One of the most recognizable family names in the Mackenzie Delta is Firth. In 1871, 18-year-old John Firth left his ancestral home in Scotland’s Orkney Islands and signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They sent him to the tiny Peel River post now known as Fort McPherson.
John Firth’s ‘strong and forceful character’ brought him to the attention of his superiors, and in 1876 they put him in charge of the Peel River post. In 1878, John Firth renewed his contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company, married a Gwich’in woman named Margaret, and learned to speak the Gwich’in language.
By 1893, John Firth was Chief Factor in charge of Hudson’s Bay Company trade in the entire region and laid down the law regarding long-standing feuds between the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people. He was the government-appointed Justice of the Peace for the area before the arrival of the Royal North West Mounted Police. Yet, he often chose to negotiate or mediate rather than throw people in jail. This was how he earned the nickname Emperor Firth.
Technically, John Firth retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1921, yet some claim that he continued to observe and control much of what went on in the community until his death at Fort McPherson in 1939. It was common to see old John perched on the bench outside the company store, keeping an eye on a long stretch of the Peel River and all the goings-on in the community.
John Firth’s legacy in the North includes his numerous descendants, like former NDP Member of Parliament Wally Firth and cross-country skiing champions and four-time Olympians Sharon and Shirley Firth.