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McMILLAN, ARCHIBALD, businessman, settlement promoter, settler, militia officer, office holder, and jp; b. 23 Feb. 1762 on Murlaggan farm, district of Lochaber, Scotland, son of Alexander McMillan, tacksman, and Margaret Cameron; m. 7 Dec. 1793 Isabella Gray in Fort William, Scotland, and they had 13 children, of whom at least two died in childhood; d. 19 June 1832 in Montreal.

Archibald McMillan’s father was the head of the McMillans of Loch Arkaig, who had been tacksmen, or leaseholders, of the chiefs of Clan Cameron since the 14th century. In 1745 they participated in the Jacobite rising, and the following year they took part under Alexander McMillan in a famous charge of Clan Cameron which broke a British regiment at the battle of Culloden; Captain James Wolfe* remarked upon the pertinacity and courage of the Cameron–McMillan “tribe” on this occasion. As a youth Archibald was sent to London to learn commercial and clerical work with a firm trading to the East Indies. However, appalled by the violence of the no-popery riots caused by Lord George Gordon in 1780, and finding business life uncongenial, he returned to the Highlands. By 1798 he had succeeded his father as head of the McMillans of Loch Arkaig, and was, as tacksman of Murlaggan, looking after his small estate and its tenantry. Sensitive and intelligent, he felt keenly the distress that afflicted his poorer clansmen as a result of economic depression in that part of the Highlands, considerable increases in rents since the mid 1700s, and a growing tendency for landowners to introduce sheep on lands occupied by tenants. By 1802 he had decided to take a contingent of farmers to Lower Canada. On 3 July, with more than 400 of his people in three ships, he sailed from Fort William to Montreal, which was reached in September. During the crossing the passengers had been given poor quality subsistence, and at Montreal they were forbidden by the ships’ captains to take with them what provisions they had saved. McMillan sued on their behalf and obtained favourable judgement from a tribunal of two Montreal merchants, James McGill* and John McKindlay.

Armed with letters of recommendation to the influential Simon McTavish*, McMillan may have worked for the North West Company for a time. In 1803 he set up as a general merchant in a modest commercial establishment on Rue Saint-Paul, bought in March for £560. He immediately acquired an agent at Quebec in fellow Highlander John Munro, and thereafter he established connections in Scotland, the West Indies, Albany, N.Y., and York (Toronto) where a friend from the Highlands, Duncan Cameron, was his agent by 1805. He became a member of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as St Gabriel Street Church, and by 1804 he was on its governing committee.

Since many of the people McMillan had brought out spoke only Gaelic and knew no system of farming other than cattle-raising or the primitive agriculture known as crofting, he hoped to obtain a grant of land on which to settle them together, with the intention of recreating Highland society, without its abuses, under himself as laird. In August 1804, assisted by John Young*, a member of the land committee of the Executive Council and a friend of Munro, McMillan petitioned for land in Suffolk, Templeton, and Grenville townships on the Grand, or Ottawa, River but he soon ran into the bureaucratic delays that characterized the unwieldy land-granting system in the colony. Discouraged, and attracted by the blandishments of influential Upper Canadian Scots eager to increase the population of their localities and hence the market value of their holdings, many of McMillan’s Highlanders left for Glengarry, Upper Canada, where they had relatives. “Our countrymen have a great aversion to go upon new lands,” McMillan complained to a Highland acquaintance in 1805. “They are afraid to encounter fresh difficulties & they [hive?] together among their friends formerly settled in the country who encourage them as they find them useful in clearing their lands, without considering they are losing time for a bare subsistence.” At least 80 of McMillan’s associates promised to sell to him for from 5 to 15 shillings each their expected grants of 200 acres, according to the Lower Canadian system of township leaders and associates [see Samuel Gale]. In spite of the delays McMillan maintained his confidence in “the influence of Mr Young who has been uniformly friendly to the cause,” and his patience was rewarded in 1807 with patents on 13,261 acres in Suffolk (which had been renamed Lochaber) Township and nearly one-half of Templeton Township. In October he was able to sell a lot of 200 acres in the first range of Lochaber for £50.

