Red River Ancestry
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SARAH (Cree Woman) (c1776-1845)
(Last Updated: February 13, 2014)


James Peter WHITFORD was born on Mar 26, 1766 in St Paul Parish, London, England, son of Sara PARRY & Samuel WHITFORD (c1715-1778). To simplify things I will hereafter refer to John Peter simply as JP.


On May 21, 1788 JP (age 22) accepted a position with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and by that fall he arrived at York Factory where he began his employ a ‘Writer’, working under Chief Factor at York, Joseph COLEN (1751-1818). This was the same year that the renowned surveyor-explorer Peter FIDLER (1769-1822) began his HBC at York, also as a “Writer”. By September JP was posted to Fort Severn (Severn House) where John BALLENDINE (1758-1817) was the Post Master.


From the Post Journals of Severn: In September of 1788 JP arrived at Severn and immediately became sick. He apparently suffered from frequent complaints of “violent belly aches and pains all over his body” until he left on Aug 6, 1790. It is unclear what medical condition or disease JP was afflicted with, but it would plague him throughout his life.


Hudson Bay Forts

Early HBC Forts


To meet the competition from the North West Company (NWC) south and west of York Factory, Joseph COLEN sent men inland to establish new posts. Although JP was not a canoe man, evidence suggests he often accompanied the brigades that transported trade goods and furs to and from the inland posts. The HBC term ‘Writer’ has always puzzled me. I can only guess that it refers to an employee who performed tasks such as book-keeping (accounting), journal keeping, inventories, etc.


From the Post Journals of Swan River: Sep 19, 1793, Swan River House: "At 10 AM, Mr. Charles Thomas ISHAM, Mr. WHITFORD, Wm. MOWAT, John JOHNSTON JR., George STAINGER, George ROBINSON, Robert. WHITLEY, Charles HAY and Magnus COOPER went away to the Red River with 6 Horses loaded with trading goods"


Much of what we know about James Peter WHITFORD is primarily based on information provided in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA). ** MORE ABOUT J P WHITFORD in HBCA


Gordon House – Rock Depot
WHITFORD and Sarah (Indian)
The Gordon House Journals


It was probably around 1794 that WHITFORD began a life-long relationship with an Indian woman named Sarah. JP’s home base was Fort Severn at the time of this union. She was most likely a “Home Guard Cree”, a term that referred to the Cree families (the most predominant tribe found in that area) who made their homes close to HBC trading posts.


Gordon House Journal: Sep 15, 1794: "James Peter WHITFORD as Master, James HALCRO & James HOURIE with an Indian in a small canoe arrived at the Rock, Hill River" Gordon House was located on the Hayes River, below Berwick Falls (along a stretch of the river known then as the Hill River). Nearby was located Rock Depot (The Rock), which functioned as a provision-collection depot and as a forward supply post for the boat brigades on the Hayes. This location is about mid-way between Oxford House and York Factory (See map above)


Journal: June 26, 1795: "Mr OMAN,the guide shot down the main spout of the Fall at the Rock with his canoe and came safe, being the first Person in the Company’s service who undertook so dangerous a performance, being so steep."
Journal: July 12, 1797: "Messer’s SUTHERLAND, LONGMOOR, ISHAM, FIDLER & OMAN arrived here after 30 days journey from Cumberland House."
Journal: Jan 1, 1798: "Joseph HOWSE arrived here from York Factory, after 14 days passage"
Journal: June 5, 1798: "Myself & Mr HOWSE employed trading with the Indians."
The Gordon House Journal ends on Jun 16, 1798.


Birth dates and locations of birth for most of JP’s children are for the most part rather vague and estimated. The first four seem to have been born between 1795 and 1798 (while he was based at Gordon House), these being James, Peter, Margaret and George.


WHITFORD becomes an Inland Trader


From 1799 to 1810 James was an Inland Trader in the York Factory District, according to HBCA which doesn’t offer anything specifics regarding actual locations. Four more children were born during this period (Francis, Nancy, Joseph and Sarah).


In 1810 son James Jr. became an Apprentice Clerk with the HBC at Carlton House. On Sep 3 that same year, the elder JP went ‘Home” (England) for the winter (a furlough leave). I’m inclined to believe that James was the eldest son because he was the first to ‘leave the mother’s nest and become employed’. Then again, his mother and siblings may have gone to Carlton with James while their father was away in England. The Chief Trader in charge at Carlton during this period was John Peter PRUDEN (1778-1868).


Arrival of Lord Selkirk’s First Red River Settlers


In 1811 JP returned from England to York Factory. His return coincided with the arrival of Lord Selkirk’s first Settlers, bound for Red River. On Sep 24, 1811 the ships arrived in Hudson Bay, too late in the season for a long overland trek inland. They would have to wait for spring. Since such large numbers could not be accommodated at York Factory the whole company had to winter in log huts several miles up the Nelson River.


Bryce pg 25: Miles MacDONELL in the building erected for himself, on the south side of the Nelson River, kept up his mess, having with him Mr HILLIER, Priest BOURKE, Doctor EDWARDS, and Messrs. John McLEOD, WHITFORD and Michael MACDONELL, officers and clerks.


