THOMAS, JOHN, fur trader; b. c. 1751 apparently in London; m. first Margaret (d. 1813), an Indian or mixed-blood woman, and they had nine children; m. secondly Meenish; d. 9 June 1822 and was buried 12 June in Christ Church cemetery, Montreal.
Following the surrender of New France in 1760, the Hudson’s Bay Company factories on Hudson and James bays found themselves subjected to increasing pressure inland by independent traders from Quebec, whom the HBC men scornfully called pedlars. In 1770 the HBC’s London committee, convinced that the company must establish posts to meet the competition, ordered its officers to explore the interior with a view to setting up posts. As a result, Cumberland House (Sask.) was built in 1774 by men from York Factory (Man.), and that same year the Moose Factory (Ont.) council sent John Thomas, who had joined the service as a writer in 1769, with three Indians to survey a route to Lake Abitibi. Thomas thus became the first company officer to visit the pedlars at Fort Abitibi (near La Sarre, Que.) and his journal contains a detailed description of the house and its occupants. In 1775 he journeyed east from Moose Factory across Hannah Bay (Ont.) and then up the Rivière Nottaway (Que.), and in the following year he travelled west up the Moose River (Ont.). All these explorations were preliminary steps toward the settlement of posts in Moose Factory’s hinterland.
In 1777 the HBC built Wapiscogamy House (near the junction of the Opasatika and Missinaibi rivers) as a “Halfway House” towards Lake Superior, and in the same year Thomas was instructed to establish a post at Michipicoten (Michipicoten River). The navigational hazards of the Michipicoten River, however, led him to settle instead on Missinaibi Lake, at the head of the Missinaibi River. Unfortunately provisions proved difficult to find locally, and in January 1778 Thomas retired to Wapiscogamy House, of which he assumed command. From then until Missinaibi House was abandoned in 1780 Thomas spent most of his time at Wapiscogamy, leaving Missinaibi to servants. Although appointed in 1779 second to Edward Jarvis*, chief at Moose Factory, he soon returned to Wapiscogamy House, remaining there until he succeeded Jarvis in 1782. In 1795 McTavish, Frobisher and Company, which held a controlling interest in the North West Company, bought the Timiskaming posts from Grant, Campion and Company of Montreal with a view to extending the NWC’s trade to James Bay. Alarmed at the threat to Moose Factory, and apparently on his own initiative, Thomas instituted negotiations with the Nor’Westers for dividing the area’s trade between the two companies, even travelling as far as Michipicoten in 1799 in the hope of meeting William McGillivray. Although his efforts failed and the Nor’Westers settled at Moose Factory and elsewhere in the James Bay region in 1800, entering it by sea three years later, Thomas nevertheless successfully defended his posts and in 1806 his opponents abandoned all their stations there.
In 1810 the HBC adopted its “retrenching system,” which called for financial moderation and instituted profit sharing for men in senior trading positions. Under this scheme, which also reorganized the posts into Northern and Southern departments, Thomas stayed on as chief at Moose Factory, serving under Thomas Thomas, superintendent of the Southern Department. Three years later he was dismissed for “mismanagement, negligence and disobedience,” apparently in connection with his failure to develop agriculture at Moose. The retrenching system demanded the raising of grain and cattle at the post to reduce the need for European provisions, and Thomas can have had little faith in the policy. Perhaps, too, he found it difficult to take second place. Instead of returning to England, however, he travelled to Lower Canada by the Ottawa River with members of his family, including his daughter Charlotte and her husband, Peter Spence. He settled at Vaudreuil, where some of his collateral descendants still live.
In 1815 Thomas apparently applied to return to the service but the London committee refused his request, although agreeing to employ his sons at Moose Factory and offering him land in the Red River colony (Man.). There is no evidence of his accepting the offer and he apparently remained in Vaudreuil until his death in 1822. In 1824 the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in England granted administration of his effects to his widow Meenish, who by that time had remarried. About £1,600 of his estate was in the hands of Maitland, Garden, and Auldjo, the former Montreal agents of the HBC, when that firm failed in 1826.
One of Thomas’s daughters, Ann, married Alexander Christie*, later governor of Assiniboia, and a son, Charles, was a well-known company trader along the Ottawa River and at nearby Golden Lake (Ont.).
ACC, Diocese of Moosonee Arch. (Schumacher, Ont.), Moose Factory and its dependencies, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at AO). ANQ-M, CE1-63, 12 juin 1822; CN1-187, 19 janv. 1822. PAM, HBCA, A.11/46: f.2; B.1/a; B.59/a; B.75/a; B.77/a; B.129/a; B.135/a/55; B.135/c/2; B.142/a; B.143/a; B.186/a; E.41 (mfm. at AO). St James’ (Anglican) Church (Hudson Heights, Que.), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 16 Feb. 1824. St Mary’s (Anglican) Church (Como, Que.), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials. HBRS, 17 (Rich). C. C. Kennedy, The upper Ottawa valley (Pembroke, Ont., 1970). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol.2.