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Review

The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr.

By Debra Komar

August 20, 2015

Review By Corey Larson

 

During his round-the-world voyage in 1842, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Governor George Simpson arrived at Fort Stikine and discovered that chief trader John McLoughlin Jr. had been killed. Two recent books discuss this event. In Empires, Nations, and Families, Anne Hyde tells us that the killer was Urbain Heroux but acknowledges that much about the incident remains shrouded in mystery. Instead, she focuses on how the murder affected the father and chief factor of Fort Vancouver, John McLoughlin Sr. Similarly, in Emperor of the North, James Raffan briefly names the shooter and then segues to the ensuing dispute between Simpson and McLoughlin Sr. We seemingly have consensus on who pulled the trigger with little attention to why or who else may have been involved. In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, Debra Komar recentres the narrative on the murder itself by using forensic science to address lingering questions. Her big point is that “biohistory” can move us beyond merely identifying remains to tackle complex historical problems through the methods of contemporary homicide investigators (10). This effort not only yields new details but prompts new and important questions.

Part I consists of seven chapters, each beginning with a brief text box about some aspect of the murder. Komar provides context to allow readers to put the case together as they progress. Using secondary histories and biographies along with primary documents, the early chapters build essential background on the McLoughlin family, George Simpson, the HBC, and Fort Stikine’s employees and physical setting. Part II examines Simpson’s treatment of the incident and his conflict with McLoughlin Sr. Revisiting these issues from the perspective of a murder investigation reveals how certain facts were obscured. Simpson overlooked vital evidence in his hasty rush to judgment, and his vicious clash with the grieving father deflected attention from key elements of the case. Komar’s background in forensic anthropology and the depositions taken after the murder allow her to recreate the crime and the roles of those involved. The result helps clarify the events surrounding McLoughlin Jr.’s death while offering important insights into the ensuing feud. The book concludes with the impact of the murder on the legacy of the HBC, Simpson, and McLoughlin.

While The Bastard of Fort Stikine is well written and engaging, the narrative occasionally loses the forest for the trees. Individual biographies and the Simpson-McLoughlin rivalry are interesting and important components, but they sometimes eclipse the murder as the central focus. However, when Komar gets to the biohistorical investigation, she presents a solid and convincing argument. Chapter 11, appropriately named “Putting Flesh to Bone,” meticulously scrutinizes the testimonies of three independent investigations, triangulating eyewitness accounts for consistency, consensus, and alignment with physical evidence (167). Her methods compellingly reconstruct the events prior to the murder, the crime scene, and even a virtual autopsy, demonstrating along the way that forensic science holds significant potential in historical inquiry, especially concerning questions of spatial relations and anatomy. The upshot is the strongest argument yet for who murdered John McLoughlin Jr., but Komar also makes a persuasive case for an often-overlooked conspirator and provides, for historians in particular, the motives behind the crime.

REFERENCES

Hyde, Anne F. 2011. Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Raffan, James. 2007. Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins.

The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr.
Debra Komar
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2015. 288 pp. $19.95