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Original title:  Memorable Manitobans: Miles MacDonell (1769-1828)

Credits: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - MacDonnell, Miles.
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MACDONELL, MILES, army officer, office holder, jp, and colonial administrator; b. c. 1767 in Inverness-shire, Scotland, son of John McDonell of Scothouse; m. three times and he had at least two sons and four daughters; d. 28 June 1828 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada.

Details of Miles Macdonell’s early life are sketchy. He was born into a distinguished Catholic family with a long military tradition. His father, known as “Spanish” John, had fought with distinction in the Spanish forces against the Austrians in the 1740s. In 1773, at the invitation of Sir William Johnson*, John, his family, and about 600 members of the Macdonell clan of Glengarry immigrated to North America and settled in the Mohawk valley of New York. At the outbreak of the American revolution the Macdonells rallied to the crown. Spanish John fought with Butler’s Rangers and in 1783 he settled at St Andrews in present-day Stormont County (Ont.).

Miles had early shown an interest in the military and in 1782 was appointed ensign in the King’s Royal Regiment of New York. He served with it until its reduction in 1784. Subsequently, he may have returned to Scotland and it was probably there that he married Isabella McDonell of Morar. By 1791 Macdonell, with his wife, had taken up farming in Osnabruck Township, Upper Canada. Three years later he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Volunteer Regiment. In 1795 Spanish John wrote to Miles’s brother John*, an employee of the North West Company, expressing the hope that this commission would “in some measure divert [Miles’s] melancholly thoughts” about the death of his wife the previous year. She had left him with two sons and two daughters. Macdonell seems to have applied himself to his military career. Rising rapidly, he was promoted captain in 1796. Two years later he remarried, taking as his wife his second cousin Catherine (Kitty) McDonell of Collachie, sister of Angus* and Alexander* McDonell (Collachie). His family life continued, however, to be troubled by sorrow. Catherine died the following year; there were no children from the marriage. During this period Macdonell also dabbled in politics, seeking election as a member of the House of Assembly for Glengarry but, according to his father, he was thwarted by the “presbiterian faction.”

From 1800 to 1802 Macdonell was stationed at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake). When his regiment was disbanded in 1802, he returned to his farm and once more began to think of marriage. Through his third wife and distant cousin, Nancy (Anne) Macdonell, sister of Alexander Macdonell (Greenfield) and John Macdonell* (Greenfield), Miles was further linked to prominent Scottish families in Upper Canada. (Nancy and one of their two daughters would predecease him.) Although he appears to have applied himself vigorously to improving his lands, which had been neglected by a tenant, Macdonell continued to covet a military career or other posts which would provide him with financial security. “Mere farming,” he wrote in 1804, “will hardly support my family in the manner I would wish.” He spared no expense in educating his children and as a result was often in debt. He frequently borrowed from his brother, drawing on John’s account with the NWC, much to the displeasure of the company’s agent, William McGillivray. From 1802 to 1811 he wrote numerous letters urging his friends and acquaintances to intervene to secure military positions, initially for himself and later for both himself and his son Donald Æneas*. In 1807 he was appointed registrar of the Court of Probate and, on the recommendation of his cousin, Alexander McDonell*, vicar general of Upper Canada, was named sheriff of the Home District. An attempt to gain permission to raise a corps of Glengarry fencibles, in which he would hold a permanent paid position, was rebuffed by Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* that same year. Preferment finally came in June 1811 when, through the efforts of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], Macdonell was named by the governor and London committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company first governor of Assiniboia. This appointment could hardly have been welcomed by Macdonell’s family and friends, most of whom had a long association with the NWC. But for him, the position of governor and of agent for Selkirk held out the prospect of a regular salary, a large tract of land in the northwest which would be deeded to him, and four or five shares in a joint stock company to be formed at some future date. In short, it promised an end to his indebtedness.

