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Nelson, George (1786–1859)

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Town of Sorel, Lower Canada. Drawing by John Lambert. Image is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

George Nelson spent nearly twenty years as a clerk in the fur trade, working for the XY, North West, and Hudson's Bay Companies. He kept extensive journals that offer a valuable picture of life in the fur trade and the culture of the American Indians he met during his travels.

George Nelson was born on June 4, 1786, in Quebec, Canada, and grew up in Sorel, Quebec. His father, William, was a schoolmaster originally from England. His mother, Jane Dies, relocated to Canada from New York during the American Revolution. Though both his parents were Loyalists, Nelson considered himself a British subject and remained loyal to the Crown throughout his life. Two of his younger brothers, Wolfred and Robert, were leaders in Canada's Revolution of 1837, an attempt to create a republic independent from Great Britain. These political differences created a division in the Nelson family, and George remained estranged from his brothers for most of his life.

Nelson received an excellent education from his father. He studied English, French, Greek, and Latin, as well as bookkeeping, mathematics, geography, and navigation. With such a broad education, he could have chosen from among several career options, but stories of voyageurs and the western wilderness lured him into the fur trade. In 1802, he signed a five-year contract with the XY Company as an apprentice clerk, earning fifteen British pounds sterling per year. Upon completion of his contract, he would receive shares in the company or one hundred pounds sterling.

Due to the XY Company's lack of experienced officers, Nelson was put in charge of a small fur trade outpost in Northwest Michigan Territory (later Wisconsin) at the age of sixteen. His lack of experience created conflicts with the men at his post, but his ability to read and write qualified him to perform the job. Between winter fur seasons, Nelson traveled to Grand Portage on the northeast shore of Lake Superior to wait out the summer months.

In 1808, he married Mary Ann, a member of the Ojibwe Loon Clan from the north shore of Lake Superior. She was a cousin of the wife of Nelson's superior officer. The Nelsons had eight children together. Later, in 1825, the couple was married in a Christian ceremony at Christ Church in Sorel.

Nelson planned to retire from the fur trade in 1816 at the age of thirty, and he moved his family back to Sorel. Due to financial difficulties, however, he returned to the fur trade just two years later. Over the course of his career, he served three different companies, starting with the XY Company in 1802, staying with the North West Company from 1804 to 1816, and ending with the Hudson's Bay Company, from which he finally retired in 1823. He spent almost twenty years in the fur trade.

While many other apprentices eventually became "wintering partners," gaining authority over whole districts in a fur trade company, Nelson never rose above the rank of clerk. One reason may have been a lack of connections. The fur traders were a tight-knit community, and knowing the right people was as important as knowledge of the business. The fact that two of the companies he worked for merged with a larger competitor may have limited his opportunities for advancement. Frustration with this lack of opportunity caused him to refer to his career as "wretched."

One of George Nelson's duties as a clerk was to keep a daily journal. His record of transactions, as well as his personal reminiscences and observations, have given us a picture of fur trade life. His journals show respect for the people among whom he lived and worked. He is remembered for recording the legends of the Cree and Ojibwe people he encountered during his postings to Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.

After retiring from the fur trade in 1823, Nelson again returned to Sorel with his wife and children. Tragically, by 1831, Mary Ann and seven of the children had died. From 1825 until 1836, he made unsuccessful attempts to run lumber, potash, and farming businesses. He died in 1859, at age seventy three. He was survived by his unmarried daughter, Jane.

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Brown, Jennifer S. H., and Robert Brightman, eds. "The Orders of the Dreamed": George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

M115
George Nelson Reminiscences, [between 1802 and 1832]
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001715664
Description: Reminiscences (forty-four pages, handwritten) of Nelson, an employee of the XY, North West, and Hudson's Bay fur trading companies.

Nelson, George. My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802–1804. Edited by Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Reidell, Andrea, ed. George Nelson History Player Training Manual. Minnesota Historical Society, Department of Education, [1993?].

Related Images

Color scan of "A new map of Upper and Lower Canada, 1794." Image is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Color scan of "A new map of Upper and Lower Canada, 1794." Image is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Color image of a musket stock used by the North West Fur Company. Made between 1790 and 1800.
Color image of a musket stock used by the North West Fur Company. Made between 1790 and 1800.
Color image of a steel animal trap used by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Color image of a steel animal trap used by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Turning Point

George Nelson becomes apprenticed with the XY Company in 1802 and begins to keep journals that will span his twenty-year career in the fur trade and beyond. These journals provide historians with a unique understanding of life in the fur trade.

Chronology

June 4, 1786

George Nelson is born to British Loyalist William Nelson and his wife, Jane (Dies), in Quebec, Canada.

1802

Nelson signs a five-year contract to apprentice with the XY Company.

1802

He begins to keep journals of his fur trading activities.

1804

Nelson is posted to the Chippewa River in northwestern Michigan Territory (now Wisconsin) and is promoted to clerk. He learns of the merger of the XY and North West Companies.

1808

He marries Mary Ann, an Ojibwe woman.

1816

He quits the North West Company due to internal conflicts within the organization. He moves his wife and four daughters back to Sorel, Lower Canada.

1818

Nelson returns to the North West Company due to economic difficulties.

1821

While stationed at Moose Lake, Cumberland District, Saskatchewan, he learns of the consolidation of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company. He is not happy about the merger.

1823

Nelson's career in the fur trade ends when his position is eliminated by the consolidation of the two fur companies.

1825

The Nelson family returns to Sorel, where he engages in various failed attempts at business, including lumber, potash, and farming.

1836

Nelson begins to record his experiences and impressions of American Indian life in his "Reminiscences."

1831

Mary Ann dies in November.

July 13, 1859

Nelson dies in Sorel, Lower Canada, at the age of seventy-three. He is survived by one daughter, Jane.