WALKER, WILLIAM, HBC master; b. c. 1754, probably in England, son of Hannah Walker; d. 13 Oct. 1792 at South Branch House (near Duck Lake, Sask.).
Nothing is known of William Walker prior to his engagement with the Hudson’s Bay Company on 17 Feb. 1768. He contracted to serve as an apprentice for seven years and sailed for York Factory (Man.) that spring. After serving his apprenticeship, Walker accompanied Samuel Hearne to Cumberland House (Sask.) in 1775 and that October left to winter with Crees, “according to his own desire of having an Opportunity to learn the Indian Tongue.” The next year he was given temporary charge of Cumberland while its master, Matthew Cocking, took the fur returns down to York. In 1778 Walker’s salary was raised from £15 to £25 per annum.
Walker’s career at this point highlights to some degree the hardships, tensions, and rivalries which affected HBC men inland from York. The company was dependent on poorly educated Orkney labourers, who often resented having to work with the more articulate Englishmen. Such resentment was probably a source of friction between the abrasive William Tomison*, an Orkneyman who had risen from labourer to officer rank, and Walker, who had been trained as an officer. Six months after Tomison succeeded Cocking as master of Cumberland in 1778, Walker threatened to join the pedlars, who had offered him an annual salary of £60. Two years later the York council and Humphrey Marten, chief at York, overruled the London committee’s appointment of Walker as “Assistant to Our Chief” at York, arguing that he had not the temperament for the position. Cocking, who knew Walker from York and Cumberland, disagreed. He informed the committee that Walker was “very assiduous and Steady” and was disliked by Marten and Tomison “chiefly through prejudice.” He added that Walker was entitled to consider himself worthy of promotion, but “I am sorry to say Partiality is predominent.”
Walker spent six years at Cumberland House travelling into the country to meet Indians and persuade them to bring their furs down to trade. In the fall of 1781 he took command of Hudson House (near Wandsworth, Sask.); its master, Robert Longmoor*, was sent farther up the Saskatchewan to collect and stockpile food for a proposed outpost. It was a difficult year for Walker. A smallpox epidemic left the Indians “lying dead about the Barren Ground like Rotten Sheep.” He looked after them in the fort as best he could and buried them when they died. Since there were fewer Indians able to hunt, Walker, who was a good shot, spent his time procuring food for the mess. In 1782 he kept the post open during the summer for the first time. This decision enabled the men to collect birch-bark and food, and furs from the Indians who had not been able to come down during the winter.
Walker spent most of the next five years at Hudson House under Tomison and Longmoor. He was frequently given the delicate task of intercepting the Indians before they reached the Nor’Westers, as well as the arduous job of hunting for meat in the winter. In 1787 he was appointed master of South Branch House. During the winter of 1788–89 he collected 6,297 made beaver, a good return for a newly established post. As a mark of the company’s satisfaction with his services he was made a member of the York council in 1789.
In 1791 Walker travelled down to York intending to return to England on leave. Tomison, now chief inland, prevailed upon him to return to South Branch House by promising to recommend to the London committee that Walker should succeed him when his own contract expired in 1793. The appointment was made in May 1793, but Walker did not know of it. He had died at South Branch House on 13 Oct. 1792.
It is not known when Walker had formed a liaison with an Indian woman, but their son William was born in Rupert’s Land about 1779 and entered the company’s service in 1797 as an apprentice. He was killed in 1807.
Tomison was at times critical of Walker, but because the two were so different in temperament his fault finding has to be carefully considered when assessing Walker’s contribution to the company. The fact that Walker had a good opinion of his own trading abilities, was more literate than Tomison or Longmoor, and was a sparing consumer of alcohol undoubtedly set him apart. He was an astute trader who understood the Indians, had their trust, and spoke their language. He could and did exercise his judgement, and had the potential to be a good chief inland. It is unfortunate that his premature death deprived him of the opportunity of utilizing his talents.
HBC Arch. A.1/45, f.19; A.1/138, p.100; A.5/3, f.110; A.6/11, f.33; A.6/12, f.133d; A.6/14, f.77d; A.6/32, f.100; A.6/116, f.19d; A.11/115, ff.142, 167d; A.11/116, ff.24d, 69, 71–72; A.11/117, ff.52–52d, 62, 134; A.16/32, f.101; A.16/33, f.37d; A.30/5, f.72; A.30/10, f.38; B.49/a/3, f.8d; B.49/a/4, f.27; B.49/a/6, ff.50d, 56d; B.49/a/7, ff.16, 26, 38, 40d, 43d; B.49/a/12; B.49/a/15, ff.29d, 49d, 51d, 52d, 55d, 61d, 62d, 63d; B.49/a/16, f.2; B.60/a/7, ff.3d–4; B.87/a/4, ff.7, 12d, 19d; B.87/a/5, f.5d; B.87/a/6–8; B.205/a/l; B.205/a/2; B.205/a/3, f.36d; B.205/a/6, f.41; B.205/a/7, ff.1, 4, 10; B.239/a/59, f.282; B.239/a/71, f.32d; B.239/a/91, f.29. HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson); XV (Rich and Johnson). Morton, History of Canadian west. Rich, History of HBC.