Settlers. On August 30, 1812 Miles MACDONELL (1767-1828), the new Governor of Assiniboia, arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers (the Forks) with the first group of Selkirk Settlers, sent ahead to prepare the way for more to come. They were accompanied by Peter FIDLER (1769-1822) who had just returned to York from a year’s furlough in England, newly assigned to assist the new settlers by surveying river lots and helping them build their houses. At the same time FIDLER was placed in charge of Brandon House where he established his home base and settled his family. Two months later a second party of settlers led by Owen KEVENY arrived at the Forks. It was too late in the season to seed crops or to build houses, so this group proceeded on to Pembina where FIDLER was building Fort Daer, and badly needed provisions were available to see them through the winter of 1812-13.


During 1812-1813 JP was also in the Red River Settlement.


Carlton House


In 1813 JP and his family joined son James Jr. at Carlton House in the Saskatchewan District where they remained for the next couple of years; JP as a Trader and son James as an Apprentice, both serving under Chief Trader John Peter PRUDEN. ** MORE ABOUT CARLTON HOUSE & JOHN PETER PRUDEN


In 1815-16 JP’s employment with the HBC appears to have terminated while he was at Carlton. The last comments on his record:  “Incapable from disease of active employment” and “Disabled by occasional fits of gout”. His movements after that are unclear. We know that both of his eldest sons (James & Peter) became Canoe Men that year, requiring them to leave home. It was probably around 1817-18 that JP moved with the rest of his family to Red River country (Assiniboia).


Birsay Village


Because of the WHITFORD-SPENCE family relationships that developed around that time, I am led to believe that JP spent the rest of his days in what was known as Birsay Village or ‘Orkney Town’, a name that is attributed to Magnus SPENCE (1765-1845) an Orkney man from Birsay (Scotland), the elder who founded the little village.



In 1818 whooping cough and measles hit Orkney Town; several deaths were recorded, and I believe this is where Peter’s father, John Peter WHITFORD, died from the illness that plagued him most of his life. This left Widow Sarah and her young family in dire straits. Son Peter left his job as a canoe man in the Cumberland District and joined his distraught mother and siblings there. In 1819 son James (still employed as a canoe man) joined them there as well.


To add to their misery, swarms of grasshoppers destroyed their crops and by mid-September of 1819 Birsay Village was abandoned. French Canadian Freeman and Métis families from Pembina moved in soon after, recreating the village as the St Francois Xavier Settlement.


Widow Sarah at Red River


By 1820 negotiations were under way for a Union of the rival North West Company and the HBC (the merger became official the following year). The HBC began to downsize and large numbers of employees were retired and fired. Eldest sons James and Peter were both now among the ranks of the unemployed; forced to live off the land like their maternal native ancestors hunting, fishing and farming for sustenance. The family apparently moved closer to the main settlement in the Kildonan area.


Around 1820 daughter Nancy became the wife of David (ATTIAH-PISS) LITTLE BOW.


On Oct 14, 1820, Reverend John WEST (1778-1845) arrived at Fort Douglas (Winnipeg, Kildonan) where he established St Johns Church, the first ordained Anglican Clergyman and the first Church Missionary Society (CMS) Church in Red River.


On Nov 26, 1820, brothers James & Peter WHITFORD were baptized by Rev WEST. The very next day James married Mary SPENCE and Peter married her sister, Christie SPENCE (daughters of Magnus SPENCE).


The Great Red River Flood


The Great Red River Flood occurred in the spring of 1826, the worst ever experienced by the settlers of the time. On May 1l, 1826 Reverend David JONES (1796-1844) wrote in his journal that year-old St. Paul’s Middlechurch at Image Plain was completely destroyed by the flood. Meanwhile, St. John’s (Upper Church) was left relatively unscathed


More and more HBC retirees began to arrive and settlement progressed further down the river, all the way to The Rapids (now Lockport) and Mapleton; to the very edge of the Indian Settlement. That district became generally known as Little Britain.


In 1832 daughter Nancy (then LITTLE BOW) re-married, becoming the third wife of James SANDERSON, son of a Cree woman named Elizabeth Nancy "Nellie" and James SANDERSON SR (1757-1819).


In 1832, construction of Lower Ft GARRY was begun under the supervision of Alexander CHRISTIE (1792-1872). In the summer of 1833 construction of the boarding school (Red River Academy) was completed. This was the first English-speaking high school in the northwest.


In 1833 son Joseph married Ellen KENNEDY, possibly a child of Jane KENNEDY (1791-1885).


On Apr 27, 1845, Widow Sarah WHITFORD died (age 70) at the Upper Church (Kildonan).


** Link to discussion Forum: FORUM for DISCUSSING the FAMILY of JAMES PETER WHITFORD


================================ Family Details ================================



1. c1795 JAMES WHITFORD (m. Mary Nancy SPENCE)


2. c1796 PETER WHITFORD (m. Christiana SPENCE)


4. c1798 GEORGE WHITFORD SR (m1. Catherine JOKE, m2. Mary THOMAS)


6. c1801 NANCY ANN WHITFORD (m1. David Attiah-piss LITTLEBOW, m2. James SANDERSON)



8. c1807 SARAH "SALLY" WHITFORD (m. Michael INDIAN)

9. c1815 THOMAS WHITFORD (Died age 20)