DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

COCHRANE, FRANCIS – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

d. 22 Sept. 1919 in Ottawa


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

MACDONELL (McDonell), ALLAN, lawyer, office-holder, prospector, and pamphleteer; b. 5 Nov. 1808 at York (Toronto), Upper Canada, son of Alexander McDonell* (Collachie) and Anne Smith; d. 9 Sept. 1888 at Toronto.

Allan Macdonell’s grandfather, also named Allan, was a loyalist officer who settled in Glengarry County in 1784. His father was the first sheriff of the Home District, a member for Glengarry, and after 1831 also a legislative councillor. In York, Allan attended the Home District Grammar School and then studied law. Upon completion of his legal training in the office of Henry John Boulton*, he was called to the bar in 1832 and entered into partnership with Allan Napier MacNab*. It would seem that Macdonell did not find legal practice congenial for he apparently quit the profession in 1837 except for one last foray in 1858, when he acted on behalf of George Brown* in contesting, unsuccessfully, the legality of the “double shuffle” performed by John A. Macdonald*.

In 1837 Macdonell was appointed to succeed William Munson Jarvis as sheriff of the Gore District. As a major in the Queen’s Rangers he raised and equipped a troop of cavalry at his own expense during the rebellion of 1837–38. After the rebellion he resumed his shrievalty, but resigned the post about 1842. Macdonell obtained a government licence in 1846 for “exploring the shore of Lake Superior for mines” and the following year he and several associates commenced work, prospecting primarily for copper. He was to devote more than ten years of his life to this project, being instrumental in organizing the Quebec and Lake Superior Mining Association in 1847 and active in the Victoria Mining Company (he served as the first president in 1856). In 1865 he was managing director of the Upper Canada Mining Company. During his years of involvement in mining Macdonell supported the Indians of the Great Lakes area in their attempts to obtain compensation from the government for their lands. He may well have been one of the “certain interested parties” to whom William Benjamin Robinson* referred in his report on treaty negotiations as having advised the Indians to demand what Robinson considered “extravagant terms.” The agitation proved successful and the Indians obtained better terms in the Robinson treaties of September 1850, at the signing of which Macdonell was present.

By the 1850s Macdonell’s chief passion had become westward expansion, the annexation of the lands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the destruction of that company’s trade monopoly in the west. His interest in the northwest can be traced not only to his bent for promotion but to other sources as well: connections within his family – his uncle Miles Macdonell* had been governor of the district of Assiniboia; politics – as a Toronto Reformer Macdonell distrusted the HBC and its monopoly; and personal interest – the company had tried to restrict his mining explorations in the 1840s. In 1851 Macdonell and a group of associates, including his brother Angus Duncan, applied to the Canadian assembly for a charter to build a railway from the Province of Canada to the Pacific. The petition was denied because the promoters had not completed adequate preparatory work: they did not have the agreement of the imperial government which was sovereign in the northwest, of the HBC which governed the area, or of the Indian tribes which inhabited the territory. Moreover they had no capital. This preliminary effort prompted Macdonell to write Observations upon the construction of a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific (1851) which, according to the historian Gerald E. Boyce, “for the next ten years served as the text for promoters of the Pacific Railway and Northwest annexation.” It was an extravagant document in which Macdonell argued that this railway would be a better link between Britain and the Orient than a Central American canal. Undeterred by the set-back, in 1852 Macdonell and his brother applied, unsuccessfully, for a charter to build a canal at Sault Ste Marie. Such a canal, which was shortly after built by the Americans, would link lakes Huron and Superior, thereby providing easier access to the Lake Superior mining area, and form part of a communications network between Canada and the west. Further attempts to obtain a Pacific railway charter in 1853 and 1855 also failed.

By the mid 1850s opinion in Canada West was, however, shifting in favour of the annexation of the HBC lands: arable land was vanishing in the province and the completion in 1855 of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railroad [see Frederic William Cumberland] from Toronto to Collingwood made logical an attempt to penetrate the upper lakes region and beyond. Macdonell did what he could to push public opinion along. In 1856 he gave an enthusiastic speech to the Toronto Board of Trade in which he assaulted the claims of the HBC and proclaimed that “British subjects, and above all Canadians, will exercise a right of trade” in the west; the following year he amplified his views before an assembly committee that was investigating the firm’s monopoly. His grandiose planning was now meeting more receptive ears. To the general mania for railway development, prospecting, and commercial expansion was added a desire for a share of the gold discovered in British Columbia in 1858. Moreover, information on the northwest was more widespread as a result of the British expedition led by John Palliser, the Canadian one dominated by Henry Youle Hind* and Simon James Dawson*, and the emergence of a Canadian party led by Dr John Christian Schultz* in the Red River Settlement.

Macdonell and his associates, such as William McMaster, Adam Wilson*, and Thomas Clarkson*, were finally successful in 1858 when they secured a charter for the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company. The charter granted normal corporate powers but the company also acquired some valuable privileges. For example, the government was permitted to authorize the “Company to enter upon any ungranted lands of the Crown” and to establish transportation and trade facilities “from any place or places on the shores of Lake Superior, to any point in the interior, or between any navigable waters within the limits of Canada” as long as such projects were “in one single continuous line of communication extending westward from Lake Superior.” Capital stock, originally 20,000 £5 shares, could be increased by £7,500 for each mile of portage railway constructed in units of five miles or more. The company was also permitted to procure timber, stone, fuel, and other necessary material from crown lands. The government was to be able to purchase back any company possession except wharves and warehouses for the investment value plus six per cent. A survey was to be completed within two years; the charter would lapse in 1860 unless major progress was recorded.

