Barnston, George

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George Barnston 1800 - 1883

The following biography of George Barnston (1800 – 1883) was drawn from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography. He comes across as a hard-working and very intelligent man, who worked hard and successfully for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He developed a strong interest in botany and insects and his study in that area was recognized by professionals in those fields. There is a window in the Tadoussac Chapel dedicated to his memory.
George Barnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and educated as a surveyor and an army engineer. He joined the North West Company in 1820 (at 20 years old) which united with the Hudson’s Bay Company a year later. Barnston started his career as a clerk at York Factory in Manitoba, then transferred to the Columbia District in 1826, where he was to assist Amilius Simpson in surveying the Pacific Coast. In that job he deemed Simpson to be incompetent and did most of the work himself. He then helped James McMillan to establish Fort Langley (near present-day Langley, B.C.) before serving in two other forts in what is now Washington State.
Records indicate that from 1825 until the mid-1830s, Barnston was frustrated and unhappy. Simpson described him as “touchy . . . and so much afflicted with melancholy or despondency, that it is feared his nerves or mind is afflicted.”
Barnston felt that advancement was not coming quickly enough. He attacked Simpson in a letter and even resigned, but he was deemed a valuable employee and in 1832 he rejoined the service. In 1829 he had married Ellen Matthews, a mixed-blood daughter of an American Fur Company employee and he subsequently fathered 11 children. The oldest of these was James, who, in 1847 went to Edinburgh for a medical degree. At his death in 1858, he was a professor of botany at McGill College in Montreal.
George Barnston’s writings and other records of these years also reflect much personal sensitivity and introspection, and a strong moral sense which was respected by Simpson, who described him as “high spirited to a romantic degree, who will on no account do what he considers an improper thing, but so touchy and sensitive that it is difficult to keep on good terms or to do business with him. . . . Has a high opinion of his own abilities which are above par. . . .” This portrait is reflected in the one Barnston gives of himself in his letters to his friend and fellow trader James Hargrave.
In the ten years following his re-employment with the HBC, Barnston served in the northern US and in Ontario where his work was well-respected and he was able to develop a friendship with his old adversary, James Douglas.
It was after a year’s furlough in England that Barnston was appointed to Tadoussac in 1844, a move that he said made possible “having my children better educated, an object ever near to my heart.” It is likely that education took place in Montreal, as Tadoussac would have been a very isolated and undeveloped community at that time. In fact, Barnston described Tadoussac as “an extended, troublesome, and complicated” charge, (as Simpson had warned him it would be); one beset by free traders, smugglers, and encroaching settlement. But it was an opportunity for him to prove his abilities and justify Simpson’s confidence in him, and in March 1847 he was promoted to chief factor. He served in Tadoussac for 7 years, then later took posts in Manitoba and Ontario before retiring to Montreal in 1863.
Even in retirement, Barnston did not go quietly. The HBC was sold to the International Financial Society without consulting the company officers. Barnston corresponded with the London secretary in 1863 regarding the protection of the interests of commissioned officers of the company, and travelled to England the following year on what his friend James Hargrave called the “sleeveless errand” of telling the company directors that they had “treated their old officers of the Fur Trade very scurvily.”
Retirement freed Barnston to pursue scientific research, primarily in botany and the study of insects - areas in which he had already done a great deal of work in the field and as a writer. At Martin Falls, Barnston first studied insects and he also kept a journal of temperature, permafrost, flora, and fauna of the area for the Royal Geographical Society of London. On furlough in England in 1843–44, he visited several scientific societies. “Finding that I was kindly received at the British Museum,” he wrote to George Simpson, “I handed over without reservation all my Collection of Insects to that Institution, at which the Gentlemen there expressed high gratification.” Over half his specimens were new to the museum. He later gathered an extensive herbarium at Tadoussac, which he described in his correspondence with Hargrave, and in 1849–50 sent a collection of plants to Scotland. He also supplied specimens to the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) and to McGill College. After 1857 he frequently published articles, mainly in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist. An active member of the Natural History Society of Montreal, he served as its president in 1872–73 and later became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882.
It would appear that in his retirement, George Barnston lived in Montreal but spent summers in Tadoussac studying the natural world.
George Barnston died in Montreal in 1883, and the funeral was held at Christ Church Cathedral. The Royal Society of Canada paid tribute to Barnston as both a “diligent naturalist” and “a man of kind and amiable character, loved and respected by all who knew him.”

Note: The painting at the top of this page is of George Barnston. Barnston is the central figure in the painting wearing the traditional Hudson’s Bay Company coat.

Alan Evans

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