TODD, WILLIAM, fur trader and surgeon; b. between 1784 and 1787 in Ireland; m. first, according to the custom of the country, Marianne (d. between 1830 and 1835); m. secondly 20 Aug. 1839 Elizabeth Dennett in the Red River settlement (Man.); d. there 22 Dec. 1851.
William Todd joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816 and served during his first two years as clerk and surgeon at Cumberland House (Sask.). In the summer of 1819 he volunteered for service with Colin Robertson* in the Athabasca campaign against the North West Company and spent the winter at Fort Wedderburn (Alta). Robertson regretted the fact that Todd did not have much experience as a fur trader, but he concluded at the end of the season that Todd had been the only man under his direction who appeared fit for duty in the Athabasca and who had conducted himself with firmness. In particular, Robertson commented on the influence Todd had exerted over the Chipewyans in his capacity as surgeon; his successful treatment of an outbreak of whooping cough gained a certain advantage for the HBC over the NWC in its relations with the natives. After a year’s furlough, Todd spent 1821–22 in the Lower Red River district, 1822–27 at York Factory (Man.), and 1827–29 at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) in the Columbia district. He returned in 1829 to the Red River, where he was stationed as clerk at Brandon House (Man.).
During these years, Todd acquired a reputation as a clever, attentive doctor who was extremely scrupulous on points of honour and etiquette. He was not, however, considered particularly useful as a trader. In 1830 HBC governor George Simpson abruptly changed his appraisal of Todd’s abilities and, underlining his service in the Athabasca campaign, recommended that Todd be promoted chief trader. The next year he was placed in charge of the Upper Red River district, as chief trader at Fort Ellice. In 1833 he took over the responsibility for Red River from Chief Factor Donald McKenzie. The following year he was given charge of the Swan River district, with his headquarters at Fort Pelly (Sask.), where, except for one year at Fort Severn (Ont.) and two years’ furlough, he remained until his retirement.
Todd had a relatively uneventful career as a trader. As a doctor, however, he was probably the most famous surgeon in the west before 1850. In the early 1830s he served the needs of both Governor Simpson and his wife, Frances Ramsay Simpson, who took up residence in Red River in the summer of 1830. In December Frances began a difficult pregnancy and, although there were two doctors in the settlement, Richard Julian Hamlyn and John Bunn*, Simpson had no confidence in either of these men and sent for Todd at Brandon House. Todd arrived by 1 Jan. 1831 and kept a close vigil over Frances until he delivered her son in September. He also attended to Governor Simpson who, agitated by the condition of his wife, suffered from depression, anxiety, and fears of recurring attacks of apoplexy. Simpson was accustomed to being bled whenever he feared one of these attacks and asked Todd to administer this treatment. Todd refused; he believed that bleeding had already been done too often prior to his arrival and that, if continued, it would seriously weaken Simpson’s health. Eventually, when the stress associated with his wife’s illness had passed, the governor recovered and Todd believed his advice had probably saved Simpson’s life.
In the summer of 1836 Simpson temporarily posted Todd to York Factory to deal with a mysterious disease that had broken out there. Since 1834 this affliction, known as the “York Factory complaint,” had appeared each spring, affecting in particular the officers at the fort. Beginning with colic, vomiting, and restlessness, the symptoms progressed to convulsions, depression, loss of reason, and, in the most severe cases, death. By the summer of 1836 the men at the fort were in a state of alarm because of the recurrence and severity of the disease, and the sick officers, including the post surgeon, Elzeard H. Whiffen, were evacuated. The men who remained had great faith in Todd as a physician and applauded the governor’s decision to send him to York. Unhappily for all concerned, Todd himself succumbed to the dreaded “complaint” within a week of his arrival at the post, and had four violent attacks in September which left him so weakened that everyone feared for his life. It was decided that he too would have to leave. Before he did so, however, he apparently took the precautions he judged necessary to bring the reign of terror to an end. Unfortunately, it is not known what he considered to be the cause of the illness, or what measures he took to combat it. He claimed to have been the last person to suffer from the malady. Although he did recover, his health was never fully restored and he was a sickly man for the rest of his life.
In the summer of 1837 Todd was back at Fort Pelly, in charge of the Swan River district, when he heard rumours of a malignant disease having broken out amongst the Indians who visited Fort Union (on the border between North Dakota and Montana) on the Missouri River. Although parts of these stories were conflicting, Todd concluded that, if there was any disease at all, it was probably smallpox; without waiting for confirmation of his suspicion, he launched an extensive program of inoculation with cowpox vaccine. This was the first time that the Jennerian type of vaccine was used in the west. Besides administering the vaccine himself, he taught chiefs and medicine men the procedure, supplied them with vaccine, and told them to inoculate anyone they met who had not been treated. He also dispatched vaccine to other HBC posts to the north. Todd’s quick action saved the lives of countless numbers of Indians inhabiting the Swan River district and the woodlands north of the Saskatchewan River and greatly enhanced his already considerable reputation among the Indians as a man who possessed powerful medicine.
Todd stayed on as chief trader in charge of the Swan River district until the spring of 1851 when he asked to be retired with either three years’ furlough or promotion to chief factor. The HBC Council of the Northern Department granted his retirement with a one-year leave, but did not accord him the rank of chief factor. In poor health and, according to HBC governor Eden Colvile*, addicted to opium, he settled at Red River where he died in December 1851, leaving his second wife, Elizabeth, three children from his first marriage, and seven from his second. During his long career Todd had gained considerable renown as a physician, among both the employees of the company and the native people of the regions where he served. Although his critics accused him of having a high opinion of himself as a doctor, the record clearly indicates that his self-esteem in this regard was justified.
PAM, HBCA, A.11/51: ff.4–7; A.34/1: f.42d (mfm. at PAC); B.135/c/2: ff.54–57, 65 (mfm. at PAC); B.154/a/27: f.19; B.239/a/148: ff.41–48; B.239/z/26: ff.143–44; D.4/22: f.53d; D.5/25, ff.390–91. HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming); 19 (Rich and Johnson). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. G. C. Ingram, “The Big House, Lower Fort Garry,” Canadian Hist. Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and Hist. (Ottawa), no.4 (1970): 94–99. A. J. Ray, “Smallpox: the epidemic of 1837–38,” Beaver, outfit 306 (autumn 1975): 8–13.
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Cite This Article
Arthur Ray, “TODD, WILLIAM (d. 1851),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/todd_william_1851_8E.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:||Arthur Ray|
|Title of Article:||TODD, WILLIAM (d. 1851)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|