McMICKEN, GILBERT, businessman, office holder, notary public, politician, stipendiary magistrate, and jp; b. 13 Oct. 1813 in London, England, or Glenluce, Scotland; m. 19 Feb. 1835 Ann Theresa Duff in Chippawa, Upper Canada; they had six children and adopted a seventh; d. 7 March 1891 in Winnipeg.
Gilbert McMicken left no record of his childhood and youth in Glenluce, or of his reasons for choosing to settle in Chippawa upon immigrating to Upper Canada in 1832. He may have sought advice during his first several weeks at Montreal and York (Toronto). He was interested in commerce and finance, and at Chippawa became a forwarding agent in the St Lawrence trade moving through the Niagara area. His experience brought him into contact with prominent merchants and land developers of the region. Marriage in 1835 to Ann Theresa Duff linked him to the family of her grandfather, Alexander Grant*, who had dominated the early fur trade, the shipping industry, and the Provincial Marine in the Detroit region and whose social and political prominence had been reflected in his position as an executive councillor. McMicken’s career would turn out to be but a pale reflection: business without notable prosperity, position without significant influence, but unswerving loyalty to the institutions he served.
In 1837 or earlier the McMickens moved to Queenston. In the summer of 1838 he received his first government appointment as collector of customs and later that year he was made notary public. By 1839 he was advertising his partnership with James Hamilton in the firm of McMicken and Hamilton, “Forwarders and Commission Agents.” He operated the Niagara Suspension Bridge Bank for a time in 1840–41 and leased and managed the nine-mile horse-drawn Erie and Ontario Railroad during the mid 1840s. In 1846 and 1847 he assisted in extending Canada’s first telegraph line, built from Toronto, across the river to Lewiston, N.Y., and downriver to Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) [see Thomas Dennie Harris*], and patented two telegraphic instruments. By that time he had participated in real estate transactions and had built or acquired a large house on his own property.
He first achieved political success with his election in 1848 and 1849 to the municipal council of the Niagara District. After his election in 1850 to the council of the newly constituted township of Niagara, his fellow councillors chose him as reeve, and he became warden of the United Counties of Lincoln and Welland, at least during 1851. With Canadian and American dignitaries, he took a leading part in opening the Queenston Suspension Bridge on 19 March 1851, both as warden and as secretary and treasurer of the company that had built the bridge. Before he moved to Clifton (Niagara Falls) at the end of the year, he spoke during the provincial election campaign on behalf of Francis Hincks*, the reform candidate in Niagara. McMicken was even touted as a possible replacement if Hincks should sit for the other riding he was contesting.
In Clifton, the Niagara peninsula’s fastest growing community of the 1850s, McMicken concentrated on land speculation and development, loans, insurance, and government positions. Thus he became collector of customs for neighbouring Stamford (Niagara Falls), and in 1854, during one of his terms as postmaster at Clifton (he would hold the position again in 1857), he transformed a building he purchased into the post office. From 1850 to 1855 and perhaps longer he sat as a director of the Niagara District Building Society. He also sat on the board of the Erie and Ontario Insurance Company, at least from 1853 to 1857. Between 1854 and 1857 he acted as agent for land developer Samuel Zimmerman* and was cashier of the Zimmerman Bank. He and Zimmerman were involved in the organization of the Presbyterian congregation in Clifton, the provision of land, and the construction of St Andrew’s Church in 1856. At the same time McMicken built an imposing home for his family on choice property.
In 1856, at the height of its boom, Clifton was incorporated and McMicken became its first mayor, adding in 1857 the responsibilities of chairman of the school board. He may also have served for a time as a jp. Ironically, by the time he won election to the Legislative Assembly in December 1857, both Clifton’s and his own prosperity were on the wane, and his property holdings would dwindle away by 1861. Recognized by his supporters as a moderate Reformer, he defeated a Clear Grit follower of George Brown* and represented Welland from February 1858 to May 1861. The fractious sixth parliament evidently impressed McMicken with nothing so much as its inability to accomplish any significant business. Some time between 1860 and 1864 he moved his family to Windsor. Even his position from 1862 to 1864 as president of the Bank of Western Canada appears to have been singularly unrewarding. The period from 1858 to 1864 discouraged him profoundly, although little evidence remains except his gloomy reflections at the end of those years.
