Thomas Simpson (explorer)

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Thomas Simpson (July 2, 1808 – June 14, 1840) was an arctic explorer, Hudson's Bay Company agent and cousin of HBC 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.

Early life

Simpson was born in Dingwall, Scotland the son of magistrate Alexander Simpson (1751–1821) by his second wife Mary who had helped raise George Simpson. He was a sickly and timid youth, avoiding rough sport. He was educated with a view to his becoming a clergyman, and was sent to King's College, Aberdeen at the age of seventeen. Sir George Simpson 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. 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. In 1829 he arrived in Norway House to join the Hudson's Bay Company as George Simpson's secretary.

Simpson was stationed at the Red River Colony in the 1830s, serving as second officer to chief factor Christie.

Arctic Expedition

Landmarks on the north coast. Point Barrow at the upper left, Mackenzie River, Coronation Gulf with the Coppermine River at its west end and Point Turnagain at its east end, Queen Maud Gulf, Adelaide Peninsula, Chantry Inlet/Back River, Boothia Peninsula, Gulf of Boothia and Melville Peninsula/Baffin Island. This map falsely shows the Coppermine draining from the Great Slave Lake and a questionable River at the southeast end of Coronation Gulf.

From 1836 to 1839, Thomas 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 Simpson. Several writers [1][2] present Simpson as an ambitious and over-confident young man while Dease was 20 years older, experienced in Arctic travel, efficient but perhaps under-confident. Ten more men went with them including the canoemen James McKay and George Sinclair who had been with George Back in his 1834 journey down the Back River.

The expedition was organized by the Hudson's Bay Company rather than the Royal Navy which did most of the northwest passage work. They were to descend the Mackenzie River to the Arctic, 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 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. 1836: They spent the winter of 1836-37 at Fort Chipewyan where they built two 24-foot boats. 1837 (west): They left on June 1 and a month later reached the mouth of the Great Bear River. There they detached four men to go upriver to the 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 went west along the coast past Franklin's Return Reef until they were blocked by ice at Boat Extreme about 50 miles east of Point Barrow. Simpson and five men continued on foot and reached Point Barrow on 4 August. They returned to the Fort Confidence on 25 September. At this point the north coast had been mapped from Bering Strait to the mouth of the Coppermine. 1838 (east): Early in the year Simpson went overland to find the upper Coppermine River. In 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 ([3]) east to a place he called Point Alexander.[4] 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. 1839 (east again): 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 (Nunavut) 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, 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 possibly 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 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 straits of the Fury and Hecla and the eastern limits of his previous explorations. To attend to preparations for this new expedition, he immediately left for the Red River Colony, making the entire 1,910 mi (3,070 km) journey in 61 days, arriving on February 2, 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 the June 6, 1840, intending to travel south to the Minnesota River, 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 Méti traveling companions in order to make better time.

On June 14, 1840, he and two of his companions were fatally shot at a wilderness camp in the U.S. territory 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 Legros Senior. Legros Junior and James Bruce fled to the main party. When the posse reached the site they found Legros Sr. dead and Simpson alive. Five minutes later Simpson was dead. All involved said that the wound was self-inflicted.

The investigation, which for administrative reasons was conducted by the U.S. territory of Iowa, 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 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 is 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 Simpson, 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 the traveling companions were planning to steal Thomas Simpson's 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 people have studied the evidence in Simpson's death without reaching a conclusion.[5] 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.


  1. Glyn Williams, "Arctic Labyrinth", 2008, chapter 14
  2. Anthony Brandt,"The Man Who Ate His Boots", Chapter 15
  3. "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.
  4. Derek Hayes<Historical Atlas of the Arctic",page 80 gives his turning point as the Beaufort River 2 days beyond Cape Alexander, but what is now called the Beaufort River is 10 miles west of Cape Alexander
  5. James Raffan, "Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson.. etc", chapter 15