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JACOBS, FERDINAND, HBC chief factor; b. c. 1713, probably in England; buried 21 Nov. 1783 in the parish of St Sepulchre, West Ham (Greater London), England.

Ferdinand Jacobs was engaged as an apprentice by the Hudson’s Bay Company in London on 20 April 1732. During his seven-year term the company was to supply him with clothes and “other necessaries” and at the end he was to receive £10. He sailed for Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.) that spring. In 1739 the chief factor there, Richard Norton*, described him as a “very Sober Deserving Young Man,” and he was granted an annual salary of £12. The following year he was appointed “accomptant” and assistant to the chief for three years, with a salary of £20 per annum.

Jacobs was a diligent and reliable officer who worked vigorously at the various jobs assigned to him. In addition to his duties as accountant he had charge of one of the main spring goose hunts, when in a month almost 3,000 geese would be shot and salted. In 1746 he took responsibility for obtaining the fort’s supply of wood, involving 20 men in four months of work. Jacobs, who had been appointed second under Robert Pilgrim* in 1745, continued in that position until 1752 when he succeeded Joseph Isbister as chief and began receiving an annual salary of £70.

The servants at Prince of Wales’s Fort, described by Isbister in 1748 as “a most intolerable Set of Sots,” sorely tested Jacobs’ patience during his first two years as chief. He sent the two worst offenders back to England and quickly brought order to the management of the fort. He sent the sloop north on exploring missions every year and also secured the services of Matonabbee, who became a leading Indian at the post. The construction of the post’s fortifications proceeded under his guidance, and at the end of three years the southwest curtain had been completed, part of the west bastion rebuilt, and new gun platforms laid. On 18 Aug. 1757 he informed the London committee with unconscious irony that “Better work Never was Done to the Building . . . which I am sure will stand for many Centurys.” In August 1782 it fell to the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup], who blew holes in the walls Jacobs had so painstakingly built.

Private trade in furs among company officers and servants was a serious problem for the London committee. In 1755 they wrote to Jacobs saying that they were “apprehensive from the large quantity of Furrs & Skins sent home on your account . . . you include therein those given by the Leading Indians in return for Presents made them of our goods.” The following year he received the strongest company censure of his long and active career: he was again reprimanded and told that the number of furs he had claimed exceeded that of all “our other Chiefs in the Bay put together.” Although Jacobs attempted to defend himself by saying that the furs had been given him in a “bond of friendship,” he was thoroughly familiar with the company’s trade policies and must have known that a three-year total of private furs with a net value of over £200 would be questioned.

Jacobs sailed to England on a year’s leave of absence in 1759 and returned to Churchill the following year with an increased salary of £100 per annum. On the death of James Isham* in 1761 he asked to be made chief at York Factory (Man.), “[my] State of Health being much Impair’d by my Constant application & Constant attention to the many works [at Churchill].” The request was granted and he arrived at York in 1762. By this time Jacobs had spent 30 years on Hudson Bay and had an unrivalled knowledge of the company’s business and the preferences of his Indian customers.

Jacobs continued to implement the London committee’s policy of trying to persuade the Indians to bring their furs down to the bay by sending a number of expeditions inland from York. The policy was not successful in the long run. The Indians dreaded the long, arduous journey to the bay, and when Canadian pedlars entered their territory they traded with them. In the years after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War and Pontiac*’s uprising, when trade through Montreal began to revive, fur returns at York dropped precipitously. In 1768 Jacobs wrote to the London committee urging that a post be built inland to compete with the Canadian traders. Consent was grudgingly given, but a shortage of qualified men and river craft delayed the project. It was not until 1774 that he was able to send Samuel Hearne and Matthew Cocking up the Saskatchewan River to found Cumberland House (Sask.), the company’s first western inland establishment. The next year, after 43 years of service at the bay, Jacobs retired from the company and returned to London. He died in November 1783.

Although it has been stated that Jacobs was “Canada’s first Jew,” no record of his religion has been traced in the HBC Archives. From the fort journals it is evident that he supported the Church of England. Like many company officers Jacobs formed an alliance with an Indian woman, and it is known that they had a son and a daughter. His son Samuel, who later served as an officer in the East India Company at Madras, India, was christened by the surgeon at Churchill on 22 Feb. 1756, and Jacobs himself was buried in a Church of England cemetery.

The HBC was well served by Ferdinand Jacobs. He realized the importance of initiating inland trade and advocated the building of inland posts to meet the competition of the Montreal traders. When the days were too short for the Indians to hunt, he fed them. He tried to curb the drunkenness of the company’s servants and encouraged them as well to attend divine service on Sundays. He treated both master and servant with fairness and understanding.

Shirlee Anne Smith

Guildhall Library (London), parish of St Sepulchre [1774–92], register of the book of burials, 1774, no.34. HBC Arch. A. 1/41, f.100; A.1/45, f.43d; A.1/140, f.76; A.1/144, f.10; A.5/1, ff.10d, 15d, 30; A.6/6, f.78; A.6/7, ff.75d, 183; A.6/10, f.31; A.6/12, ff.106, 164; A.6/13, f.135d; A.6/16, f.179d; A.11/13, ff.60, 122, 128–28d, 132d, 134, 138, 144, 150, 150d, 162, 174; A.11/15, f.22; A.11/115, ff.80, 116d, 168, 176d; A.11/155, ff.65, 77; B.42/a/25, f.32; B.42/a/28, ff.18d, 20d, 30; B.42/a/32, f.13d; B.42/a/40, f.26; B.42/a/46, f.22d; B.42/d/14–19; B.239/a/59, f.203; B.239/a/65, f.18; C.1/379, f.35. India Office Records (London), file FL2/PS/606 (letter from Mrs Judith Chibbett). PRO, Prob. 11/1110, f.569. Hearne, Journey from Prince of Waless Fort (Glover). A. A. Chiel, “Manitoba Jewish history – early times,” Hist. and Scientific Soc. of Man., Trans. (Winnipeg), 3rd ser., no.10 (1955), 14–29.

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Cite This Article

Shirlee Anne Smith, “JACOBS, FERDINAND,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jacobs_ferdinand_4E.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/jacobs_ferdinand_4E.html
Author of Article:   Shirlee Anne Smith
Title of Article:   JACOBS, FERDINAND
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 26, 2023