Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair
Photograph of Captain Colin Sinclair, reproduced in Harry Shave, “The Armchair at Seven Oaks,” Winnipeg Free Press (5 October 1963).
There are relatively well-known, if not very detailed, stories about seafarer Colin Sinclair that have been preserved as Red River lore. The one was related by W.J. Healy, in Women of Red River, published in 1923. Healy’s sources likely included Colin Sinclair’s grandnephew Sheriff Colin Inkster, and grandniece Harriet Sinclair/Cowan. The former was Healy’s friend and authority when it came to matters of early Manitoba history. The latter was one of Healy’s principal interviewees for his book. Another commonly referenced source on Colin Sinclair is D. Geneva Lent’s West of the Mountains (1963), which is a biography of James Sinclair who was Colin’s brother and Harriet Cowan’s father [see also Lent, "Boyhood at Oxford House," The Beaver 41, no. 4 (1962): 47-51]. As historian Irene M. Spry pointed out in a review of Lent’s book, it makes for a good read, but how much of the material was derived from historical documents and how much was imagined is not clear. A perhaps less widely known published source is a story that appeared in Beyond the Gates of Lower Fort Garry 1880–1982, a collection of reminiscences published by the Rural Municipality of St. Andrews. The source for that text was Thomas H. Sinclair – a descendant of the Thomas Sinclair who was known as ‘young Tom Sinclair’ in order to distinguish him from his father, Colin’s brother, Thomas Sinclair (‘young Tom’s’ mother was Hannah Cummings, his father’s first wife). All three sources, though they agree on some basic points, are at variance on a few others. There is also some non-alignment between these versions, two newspaper biographies, and various reiterations of the above mentioned sources. Then there are differences with documentary sources, and there are family stories that originated an ocean away from Rupert’s Land, in England. For the most part, however, divergences are minor and present no serious problems when positing a basic chronology for Colin Sinclair’s life.
All of the sources, including a monument in St. John’s Anglican cemetery, in the parish of Kildonan, Winnipeg, Manitoba, agree that Colin Robertson Sinclair was born 12 August 1816 at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post known as Oxford House, Keewatin District, Rupert’s Land. Colin was the youngest son of Nahoway/Margaret and her husband William Sinclair [I], who was the post’s founder, builder, and, for a time, its chief factor. By 1818, Colin’s family appears to have relocated to York Factory, where his father died in April of that year, after having been bed-ridden for several months.
In accord with the instructions of William Sinclair [I]‘s will, at about six years of age Colin was sent across the Atlantic aboard an HBC ship to attend school in Orkney. Colin probably sailed in the Prince of Wales with Captain Henry Hanwell in 1824 or 1825, although it is possible he sailed aboard the Camden with Captain John Davison [ships' logs are available for the Prince of Wales for these years]. The popular view is that this separation from family must have been wrenching, especially for Colin’s mother [see Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties, 87] It is worth considering, however, that Nahoway would have known a number of people who had left for distant shores long before Colin sailed — including her husband, three other sons, as well as her son-in-law, daughter, and granddaughter. Nahoway had also experienced the return of loved ones from over the sea and may well have expected Colin to return in a few years. Whatever is made of what his mother might have felt, Healy’s account depicts Colin as an emotionally resilient child whose interest in life aboard ship alleviated feelings of homesickness.
While sailing away from Rupert’s Land, Colin was heading towards family — his relatives with homes in Orkney. His father’s brother and sisters, Thomas, Mary, and Ann, lived on a farm that William Sinclair [I] had purchased, then bequeathed to them on his deathbed in 1818. The farm, located in the parish of Harray on the Orkney mainland, is known as Estaquoy/Eastaquoy (see Patricia Long’s comment below; also “The Sinclairs of Estaquoy“), though its name was transcribed as “East on Quay” in William Sinclair’s will. It seems reasonable to assume that Colin was under the oversight of his uncle and his aunts while attending school. The school was likely Tomison’s Academy, begun by William Tomison a retired chief factor of the HBC , and mentioned by Isaac Cowie in The Company of Adventurers (1913). Cowie (husband of Colin’s grandniece Margaret Jane Sinclair), explained:
Many of the offspring of these connections [meaning fur trade marriages] were sent home to Orkney to be educated. A splendid school was endowed at St. Margaret’s Hope, in South Ronaldshay, by a Hudson’s Bay officer for the sons of his fellows, to which many other Orkney gentlemen’s sons were sent, turning out such pupils as the Sinclairs, Isbisters, Kennedys, Cloustons, Ballendens and Raes, and others of well-known repute.
