James Sutherland was born in Caithness, Scotland in 1778. (1) The family moved to South Ronaldsay, Orkney, when James was still quite young. He was raised at Knockhall where his father was a tenant farmer. He was fortunate enough to receive sufficient education to enable him to enter the service of the HBC as a writer.
James signed on with the HBC in 1797 and initially served as a writer at York Factory. By 1808 he had attained the rank of Trader and was appointed Master at Cumberland House. He served at various postings, and in 1814 he was placed in charge of the East and West Winnipeg districts, which included all the posts in the Red River area. In 1815 he was appointed a Councillor for the Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land. When the two companies merged in 1821, Sutherland was appointed Chief Factor and sent to Fort Edmonton where he was in charge of the Saskatchewan District. In 1822, he was appointed a Councillor of the Governors of the HBC Territories. He served as Chief Factor in the Severn District from 1823 to 1825. Sutherland was in poor health and in 1827 he retired to Red River Settlement.
A short time after his arrival in Rupert’s Land, Sutherland had formed a liaison with an Indian woman named Jane Flett with whom he had nine children. James brought Jane and the children to Red River with him upon his retirement and he and Jane were officially married in 1828. He resisted George Simpson’s attempts to get the chief HBC men to turn aside their native wives and marry European women, and was parted from Jane only by her death in 1835.
On his retirement, Sutherland received a land grant from the HBC on the west side of the Red River near St. Andrew’s Rapids. His wealth and property gave him a position of prestige at the settlement and his dwelling was known as Strawberry Point. He was devoted to his family and his support of them was unflagging throughout his life. He was a Justice of the Peace at Red River, and was appointed a Councillor of Assiniboia in 1839. He died in 1844.
(1) James Sutherland is usually considered to have been born in Ronaldsay, Orkney; however, in his will he stated that he was from Caithness.