raise George Simpson. Thomas had a half-brother, Aemilius, and a full brother, Alexander. [1] [ incomplete short citation ] He was a sickly and timid youth, avoiding rough sport. After his father's death the family ended up in financial distress, but despite this he was given a proper education. [1]

Dingwall town in Scotland

Dingwall is a town and a royal burgh in the Highland council area of Scotland. It has a population of 5,491. It was an east-coast harbour that now lies inland. Dingwall Castle was once the biggest castle north of Stirling. On the town's present-day outskirts lies Tulloch Castle, parts of which may date back to the 12th-century building. In 1411 the Battle of Dingwall is said to have taken place between the Clan Mackay and the Clan Donald.

Ross-shire Historic county in Scotland

Ross-shire is a historic county in the Scottish Highlands. The county borders Sutherland to the north and Inverness-shire the south, as well as a complex border with Cromartyshire which consists of numerous enclaves and exclaves of the latter scattered throughout Ross-shire's territory. It includes most of Ross as well as Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Dingwall is the traditional county town. The area of Ross-shire was based on that of the historic province of Ross, but with the exclusion of the many exclaves that formed Cromartyshire.

Magistrate Officer of the state, usually judge

The term magistrate is used in a variety of systems of governments and laws to refer to a civilian officer who administers the law. In ancient Rome, a magistratus was one of the highest ranking government officers, and possessed both judicial and executive powers. In other parts of the world, such as China, a magistrate was responsible for administration over a particular geographic area. Today, in some jurisdictions, a magistrate is a judicial officer who hears cases in a lower court, and typically deals with more minor or preliminary matters. In other jurisdictions, magistrates may be volunteers without formal legal training who perform a judicial role with regard to minor matters.

Simpson was educated with a view to his becoming a clergyman, and was sent to King's College, Aberdeen, at the age of 17. He performed quite well and had been given the Huttonian prize, the highest award at the college, by the end of his fourth year. Sir George Simpson, his cousin, offered him a position in the Hudson's Bay Company in 1826, which he declined in order to complete his studies. He graduated in 1828, at the age of 20, with a Master of Arts degree. He enrolled in a divinity class that winter with the goal of becoming a clergyman when the offer of a position in the Hudson's Bay Company was again extended, and this time he accepted. By his own confession he had "a little of the spirit of contradiction and an unwillingness to be led."[ This quote needs a citation ]

Kings College, Aberdeen College of University of Aberdeen

King's College in Old Aberdeen, Scotland, the full title of which is The University and King's College of Aberdeen, is a formerly independent university founded in 1495 and now an integral part of the University of Aberdeen. Its historic buildings are the centrepiece of the University of Aberdeen's Old Aberdeen campus, often known as the King's or King's College campus.

George Simpson (HBC administrator)

Sir George Simpson was the Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson's Bay Company during the period of its greatest power. From 1820 to 1860 he was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the whole of Rupert's Land, an enormous chunk of northern North America.

The degree of Master of Arts (MA) in Scotland typically refers to an undergraduate degree in humanities or social sciences awarded by one of the ancient universities of Scotland plus the University of Dundee and Heriot-Watt University. The first two years of the Scottish Master of Arts consist of ordinary Bachelor level courses; however, after these, students who are accepted to pursue the Honours route will complete more advanced subjects and write a dissertation in their fourth year. Students who choose to do a "general" degree will complete their third year at a lower level of specialisation, and receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or MA without Honours. For the postgraduate degree referred to in other places as "Master of Arts", Scottish universities usually award the degree of Master of Letters (MLitt). Generally, non-ancient universities in Scotland, award arts degrees as Bachelor of Arts.

In 1829, Thomas Simpson arrived in Norway House to join the Hudson's Bay Company as George's secretary. He was quite ambitious and in a letter to his brother stated that his talents would lead him to speedy advancement. In 1829 or 1830, he married Frances Ramsay Simpson, daughter of his uncle Geddes. Simpson was absent during Frances' pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of a son. [2] [ incomplete short citation ] He was stationed at the Red River Colony in the 1830s, serving as second officer to chief factor Christie.

Norway House Place in Manitoba, Canada

Norway House is a population centre of over 5,000 people some 30 km (19 mi) north of Lake Winnipeg, on the bank of the eastern channel of Nelson River, in the province of Manitoba, Canada. The population centre shares the name Norway House with the northern community of Norway House and Norway House 17, a First Nation reserve of the Norway House Cree Nation. Thus, Norway House has both a Chief and a Mayor.