It is possible that Colin was reunited in Orkney with his brothers James and John, who had been sent there for their schooling some years earlier. D. Geneva Lent and Thomas H. Sinclair assert, however, that John had died, possibly as early as 1818, shortly after completing his voyage to Scotland. Lent is also of the opinion that James was residing in Edinburgh before he returned to Rupert’s Land in 1828 — though Spry dates his return to Hudson Bay as being in 1826. Regardless of the year, it was usual for HBC ships outward to call in at Stromness for a week or two, so the boys’ paths may yet have crossed.
In any event, one of Colin’s sisters, Jane, had been residing in Orkney for two years or more by the time Colin’s ship from York Factory arrived in Stromness’ harbour. Along with her husband, James Kirkness, and their three year old daughter Amelia, Jane had relocated to Sandwick, Orkney, in 1822 or 1823. Jane became the matriarch of a “sailing family.” Her daughter, Colin’s niece Amelia, married Captain Alexander Sclater/Slater. Their daughter, Mary Cameron Slater, related that Amelia had accompanied Captain Sclater on his voyages, raising their children aboard ship. As the children matured, the sons became sailors, and Mary “never saw her family together as someone was always out to sea.” Colin’s nephews, Jane’s sons James W. Kirkness and William Kirkness, both of whom were born in Orkney, may also have ventured to sea — it was common for young men of Orkney to do so.
It appears that at about 14 years of age, Colin apprenticed as a ship’s boy. At eighteen years of age he articled with a ship for a three year term — apparently on North Atlantic voyages which included runs into Hudson Strait and Bay. At twenty-one, on coming into his inheritance, he completed his education in Edinburgh and qualified as a navigator. He continued sailing Northern routes [see "Ice Conditions in Hudson Bay," The Beaver (March 1941): 19] for at least three more years, participating in sealing voyages out of Newfoundland.
Newfoundland Sealing Brig of the 1860s. Source: Alex A. Parsons, “Our Great Sealing Industry and the Men and Methods Employed from Time to Time in Its Prosecution,” Newfoundland Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1915), 6.
By about 1840 Colin had bought an interest in a clipper ship dedicated to the India and China trades. He sailed the ship around the Horn that year and over the next nine years became not only its captain but the sole owner.
The ship may well have been purchased in Liverpool, the homeport of his seafaring Sclater relatives. Colin’s sister Jane also came to live in that city after the death of her husband in 1843, residing there with her daughter Amelia. Jane’s granddaughter, Mary Cameron Slater/Graham, recorded in the margins of her copy of Women of Red River that Captain Colin Sinclair also stayed with the Sclaters — very likely when his ship put into port. That close ties existed between Colin and the Sclater family is further evidenced by the bequests recorded in his will, and, like their relatives in Rupert’s Land, the Sinclair descendants in England passed on stories attesting to familiarity. Amelia’s granddaughter, Nina Cameron Graham, told of a visit made when she was a young child, during which Captain Colin Sinclair had entertained the family by jumping up and down until his teeth fell out — a party trick made possible by a bout with scurvy.
In 1849, with gold fever breaking out in California, Captain Sinclair’s crew deserted after putting intoSan Francisco harbour. It appears that Colin might have decided to try his fortune ashore as well. Whether partly by accident or entirely by design, he met with his brother James Sinclair in San Francisco that year. If the two had made prior arrangements, James may have despaired of the meeting taking place, because of a newspaper report that a Captain Colin Sinclair had gone down with his ship somewhere off the Atlantic coast or in the St. Lawrence River. Stories passed down from Red River Sinclair family members indicate that the drowned captain was assumed to be their Colin, and that some among them went to the trouble of erecting a monument to his memory in Montreal. Nevertheless, one way or another, James — who was picking up a large cargo of household goods that he had shipped around the Horn — was alerted to Colin’s very-much-alive presence in San Francisco. Whatever plans the brothers may have made regarding contact in future years would have been upset, however, by James’ death in 1856.
The details of Colin’s activities for the decades after 1850 are vague. He is alleged to have done some ‘wandering’, perhaps at sea, and to have served as Harbour Master in San Francisco. Little information has surfaced however, beyond brief and tantalizing mentions in shipping news, such as that of a Captain C. Sinclair “late of the brig Advance” listed as a passenger, arrived on the schooner Monteray from Mazatlan, by the Daily Alta California (vol. 12, no. 135, 15 May 1860).
