In 1997, a century-long mystery was finally settled by the chance discovery of "the missing page" from Governor Sir George Simpson's journal at the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Chasing the DollarThe mystery originated in 1841, when the President of the Russian America Company (RAC), Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel met with Simpson (pictured) to explore commerical opportunities in the fur trade. Negotiations about company activities in the north-west were unexpectedly productive, and Simpson discovered that he could use the RAC's established transportation and communication lines to make his away across Asia. And so began a trip across the world that would last precisely nineteen months and twenty-six days.
Simpson was much more than a knighted business man, he was a de facto viceregal representative for Queen Victoria. And as he travelled across Asia, he was welcomed as such, his hosts not failing to notice that his passport described him as "Governor". This title was somewhat confusing because Simpson was the Governor of the HBC. From 1670 to 1870, a territory in British North America known as Prince Rupert's Land, consisting of the Hudson Bay drainage basin, was legally owned by the HBC.
Simpson's account of the journey was held in the HBC Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. But at some point in the proceedings, a critical page went missing from the account. Trouble was Simpson and his secretary Edward Hopkins drowned on the final leg of the journey, shortly after disembarking from Hamburg. And the details of their visit to St Petersburg would be disputed for a century and half.
You see Simpson had discovered that the RAC had a vast historical fur-trading system in Russia, with markets in China and throughout Europe, a system that was much older and more established than the HBC's in Prince Rupert's Land (Prince Rupert was the first Governor of the HBC). The Russians simply knew things the British did not, and this interest had piqued Simpson's curiosity. Of course Czar Paul I had only incorporated the RAC in 1799, a hundred years behind the HBC. And thus when Simpson arrived in St Petersburg in September 1842, it is highly probably that he verbally agreed a super-merger between HBC, RAC and the Northwest Company with the Baron. Because such a merger made great business sense, combining Britain's more established presence in the north-west, with an economic hinterland plugged straight into Asia.
The premature death of Simpson made such an agreement a dead letter, and Prince Rupert's Land joined the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Yet Russian-British trade links moved ahead with a apace, so much so that the Czar's Government declined an opportunity to sell Russian America to the United States in 1884.