McMillan was an ardent promoter of immigration. To Highland acquaintances he vaunted the cheapness of living in the colony, where there were no taxes and the cost of establishment was moderate. In the immediate vicinity of Montreal, he wrote to one in 1805, “you can purchase a Farm with a suitable House offices Garden and Fences in compleat repair for 4 a £600 . . . , at the distance of 30 to 40 miles from this a Farm could be purchased for £150 a £200.” He portrayed his own situation in glowing terms: he was able to educate his children conveniently; in business he was supported “by some of the first Characters” in Montreal, and there and at Quebec he commanded credit easily; Highland immigrants were “powering down every day in most astonishing numbers”; and even those who settled in Glengarry and Lancaster brought their produce to him in exchange for farm utensils and necessities. Initially he had conducted almost all his business in Gaelic, but by September 1803 he had acquired a sufficient number of French-speaking customers to have learned to “blaber pretty well upon Business in that language,” which his little boys spoke better than English.

McMillan quickly diversified his business activities. He purchased imported goods with Upper Canadian produce and then sold his purchases in Montreal, York, and Quebec, where Munro was also sent agricultural and wood products from Upper Canada. If McMillan declined an invitation from Alexander McDonell*, Roman Catholic priest at Glengarry, to deal in potash and pearl ash from that settlement, he was ready by January 1805 to try the Newfoundland market in order to maximize the return on his expeditions to and from Europe by picking up fish en route. He was the Montreal agent for a Highlander merchant in Trois-Rivières, who obtained for McMillan a contract to furnish cloth for the making of military uniforms. He engaged in speculative ventures in the West Indies and purchased London bills in Montreal “to take advantage of the discount here & premium in New York and Boston.” His banker, Alexander Auldjo, bought and sold stocks on the London market on his behalf.

By May 1807, however, according to McMillan, trade had become so flat that he was considering betaking himself “to the woods as my denier resort.” Costs in obtaining the patent on the lands in Lochaber and Templeton had obliged him to borrow from Munro. The latter was pressed to obtain for McMillan the patent on lands in Grenville, where McMillan intended to establish himself as a drawing card for settlers. Munro succeeded in January 1808, and McMillan began selling off stock-in-trade in Montreal and making frequent trips up the Ottawa to prepare the site of a homestead and mills. However, by summer he had perceived the immensity of his task and, abandoning hopes of immediate settlement on his land, had hired an agent for the Grenville project.

Returning to business, in September 1808 McMillan contemplated a “wild” gamble, the sending of a cargo of flour, fish, and other products to Cuba, the Floridas, and Spain or Portugal in order to open new channels of trade, “the old tract being so hackneyed that an honest man can hardly live by the gleanings of it.” He formed a partnership with Alexander Cameron, and they opened a liquor and dry-goods establishment, called Cameron and McMillan, in leased premises in Montreal’s lower town market. By late 1808 McMillan was preparing to send squared oak from Grenville, Norway pine, and staves to Munro, who owned a timber cove at Sillery; in February 1809 he sold 10,000 staves, worth £700, to one Quebec merchant.

Land settlement and development remained, none the less, an activity of interest to McMillan. In 1809 he, Cameron, and Simon Zelotes Watson, an associate at Quebec, proposed to draw Highlanders who had settled in the United States to Lower Canadian lands near the American border. The project was endorsed by the Executive Council and Watson was sent off to the United States with a sum of money. He disappeared. McMillan and Cameron tried once more, this time with the trustworthy Munro at Quebec; in the autumn they proposed first to Surveyor General Joseph Bouchette* and then to Governor Sir James Henry Craig* to settle Highlanders from Britain and the United States on a block of 150,000 acres south of the St Lawrence River at a rate of 300 settlers a year for five years. The government was to sell the land on easy terms to McMillan and Cameron, who, from profits on resale to immigrants, would build a road to Quebec. The scheme came to naught.

In 1809 McMillan increased his holdings in Grenville and Templeton through purchase and the lease of crown and clergy reserve lots. By November 1809 he had invested heavily in mills in Lochaber and was negotiating loans to build others in Templeton. He tried to attract settlers by adopting the tactics of his Upper Canadian competitors in development and by arguing that North West Company traders would purchase pork, flour, and butter along the Ottawa en route to the northwest. The following spring he sold his property on Rue Saint-Paul for £800, sublet the premises in the lower town market, and moved to Grenville.

McMillan soon found that profits could be made more quickly from lumbering than from farming. A tariff preference accorded by Britain to colonial lumber during the Napoleonic Wars made the timber trade highly lucrative, and a brief period of post-war prosperity maintained the boom [see Peter Patterson*]. McMillan’s holdings were advantageous; Grenville and Lochaber were covered with pine and oak, both in demand for naval construction, and were veined with streams capable of carrying the logs to the Ottawa, while Templeton had beech, maple, basswood, pine, and some oak. In 1812 Christopher Idle, Brother and Company, a major London firm [see William Price*], ordered from McMillan 10,000 cubic feet of squared Norway pine, worth £400–£500. By 1816 he had seven sawmills and was employing many of his former crofters as lumberjacks and workers in the mills. In 1817 he formed an association with Thomas Noyes of Chatham Township; Noyes cut and rafted McMillan’s timber, while McMillan delivered and sold it at Quebec. McMillan also established a general store in Grenville by 1821. His suppliers and backers, almost all in Montreal, included John* and Thomas Torrance, Gillespie, Moffatt and Company, the Bank of Montreal, and John Molson and Sons.