Whatever his set-backs, McMicken derived a singular benefit from his parliamentary career that he put to his advantage: his acquaintance with John A. Macdonald, leader of the Liberal-Conservatives. From Windsor, McMicken prevailed upon Macdonald to find him a paying appointment. In November 1864 Macdonald was using his influence to secure the position of excise officer in Windsor for McMicken, describing him as “a particular friend of ours.” That remark, coupled with McMicken’s pointed reminder to Macdonald a few days later that he had “borne contumely and reproach aye even imprisonment and Bonds for your sake,” raises the significant question of what service McMicken had performed that neither would ever reveal publicly yet that would justify Macdonald’s assessment of him as a “shrewd, cool, and determined man who won’t easily lose his head, and who will fearlessly perform his duty.”
Two related crises in Canadian-American relations transformed McMicken’s life. On 19 Oct. 1864, about 20 Confederate soldiers perpetrated a raid from Lower Canada into St Albans, Vt, robbing banks, damaging property, killing one person, and wounding another [see Charles-Joseph Coursol*]. During the next two months, apprehension mounted in the Canadas as animosity escalated in the northern United States. Two thousand Canadian volunteer militia were stationed along the border to prevent any recurrence of the embarrassing incident, and Macdonald, the attorney general for Upper Canada, set out to establish Canada’s first undercover security force. To implement his plan he turned to McMicken. On 16 and 17 December McMicken was named stipendiary magistrate and jp throughout Upper Canada with power to appoint police constables and to charge salaries and travelling expenses to the government. Frederick William Ermatinger* was given similar duties in Lower Canada. During his first week in office McMicken visited American border cities to assure officials of the municipal and United States governments that precautions were indeed being taken to prevent further raids. He enlisted recruits to his “Western Frontier Constabulary” to work as undercover agents on trains travelling through the border region and in Upper Canadian communities at or close to the border. His men were enjoined to discover in advance “the existence of any plot, conspiracy or organization whereby peace would be endangered, the Queen’s Majesty insulted, or her proclamation of Neutrality infringed,” and to report unlawful assemblies or military drilling as well as clandestine efforts by agents of the Union army to recruit British subjects in Upper Canada. With the cooperation of American authorities, he also recruited agents in Detroit and Buffalo.
As the American Civil War ended, McMicken’s work was extended by warnings of a threat to British North America and Great Britain arising from the Fenian Brotherhood, the North American wing of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood that aimed to provide money, arms, and supplementary forces for an uprising in Ireland. Although a few Fenians were present among the Irish immigrants to the Canadas [see Michael Murphy*], most were located in the United States, the growth in membership there having been facilitated by the Civil War. Some Fenians found it attractive to contemplate the invasion of the British North American colonies so as to secure a base from which to liberate Ireland. First reports of this prospect came from the British consul at New York as early as October 1864. At the end of December McMicken received a similar warning. The persistence of such warnings would justify his full-time attention to his new duties until 1871.
McMicken’s attempts early in 1865 to organize and manage a systematic and comprehensive stream of undercover information make for some comical reading in his correspondence with Macdonald. He soon dismissed many of his original 15 agents after early reports suggested little threat. But the arrest of Fenian plotters in Ireland late in the summer caused him, on Macdonald’s advice, to attempt penetration by his agents of Fenian organizations in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. Where it was achieved, this infiltration brought more alarming information, forcing McMicken and Macdonald to analyse the material and separate wishful Fenian thinking from real plans. McMicken himself paid an undercover visit to a major Fenian congress in Philadelphia. When he discovered that a 15-man “Senate” would work out details of an intended November invasion in secret, he proposed and set out to obtain “one or two clever women whose absolute virtue stands questioned by the censorious” to get “susceptible members of the ‘senate’ into their toils and thus as Delilah with Sampson possess themselves of their secrets.” Whether or not he carried through with his suggestion, his comfort with these and other techniques, coupled with his understanding that the objective of such activities as espionage and screening of militia officers should be to forestall invasion plans before they got under way, demonstrated his aptitude.
