McDONALD, JOHN (known also as McDonald le Borgne), fur trader; b. 1770 at Munial Farm on Loch Hourn, Scotland, son of Angus Ban McDonald and Nelly McDonell; m. according to the custom of the country, Marie Poitras, a Métis, and they had at least six children; d. 27 Feb. 1828 near Kempenfeldt Bay, Upper Canada.
John McDonald’s family immigrated in 1786 to the area which later became Glengarry County (Ont.). By 1791 he was a clerk at Lachine, Lower Canada, and in 1798 he became a wintering partner in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), which was formed as a rival to the North West Company. Around 1802 he was stationed in the Red River region, in opposition to his cousin, Nor’Wester John MacDonell*. When the two firms merged in November 1804 in Montreal, McDonald was one of six wintering partners of the XY Company, represented by Sir Alexander Mackenzie*, to be a party to the new agreement. Having wintered near the source of the Red River in 1804–5, he rendezvoused that spring at the mouth of the river for several days of “great amusement” with George Nelson* and other XY and NWC colleagues.
The tracing of McDonald’s activities between 1805 and 1810 is complicated by the fact that he and Nor’Wester John McDonald* of Garth were at times in the same areas beyond Lake Winnipeg (Man.) and are mentioned without distinction in the sources. In 1806 both McDonalds were stationed in the Fort des Prairies department. McDonald le Borgne was evidently in charge of the Fort Dauphin department from 1808 to 1810, and for the next three years he managed the Swan River department, where his Hudson’s Bay Company counterpart, Alexander Kennedy, found him a violent opponent and a “notorious scoundrel.”
In August 1816 McDonald, Simon Fraser*, Alexander McKenzie, and John McLoughlin* were among the NWC partners arrested at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*]. They were charged with “Crimes of Treason and Conspiracy and as accessary to the murder of Robert Semple[*] Esquire and to divers other Murders Robberies and Felonies committed in the Course of the Months of May and June ” at the Red River settlement (Man.), and were brought to Montreal. In February 1818 the trial site was changed from Lower Canada to Upper Canada because the witnesses for the defence were all located in Upper Canada or the northwest. McDonald was subsequently acquitted at York (Toronto).
In 1821 McDonald became a chief factor in the HBC when the NWC merged with its old rival. In 1821–22 he had charge of the Upper Red River district, and from 1823 to 1827 he was based at Fort Alexander (Man.), managing the Winnipeg River district. In March 1827 “alarming accounts” began to circulate that McDonald was “at the last stage of life,” and on 25 July the HBC governor, George Simpson*, reported to London that McDonald had been granted a furlough on account of “extreme ill health.” McDonald, his wife, and their family settled in Upper Canada on an NWC land grant assigned to him by William McGillivray; it was situated on the Penetanguishene Road, near present-day Barrie on Kempenfeldt Bay. There he maintained an interest in fur-trade affairs, expressing pleasure at the Winnipeg River district returns for 1827, curiosity about the yields of his large plantings of wheat, barley, oats, peas, and potatoes at Fort Alexander, and hopes of returning to service.
By early February 1828, however, his “indisposition” was serious, aggravated by grief over the death of his wife following a miscarriage in January. On 2 March John Spencer, a retired fur trader and neighbour, reported that McDonald had died on 27 February, “depriving us of a gentleman that so many looked up to as calculated to inspire energy & emulation . . . in [this] infant settlement he was looked up to as nearly the father of the flock.” Lady Franklin [Griffin*] later furnished a monument in the Church of England graveyard at Newmarket in recognition of McDonald’s assistance to her husband, explorer Sir John Franklin*, during his overland journey of 1825.
John McDonald died intestate, and court negotiations about his estate continued for more than 20 years. The disputes involved McDonald’s brothers James and Finan and their expenses and claims concerning not only his lands but also their care of his children during his fur trade service and – in the instance of Catherine, his youngest child – after his death. The conflict parallels tensions that arose among the kinsmen of numerous British Nor’Westers, including Samuel Black* and John Stuart*, as the heirs and the courts tried to limit and to define the claims of traders’ native families.
AO, MU 2197, instruments transmitting cases from Lower to Upper Canada, 7 Feb. 1818; MU 2201, no.2; RG 22, ser. 155. MTL, George Nelson papers and journals. PAM, HBCA, A.36/9: ff.6–37; A.44/2: f.43; B.3/b/46: f.28; B.134/c/4: ff.313, 325; D.4/15: f.114; D.5/2: ff.353–54; D.5/3: ff.97, 128–29, 395. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). J. S. H. Brown, Strangers in blood: fur trade company families in Indian country (Vancouver and London, 1980). A. F. Hunter, A history of Simcoe County (2v., Barrie, Ont., 1900; repr. 1948), 1. W. S. Wallace, “Namesakes in the fur-trade,” CHR, 13 (1932): 285–90.