Macdonell had first met his benefactor in Osnabruck Township in January 1804 when Selkirk was travelling through Upper Canada. Selkirk had been impressed by Macdonell, whom he found to be “very much a gentleman in manners & sentiments” and “so popular [among his neighbours] that he could get work done when nobody else could.” Selkirk apparently either did not witness or was blind to Macdonell’s less attractive character traits which included arrogance and vanity. As a consequence, their chance meeting led to an ongoing correspondence and attempts by Selkirk to secure a post for Macdonell. In a letter written in December 1809 Selkirk informed Macdonell that he had heard of an opening that would be “attended with permanent advantages.” Undoubtedly, he was referring to his plans for the establishment of a colony on the Red River. His trip to North America in 1803–4 had been associated with the founding of settlements on Prince Edward Island and at Baldoon, Upper Canada. In 1804 he had hired Macdonell’s second cousin and brother-in-law, Alexander McDonell (Collachie), to be his agent for Baldoon. By 1809 the greatest impediment to a colony in the northwest was the HBC’s monopoly of Rupert’s Land. Only with the company’s sponsorship or at the very least, cooperation, could his plans be implemented.

Thus, inevitably, Selkirk’s schemes became entangled with the politics of the fur trade and the aggressive competition between the HBC and the NWC. He began to purchase HBC stock in July 1808 and the following year his wife’s brother, Andrew Wedderburn, and her cousin John Halkett* did the same, giving them a voice in the company’s affairs. By 1810 the survival of the HBC depended upon a thorough reorganization of the company and its resources. The plan which was ultimately adopted was prepared and presented to the General Court of the HBC in March by Wedderburn. Called the “retrenching system,” it aimed at streamlining the company’s operation, recruiting more “aggressive” servants, giving the officers a vested interest in the company’s continued success by means of a profit-sharing plan, and supplying the inland posts with locally grown crops rather than expensive European produce. This scheme left the way open for the founding of a permanent colony within HBC territory, a colony that could become a source of both foodstuffs and servants. On 30 May Selkirk’s proposal that he be given a grant of land on the Red River in return for a token payment and a promise to provide servants for the company was approved.

From the outset the Nor’Westers attempted to block the establishment of the colony. Although the Red River settlement was technically not a project of the HBC, but rather Selkirk’s own, they saw it as a threat to the fur trade. The colony lay astride the major rivers that linked the fur country to the plains where pemmican, the staple of their diet, was procured. A more ominous threat than the disruption of the food supply was the Nor’Westers’ belief that the colony was part of a coordinated plan organized by Selkirk and the HBC to establish a presence in the Athabasca country, the most important source of the NWC’s profits. The colony could produce both the manpower and the supplies to support such an expansion. The urgency of vigorously opposing Selkirk’s colony was underscored in a letter from Simon McGillivray* of the NWC to the wintering partners in April 1812: “He must be driven to abandon it, for his success would strike at the very existence of our Trade.” The Nor’Westers’ worst fears may have been confirmed when, on 15 June 1811, Macdonell was presented with his commission by Joseph Berens, deputy governor of the HBC. Even though Macdonell had earlier received detailed instructions from Selkirk for establishing the colony, the link between Macdonell, the colony, and the company appeared, once again, to be clearly demonstrated.

From the beginning the enterprise was plagued by bad luck, poor management, and the inability of Macdonell to win the loyalty and trust of the men put in his charge. Selkirk’s intention in 1811 was to detach from a party of company recruits a few labourers who would prepare the groundwork for the arrival of settlers in 1812. Macdonell and William Hillier, a recently appointed officer of the company, were to meet the recruits at Stornoway, Scotland, and lead them to Hudson Bay. At the bay Macdonell was to select his men and lead them to the site of the proposed colony, Hillier was to take charge of those who were to remain as HBC employees. The two men’s ships were delayed and they did not arrive at Stornoway until 17 July. There, more than 100 men recruited by the company’s agents had been waiting since early June with little to occupy their time but drinking and grumbling about inadequate facilities and the prospects of the voyage that lay ahead. Undoubtedly their discontent was fuelled by an article in the Inverness Journal written by McGillivray, which warned about the arduous voyage, extremes of climate, lack of food, and hostile Indians that awaited them. Macdonell did nothing to calm their fears. In fact, he handled the situation badly. When he discovered that Glaswegians had been recruited under different terms from some of the other employees, he attempted to reduce their wages. He also refused to fulfil promises made to other recruits with the result that many feared they would not be treated as promised. Some deserted, and the longer the men remained in port the more serious the problems became. These difficulties were exacerbated by customs officials who delayed the sailing even further while they minutely examined papers and cargo. When the ships finally sailed on 26 July 1811, it was the latest departure for Hudson Bay recorded up to that time.

