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KNIGHT, JAMES, HBC governor and explorer; b. 1640?; d. 1719–20?

James Knight was probably born about 1640, since he was said to have been nearly 80 years old when he set out on his last voyage. His birthplace is not known but he was a shipwright or carpenter at Deptford, England, when he first entered the employ of the HBC on 16 May 1676. Most of his life was spent in the company’s service. Arriving at James Bay in August 1676, he spent the next five years as a carpenter at £42 per annum, apparently building or repairing the factories at Rupert, Moose, and Albany Rivers. In 1680 he was considered for the post of deputy governor but the appointment went to the surgeon, Walter Farr.

Knight returned to London in August 1681 and on 28 October he reported to the HBC’s committee on the factories, the Indians, and the country. The committee members realized that they had a good man, and consulted him frequently while preparations were being made to send an expedition to the bay in 1682. He advised on guns, supplies, and trade goods and, as a shipwright, examined the Albemarle. On 8 Feb. 1682 he accepted an appointment as chief factor at Albany Fort with a salary of £70 per annum, but by 11 May the company made him deputy governor in the bay to John Nixon* and chief factor at Albany, with the wage increased to £100. As he was about to sail, an unexplained quarrel occurred, and on 28 May the captains of the ships Friendship and Lucy were ordered not to allow Knight on board, but the order was revoked the same day. The following day Knight sailed on the Friendship, taking his brother Richard with him as a personal servant.

He spent the next three years at Albany where his trading skill increased the HBC’s business along the western shore of the bay. Knight emerges as an able, gruff, rather illiterate man whose practical ability, energy, tenacity, and endurance assured his rapid advancement. He sailed for England in September 1685 aboard the Owners Goodwill (Capt. Richard Lucas*) arriving in the Downs 26 October. In early December he appeared before a sub-committee to answer charges by Governor Henry Sergeant*, Nixon’s successor, of private trading, about the worst offence an HBC employee could commit. Knight denied the charges of shipping home beaver skins in 1684 on the John and Thomas for his private account and produced documents supporting his contention that they had been addressed and shipped to the company. He was also suspected of being too friendly with the New England traders in the bay, and it was known that he was sympathetic with the New Englanders, a number of whom were employed by the company. The investigating committee was dissatisfied with Knight’s evidence but postponed a decision until the return of Governor Sergeant. Since the French under the Chevalier de Troyes* captured the posts at the Bottom of the Bay (James Bay) in 1686, Sergeant’s return was delayed and the case against Knight did not come up until November 1687. In the meantime, he submitted suggestions to the company on how the trade could be run more efficiently and expenses reduced. This may have been an effort to help get a favourable decision for his case but, if so, it did not work. Knight’s connection with the HBC was severed after the hearing.

It is not known how Knight was employed from late 1687 until 1692 when he again joined the company. In March of that year a secret meeting of the committee was held to consider sending a force to protect York Fort and also to retake the Bottom of the Bay. Probably by arrangement Captain James Knight, now referred to as “of London, Merchant,” was waiting in an ante-room. He was offered command of the proposed expedition but showed proper reluctance until, a month later, his own proposals – including a bonus of £500 if he recaptured Fort Albany (Fort Sainte-Anne) – had been considered and accepted. On 15 June 1692 he was issued royal letters patent making him governor and commander-in-chief of all forts, factories, and territories in Hudson Bay; he was to carry out reprisals and recover by force of arms territory held by the French.

Knight sailed in June 1692 with four ships – the Royal Hudsons Bay, Dering [II], Pery, and Prosperous – and 213 men: the most powerful expedition the company had yet sent to the bay. The fleet arrived 29 August at York Factory. The Dering returned to England, and Knight, after wintering at Old Factory Island (Gilpin Island) north of Eastmain River, with the other three vessels successfully attacked Albany Fort 22 June 1693. The gratified company voted him a bonus and named a new frigate in his honour. In October 1694 the French under Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville captured York but the English retook it 31 Aug. 1696. During this time Knight at Albany held the only English fort in the bay. Knight returned to England in 1697 with Captain Thomas Man on the frigate Pery and there learned that York Fort had once more been taken by the French. By the Treaty of Ryswick signed 20 Sept. 1697 England and France agreed with certain provisos to restore to each other territories held at the outbreak of the war. In fact the treaty was never put into effect in Hudson Bay; the English remained at Albany and the French at York Fort (renamed Fort Bourbon) on the Hayes River.

To expedite the exchange envisaged in the treaty the company called on Knight, its most experienced man, to resume charge of Albany Fort. This he agreed to do and sailed in early June 1698 on the Dering [III] (Capt. Michael Grimington) accompanied by the Pery (Capt. Henry Baley). Knight held the Pery in the bay and sent the Dering back to England. No supply ship was sent out in 1700 and Knight, with provisions at a low ebb, sailed for home in September in the Pery. He arrived 3 November, and by mid-November had acquired £400 of HBC stock. This, together with his previous holdings, made him eligible for the committee, to which he was elected. He was re-elected annually until 1713, and during this time apparently lived in London – he is now sometimes referred to as “of London, Gentleman.” He attended committee meetings quite regularly and made occasional business trips to Holland. In 1711, Knight agreed to go as governor to Albany, to replace Fullartine, but was prevented by sickness, and Anthony Beale went instead.