Red River Colony settlement

The Red River Colony was a colonization project set up in 1811 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk on 300,000 square kilometres (120,000 sq mi) of land. This land was granted to him by the Hudson's Bay Company, which is referred to as the Selkirk Concession. The establishment of Canada in the late 19th century led to the creation of what is today Manitoba, although much of its original territory is now part of the United States.

Arctic exploration

From 1836 to 1839, Simpson was involved in an expedition to chart the Arctic coast of Canada in order to fill two gaps left by other expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage. The expedition was headed by Peter Warren Dease, a chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Thomas was the junior officer but Dease ceded most of the responsibility to him. Several writers [3] [4] present Simpson as an ambitious and over-confident young man, whereas Dease was 20 years older, experienced in Arctic travel, and efficient but perhaps under-confident. Ten more men went with them, including the canoemen James McKay and George Sinclair who had traveled with George Back during his 1834 journey down the Back River.

Canada Country in North America

Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres, making it the world's second-largest country by total area. Its southern border with the United States, stretching some 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world's longest bi-national land border. Canada's capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Northwest Passage sea route north of North America

The Northwest Passage (NWP) is, from the European and northern Atlantic point of view, the sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The eastern route along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Siberia is accordingly called the Northeast Passage (NEP).

Peter Warren Dease was a Canadian fur trader and arctic explorer.

The expedition was organized by the Hudson's Bay Company rather than the Royal Navy, which sponsored most of the Northwest Passage exploration. They were to descend the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean, turn west, and close the gap between John Franklin's 1826 furthest-west and Frederick William Beechey's furthest-east at Point Barrow. The next summer they were to go down the Coppermine River, repeat Franklin's 1821 route east to Cape Turnagain and continue along the unknown coast at least to the mouth of the Back River, which had been reached overland in 1834. They spent the winter of 1836 at Fort Chipewyan, where they built two 24-foot (7.3 m) boats.

Mackenzie River

The Mackenzie River is the longest river system in Canada, and has the second largest drainage basin of any North American river after the Mississippi River. The Mackenzie River flows through a vast, thinly populated region of forest and tundra entirely within the Northwest Territories in Canada, although its many tributaries reach into five other Canadian provinces and territories. The river's main stem is 1,738 kilometres (1,080 mi) long, flowing north-northwest from Great Slave Lake into the Arctic Ocean, where it forms a large delta at its mouth. Its extensive watershed drains about 20 percent of Canada. It is the largest river flowing into the Arctic from North America, and including its tributaries has a total length of 4,241 kilometres (2,635 mi), making it the thirteenth longest river system in the world.

John Franklin British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer

Sir John Franklin was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer of the Arctic. Franklin also served as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land from 1837 to 1843. He disappeared while on his last expedition, attempting to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage in the North American Arctic. The icebound ships were abandoned and the entire crew died of starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning, zinc deficiency, and scurvy.

Frederick William Beechey Royal Navy officer and geographer

Frederick William Beechey was an English naval officer and geographer.

The party left on 1 June and a month later reached the mouth of the Great Bear River. There they detached four men to go upriver to the Great Bear Lake and build winter quarters at Fort Confidence while the rest went down the Mackenzie to the Arctic, which they reached on 9 July. They then traveled west along the coast past Franklin's Return Reef until they were blocked by ice at Boat Extreme, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Point Barrow. Simpson and five men continued on foot and reached Point Barrow on 4 August. They returned to Fort Confidence on 25 September. At this point the north coast had been mapped from the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Coppermine.

Early in the year Simpson went overland to find the upper Coppermine River. In the summer they descended the Coppermine, which was full of meltwater, and reached the still-frozen Arctic. They waited two weeks for the ice to clear and began working slowly east. On 20 August they were blocked by ice a few miles from Franklin's Point Turnagain on the Kent Peninsula. Dease stayed behind with the boats and Simpson walked about 100 miles (160 km) [5] east to a place he called Point Alexander. [6] To the north he saw and named Victoria Land. To the east he saw open water in Queen Maud Gulf. He returned to Dease and the frozen-in boats. A few days later the ice suddenly cleared and they had an easy sail back to the Coppermine. They had gone only a little further than Franklin.

It was a better year for ice. They followed the same route, passed Point Turnagain and Cape Alexander, sailed for the first time the Dease Strait and the Queen Maud Gulf, found the Adelaide Peninsula and Simpson Strait to its north and reached Chantry Inlet where McKay and Sinclair had been in 1834. At Montreal Island, they found a cache left by George Back in 1834. Leaving Chantry Inlet they were struck by a gale that lasted four days. Fifty miles northeast they turned back at the Castor and Pollux River. Returning, they followed the south shore of King William Island to a point they called Cape Hershel, where the coast turned north, then followed the south shore of Queen Maud Gulf and the south shore of Victoria Island. It had been the longest boat voyage ever made in Canadian Arctic waters.