Devoted to lumbering, McMillan neglected settlement. In 1815 Surveyor General Bouchette praised the settlement efforts of the late Daniel Robertson* in Chatham, to the east of McMillan, and Philemon Wright* in Hull Township to the west, but he had no accolades for McMillan. In September 1821 the land committee of the Executive Council recommended to Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] the escheating of all of McMillan’s grants for which conditions of settlement had not been fulfilled. McMillan appealed to Dalhousie’s Scottish blood, charging that Americans, wanting to reserve the valley for themselves, were painting a dismal picture of its agricultural possibilities to prospective Scottish farmers. He asked the influential William McGillivray to intervene with Dalhousie on behalf of “your Countrymen being kept in the back ground & deprived of their rights by designing Yankees who if encouraged will sooner or later be the ruin of this Country.” On the back of McMillan’s petition Dalhousie scratched that the Highlander was “a likely person to promote settlement . . . [but] I do not think him a fit person to be employed or attended to in any manner whatever.” Yet an extension was granted. In 1822 or 1823 McMillan lost his lease on the crown and clergy reserve lots for non-payment of rent. A new threat of escheat was blamed on “machinations” by Wright, who had established a timber enterprise in Hull Township and, McMillan complained, “has nothing so much at heart as to root me out of the River.” Apprehending “the shamefull mortification of being foiled by such a vile person,” he exhorted his son Alexander, in Montreal, to find a friend in government. Dalhousie was petitioned again, but in vain; the lands were escheated some time later.

By the early 1820s the lumber trade, too, had soured for McMillan. He had always been obliged to conduct it, like his other business activities, in the face of great transportation difficulties, stocks frequently being lost in the rapids of the Ottawa, but high prices generally in Britain had carried him through. However, a depression in the period 1819–22 irrevocably damaged his business. In 1825 he had debts “to a large amount,” the result of having stood security for two sons “who have been unfortunate in the Lumber trade for 3 years back.” Among his principal creditors were Horatio Gates and Company and James Ross of Montreal. Around 1827, in the midst of another depression, McMillan was forced out.

As a man of education, connections, and moderate wealth in a virtual wilderness, McMillan assumed a certain social leadership. In 1812 he was commissioned a major in the Argenteuil battalion of militia, largely composed of Lochaber emigrants. After war was declared with the United States that year, his unit marched rapidly to Pointe-Claire. It conducted successful raids in the Highland tradition, especially around Ogdensburg, N.Y., where much plunder, particularly horses and cattle, was carried off. McMillan was praised by the high command for his “activity and diligence” in these actions. In August 1816 he was appointed a commissioner for the erection of free schools in Chatham Township, and by 1819 he had been made deputy postmaster in the settlement of Grenville; he subsequently became postmaster. In February 1819 he was offered a commission of the peace, but he refused it. Seven months later he asked Munro to retrieve it; canal construction had introduced into the region “a motley population of 3 or 4 hundred military as well as civilians from Ireland & other quarters . . . [who] commit every species of fraud Impunits & I being next them suffer most.” He had an abhorrence of litigation, however, and soon gained a reputation as a conciliatory magistrate.

A leader among the Presbyterians of the area, in December 1824 McMillan reported to the Reverend Henry Esson* of Montreal on the state of the denomination in the lower Ottawa valley. Earlier, he had led in petitioning the Lower Canadian government for a grant of land and money to encourage construction of a church and, when Dalhousie refused, had himself donated a lot. In 1827 the inhabitants of the seigneury of Petite-Nation decided to ask for a resident priest, and, at the request of Denis-Benjamin Papineau*, McMillan held a meeting of the Irish and Scottish Catholics of Grenville and Chatham townships at which it was agreed to help support the priest in return for his services. McMillan donated the land for a Catholic church. His own sizeable log house was known throughout the region as “the Old Abbey” because of its isolated location in the woods by the Ottawa; it was nevertheless one of the best known social centres in the valley, and there travellers and visiting dignitaries were entertained with Highland hospitality.