The War of the Spanish Succession ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, 31 March 1713. One of its provisions stipulated that France should return all Hudson Bay territories to Great Britain and reimburse the HBC for all damages due it. The company petitioned Queen Anne that the act of cession should be made to its representatives; a royal commission granted this request and authorized Captain James Knight and Henry Kelsey, his deputy, to receive the surrender. The two men embarked on the Union frigate, 6 June 1714, and arrived off York Fort, 5 September. On the 11th Knight went ashore and received the formal surrender of Nicolas Jérémie, the French commander.

With the entire bay now in company control there was opportunity to improve and consolidate trade. Knight, who remained on at York as governor, now lent his efforts to stopping the continual warfare between Crees (Home Indians) and Athapascans (Northern Indians) which interfered with the fur trade. His efforts to improve trade received an early set-back, however, when Captain Joseph Davis failed to deliver the cargo from England in 1715. It was also planned that Knight found a post at the Churchill River where an abortive attempt had been made in 1689. Knight was influenced in planning a northern post by several considerations. He wanted to bring in more trade from the Northern Indians, open a new trade with the Eskimos who came south seasonally as far as the Churchill River, and investigate the exciting reports from the Northern Indians of a mine of yellow metal to the northwest. These reports appeared to be substantiated when, on 7 May 1716, William Swart returned from his long journey inland accompanied by the slave woman, Thanadelthur. After the death of Thanadelthur on 5 Feb. 1717, Knight acquired for “60 skins” another Slave Woman, who was to act as interpreter during the expedition to Churchill.

Knight dispatched an advance party including John Carruthers and William Stuart for the Churchill River in June 1717. He himself followed a month later on the hoy Success and spent the winter of 1717–18 at the new settlement at the river’s mouth, which was named Fort Prince of Wales, later Churchill. On his departure at the end of the 1717–18 season Richard Staunton* was left in charge. In 1717 Knight wrote the committee requesting that he be recalled the following year. His request was granted. Henry Kelsey was appointed his successor, and in September 1718 Knight left the bay on the Albany frigate with hopes of persuading the committee to send an expedition northward to find a way to the gold and copper mines which he was convinced could be reached by sea. He undoubtedly discussed his plans at length with Captain George Berley of the Albany and Captain David Vaughan, who was also returning to England as a passenger, for these two were chosen as his captains the following year.

Knight explained his proposal to the committee on 18 November and other meetings continued during the winter. On 1 May 1719 the committee finally agreed that Knight go on a voyage of discovery to the north of 64° to seek the Strait of Anian leading into a northwest passage, to enlarge and increase the company’s trade, to discover gold and copper mines, and to establish a whaling industry. His ships were to be the Albany frigate and the new sloop Discovery commanded by his old friends Berley and Vaughan. Knight said farewell to the governor and committee at Gravesend 4 June 1719 and took his departure. The expedition was never again seen by white men. Knight planned to, and apparently did, sail directly to the north of 64° without stopping at any of the Hudson Bay forts. In 1721 Kelsey in a trading voyage to the north found evidence among the Eskimos which left little doubt that the ships had been wrecked. In 1722 Kelsey sent Captain John Scroggs on the sloop Whalebone northward. On his return Scroggs stated that both ships had been wrecked and all the men killed by the Eskimos. On 29 September the two ships were written off the company books.

Nearly half a century later the tragic fate of the expedition was discovered by Samuel Hearne* who found remains of two ships, a dwelling, and wreckage in a cove on Marble Island. He returned in 1769 and confirmed from interviews with the Eskimos that this was indeed where the Knight expedition had perished. The Eskimos said that about 50 men were building a house in the late fall of 1719 after their ships had been wrecked. By spring their numbers were greatly reduced and by the end of a second winter only 20 men survived. Five lived until the summer of 1721 when they, too, died.

Sometime during his life James Knight had married. His will, giving his residence as Bisham in Berkshire, probated 23 Sept. 1724, left his estate to his wife Elizabeth. The will also contained a curious reference to Knight’s son: “to my son Gilpin Knight one shilling and no more he having been already advanced by me in the world Considerably more than my Circumstances could allow of.”

Ernest S. Dodge

Knight’s journal from 14 July to 13 Sept. 1717 has been edited by J. F. Kenney and published with an historical Intro. and Notes under the title The founding of Churchill. HBRS, VIII (Rich); XII, XX (Rich and Johnson); XXI (Rich); XXV (Davies and Johnson). DNB. Dodge, Northwest by sea. Williams, The British search for the northwest passage.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ernest S. Dodge, “KNIGHT, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/knight_james_2E.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/knight_james_2E.html
Author of Article: Ernest S. Dodge
Title of Article: KNIGHT, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1969
Year of revision: 1969
Access Date: December 19, 2014