The problem faced by McMicken’s force and other informants organized on a lesser scale by Macdonald soon became clear: 20 ineffective agents could not equal one well-placed source. Thus, only after McMicken’s best man was temporarily relocated in Toronto did he and Macdonald obtain anything close to a clear picture of the Fenian organization in Upper Canada. McMicken’s major effort in early 1866 was therefore directed to improving his network of informants in key American cities such as Chicago and Buffalo. As a result, he was able to provide forewarning of an attempted invasion of Campobello Island, N.B ., in April and a larger effort at Fort Erie, Upper Canada, on 1 June [see John O’Neill*]. The excitement generated by these events provided support for the authorization of a regular secret-service fund and the expansion of McMicken’s detective force to cover Lockport, Rochester, New York, and Brooklyn, as well as Chicago, Buffalo, and key Canadian border points.
Over the next several years, the major target proved to be the plans developed by O’Neill, the most aggressive Fenian leader, and president of the brotherhood from the end of December 1867. Not long before, O’Neill had recruited Dr Henri Le Caron, whose real name was Thomas Billis Beach, as travelling organizer for the Fenians. Le Caron, however, reported secret Fenian plans to the British Home Office, and he was put in contact with McMicken in June 1868. McMicken’s new agents consistently verified Le Caron’s copious and prompt intelligence.
Meanwhile, the murder in Ottawa in April 1868 of Thomas D’Arcy McGee*, Macdonald’s Irish lieutenant in Montreal, provided reasons for the establishment of the Dominion Police (initially fewer than a dozen men) to protect federal buildings in Ottawa and to enforce certain federal laws. Although he was not formally appointed Dominion Police commissioner until late December 1869, McMicken integrated this new supervisory duty with his undercover network. Creation of the Dominion Police gave legitimacy to arrangements already in place, and established the approach to Canadian security that would persist until this force and the Royal North-West Mounted Police amalgamated in November 1919 and became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
McMicken’s new title brought new diversions. In 1868 he cooperated with the Pinkerton detective agency of the United States to arrange extradition from Canada of the Reno brothers, a famous pair of bank and train robbers, and he was later proud of citing his involvement in the solving of other crimes of robbery, abduction, and piracy, in the establishment of a precise Canadian-American border in parts of the St Clair River for the Treaty of Washington (1871), and in the security arrangements for the entourage of Prince Arthur* in 1870 as well as for the delegation sent from the Red River settlement (Man.) to Ottawa to negotiate union with Canada [see John Black*].
By October 1868 the communications of Le Caron and other agents had made Canadian authorities aware of every aspect of Fenian organization. All details of O’Neill’s strategy, including his decision to invade on 15 April 1870, were promptly forwarded to McMicken by Le Caron. Unnerved by the obvious preparations at the Canadian border, and concluding that there must be a traitor among his officers, O’Neill denounced the wrong man and reorganized his demoralized and dwindling forces. The repulse of his advance from Vermont on 25 May with a mere 200 Fenians, accomplished by Canadian volunteers and American officers acting on Canadian intelligence, effectively demonstrated the impact of the undercover work.
With the passing of the main Fenian threat, McMicken was sent to Winnipeg in September 1871 to establish an assortment of federal government offices in the new provincial capital. While retaining his post as Dominion Police commissioner, he was to serve as agent of the dominion lands branch and assistant receiver general in Manitoba (an office which included the posts of dominion auditor for the province and manager of the Government Savings Bank there). In addition he was appointed immigration agent and a member of the Intercolonial Railway Commission. Before leaving Ontario, he received word that O’Neill was attempting one more invasion, on the urging of William Bernard O’Donoghue*, an Irishman who had been involved with Louis Riel* during the uprising of 1869–70. This time O’Neill expected to receive help from discontented Métis in an advance on the Red River settlement from the south. McMicken, taking a few dominion policemen with him, travelled to Manitoba by way of St Paul, Minn., resorting to disguise as he passed O’Neill’s party of 40 or 50 supporters; he subsequently wrote a highly dramatic account of this journey.