Macdonell was elected a founding director of the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company along with such leading business figures as McMaster, Wilson, MacNab, Jean-Charles Chapais, John Gordon Brown, William Pearce Howland*, and William Kennedy. This directorship Macdonell retained for the life of the company and he was one of the most active members of its board, but perhaps his most important contribution was as its chief propagandist. Three of Macdonell’s pamphlets were published by the company: Memoranda and prospectus of the North-West Transportation and Land Company; The North-West Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company: its objects; and Prospectus of the North-West Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company. The pamphlets attacked the HBC monopoly and stressed the benefits of opening the west. The first, published just before the company was incorporated and concentrating on prospects for trade and on communication, proposed a mail service to Red River and a transportation system based largely on water routes. The second, published after the company’s charter was passed, emphasized the benefits in trade and employment the company would bring and described in detail the proposed transportation system, which would be a combination of railways, canals, and steamboats. In the third pamphlet, which stated the objectives of the company, he set out the “opening of a route to the rich prairie lands West of Red River” and the company’s desire for a railway eventually to the Pacific. Amid the constant animosity towards the HBC and the incessant boosterism in these writings, the evolution of a transportation scheme is evident.

The operations of the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company were to be described in 1871 by Joseph James Hargrave*, son of James*, a chief factor of the HBC, as “quixotic” and “abortive”; the firm was, in fact, premature and underfunded, and had no authorization from the HBC or the imperial government to operate west of Canada. In the fall of 1858 the company entered into a major deal which ultimately destroyed it. The Canadian government, perhaps affected by Macdonell’s first pamphlet, had decided early in the year to subsidize a mail route connecting Canada with Red River and awarded the contract to Captain Thomas Dick*, who was associated with Macdonell and his colleagues. The key to Dick’s operation was the ship Rescue, operating between Collingwood and Fort William (now part of Thunder Bay), Canada West. This he sold, along with the mail contract, to the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company in October 1858 for the inflated price of £6,000, paid in company stock. When it was revealed that Dick had owned the vessel jointly with some of the directors of the firm, a group of dissident shareholders successfully brought suit against the company. Affected adversely both by the recession of 1857, which had dried up capital, and by the lawsuit brought by the shareholders, the company began to come apart in 1859. In March the firm was reorganized as the North-West Transit Company with headquarters in England and an executive committee in Toronto. The new company nevertheless lost the contract for the mail service, which had been run in an inefficient and expensive manner. Adequate capital could not be found in Britain and in 1860 the firm lost a second suit to a group of shareholders. Its mandate not having been fulfilled, its charter expired in that year.

In December 1856 the Toronto Leader, no doubt correctly, had called Macdonell a “monomaniac” who possessed an “unconquerable penchant for magnificent schemes.” After 1860 he fades from public view and little is known of him other than that in the mid 1880s he was residing in Toronto, where he died. Although he was not an important business figure, Macdonell was nevertheless a prophet of Toronto’s metropolitan or imperialistic ambitions to control and exploit the vast territories of western British North America.

Donald Swainson

Allan Macdonell was the author of The North-west Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company: its objects (Toronto, 1858); “Observations upon the construction of a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific,” in Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1851, III, app.U.U., repub. in Project for the construction of a railroad to the Pacific, through British territories . . . (Toronto, 1852), 5–36; and A railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific: the shortest, cheapest and safest communication for Europe with all Asia (Toronto, 1851).

PAC, MG 24, I8, 37–40; RG 5, A1, 201. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1857, IV, app. 17; Statutes, 1858. J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871). Morris, Treaties of Canada with the Indians. North-West Transportation and Land Company, Memoranda and prospectus of the North-West Transportation and Land Company . . . (Toronto, 1858). North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company, Prospectus of the North-West Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company . . . (Toronto, 1858). W. J. Rattray, The Scot in British North America (4v., Toronto, 1880–84), IV. E. W. Watkin, Canada and the States: recollections, 1851 to 1886 (London and New York, [1887]). Globe, 1848–60. [J.] B. Burke, A genealogical and heraldic history of the colonial gentry (2v., London, 1891–95), II. Toronto directory, 1859–62. Wallace, Macmillan dict. G. E. Boyce, “Canadian interest in the Northwest, 1856–1860” (ma thesis, Univ. of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1960). Careless, Brown, I. J. S. Galbraith, The Hudson’s Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821–1869 ([Toronto], 1957). A. S. Morton, A history of the Canadian west to 1870–71 . . . (2nd ed., ed. L. G. Thomas, Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973). Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: the Canadian expansionist movement and the idea of the west, 1856–1900 (Toronto, 1980). Rich, Hist. of HBC, III. Donald Swainson, “Canada annexes the west: colonial status confirmed,” Federalism in Canada and Australia: the early years, ed. B. W. Hodgins et al. (Waterloo, Ont., 1978), 137–57. A. M. Wright, “The Canadian frontier, 18401867” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1943). W. L. Scott, “A U.E. loyalist family,” OH, 32 (1937): 140–70. Donald Swainson, “The North-West Transportation Company: personnel and attitudes,” HSSM Papers, 3rd ser., no.26 (1969–70): 59–77.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Donald Swainson, “MACDONELL, ALLAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_allan_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_allan_11E.html
Author of Article:   Donald Swainson
Title of Article:   MACDONELL, ALLAN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 22, 2023