STUART, JOHN, fur trader and explorer; b. 12 Sept. 1780, probably at Leanchoil, near Nethy Bridge, Scotland, son of Donald Stuart and Janet Grant; d. 14 Jan. 1847 near Forres, Scotland.
After receiving some education, John Stuart joined the North West Company in 1796, perhaps under the auspices of Roderick Mackenzie who had known him as a boy. Stuart was sent to Fort Chipewyan (Alta), and subsequently served at various posts in the Athabasca department. In 1805 he was assistant to Simon Fraser*, who had been charged with finding a supply route over the Rocky Mountains for the purpose of extending NWC operations into present-day British Columbia. That fall the two men established Rocky Mountain House (Alta) and the following year what would be called Fort St James (B.C.) on Stuart Lake. Because both Indians and traders were suffering from famine, Stuart was sent to explore a route to Nat-len (Fraser Lake), where provisions were reputed to be plentiful. On the strength of his report, Fraser built a post on that lake in 1806. Stuart spent the winter of 1806–7 on McLeod Lake at Fort McLeod, established in 1805.
With the arrival of extra men and supplies in the fall of 1807, preparations began for the descent of the river now known as the Fraser but then thought to be the Columbia. On 28 May 1808 Stuart, as second-in-command, left Fort George (Prince George) with Fraser and 22 men on the epic journey down the river. It was a harrowing experience requiring superhuman perseverance and skill in navigating the whirlpools, rapids, and perpendicular rock canyons. On 2 July they passed the site of New Westminster and came within sight of the Strait of Georgia. They returned upriver, arriving at Fort George on 6 August. The voyage was a disappointment, for the river was not a navigable supply route, nor was it the Columbia. Stuart had proven himself an invaluable lieutenant: he was a good judge of river navigation, kept the official log, took the meridian observations, and was fearless before the suspicious Indians, some of whom had never before seen white men.
Stuart returned to McLeod Lake and in 1809 was given charge of New Caledonia, the area west of the mountains. In 1813 he left Stuart Lake for the Columbia, searching for a supply route between New Caledonia and the Pacific coast. In October at Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.), he was one of the signatories to the bill of sale of the Pacific Fur Company to the NWC. That year he became an NWC partner. Stuart returned to Fort St James in 1814, in which year trade goods were received from Fort George via the Fraser, Thompson, Okanagan, and Columbia rivers. This route, which enabled the posts in New Caledonia to receive their supplies by ship from England rather than overland from Montreal, does not appear to have been adopted permanently by the NWC.
From 1817 until 1820 Stuart seems to have been in charge of Pierre au Calumet (north of Fort McMurray, Alta). With other Nor’Westers he took part in the successful harassment of Hudson’s Bay Company men, notably John Clarke*, who were trying to gain a toehold in the Athabasca country. By March 1821 he was back at Fort George, directing the establishment of Fort Alexandria (Alexandria, B.C.) that year.
After the amalgamation of the NWC and the HBC in 1821 Stuart was made a chief factor and remained in charge of New Caledonia until 1824. By that time he could “no longer engage in the trials and hardships” that had been almost natural to him, and he asked to be transferred. He prided himself on his understanding and treatment of the Indians and the murder by two Carriers in 1823 of two HBC employees at Fort George had profoundly affected him [see ˀKwah]. He subsequently assumed charge of the Saskatchewan district (1824–26) and the Winnipeg district (1826–32). His appointment in 1832 to the Mackenzie River district, an unusual posting for an officer of his service and inclination, may have been a punitive act. In 1830 Stuart had grumbled about the business methods employed in New Caledonia by Chief Factor John McLoughlin* and he had criticized Governor George Simpson* and John George McTavish for abandoning their country wives. Simpson’s unnecessarily harsh description of Stuart in his “Character book” of 1832 was an about-face, for in 1828 he had referred to Stuart as “the Father . . . of New Caledonia; where for 20 years of his Life, he was doomed to all the misery and privation . . . who with a degree of exertion, of which few men were capable, overcame difficulties, to which the business of no other part of the country was exposed.”
Stuart was granted a furlough in 1835, which was extended for health reasons until 1 June 1839, when he left the HBC’s service. During that period, in 1838, he wrote to Simpson, Edward Ellice*, and Alexander Stewart, a long-time associate, recommending his nephew Donald Alexander Smith*, later Lord Strathcona, for employment in the HBC. Stuart retired to Forres, Scotland, and died near there at Springfield House in 1847. He had at least three children: a daughter, Isabel, born in 1802, whose mother is unknown, and two sons, Donald and John, by Catherine La Valle. In 1827 Stuart took another country wife, Mary Taylor. She joined him in Scotland in 1836 but because he withdrew his promise to marry her formally she returned to Rupert’s Land in 1838. There was considerable litigation over Stuart’s legacy to her, which Stuart’s sisters managed to have reduced from £500 to £350.
Stuart was a man of courage, a good traveller and trader, and fair in his dealings with the Indians. He deserves to be remembered as an outstanding officer of the North West Company, and although he did not always agree with the management policies of the HBC he nevertheless served it well. Stuart Lake in British Columbia was named in his honour.
PAM, HBCA, A.1/60: 90; A.5/11: 160; A.10/7: f.306; A.44/3: 70; B.4/b/1: ff.9, 14d–15; B.39/a/10: ff.1d–5; B.188/a/l: ff.49–49d; B.188/b/1: f.43; B.200/a/15: ff.11d, 29d; B.239/k/1: ff.5d, 11d–12, 26, 43, 64d, 107d, 134d, 160d; B.239/k/2: 5, 31, 61; B.239/k/3: ff.43, 62d, 76d; C.1/834; D.4/116: ff.51d–53; D.5/31: f.482; E.24/1: ff.14d–15, 31d; F.1/1: 271–72; John Stuart file. PRO, PROB 11/2138: ff.149–50. Simon Fraser, The letters and journals of Simon Fraser, 1806–1808, ed. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1960). Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). D. W. Harmon, Sixteen years in the Indian country: the journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800–1816, ed. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1957). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 10 (Rich); 30 (Williams). G. C. Davidson, The North West Company (Berkeley, Calif., 1918; repr. New York, 1967). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”. J. N. Wallace, The wintering partners on Peace River from the earliest records to the union in 1821; with a summary of the Dunvegan journal, 1806 (Ottawa, 1929). W. S. Wallace, “Strathspey in the Canadian fur-trade,” Essays in Canadian history presented to George MacKinnon Wrong for his eightieth birthday, ed. Ralph Flenley (Toronto, 1939), 278–95. Corday MacKay, “With Fraser to the sea,” Beaver, outfit 275 (December 1944): 3–7.
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Cite This Article
Shirlee Anne Smith, “STUART, JOHN (1780-1847),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stuart_john_1780_1847_7E.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:
|Author of Article:||Shirlee Anne Smith|
|Title of Article:||STUART, JOHN (1780-1847)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||May 31, 2023|