At some point Colin seems to have married. Although his wife is remembered only as ‘an English woman’ who died without children, a pair of earrings that once belonged to her was passed down in Mary Cameron Slater/Graham’s family.
Mrs. Captain Colin Sinclair’s seed pearl earrings with gold clasps.
Matchbox wrapped in paper with note: ————————————————- “Colin Sinclair’s wife’s earrings. Given to Nina C. Walley by Mary Graham gt grand daughter of Factor Sinclair”
Colin’s name appears among the “Foreign-Born Voters of California, 1872″ in the Great Register of Voters, as had been required by the California State Legislature in 1866. According to the list, he was 52 years old at the time he registered in 1869. During the 1870s Charles McKay of Red River Settlement apparently informed Colin that his mother and siblings continued to mourn his absence. After an exchange of letters, Colin decided to retire to Red River — though not until 1897, at eighty-one years of age, by which time the settlement was known as Winnipeg.
In Winnipeg Colin lived at a house that had been built by his sister Mary and her husband John Inkster. Known as Seven Oaks House, Kildonan, the home at the time was owned by Colin’s unmarried niece, Mary ‘Marak’ Inkster. Among the people he met in Winnipeg, the captain impressed as a man who was knowledgeable on religious matters and who had a flair for poetry. One of his verses was inscribed on a red granite monument in St. John’s cemetery that he erected to his mother:
Sacred to the memory of my mother Margaret Nahovway Sinclair
This last token of affection is erected by her wandering boy,
Eyes of my childhood days shall meet me
Lips of a mother’s love shall greet me
On the day I follow,
Oh what a host of memories rise;
Sadness dims an old man’s eyes.
St John’s Cathedral, Kildonan, Winnipeg.
Colin Sinclair died four years later at 6:00 pm. on Monday 22 July 1901, at Seven Oaks House. His funeral was at 3:00 pm., two days afterward in nearby St. John’s Cathedral. He was buried “near his mother,” and shared her monument.
The back of the monument reads:
Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair
Born at Oxford House, Keewatin, August 12, 1816
Died July 22, 1901
 See Sheena Wenham, “The South Isles,” in The Orkney Book, ed. Donald Omand (Birlinn: 2003), 212-213.
 On Mary Cameron Slater/Graham see “Captain Charles Graham.” Obituary. Souvenir reprint. Journal of Commerce [Liverpool] (9 December 1922).
 Letter, written by a grandaughter of Mary Cameron Slater/Graham, to one of her great-granddaughters, n.d.
 A.H. de Trémaudan, The Hudson Bay Road (1498-1915) (London and Toronto; J.M. Dent and Sons, 1915), 63. J.A.J McKenna, The Hudson Bay Route: A Compilation of Facts with Conclusions (Ottawa: Department of the Interior, 1908), 4.
SOURCES for information on Colin Sinclair:
Archives of Manitoba [AM], MG 1 D15, “Will of William Sinclair (Fl. 1794–1818).”
AM, MG 14 B30, file #38, “Colin Robertson Sinclair Estate, 1898-1903,” Grant of Probate ‘In the Surrogate Court of the Eastern Judicial District of Manitoba re Colin Sinclair, Deceased’ Date entered 31 Jul. 1901. Date of Death: 22 July 1901 at the City of Winnipeg.
W.J. Healy, Women of Red River, Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era (Winnipeg: Women’s Canadian Club, 1923), 163–66.
“Capt. Colin Sinclair dies at St. John at ripe old age – was born at Oxford House in 1816 – His interesting career” Obituary,Winnipeg Newspaper, 1901.
J.A.J. McKenna, The Hudson Bay Route: A Compilation of Facts with Conclusions (Ottawa: Department of the Interior, 1908), 4.
Cecil Stephen Walley, notes from a conversation with Sheriff Colin Inkster, c. 1912, possession of Norma Hall.
A.H. de Trémaudan, The Hudson Bay Road (1498–1915) (London and Toronto; J.M. Dent and Sons, 1915), 63.
Harry Shave, “The Armchair at Seven Oaks,” Winnipeg Free Press, 5 Oct. 1963.
F.L. Jobin, ed., City of the Rivers (Winnipeg: Bureau of travel and Publicity, Department of Industry and Commerce, Queen’s Printer, n.d.), 12.