The voyage, plagued by head winds, lasted 61 days, the longest on record. The ships’ arrival on 24 September was so late in the season that the men would be unable to move inland until spring. Since such large numbers could not be accommodated at York Factory (Man.), the whole company, including Hillier’s men, had to winter in log huts several miles up the Nelson River.

The winter was a troubled one. Food was in short supply and, despite his nomination as a justice of the peace for the Indian Territory in November 1811 to bolster his influence in the northwest, Macdonell continued to be bothered by his inability to establish authority over his men. They quarrelled among themselves and a mutiny had to be suppressed. Ice in the river prevented Macdonell’s party from breaking camp until 22 June 1812. On 6 July he started up the Hayes River with 22 men who were to prepare the way for later settlers. The boats arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers on 30 August.

Over the next two and a half years Macdonell faced a series of challenges that would have taxed the ingenuity of a much more talented man. To establish a successful, self-sufficient colony on the Red River necessitated securing both the loyalty of the settlers and adequate supplies of food. It also required the fixing and maintaining of good relations with the local representatives of rival fur-trading companies, as well as with the Métis and Indian populations, who had reason to resent the colony. If the colony was to succeed, a deft hand in diplomacy was essential.

Initially Macdonell appeared to direct his efforts towards establishing cordial relations with the NWC. Alexander Macdonell (Greenfield), Miles’s brother-in-law as well as cousin, was in command of Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg), the NWC post. On 1 Sept. 1812 Miles and Hillier were invited to dine with the Nor’Westers and later Alexander placed two horses at his cousin’s disposal. In what he thought was the same spirit of cordiality, Miles invited Alexander and the NWC servants, as well as local Métis and Indians, to an impressive ceremony on 4 September, during which Selkirk’s title to the colony was proclaimed amid the firing of guns and loud cheers.

Macdonell’s party had arrived too late in the season to prepare houses, fields, and, most important, a harvest to feed both themselves and the settlers who were to follow. Consequently, he sent the bulk of his men south to winter near the HBC fort at Pembina (N.Dak.), within the Selkirk grant and close to the plains and ample supplies of buffalo meat. Staying behind with the remainder, Macdonell laid out the site for Fort Douglas (Winnipeg) and set to work clearing land and building houses, before joining his party at Pembina, where he built Fort Daer.

At Pembina, he continued his efforts to cultivate good relations with the Nor’Westers and with the Métis, whom he hired as hunters to run buffalo. He failed, however, to take as much care in his relations with the local representatives of the HBC. Within a few days of his arrival at Pembina, Macdonell had clashed with Hugh Heney, who was in charge of the post there, over purchases of meat he had made directly from the Métis. Although Macdonell had paid the prevailing rate, Heney objected that he was interfering with the company’s trade. The resulting strained relations between the local officials of the company and the colony were only eased when Hillier took charge of the post.

The arrival at Pembina of the first contingent of actual settlers under the leadership of Owen Keveny* on 27 Oct. 1812 brought new problems. Houses were not ready to receive them and the settlers were sick. Hillier brought some of the women and children into the post where they could get better care and, with Macdonell, wrote to the outlying company posts requesting them to stockpile supplies of pemmican for the coming winter. Securing adequate amounts of food became the principal preoccupation of both the governor and the settlers. The winter of 1812–13 was especially difficult for all concerned and by spring the situation had worsened. Not only was food in short supply, in part because the Métis had refused to deliver meat for which they had been paid, but Miles Macdonell had received word that the Nor’Westers were attempting to stir up trouble among the native tribes. Moreover, John Dugald Cameron*, a NWC partner in charge of the Lake Winnipeg department, had arrived at Pembina and soon began fomenting discontent among the settlers, as well as persuading local employees of the NWC, including Alexander Macdonell (Greenfield), to oppose the colony. Cameron was operating on instructions from his superiors, but Miles Macdonell’s own failings contributed to the opposition. Whenever the opportunity presented itself Miles flaunted both his authority and Selkirk’s title to the territory. In April 1813, convinced that even his brother-in-law had turned against him, Macdonell ordered all intercourse with the NWC to cease. The policy of conciliation was at an end.

