McARTHUR (Macarthur), ALEXANDER, HBC employee and businessman; b. 5 June 1843 at Nairn (Highland), Scotland, son of John Macarthur and Sarah Dallas; m. 22 June 1880 Hannah May Hutchins, and they had two sons, both of whom died in infancy; d. 21 Aug. 1887 in Winnipeg, Man.
Alexander McArthur was educated in Nairn, where he became the secretary of the Nairn Literary Institute. He worked in a local law office before coming to Canada in 1861. Between 1864 and 1868 he was employed as a clerk by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Montreal Department; he then worked in banking in both Montreal and Toronto.
In October 1869 McArthur went to the Red River Settlement (Man.), possibly as an agent of McArthur and Martin, general commission merchants in Montreal. His role in the Red River disturbance is uncertain and has been confused with that of his brother Peter who was one of those arrested with John Christian Schultz* by Louis Riel on 7 Dec. 1869. Nevertheless, Alexander may have been among those arrested and imprisoned in early December. Before the year was out he had established a general merchandise operation in Winnipeg; the following year he bought a sawmill on the Winnipeg River and set up a retail lumber business in Winnipeg. He apparently sold the sawmill in 1876, and the lumber business in 1878. In the latter year McArthur helped establish the Manitoba Investment Association, of which he was vice-president and general manager until 1885; Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne was president. In conjunction with his other activities, McArthur became the agent for the North West Navigation Company, organized in 1880 by his brother Peter, who sold out in 1883.
McArthur made several attempts at elective office In January 1874 he ran unsuccessfully for the Winnipeg City Council, and two years later, in a provincial by-election in St Paul’s, he was defeated when he ran as an opponent of the government of Robert Atkinson Davis*, a moderate French-English coalition. McArthur finally achieved political success in 1879, when he was elected a Winnipeg alderman. He was among the founders of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba in 1879 with George Bryce* and Alexander Begg* and served on its executive council and as president. He also contributed historical and zoological papers to the society. In the late 1870s he was a financial supporter as well as the secretary treasurer of the fledgling Winnipeg General Hospital.
The 1880s were disastrous for McArthur, both financially and personally. In 1882–83 the so-called boom in Winnipeg collapsed, and McArthur was one of the many speculators and investors who were hard hit. In January 1886 his wife and second son died within a week of each other. By December of that year his financial distress forced the sale of his 300-volume personal library, his paintings, and his well-known collection of stuffed birds; the latter went to James Jerome Hill in St Paul, Minn.
Undaunted, McArthur announced in mid February 1887 a plan for an expedition to the Arctic to explore and collect ornithological specimens. Planning to proceed by pony to Norway House (Man.) and then by dog team to Chesterfield Inlet (N.W.T.), he hoped to reach the magnetic pole by whaling ship and, after wintering near King William Island, investigate unexplored territory. The Smithsonian Institution, which agreed to help with expenses, would receive ornithological specimens. McArthur and his two companions, a drug clerk and a servant, were, however, back in Winnipeg in March after having got no farther than a point between Norway House and Oxford House (Man.) when they heard that plans for Inuit assistance had fallen through. He made plans for a second attempt but died on 21 Aug. 1887 before he could set out.
McArthur appeared to be a man desperate for some achievement which would bring him recognition. In 1878 he had tried unsuccessfully to import reindeer from Norway to the Canadian northwest, to areas where deep snow and a lack of roads made transportation and communications difficult. His scheme for exploring in the Arctic was also short-sighted in both its planning and its execution. His ability was not always equal to his imagination.
Alexander McArthur was the author of the following papers published in HSSM Trans.: “The causes of the rising in the Red River Settlement, 1869–70,” 1 (October 1882); “A tragedy on the plains: the fate of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic explorer,” 27 (December 1886); and “Our winter birds,” 28 (January 1887).
PAM, HBCA, B.134/g/38–43; MG 7, B7-1, Marriages, no. 146; Burials, no. 19; MG 14, C20; C66. Begg, Red River journal (Morton). Alexander Begg and W. R. Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg: a narration of the principal events in the history of the city of Winnipeg from the year A.D. 1870, to the year A.D. 1879, inclusive (Winnipeg, 1879). Peter MacArthur, “The Red River rebellion,” Manitoba Pageant (Winnipeg), 18 (1972–73), no.3: 22–24. Manitoba Daily Free Press, 11, 17–22 Nov. 1876; 3 June 1878; January, 24 Feb. 1879; 5 Jan., 4 May 1880; 3, 8 Feb. 1881; 26 Feb. 1883; 15 Feb., 31 March, 22 Aug. 1887. Winnipeg Daily Times, 1880–81. J. A. Jackson, The centennial history of Manitoba (Toronto, 1970). Morton, Manitoba (1967).
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