O’Neill and his followers were captured by American soldiers at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Pembina (N.Dak.) on 5 Oct. 1871, and O’Donoghue was escorted back to the United States by two Métis. There had been little support from the Métis for O’Neill’s last campaign. The major thrust of McMicken’s police work then came to an end, although Macdonald would turn to him 10 years later to reactivate Le Caron after receiving reports that Fenian arms and forces were concentrating in New York, Buffalo, Chicago, and possibly even British Columbia. McMicken’s move to Manitoba, on the other hand, planted a government agent for Macdonald squarely in the midst of another serious situation, one that involved the disposition of Métis land claims in the aftermath of the resistance of 1869–70 and the creation of the province of Manitoba.
McMicken brought to his new duties the typical Ontario suspicion of Riel and his followers. It can be seen even in his approach to the Fenian threat. To erase any chance that the Fenians might find support among the Métis, he had recommended to Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald on 2 October that he issue a proclamation calling all able-bodied men to arms in a public show of harmony. When Riel and his colleagues eventually responded positively, McMicken and like-minded Canadians read the decision as opportunism brought on by advance news of O’Donoghue’s failure, despite the strong opinions to the contrary voiced by Archibald and Roman Catholic Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché. It appears, in fact, that McMicken was sent to Manitoba in part to keep track of Archibald’s actions, in the event that they might tend in their sympathy for the old settlers of Red River to inflame the new settlers from Canada and thus the electorate of Ontario as well.
The most pressing problem in Manitoba concerned the dilemma created by, on the one hand, the promise ensconced in the Manitoba Act to distribute 1,400,000 acres of land to settle the claims of the Métis and English-speaking mixed-bloods, and, on the other, the expectations held by incoming English-speaking Canadians of clear and untrammelled access to the best lands possible. Archibald’s approach, supported by Taché and Sir George-Étienne Cartier*, would have allowed the entitled Métis to select both the townships and the individual lots of their preference. Macdonald feared that residents of Ontario would react against this plan, perceiving that it denied English Canadians access to prime land. McMicken’s impatient recommendations as agent of the dominion lands branch would have provoked a reaction from a different quarter. First he urged (and received) military reinforcements for the troops that had been reduced in Manitoba. Then he counselled a new census to reduce the number of claimants so as to permit each of those remaining a quarter section randomly chosen by draw in any of the 408 townships of the province. Since this measure would suit neither the Métis’ preference for the traditional rectangular river lot nor their desire to form communities in township blocks, these entitlements should be issued, he proposed, in the form of scrip that could be easily sold as the Métis turned to other alternatives, possibly farther west beyond Manitoba.
The blistering condemnation from Taché and other critics of this blatant proposal to dispossess the Métis of their traditional claims ensured immediate temporizing. An order-in-council of April 1872 authorized the preliminary selection of townships for the old settlers. But in delaying the actual distribution of lots, Archibald left McMicken with awkward consequences when both old and new settlers demanded that the question be settled. Conflict arose in the short term when Canadians laid claim to lands that old settlers wished to designate as “half breed” townships, and in the long term when new claims challenged the assumptions of the old settlers that the hay lands behind their river lots were also theirs and clashed with unresolved land claims that pre-dated the township allotments.
The resulting tangle continued to plague McMicken for years. Moreover, attempts were made to charge him with untoward involvement in land transactions in connection with his son and friends. Long after he had left the land office, at a campaign meeting during the federal election of 1878 at which he supported the candidacy of Alexander Morris* against Donald Alexander Smith*, McMicken ran into vehement recapitulations of land grievances. Smith even accused Morris of having laid claim to several sections of land reserved for “half breeds” and McMicken of having done the same through an intermediary.