At this point the entire Arctic coast had been roughly mapped from the Bering Strait to beyond Chantry Inlet. The remaining problems were the possibility of a water route from Chantry Inlet to the Gulf of Boothia and the huge rectangular area north of the coast and south of the Parry Channel. The party returned to the Great Slave Lake in September of that year, and from there Thomas drew up a letter to the directors of the Hudson's Bay Company describing the results of the expedition, which was published in many newspapers of the day. He also transmitted a plan for an expedition to complete further exploration of the coast between the Fury and Hecla Strait and the eastern limits of his previous explorations.

To attend to preparations for this new expedition, Simpson immediately left for the Red River Colony, making the entire 1,910-mile (3,070 km) journey in 61 days, arriving on 2 February 1840. The annual canoes from Canada to the settlement in June of that year brought no word of the reception of his exploits, or authorization to continue exploration, as word had not reached England in time to reply at that opportunity. Without authorization from the Directors, Thomas had no authority to arrange another expedition. Instead of waiting for an entire year for word, he decided to return to England in person.


Thomas left the Red River Colony on 6 June 1840, intending to travel south to the Minnesota River, in the United States, where he would embark on a voyage that would eventually take him to England. He initially set out with a group of settlers and Métis, but soon left the main party with four Métis traveling companions in order to make better time.

On 14 June 1840, Simpson and two of his companions were fatally shot at a wilderness camp in the U.S. Territory of Iowa (in what is now the U.S. state of Minnesota). According to the two survivors, Simpson had become increasingly anxious and even deranged during the trip, finally accusing two of the party of plotting to kill him. He shot them, and the witnesses fled, returning to the larger party, a portion of which then went to Simpson's encampment. They found him dead of gunshot wounds, his shotgun beside him.

Witness depositions agreed that Simpson shot John Bird dead and mortally wounded Antoine Legros (dit Lecomte) Senior. Legros Junior and James Bruce then fled to the main party. When the posse reached the site they found Legros Sr. dead but Simpson still alive. Five minutes later Simpson was dead. All involved said that the wound was self-inflicted. The investigation that was conducted was based on witness depositions submitted in various locations. Authorities ruled the deaths a case of murder-suicide.

Bruce's deposition claimed that Simpson told him he killed the two men because they intended to "murder him on that night for his papers." Those papers were later sent to his cousin, Sir George Simpson. Three years later, when Sir George sent the papers to Thomas' younger brother Alexander, the diary and all correspondence between Sir George and Thomas were missing. What the missing papers may have contained remains unknown.

In the meantime, after Simpson's death, the company's directors in London had sent permission for him to continue with his explorations. He had also been awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal, and the British government had announced its intention of granting him a pension of £100 a year. Instead, being accused of murder and suicide, and being disgraced in the eyes of the church, Thomas was buried in an unmarked grave in Canada.


Thomas' brother, Alexander, published Thomas' Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39 in 1843, and later wrote The Life and Times of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic Explorer (London, 1845), in which he examined the possibility that Simpson's traveling companions had planned to steal his notes and maps, which they could have sold to the Hudson's Bay Company’s American rivals, and that Simpson was a victim of homicide.

A number of scholars have studied the evidence in Simpson's death without reaching a conclusion. [7] [ incomplete short citation ] The three main competing views of the case have been: 1) the official finding, that a deranged Simpson murdered two of his companions and then killed himself; 2) the conspiracy theory, that Simpson's companions murdered him, perhaps for his papers, and then covered up the crime; and 3) the shootout theory, that Simpson attacked his companions, killing two, but was then shot by the others, who invented the suicide story because they feared Simpson's prominence might lead to charges against them.

Famed explorer and historian Vilhjalmur Stefansson included the Simpson case in his 1938 book Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic. He found the official story, based on witnesses' depositions, to be unconvincing though not impossible. Stefansson and other historians have noted that the official investigation was far from thorough, perhaps because of the remote location of the deaths.

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  1. 1 2 THOMAS Retrieved on 20 Jan 2018
  2. Simpson, Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies Retrieved on 20 Jan 2018
  3. Glyn Williams, "Arctic Labyrinth", 2008, chapter 14
  4. Anthony Brandt,"The Man Who Ate His Boots", Chapter 15
  5. "Peter Warren Dease", Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online gives 100 miles of coast but the Kent Peninsula is not quite that long and the coast is not much indented.
  6. Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of the Arctic, page 80, gives his turning point as the Beaufort River two days beyond Cape Alexander, but what is now called the Beaufort River is 10 miles west of Cape Alexander.
  7. James Raffan, "Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson.. etc", chapter 15

Other sources