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MACKAY, DONALD, fur trader and office holder; b. 1753 in Gordonbush, Scotland; d. 26 June 1833 in Barneys River, N.S.

When he entered the northwest fur trade in the spring of 1779 Donald Mackay’s pugnacious character had already been formed by his service in the British army during the early campaigns of the American revolution. He left Montreal as the clerk of John Ross and, after several independent traders had combined forces at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.), to form the North West Company [see Simon McTavish*] he became a clerk in the new organization. In September 1780 Ross and Mackay were trading at a post on the Assiniboine River above Portage la Prairie (Man.). From that post Mackay took four companions on an overland expedition to the Hidatsa villages on the upper Missouri River.

Mackay went back to Montreal at the end of 1781 to take a position as clerk in the Indian Department under Lieutenant-Colonel John Campbell*. In the spring of 1785 he returned to the fur trade, persuading Campbell to finance a trading expedition to the upper Saskatchewan River. His independent venture encountered unrelenting resistance, constant intimidation, and direct physical attack from the NWC, which was trying to establish a trade monopoly. After nearly starving at Nepawi (Nipawin, Sask.) during the winter of 1785–86, Mackay pressed upriver the next summer to build an establishment on Pine Island (near Standard Hill, Sask.), close to where the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Manchester House would be built that autumn. Later he built an outpost even higher up the North Saskatchewan River to oppose the NWC under Edward Umfreville*. Mackay’s pioneering efforts were defeated by intense competition, and lack of support from his Montreal suppliers caused him to return to Montreal in 1787. New backers in London proved even less determined and in 1789–90 Mackay was forced to sign on as a trader with Alexander Shaw in the Nipigon country. In the autumn of 1790, with his kinsman John McKay*, he travelled to Osnaburgh House (Ont.) on the Albany River to join the HBC.

The HBC was trying to push inland to oppose the NWC. Mackay presented a brilliant proposal to extend trade from Fort Albany to Portage de l’ Isle (near the junction of the Winnipeg and English rivers) and on to Lake Winnipeg, and thus to cut into the heart of the NWC’s vital supply route. Several exploratory voyages on the Albany River resulted in a map, drawn by him in 1791, which was probably used by British cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith. Mackay’s activities culminated in 1793 with the establishment of Brandon House (Man.), from where the HBC interrupted the NWC’s supply of pemmican and reopened the dormant trade with the Mandans. But his innovative and aggressive efforts reflected unfavourably upon the plodding HBC inland officers, who resented him and conspired to frustrate his plans. Forced into frequent voyages between Rupert’s Land and London, Mackay was unable to continue his personal supervision of the extension of HBC trade. Jealous fellow officers managed to deny him the supplies, men, and equipment he needed to proceed inland from Osnaburgh House, and to cut off his correspondence with the London committee of the HBC. He and his family withdrew from the post and subsisted on fish during the winter of 1796–97. That spring he made the difficult canoe voyage to York Factory (Man.) accompanied only by his country wife, her sister, and his baby son. Mackay’s abrasive personality found a cool reception at York Factory and he was again stranded, out of contact with his supporters on the London committee. The sobriquets Mad Mackay and Le Malin were given to him by rival Nor’Westers who thought him mad to oppose their overwhelming organization. In the swamps around York Factory Mackay was indeed driven dangerously close to nervous breakdown and suicide.

In 1799 Mackay returned to his home at Gordonbush and two or three years later converted his field notes into personal memoirs which recorded facts of considerable historical interest. He attempted to reenter the northern fur trade in 1806–7, but was unable to adapt to conditions and returned to Scotland. According to family tradition, his country wife, the daughter of HBC officer James Sutherland*, was killed by angry Indians, leaving him with two sons, William and Donald. He and his Scottish wife, Mary McKenzie, had several children. In 1813 he assisted Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] in recruiting colonists for the Red River settlement (Man.), thus helping to implement his own plan to intercept the NWC on the Red River.

Mackay immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1822 with his Scottish wife and family and settled in present-day Pictou County. He was a colourful character and a subject of local folklore when he died in 1833. During his HBC service he had introduced his nephews Donald Sutherland and Donald McDonald to the fur trade and an incomplete count identifies 22 fighting Mackays in that business over a period of 130 years.

John C. Jackson

PAC, MG 19, E1 (copies); RG 10, A6, 474: 170439, 170447. PAM, HBCA, A.1/46: ff.146, 151; A.5/3: ff.109, 133d–34, 145, 149, 154; A.5/4: ff.80, 88d, 135, 153d, 158d; A.6/4: f.145; A.6/14: f.95; A.6/16: f.27; A.6/17: f.86; A.32/19: f.117; B.3/a/93b; B.3/a/100; B.3/b/28: ff.7d, 9, 13–14, 18, 23–23d, 32d; B.3/b/33: ff.17–19, 24d–27, 33–34; B.3/b/34: ff.13, 16–17d, 29d–31, 37d–38; B.22/ a/1; B.42/a/132: f.7d; B.42/b/150: ff.1, 10, 15d, 17; B.49/a/16: f.109; B.121/a/1: ff.10, 50; B.121/a/2: ff.34, 38; B.155/a/4: f.30; B.155/a/7; B.155/a/12: ff.37d–40; B.239/a/101: ff.3, 8d, 21d, 60–61, 81; B.239/a/102: ff.60, 79; C.1/417: f.3; G.1/13: ff.1–28. Private arch., J. C. Jackson (Portland, Oreg.), J. C. Jackson, “The voyages of Mad Donald Mackay and the fight for the northwest fur trade, 1779 to 1807”; Kenneth Mackay (Barney’s River, N.S.), Journal and other papers of Donald Mackay. PRO, WO 12/4250, 12/5637. [S. H. Wilcocke], A narrative of occurrences in the Indian countries of North America . . . (London, 1817; repr. East Ardsley, Eng., and New York, 1968). Quebec Gazette, 5 June, 17 Oct. 1788. Eastern Chronicle (New Glasgow, N.S.), 23 April, 9 July 1885; 9 Feb. 1886.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John C. Jackson, “MACKAY, DONALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_donald_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_donald_6E.html
Author of Article: John C. Jackson
Title of Article: MACKAY, DONALD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: October 24, 2014