A month later the settlers travelled north to begin building houses and planting crops. More provisions would be needed for new settlers expected towards the end of the summer. In July Macdonell journeyed to York Factory to meet the Kildonan settlers accompanied by Archibald McDonald* and to lead them back to the colony. He was disappointed. Fever on board ship and a diversion from York Factory to Fort Churchill (Churchill) meant that the settlers would have to winter on the bay. By 15 October Miles had arrived back in the colony only to find that the crops had failed and that it would again be necessary to send the settlers south to Pembina.

On 8 Jan. 1814, seeking to solve the colony’s food problems once and for all, Macdonell issued a proclamation “which had been some time in contemplation.” The proclamation prohibited the export of provisions of any kind from within the limits of Assiniboia without a special licence from the governor. From his point of view, the proclamation was essential to ensure an adequate supply of food for the settlers and to prevent future shortages. Only then could the colony hope to progress. From the point of view of the Nor’Westers and the Métis, the “pemmican proclamation,” as it came to be known, was an open declaration of war. It interfered with the livelihood of the Métis, who supplied the pemmican, and it threatened the trade of the Nor’Westers, who relied upon the staple to feed their trading parties.

In the ensuing months the crisis escalated. The proclamation was sent to posts of both companies throughout Assiniboia and stocks of pemmican were expropriated. John Spencer was appointed sheriff and charged with enforcing the proclamation. Armed constables supported by artillery were stationed along the Red River to intercept and confiscate pemmican coming downriver. In retaliation, the Nor’Westers began to construct a blockhouse that would give them command of the river. By mid June, despite several attempts at negotiation, it seemed that a violent clash was imminent and unavoidable. Then, at the last moment, a compromise was worked out whereby Macdonell agreed to return pemmican stocks to the Nor’Westers in exchange for the promise of supplies for the following winter and a cessation of hostilities. The crisis had been averted, at least temporarily.

Throughout June and July 1814 Macdonell was exhausted and depressed. The pemmican war, Selkirk’s criticism of his conduct of the colony’s affairs, particularly its accounts, and the lack of support he had had from the HBC men, especially William Auld, superintendent of the Northern Department, all played on his mind. On 14 July he wrote to Selkirk asking that “your Lordship be not prevented by any delicacy to send a suitable person to take my place, as I find myself unequal to the task of reconciling so many different interests.” He left for York Factory on 25 July to meet a new contingent of settlers. Soon after his arrival on 22 August he appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. It could hardly have been a stable Macdonell who returned to the colony on 20 October. Once again he found himself at the centre of trouble. Spencer had been arrested by the Nor’Westers and Duncan Cameron*, in charge of the NWC’s Red River department, had repudiated the June agreement. The next day, Macdonell ordered the Nor’Westers to quit Fort Gibraltar. Of course they did not and in remaining they were a constant reminder to the settlers of the ineffectiveness of their governor, who soon had to order some of them south once again because of food shortages.

Throughout the winter and the spring of 1815 the colony was subjected to harassing raids by the Métis and the intrigues of the Nor’Westers. By casting doubt on the legality of the Selkirk grant, creating fear of Indian attacks, and making invidious comparisons between the lot of settlers in Upper Canada and those in the west, Duncan Cameron tried to induce the colonists to leave. When he offered free passage to Upper Canada more than 40 settlers abandoned the colony in the spring of 1815. On 17 June, with the colony under threat of imminent attack, Macdonell surrendered himself to the representatives of the NWC in return for a promise that the settlers would not be harmed. On 25 June, however, in the face of constant harassment by the Métis, who were encouraged by the NWC, Peter Fidler, the HBC surveyor temporarily in command of the colony, surrendered it and retired with the settlers to Jack River House. Macdonell was taken to Montreal by the Nor’Westers to stand trial for his “crimes,” which included the “illegal” confiscation of pemmican. He was never brought to trial.

