William Sinclair Ritch


William Sinclair Ritch was born in the parish of Rackwick on the island of Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1852 and as a boy worked on a local herring boat. Like many Orkney men before him, he left the Islands in 1872 to work as a deck hand on the Hudson’s Bay Company ship the Lady Head. He eventually chose to stay in Canada and worked for many years as a labourer in northern Ontario and Quebec at posts such as Moose Factory, Albany, Martens Falls, Fort Hope and Abitibi.

HBC Post at Lake Abitibi, c.1905.
© Archives of Ontario, C 275-1-0-3 (S 7579), Duncan Campbell Scott fonds.

By the time of his retirement in 1910, William Ritch was a widower with five children - Wilhelmina, Isaac, Thomas Sinclair, Margaret-Ann and John - whom he supported until they reached working or marriageable age. The children’s mother, Sophia Wynn, was from Fort Albany and was of Cree heritage. William Ritch’s descendents in Canada, as well as his distant relations in Orkney, had always been told that she drowned in a canoe accident, but they do not know the circumstances of the tragedy.

As was common with many fur trade families, all of the boys followed in their father’s footsteps into the Hudson’s Bay Company and they also worked at Fort Hope. Like their sisters, they eventually married and raised families. Some of their children stayed in the area around Fort Hope and others moved throughout Ontario, often in search of work.

At the age of 58, Willie Ritch left Canada for good. Even though he had many relatives close by, he was encouraged to return to Hoy by fellow Orcadian Nathanial McKenzie, the HBC’s Inspecting Chief Factor. William Ritch married again in 1915 and he and his wife, Jemima Nicolson, set up a bed and breakfast business on Hoy. He probably never saw his children again, though they likely wrote to each other from time to time. He died on 4th March 1932 and it was noted in an obituary in The Orcadian newspaper that "His passing brings to a close another chapter in the long story of Orkney’s part in the great task of colonising the outposts of Empire. He was one of the stalwarts of the stalwart pioneers, facing hardship, danger, even death itself, without flinching".

On his death, Willie Ritch's relatives in Orkney sent the long service medals he had received from the Hudson's Bay Company to his children. There seemed little reason for these family members on each side of the Atlantic to stay in touch and eventually there was no further contact between them.