McDONALD, ARCHIBALD, colonial administrator, author, fur trader, justice of the peace, and surveyor; b. 3 Feb. 1790 in Glencoe, Scotland, son of Angus McDonald, tacksman of Inverrigan, and Mary Rankin; m. first 1823, according to the custom of the country, the princess Raven (Sunday) (d. 1824), daughter of Chinook chief Comcomly, at Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.), with whom he had one son, Ranald McDonald*; m. secondly 1825, also according to the custom of the country, Jane Klyne, a mixed-blood woman with whom he had twelve sons and one daughter; marriage confirmed by Christian rite 9 June 1835 in the Red River settlement (Man.); d. 15 Jan. 1853 in St Andrews (Saint-André-Est), Lower Canada.
Archibald McDonald was enlisted in early 1812 by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] to serve as clerk and agent for the Red River settlement. In Scotland he assisted in the recruitment of the second group of settlers, who sailed in 1812. Originally designated to travel with this group, McDonald was held back by Selkirk for training and in 1812–13 he studied medicine and related subjects in London. In June 1813 he sailed from Stromness, Scotland, with a group of 94 Kildonan emigrants on the Prince of Wales for York Factory (Man.), as second in command to Dr Peter Laserre. Typhus broke out during the voyage and Laserre, who was among those infected, died on 16 August, leaving McDonald to take charge of the party. The captain of the ship was anxious to be rid of his passengers and landed them at Fort Churchill (Churchill, Man.), where they spent an uncomfortable winter, poorly equipped and short of provisions. In the spring McDonald led 51 of the settlers, most of them in their teens or early 20s, on snow-shoes 150 miles south along the shore of Hudson Bay to York Factory, a march of 13 days. They then travelled by boat up the Hayes River to Lake Winnipeg and arrived at the settlement on 22 June. The rest of the group reached Red River two months later.
Before his departure from Great Britain, McDonald had been appointed to the Council of Assiniboia, a body created by Selkirk to aid the colony’s governor, Miles Macdonell*, and during the winter of 1814–15 he served as one of Macdonell’s principal lieutenants. In the spring of 1815 Cuthbert Grant and the Métis, encouraged by the North West Company, who were opposed to the establishment of the Selkirk settlement, openly harassed the colony, attacking the settlers and stealing livestock, until in June they forced the abandonment of the colony. McDonald proceeded with a group of the settlers to the north end of Lake Winnipeg where they were joined by Colin Robertson*, who took charge of the colonists and returned to Red River to re-establish the colony later that summer. McDonald returned to England to report on the fate of the settlement and while there prepared an account of the events leading up to the abandonment of the colony, which was published in London in 1816.
In the spring of 1816 McDonald joined Selkirk in Montreal. There he wrote four letters, published in the Montreal Herald, in reply to the Reverend John Strachan*, who had written A letter to the right honourable the Earl of Selkirk, on his settlement at the Red River, near Hudson’s Bay (London, 1816), highly critical of Selkirk and all those associated with the colony. In August he was at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) when Selkirk arrested several NWC partners, including William McGillivray*, and seized the post. McDonald then returned to Montreal and in the spring of 1817 took charge of the group of soldiers from the disbanded De Meuron’s Regiment recruited by Lady Selkirk to reinforce the troops Selkirk had taken west with him the year before. After conducting this force to Fort William, McDonald turned back to Montreal and sailed for England in the fall. In 1818 he returned to the Red River settlement by way of York Factory to assist in the administration of the colony. In February 1819 he was among those, with Selkirk, indicted on charges of “conspiracy to ruin the trade of the North West Company” arising out of the events at Fort William three years earlier, but after many delays in the courts the charges were finally dropped.
In the spring of 1820 he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a clerk and was posted to Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.). The following year HBC governor George Simpson sent him to the Columbia district, on the Pacific northwest coast, under chief factors John Haldane and John Dugald Cameron. He was instructed to prepare an inventory of the goods at the NWC posts acquired by the merger of the NWC and the HBC in March 1821, and then he served as accountant at Fort George. In 1826 he took charge of Thompson’s River Post (Kamloops, B.C.) and in the fall of that year he explored the Thompson River to its junction with the Fraser, accompanied by the Okanagan chief Nicola [Hwistesmetxē'qen]. From his observations he prepared a map of the region which delineated for the first time drainage patterns and contours.
McDonald was promoted chief trader in January 1828 and travelled east with Edward Ermatinger* in the spring to attend the Northern Department council meeting at York Factory. On the return journey to the west coast, McDonald accompanied Governor Simpson, who was proceeding west for a tour of inspection. Typical of all of Simpson’s travels, this voyage was completed in exceptional time: the 3,261-mile trip from York to Fort Langley (B.C.), following the northern route from Cumberland House (Sask.), across the Methy Portage (Portage La Loche, Sask.), down the Clearwater River, up the Peace, and finally down the Fraser River, was completed in 90 days. The party ran the treacherous rapids of the Fraser, including the lower section that Simon Fraser* had not attempted in 1808.
