POTTS, JOHN, HBC surgeon and post factor; d. 28 June 1764 at Prince of Wales Fort (Churchill, Man.).
John Potts was one of several “surgeons” (their formal medical qualifications were often sketchy) sent to Hudson Bay in the 18th century who became factors at Hudson’s Bay Company posts. First engaged in 1738 to serve as surgeon for three years at York Factory (Man.), he went back to the bay in 1745, this time as surgeon at Moose Factory (Ont.). In the season 1747–48 he took command of the latter post when the factor returned to England because of ill health; and in 1750 he replaced the disgraced Thomas Mitchell as factor of the new trading post at Richmond Gulf (Lac Guillaume-Delisle, Que.), far to the north along the East Main coast.
Potts was set three main objectives: to complete the building of the post, to develop the fur trade among the Indians of the interior, and to supervise the three miners hopefully sent out to work mineral deposits just south of Richmond Gulf. His years at the post were ones of frustration and failure. In 1751 he sent home the trio of “disorderly and intolerably idle” miners, whose efforts had produced only some sulphur and lowgrade brass; the next year he declared of the fur trade that “we Realy think (having now had Experience) that it never will turn out to Your Honours Satisfaction.” Attempts to persuade servants to venture inland to make contact with the elusive Naskapi Indians of the Labrador interior failed, and although a few Naskapis and some of the coastal Crees [see Crusoe] came to the post they brought little trade. The Indians to the south generally continued to trade with Eastmain House (at the mouth of the Eastmain River) or the other established HBC posts towards James Bay, and as Potts’ deputy pointed out, “Richmond Fort can never rise but on the ruins of Eastmain.” The company had hoped that the post’s northerly situation would attract Eskimos, but after a clash in 1754 which resulted in the deaths, first of a young HBC servant and subsequently of two Eskimo hostages, Eskimos avoided the area. The incident, together with Potts’ commercial ineffectiveness and the suspicion that he was engaged in private trade, brought a heavy reproof from the London committee, which told him, “We are greatly displeased with your management.” With the post receiving only the derisory total of £100 worth of furs in six years, the HBC decided in 1756, apparently on Potts’ recommendation, to move it southward to Little Whale River, where it would be better placed for the white whale fishery.
Potts met with no more success here, and in 1759 the company abandoned the post, since “no Trade of any sort can possibly be Obtained in that part of Hudsons Bay the least beneficial to the Company or Advantageous to the Nation.” Lack of country provisions, mutual fears and antagonisms among the Indians and Eskimos, and the reluctance of the garrison to journey inland, all made the factor’s task an unenviable one; but his gloomy journals and letters give little indication that Potts was the right man for this difficult post.
After a year’s leave in England Potts returned in 1761 to the less strenuous position of surgeon at Prince of Wales, and there he served until his death three years later. Most of his clothes he had already given to his son John, also serving at the post; his feather bed and a cloth banyan were sent home to his wife Elizabeth. His only obituary was written by Moses Norton* in the Churchill post journal for 30 June 1764: “We also Buried Mr. Potts in as Decent a manner as I possibly Could, and as he had been Honrd with ye Command of one of your Honrs Forts and has always Beheaved well Ever Since he has been here, and on those Considerations I fired 7 of our 1 lb. Guns at his Funaral.”
[Potts’ Richmond Fort journals, more detailed than most kept by post factors, are in HBC Arch. B.182/a/1–4 and 6–11. His letters home are in A.11/57, and the company’s outward letters to Richmond are scattered through A.5/1 and A.6/8–9. Potts is mentioned in A.1/34, p.86; A.1/36, p.286; and occasionally in A.1/37–42. His service at Moose is referred to in A.6/7, f.72d. Details of his last illness and death are given in B.42/a/60. Brief studies of Richmond Fort in the 1750s will be found in Rich, History of the HBC, I, 619–24, and in HBRS, XXIV (Davies and Johnson), xxi–xxiv. g.w.]