Temporarily leaving his position as dominion lands agent late in 1872 and permanently after a brief stint in 1873, McMicken turned to land speculation and entrepreneurship in much the same way that he had many years earlier in the Niagara region. At the end of 1873, when Macdonald’s Conservative administration was replaced by a Liberal government, McMicken ceased to be immigration agent and Dominion Police commissioner. He remained assistant receiver general until his superannuation in January 1878, and he assumed limited duties as inspector of the federal penitentiary [see Samuel Lawrence Bedson] from July 1874 to July 1877: these were part-time appointments with part-time remuneration.
Almost as soon as he left the land office, McMicken took a prominent part in the campaign for incorporation of Winnipeg as a town, arguing that the improvements made possible through municipal borrowing would enhance property values “more than sufficiently to cancel the taxation thereby created.” He joined the ten-man committee charged with drafting the bill, and when the act of incorporation was passed by the Legislative Assembly late in 1873, he was spoken of as a candidate for the mayoralty, but he did not run. Similarly, he consistently pressed the case for a railway through Winnipeg, and when the newly returned government of Sir John A. Macdonald threatened Winnipeg’s future in 1879 by planning to run the proposed transcontinental railway through Selkirk, to the north, McMicken campaigned hard for civic action [see Alexander Logan].
His experience and ability appear to have been recognized and used in diverse ways during the 1870s, including an appointment in November 1876 to the temporary Council of Keewatin, established to contain an outbreak of smallpox among the Indian and Icelandic populations at Gimli, and participation on the committee preparing Winnipeg’s and Manitoba’s reception of the governor general, Lord Dufferin [Blackwood*], in August 1877. Employing campaign tactics that suggested much about his political outlook and contemporary practice, he secured a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba with a comfortable plurality in December 1879. The Conservative Daily Times advertised the critical component of his strategy before the election and subsequently reported its success: more than half of McMicken’s supporters were transported from his “Railway Omnibus office” in Winnipeg to vote in the outlying riding of Cartier, while “others went with private conveyances.” His legislative experience and party loyalty qualified him for the speaker’s chair, which he occupied from 21 Jan. 1880 to December 1882. Although he did not stand for re-election in 1883, he apparently struggled unsuccessfully against the rising Liberal tide in 1888 [see Thomas Greenway*].
The North-West Omnibus and Transfer Company which figured in his 1879 election campaign was one of many fleeting enterprises that McMicken proposed or launched in Winnipeg during the 1870s and 1880s. He did not consider the government pension he began receiving in 1878 adequate, and several times between 1880 and 1890 applied for an increase together with retroactive salary and adjustments for expenses, with no success. To augment his income he fell back on the insurance and loans business, acting, for example, as agent in Manitoba and the North-West Territories for the Commercial Union Assurance Company of London, England.
Always he remained a prominent participant in Winnipeg’s social and institutional life: a distinguished guest at the end-of-year dinner given by the first mayor, Francis Evans Cornish*, in November 1874; an early participant on the Winnipeg Board of Trade; an elder of Knox Presbyterian Church; an early member of the council of the University of Manitoba; a leading officer of the Northern Light Masonic Lodge; a participant in the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, whose retelling of the Fenian raid in Manitoba provoked some controversy. The evidence of these continuing community activities drives home the essence of McMicken’s career. He was, in the end as at the beginning, a frontier community developer who happened for a decade to be available for duty in two arenas of national importance.
[Historians Dale and Lee Gibson are currently preparing a full-scale biography of Gilbert McMicken. The paper they presented at the Canadian Law in Hist. Conference held at Carlton Univ., Ottawa, in 1987, “Who was Gilbert McMicken, and why should legal historians care?”, is based on their preliminary work and provides numerous detailed references. There are shorter biographical sketches in Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), vol.3; Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth); and J. P. Robertson, A political manual of the province of Manitoba and the North-West Territories (Winnipeg, 1887).