At Fort Langley, McDonald took over the direction of the post from James McMillan. He remained there until 1833, conducting a trade with the coastal Indians in competition with American maritime traders and diversifying the activity of the post by some agricultural production and by the drying and packing of salmon and the cutting of lumber, both for shipment to the Columbia district’s headquarters at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.). In 1833 he left Fort Langley and established Fort Nisqually (near Tacoma, Wash.) before heading east to York Factory in 1834 and then on to Great Britain for a year’s furlough.
McDonald was back in the Columbia in 1835, and took charge of Fort Colvile (near Colville, Wash.). Built by John Work* in 1825–26, Fort Colvile was important for its farming operations. When McDonald took over, there were more than 200 acres under cultivation, and in 1837 he noted that the three cows and three pigs brought to the post in 1826 had multiplied to 55 and 150 respectively. He developed the farm on a large scale, contributing provisions for the HBC posts to the north and after 1839 for the Russian American Company, based at Sitka (Alaska). He was promoted chief factor in 1841.
In September 1844, plagued by ill health, McDonald set off for retirement in Lower Canada with his wife and six youngest children; another was born en route. They wintered at Fort Edmonton, where in May 1845, before resuming their journey, three young sons died of scarlet fever. McDonald and his family stayed in Montreal for three years and then, in 1848, settled on a comfortable farm by the Ottawa River, near St Andrews. McDonald played an active role in local affairs, serving as justice of the peace and surveyor, and in 1849 he led a delegation from Argenteuil protesting the provisions of the Rebellion Losses Bill to the governor-in-chief, Lord Elgin [Bruce*], in Montreal. In January 1853, after a few days’ illness, McDonald died at his home, Glencoe Cottage.
During his years in the Columbia district, McDonald had demonstrated a lively interest in the collection of scientific specimens. He corresponded with the British Museum, the Royal Horticultural Society, and Kew Gardens (London), sending botanical, geological, and animal specimens from the region. He met the British botanist David Douglas* at Fort Vancouver in 1825 and helped in the collection of the impressive selection of plants and seeds that Douglas carried back to England. Another botanist, the German Karl Andreas Geyer, passed the winter of 1843–44 in McDonald’s company at Fort Colvile. In September 1844 McDonald discovered the silver deposit on Kootenay Lake which was later developed as the Bluebell Mine.
Alert, industrious, a man of broad interests, McDonald had a facile pen and left a large body of journals and correspondence which provides valuable information on the native tribes he lived among during his quarter century in the west. His descriptions of family life at remote fur-trade posts are among the few accounts available to social historians, and his papers are rich in documentation on plant and animal life as well as on the early efforts in agriculture, lumbering, and fisheries in the Pacific northwest.
The Selkirk papers (PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 1–2, 4, 8, 63, 69–70) contain several of Archibald McDonald’s journals and much of his correspondence for the period when he was agent for the Red River settlement. Other journals and more of his correspondence, dealing in particular with his endeavours on the west coast, are at PABC, AB20, C72M, C72M.1, Ka3A, L2, L3A, and AB40, M142. His Narrative respecting the destruction of the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon Red River, in the year 1815 was published in London in 1816. That year the four letters which he wrote in reply to John Strachan and which were published in the Montreal Herald in May–June 1816 were brought out as a pamphlet entitled Reply to the letter, lately addressed to the Right Honorable the Earl of Selkirk, by the Hon. and Rev. John Strachan, D.D., rector of York, in Upper Canada . . . (Montreal, 1816). Lastly, his Peace River, a canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific, by the late Sir George Simpson (governor, hon. Hudson’s Bay Company) in 1828; journal of the late chief factor, Archibald McDonald (hon. Hudson’s Bay Company) who accompanied him, ed. Malcolm McLeod (Ottawa, 1872), came out posthumously.
PAC, RG 4, B28, 134, no.789; RG 68, 19: 433–34. PAM, HBCA, B.97/a/2; C.1/778; D.4/116: ff.50d–51d. Royal Botanic Gardens (London), North American letters, 62: 99–100; 63: 313–16. Yale Univ. Library, Beinecke Rare Book and ms Library (New Haven, Conn.), Western Americana coll., Walker–Whitman papers. Canadian North-West (Oliver), 1: 53–54. HBRS, 1 (Rich); 7 (Rich); 10 (Rich). Simpson, Fur trade and empire (Merk; 1968). Montreal Gazette, 21 Jan. 1853. Pilot (Montreal), 20 Jan. 1853. Quebec Gazette, 11 March 1819. J. M. Cole, Exile in the wilderness: the biography of Chief Factor Archibald McDonald, 1790–1853 (Don Mills [Toronto] and Seattle, Wash., 1979); “Exile in the wilderness; Archibald McDonald’s ten years at Fort Colvile,” Beaver, outfit 303 (summer 1972): 7–14. Olive and Harold Knox, “Chief Factor Archibald McDonald,” Beaver, outfit 274 (March 1944): 42–46. W. S. Lewis, “Archibald McDonald: biography and genealogy,” Wash. Hist. Quarterly, 9 (1918): 93–102.
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Cite This Article
Jean Murray Cole, “McDONALD, ARCHIBALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 20, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcdonald_archibald_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||Jean Murray Cole|
|Title of Article:||McDONALD, ARCHIBALD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 20, 2023|