McBEATH, GEORGE, fur trader, politician, office holder, and militia officer; b. c. 1740 in Scotland; d. 3 Dec. 1812 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
George McBeath arrived in Canada immediately after the conquest. His activity in the fur trade seems to date from 1765, the year in which Governor Murray* once more authorized the issuance of trading licences, which had been suspended two years earlier at the time of Pontiac*’s uprising. He went on his first trading expedition in 1765 and in the following years continued to fit out canoes which he took to the Lake Superior region. At this period he was concentrating his attention on the northwest. In 1772 at Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.), McBeath was a member along with Maurice-Régis Blondeau, Isaac Todd, and some others of a company that sent canoes to Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) and from there to Lake Winnipeg. In 1774 he was in Montreal, and for a time he seemed to hesitate between the northwest and the more southerly regions: Niagara, Detroit, and even the Illinois country. Having returned to Michilimackinac in 1776, McBeath went into partnership with Simon McTavish, who at that time maintained a close association with a number of powerful traders in Detroit: William Macomb, William Edgar, and Thomas Williams. In 1777 McBeath himself, with McTavish and Alexander Ellice standing surety, fitted out 5 canoes with a crew of 32 which transported £2,000 of goods up to Sault Ste Marie (Mich.) and Grand Portage; in partnership with a man named Wright, he also financed the dispatch to Detroit of 20 boats with 80 men and goods worth £3,000. The following year, the last in their brief partnership, their investments amounted to £6,000 and included 6 canoes, 15 boats, and 105 men. Then for two years McBeath apparently worked by himself; he invested £7,100 in 1779–80, hiring 4 canoes, 7 boats, and 70 men for Grand Portage.
The independence of his operations was, however, more apparent than real, since in 1779 he had participated in an amalgamation of fur dealers through the purchase with Peter Pond of 2 of the 16 shares of the North West Company [see Simon McTavish]. In 1781 McBeath formed a partnership with Pond and a man named Graves (probably Booty Graves) to fit out four canoes, standing surety along with Robert Ellice*. The next year, acting on his own, he sent two expeditions valued at £4,000 in all to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) and in partnership, perhaps with James Grant*, under the name of McBeath and Company he made a shipment worth £3,000 to Grand Portage. But he ran into difficulties in his endeavours to supply Michilimackinac, and from then on his fortunes seem to have rested on shakier foundations. In 1783 McBeath still held his two shares in the North West Company but he fitted out only three canoes for £2,000 with Pond’s aid. In April Daniel Robertson, commandant at Michilimackinac, commissioned him to inform the Indians around Prairie du Chien (Wis.) of the prospect of peace between Great Britain and the American colonies and to encourage them to cease all warlike activity among themselves. The following year, in June 1784, McBeath accompanied Captain Robertson in search of a site for a British post to replace Michilimackinac.
In 1785 McBeath went to live in the parish of L’Assomption, but he nevertheless stayed frequently in Montreal. That year he was listed as one of the 19 founders of the Beaver Club. In 1787, after four years of inactivity in the fur business, he organized a final expedition with 6 canoes and £2,000 of merchandise. During that year McBeath had serious financial difficulties which obliged him to have McBeath, Grant and Company run by trustees; in addition he underwrote a debt which the firm of Sutherland and Grant contracted with Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis of London, an action which merchant John Richardson* predicted would assuredly lead to his ruin. In the course of 1787 also, Simon McTavish advised Joseph Frobisher to buy from Thomas Forsyth the shares that McBeath still held in the North West Company. McBeath let one of them go, and in 1792 Alexander Mackenzie purchased the second one under the terms of an engagement he had made two years earlier when the NWC agreement was renewed; he had promised to pay £350 to McBeath, plus the value of the merchandise McBeath still had on hand in the spring. With this sale McBeath’s business career finally ended.
From then on McBeath held administrative and political offices. In 1790 he was appointed commissioner for the Court of Requests of L’Assomption. In the same year he made an application to buy 3,000 acres of land in Rawdon Township, Leinster County, but he obtained only 500 acres of it nine years later. On the death of François-Antoine Larocque, the first mha from Leinster, McBeath was elected for the county at the beginning of 1793 and sat in the House of Assembly until 1796. In 1795 he became a justice of the peace for the District of Montreal and in November 1799 he was appointed customs collector for the port of St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). Later, in June 1807, he was commissioned to swear in the half-pay officers in the District of Montreal, and in June 1812 to administer the oath of allegiance. At the time of his death that year he was also lieutenant-colonel commanding the 1st Townships Militia Battalion.
Although McBeath owned a pew in the Scotch Presbyterian Church (later known as St Gabriel Street Church) in Montreal, his funeral was conducted according to Anglican rites. By his first marriage, with Jane Graham, who died on 26 May 1787, he had at least two children. In an Anglican service on 9 Sept. 1801, he had married Erie Smyth, widow of David McCrae, a fur trader and a founder of the Beaver Club. McBeath was a freemason and had been master of St Peter’s Lodge No.4, Quebec, which was active in Montreal in the period between 1762 and 1793.
George McBeath was quite an important figure in the fur trade, but he never had the stature of those who at one time or another in their careers were in a position to aspire to sole control of it. Thus in 1777 the investments of the brothers John and William Kay amounted to £17,020; William and Alexander Macomb’s in 1780 to £30,600; John Gregory’s in 1783 to £18,460; and Robert Ellice’s in 1790 to £25,000. But in this struggle for pre-eminence the brothers Benjamin* and Joseph Frobisher and Simon McTavish were to be the winners.
PAC, MG 19, 133: 4 (transcripts); RG 4, B28, 110–15. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 4, 7–8, 40, 51, 56, 76, 89, 450, 453, 461–62. John Askin papers (Quaife), 1: 80, 83, 90, 92, 99, 124. “Le commerce du Nord-Ouest,” PAC Rapport, 1888: 53. Quebec Gazette, 8 April 1790. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” Quebec almanac, 1796: 63; 1810: 21, 55. M. W. Campbell, NWC (1973), 19, 34, 37, 52–53, 56. R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church, 81, 96. Creighton, Commercial empire of St. Lawrence, 24, 29, 73. Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1956), 195–98, 200, 220. P. C. Phillips, The fur trade (2v., Norman, Okla., 1961), 1: 632–34. E. E. Rich, The fur trade and the northwest to 1857 (Toronto, 1967), 141, 154, 172. F.[-J.] Audet et Édouard Fabre Surveyer, “George McBeath,” La Presse (Montréal), 6 août 1927: 53, 62. H. A. Innis, “The North West Company,” CHR, 8 (1927): 308–21. Victor Morin, “Clubs et sociétés notoires d’autrefois,” Cahiers des Dix, 13 (1948): 131–37.
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