Political and economic conditions in the Niagara region as well as McMicken’s activities before 1864 are described in R. C. Bond, Peninsula village: the story of Chippawa ([Chippawa (Niagara Falls), Ont., 1967]); Cornell, Alignment of political groups; J. A. Haxby and R. J. Graham, “The history and notes of the Zimmerman Bank,” Canadian Paper Money Journal (Toronto), 13 (1977): 81–97; The history of the county of Welland, Ontario . . . ([Welland], 1889; repr. with intro. by John Burtniak, Belleville, Ont., 1972); J. K. Johnson, ‘“One bold operator’: Samuel Zimmerman, Niagara entrepreneur, 1843–1857,” OH, 74 (1982): 26–44; Niagara Falls, Canada: a history of the city and the world famous beauty spot; an anthology (Niagara Falls, 1967); A. J. Rennie, Township of Niagara ([Virgil (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Ont., 1968]); and B. G. Wilson, The enterprises of Robert Hamilton: a study of wealth and influence in early Upper Canada, 1776–1812 (Ottawa, 1983). The Niagara Chronicle (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake]), 19 Sept. 1839, and issues of the Niagara Mail in the years 1850–51, 1853–58, also shed light on these subjects.
For the Fenian context and specific references to McMicken see: Creighton, Macdonald, young politician; William D’Arcy, The Fenian movement in the United States: 1858–1886 (New York, 1971); Brian Jenkins, Fenians and Anglo-American relations during reconstruction (Ithaca, N.Y., ); Léon Ó.Broin, Fenian fever: an Anglo-American dilemma (London, 1971); Hereward Senior, The Fenians and Canada (Toronto, 1978); C. P. Stacey, “A Fenian interlude: the story of Michael Murphy,” CHR, 15 (1934): 133–54; P. M. Toner, “The rise of Irish nationalism in Canada, 1858–1884” (phd thesis, National Univ. of Ireland, Dublin, 1974); and R. W. Winks, Canada and the United States: the Civil War years (Baltimore, Md., 1960).
In addition, information on McMicken’s role in the secret service can be found in J. A. Cole, Prince of spies: Henri Le Caron (London and Boston, 1984); W. A. Crockett, “The uses and abuses of the secret service fund: the political dimension of police work in Canada, 1864–1877” (ma thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont., 1982); and C. P. Stacey, “Cloak and dagger in the sixties” (CBC Radio script, 1954); as well as in sources such as the records of the Dominion Police (NA, RG 18, B6, 3315); the report of the select standing committee on public accounts in Can., House of Commons, Journals, 1877, app.2; and Henri Le Caron [T. B. Beach], Twenty-five years in the secret service: the recollections of a spy (London, 1982). The Macdonald papers (NA, MG 26, A, 13, 60, 61A, 234–37, 241–42, 244–46, 248, 506–9, 516), contain a confusing gold-mine of material. A slightly different assessment of the role played by McMicken is given by Jeff Keshen in “Cloak and dagger: Canada West’s secret police, 1864–1867,” OH, 79 (1987): 353–81.
The events that led McMicken to Manitoba are described in J. P. Pritchett, “The origin of the so-called Fenian raid on Manitoba in 1871,” CHR, 10 (1929): 23–42, and in McMicken’s own paper, “The abortive Fenian raid on Manitoba: account by one who knew its secret history,” Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Trans. (Winnipeg), no.32 (1887–88): 1–11. This highly controversial paper drew a vigorous riposte from Alexandre-Antonin Taché, Fenian raid: an open letter from Archbishop Taché to the Hon. Gilbert McMicken (n.p., 1888).
The following publications also deal with McMicken’s career in Manitoba: Begg and Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg; D. N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869–1885 (Waterloo, Ont., 1988); the Winnipeg Daily Free Press, 1877–78; the Manitoba Weekly Free Press, 1873, 1877–78; and the Winnipeg Daily Times, 1879. c.b.]
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Cite This Article
Carl Betke, “McMICKEN, GILBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcmicken_gilbert_12E.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:||Carl Betke|
|Title of Article:||McMICKEN, GILBERT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||May 30, 2023|