Thomas H. Sinclair, quoted in Beyond the Gates of Lower Fort Garry 1880–1982, R. M. of St. Andrew’s (St. Andrew’s MB: Municipal Office of St. Andrew’s, 1982), 447–48.
Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1980), 87.
About Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair’s Will
Archives of Manitoba, MG 14 B30, file #38, “Colin Robertson Sinclair Estate, 1898-1903,” Grant of Probate ‘In the Surrogate Court of the Eastern Judicial District of Manitoba re Colin Sinclair, Deceased’ Date entered 31 Jul. 1901. Date of Death: 22 July 1901 at the City of Winnipeg.
In his last will and testament, dated 9 June 1898, Colin Robertson Sinclair “of the City of Winnipeg retired Sea Captain,” first directed his executor, Colin Inkster “of the Parish of Kildonan Sheriff,” to pay all debts, liabilities, and funeral expenses.
Sinclair then listed bequests:
- The first was in the amount of $1000.00 for his niece Amelia Slater “widow of the late Captain Alexander Slater,” and daughter of Colin’s sister Jane Kirkness.
- The second bequest, of equal amount, was for his niece Mary ‘Marak’ Inkster “[of] Seven Oaks Kildonan, Spinster,” the daughter of Colin’s sister Mary Inkster.
- His sister Mary’s son and Colin’s nephew, Sheriff Colin Inkster, received $750.00.
- Colin’s grandniece, Mary ‘Molly’ Walker received the same. Colin described her as “wife of Geoffrey H. Walker of Winnipeg Prothonotary.” Her father, Mississippi steamboat engineer John George Inkster of New Orleans, was the son of Colin’s sister Mary Inkster.
Additional relatively large bequests were made to a select few Colin’s relatives in Winnipeg:
- $500.00 to grandnephew Colin Robertson Sinclair, the son of Sheriff Colin Inkster.
- $250.00 to Margaret ‘Maggie’ Sutherland, daughter of Colin Sinclair’s sister Mary Inkster, and married to William Sutherland “of St Andrews.” Colin stipulated that Sheriff Inkster was to pay out Maggie’s amount “in such sums as he may deem necessary and for her own use only.”
- $100.00 to Geoffrey Henry Walker, husband of Colin’s grandniece Mary ‘Molly’ Walker mentioned above.
Each of the following relatives in England received $100.00:
- “Mrs Slater wife of Alexander Slater of Liverpool England Corn Merchant.” She was the daughter-in-law of Colin’s niece Amelia Kirkness/Slater.
- Alfred Slater, “youngest son” of Amelia Kirkness/Slater and her husband “the late Captain Slater.”
- “the two sons of James Slater.” The latter was Colin’s grandnephew, James Kirkness Slater, the son of Amelia Kirkness/Slater.
- “Mrs Slater wife of James Slater”, the daughter-in-law to Amelia Kirkness/Slater, and mother to the two sons mentioned immediately above.
- Mary Cameron Slater/Graham, wife of sea captain Charles Graham and daughter of Amelia Kirkness/Slater.
After donating $100.00 to the Winnipeg General Hospital, the balance of Colin’s estate was to be divided equally among:
- Ellen ‘Nellie’ McDonald, daughter of Colin’s sister Mary Inkster, and wife of Archibald Grieve McDonald, HBC Chief Factor of Fort Qu’appelle.
- Jane Tait, “wife of Robert Tait of St James Parish Rancher,” and daughter of Colin’s sister Mary Inkster.
- Harriet ‘Harry’ McMurray, “of Kildonan widow.” Daughter of Colin’s sister Mary Inkster,Harriet had married HBC Chief Factor William McMurray.
- Harriet Strang “wife of Andrew Strang of Winnipeg Merchant,” was the only direct relative of Colin Sinclair to be named in his will who was not a descendant of either his sister Jane or sister Mary. Anne ‘Harriet’ Sinclair/Strang was the daughter of Colin’s brother Thomas. Her mother was Thomas Sinclair’s second wife, Caroline Pruden.
At the time of his death Colin Sinclair’s assets were listed as follows:
National Trust Co. …………………………………4050.00
G.H. Walkers note ……………………………………700.00
Dominion Bank ……………………………………….430.00
Bank of Montreal ……………………………………….29.00
J.H. Inkster’s note ………………………………………62.00
Watch & chain …………………………………………….6.50