Another Version of Capt. Colin R. Sinclair’s Story

A version of Captain Colin R. Sinclair’s history printed in Walter Jackson McCrea, Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba (Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Co., 1925), 45-49, based on the account published in Women of Red River and reflecting the story as Sheriff Colin Inkster knew it.

Governor [William] Sinclair’s youngest son, Colin, was born in 1816 at Oxford House, a post of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company between York factory and Norway House. In his earliest infancy his mother prevailed on her husband to promise her that instead of his being taken from her while only a child, as her brothers had been, and sent across the Atlantic to be educated, they should keep him with them. Governor Sinclair died before the child was two years old; and in 1825, when Colin Sinclair was a boy of nine, the officer then in charge at York Factory, upon whom the executors of Governor Sinclair’s will had impressed the Governor’s desire that the boy should be educated in Scotland, was urged by them to send him across in the Company’s ship on its return voyage in that year.

The ship was anchored several miles out from shore, on account of the shoal water nearer in, and was ready to sail. The nine-year-old boy begged to be taken out on the sloop to see the ship, and was happy when he was told that he was to have his wish. On board the ship he was delighted with everything, and clambered about until he tired himself. The officer from York Factory and the captain were busy with their papers. and the tired boy fell asleep. The time came for the ship to sail; the sloop was ready to return to York Factory. The boy was not awakened, and the sloop returned without him. “I will give him all the care I would give my own child,” the captain promised, “and deliver him to his relatives in Stromness.”

When Colin came to Winnipeg in 1897, a man of eighty-one, he told his grandniece, Margaret Strang, who is now Mrs. Clifford, that when he awoke on the ship and found that the sloop had returned to York Factory without him, he cried his heart out. The kindness of the captain and of everybody else on board and his love of ships and the sea, which made his life a seafaring one for many years, helped to lessen his loneliness and grief. He was put to school in Stromness. In his eighteenth year he articled on a ship in the coasting trade. His father had made a yearly provision for him, which was paid at Hudson’s Bay House in London. Once when he went to get it, he was stopped on the stairs by a short, brisk, vigorous man, with searching, humorous eyes, who looked at him keenly, and said “Are you not a Sinclair?”

It was Sir George Simpson, who after expressing his surprise that the young man was not in the Company’s service, added “I am sailing for Canada in two weeks’ time, and I want you to come with me.”

Young Sinclair replied that he had to serve out the term for which he was articled. “And I would rather follow the sea than be a fur trader,” he told Sir George.

“Very well,” replied Sir George. “The Company has ships on the sea as well as trading posts on land. I want you to join the Company’s service.”

But when Colin Sinclair was twenty-one years of age he received a sum of money provided for him by his father’s will; and after finishing his education in Edinburgh, so as to qualify himself fully as a navigator, he bought an interest in a ship which was engaged in the China and India trade.

In time he became captain of the ship, and eventually her owner. On his return to England from one of his voyages he met in London an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who told him his mother had gone to Red River, and had married again,[1] and was now dead, It was true that she had gone to [sic: from?] York Factory to live with her son, Thomas Sinclair, near St. Andrew’s rapids, but it was not true that she was dead. Colin Sinclair, who before that had been strangely unmindful of his mother, now ceased altogether, it would appear, to think of his relatives in Rupert’s Land.

***

In 1849 he took his ship to San Francisco. There the crew deserted to join the gold-seekers. He succeeded in getting another crew, and continued his seafaring life for several years more. At last he sold the ship, and after many wanderings on land he settled in San Francisco, where he became harbour master. In 1897 in a hotel in that city he was accosted by H.C. Stanton, of Roseburg, in Oregon, who had married a daughter of [Colin’s brother,] James Sinclair. As Sir George Simpson had done, Mr. Stanton recognised him as a Sinclair.

From Mr. Stanton he learned that his mother had lived for years after he had believed her dead. He blamed himself too late for his failure in duty to her, and resolve to go to Winnipeg and visit her grave. He lived the last years of his life in the old Inkster house. Over his mother’s grave in the churchyard of St. John’s cathedral he had a granite monument placed, with this inscription, which he wrote, cut on it:

Sacred

To the Memory of My Mother

Margaret Nahovway Sinclair

This Last Token of Love and Affection is

Erected by Her Wandering Boy, Colin

1897

Eyes of my childhood days shall meet me,

Lips of mother’s love shall greet me

On the day I follow.

Oh, what hosts of memories rise;

Sadness dims an old man’s eyes.

It is strange that he had his mother’s name lettered NAHOVWAY; in Governor Sinclair’s will it is written NAHOWAY, and that is the form in which the name has always been used by Nahoway’s children and grandchildren. When you go to see Nahoway’s grave, by the side of which is her wandering son’s, you will find this inscription on the back of the monument:

Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair

Born at Oxford House, Keewatin, August 12, 1816

Died July 22, 1901

In showing the writer of these pages the upstairs room in the house which Captain Sinclair died, a room with windows giving wide views up and down the Red river, Sheriff Inkster said “My uncle Colin had this room fitted up as much like the cabin of a ship as he could make it. He had a hammock slung in it, in which he slept. He used to say he couldn’t be comfortable in a bed.”

The Sheriff was silent a while, standing at one of the windows, which was open, and looking out over the wide curve of the river. “My grandmother used to keep among her treasures,” he said. “in a silk bag, a lock of flaxen hair she had cut from my uncle Colin’s head when he was a child. She had it until she died.”


[1] Donna G. Sutherland, Nahoway: A Distant Voice (Petersfield MB: White Buffalo Books, 2008), is of the opinion that Nahoway remarried in about 1827 or before to John Forbes (born c.1789), and lived with him at Lot 175 St Andrew’s Parish.

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