Although a leader on the lower Ottawa, McMillan enjoyed little success in his relations with government, particularly with Lord Dalhousie, even though the governor was a Presbyterian and McMillan a strong supporter of the English party in the colony, on which Dalhousie depended politically. A Lowlander, Dalhousie may have shared the Scottish landowners’ dislike for Highland emigration and hence harboured ill feeling for McMillan as a promoter of it. In the summer of 1827 McMillan campaigned strongly on behalf of Nicolas-Eustache Lambert Dumont and John Simpson*, the government candidates in a fiercely fought contest in York ultimately won by the opposition Canadian party. McMillan’s chief rivals on the Ottawa, the Americans Philemon and Ruggles Wright Sr, exercised more influence than he in Montreal and Quebec. In 1825 he had complained to Simpson of the government’s “Yankee fashion of appointing the commission persons” on the basis of petitions by people “generally republicans if not radicals without education or knowledge.” In 1826–27 Ruggles Wright and Thomas Mears attempted to have McMillan fired as postmaster of Grenville, charging him with responsibility for the poor postal service between that place and Hull. McMillan blamed the Hull post office and the mail transport furnished by the only steamboat on the river, the Union, of which Mears was a proprietor. Mears had in fact probably learned of secret negotiations between McMillan and John Torrance of Montreal to launch a rival steamboat on the river and to wrest the mail contract from the owners of the Union. The affair ended with McMillan keeping his post but abandoning plans for a steamboat service.

By September 1827 the Wrights had won the war of attrition; McMillan acknowledged “an indolence which has become of late habitual,” the result of having been “thwarted in . . . my land speculations” by a government favourite “jealous of my having secured some prominent situation on the River.” In 1828 he retired from the 3rd Battalion of York Militia with the rank of major and from the postmastership at Grenville. He returned to Montreal that year in order to provide his younger children with a good education, and there he died of cholera in June 1832, three days before his son Alexander.

Archibald McMillan is outstanding as an example of a Highland leader who organized and brought a party of his people to the Canadas. Despite initial difficulties, most of the immigrants made a success of settlement, largely in Glengarry, where the 1852 census shows 545 McMillans, but also in Grenville and in Lochaber, where a township map of 1879 shows numerous farms held by families of that name. McMillan is also interesting because his correspondence documents abundantly the unceasing efforts of an ambitious Scot with a desire for adventure and a penchant for innovation to carve out his niche in Lower Canadian society using his Highland heritage and connections as his principal tools. Scandalized by the social injustice experienced by crofters in a homeland he nevertheless loved, he dreamt of transferring the basic structure of traditional Highland society to a land of unlimited potential for economic growth and of himself becoming a new world laird. The dream was never realized, yet the dreamer had not entirely failed. He had planted a seed, and the seed would grow; only the new plant was not a replica of the old stock.

James H. Lambert and David S. Macmillan

ANQ-M, CN1-185, 14 mars 1803; 1er mai 1804; 1er avril, 17 mai, 21 sept., 6 oct., 23 nov. 1807; 25 avril, 22 août, 1er oct. 1808; 11, 27 févr., 16, 31 mars, 18 nov., 1er déc. 1809; 2 févr., 1er mars 1810; 3, 17 avril 1811; 5 févr. 1812; CN1-187, 16 févr. 1810; 1er févr., 10 nov. 1821; 13 sept. 1824; 15 déc. 1827. PAC, MG 24, I183; RG 1, L3L: 569, 609, 780–87, 1317, 1320, 1548, 1552, 2126, 2131, 5415–20, 5428–31, 27147–59, 62446–61, 65065–68, 66477–733, 95134–58, 96506–13; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 263, 354, 362, 639. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1823, app.T. Bouchette, Topographical description of L.C., 248–51. Langelier, Liste des terrains concédés, 1650, 1672. R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church, 233–34. Michel Chamberland, Histoire de Notre-Dame des Sept-Douleurs de Grenville, P.Q. (Montréal, 1931), 29, 38, 280, 284. Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber historical and traditional (Glasgow, 1971), 66–70; The emigration of Lochaber Mac Millans to Canada in 1802 (Paisley, Scot., 1958). John Prebble, The Highland clearances (London, 1963); Mutiny: Highland regiments in revolt, 1743-1804 (London, 1975). John Stewart of Ardvorlich, The Camerons: a history of Clan Cameron ([Glasgow], 1974).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James H. Lambert and David S. Macmillan, “McMILLAN, ARCHIBALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcmillan_archibald_6E.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/mcmillan_archibald_6E.html
Author of Article:   James H. Lambert and David S. Macmillan
Title of Article:   McMILLAN, ARCHIBALD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 30, 2023