The colony’s struggles did not end with Macdonell’s surrender. Colin Robertson* persuaded some of the settlers at Jack River House to return and additional colonists arrived in August 1815 with Robert Semple*, newly appointed governor of the HBC territories. In the spring of 1816 Macdonell set out for the Red River. At Lake Winnipeg, he learned that the colony had once again been disrupted. He hurried back to warn Selkirk, whom he met at Sault Ste Marie (Ont.), that Semple and about 20 men had been killed at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) on 19 June [see Cuthbert Grant*]. Accompanying Selkirk, Macdonell took part in the capture of Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) on 13 August. William McGillivray and other partners of the NWC were arrested on charges of “aiding, abetting & instigating to the murders committed at Red River,” and were sent to York (Toronto) for trial. The NWC’s papers and all the furs at Fort William were seized. In October, claiming to be writing on behalf of NWC partner Daniel McKenzie, Macdonell sent a letter to Roderick McKenzie*, of the NWC’s Nipigon department, in which he urged the wintering partners to abandon their ties to Montreal and send their furs out through Hudson Bay. In mid December Macdonell and some members of De Meuron’s Regiment set out from Rainy Lake (Ont.) to reassume control of the colony. On 10 Jan. 1817 they captured Fort Douglas, then in the hands of the NWC. Macdonell spent a few months in the colony as governor, but returned to Montreal to take part in the trials. He never returned to the northwest.

Macdonell spent his final years in semi-retirement on his farm in Osnabruck Township. Much of his time was devoted to an unsuccessful attempt to recover from the Selkirk estate the payments he felt were due to him. These included £300 a year promised as salary, 50,000 acres of land, and shares in the joint-stock company. Unable to recover the moneys or to sell part of the extensive acreages he held in Upper Canada, he remained in debt throughout his life. He died on 28 June 1828 at his brother’s farm at Pointe-Fortune and was buried at Rigaud, Lower Canada.

Historians have generally agreed that, despite the inherent difficulties of establishing a colony at the Red River amid the fierce competition between the fur-trading companies, Macdonell must bear some of the responsibility for the colony’s initial failure. They have focused upon his character faults, his inability to inspire trust and loyalty among his people, his obstinacy, his arrogance, his unaccommodating temper, and his lack of staying power. It was these flaws, as well as his lack of shrewdness and diplomatic skill, that led to his failures. Either he never understood his situation, or worse, refused to come to grips with it. Nowhere is this better shown than in the decision to issue the pemmican proclamation. It was promulgated at a time when the colony was too weak to defend itself and it offered the NWC excellent propaganda against both the HBC and Lord Selkirk. His behaviour during those years suggests that he saw the colony as entirely separate from the fur trade but his point of view does not excuse an insensitivity that blinded him to the provocative nature of his actions. Through a similar blindness he alienated his own people, seeking out the company of “gentlemen” in preference to theirs. The result was that a successful colony could not be established until after the union of the two fur-trading companies, in 1821.

Herbert J. Mays

Miles Macdonell’s papers are at PAC, MG 19, E4. A letter-book in this collection was published as “Selkirk settlement; letter book of Captain Miles Macdonell . . . ,” PAC Report, 1886, clxxxvii–ccxxvi. Macdonell’s journal is also at the PAC, in the Selkirk papers (MG 19, E1, copy at PAM, MG 2, A1: 16500–7599).

AO, MU 1780, A-1-1–A-1-4, A-1-6, A-2; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, MG 19, E1, E2 (copies at PAM). PAM, HBCA, A.6/18. HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming). Chadwick, Ontarian families. Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). J. M. Bumsted, “The affair at Stornoway, 1811,” Beaver, outfit 312 (spring 1982): 53–58. J. G. Harkness, “Miles Macdonell,” OH, 40 (1948): 77–83. A.-G. Morice, “A Canadian pioneer: Spanish John” and “Sidelights on the careers of Miles Macdonell and his brothers,” CHR, 10 (1929): 212–35 and 308–32.

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Cite This Article

Herbert J. Mays, “MACDONELL, MILES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_miles_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_miles_6E.html
Author of Article: Herbert J. Mays
Title of Article: MACDONELL, MILES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: July 25, 2014