McLEOD, ALEXANDER RODERICK, fur trader and explorer; b. c. 1782 in the province of Quebec; d. 11 June 1840 in Lower Canada.
Alexander Roderick McLeod joined the North West Company in 1802, and served on the Peace River (Alta/B.C.) and in the Athabasca country; his journal for the summer of 1806 was written at Fort Dunvegan. Historian James Nevin Wallace has described him as a powerfully built man who played a “secondary role” in the rivalry with the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the coalition of the two companies in 1821, McLeod was appointed a chief trader in the HBC’s Athabasca district, and entered a new and controversial phase in his fur-trading career. As early as the 1822–23 season, he was criticized for his “preposterous and galling use of authority” in the Mackenzie River district, and his posting south to the Columbia district in 1825 was the prelude to a series of dramatic incidents in the Oregon country, where rival British and American traders had equal rights.
While Peter Skene Ogden* was opening up the Snake River country in the interior for the HBC, McLeod was entrusted with a series of flanking expeditions south from Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.), along the Oregon coast. In this way Chief Factor John McLoughlin* hoped to scour the region for furs and to discover whether the river, called the Buenaventura, rumoured to flow from the Rocky Mountains into the Pacific, somewhere between the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, existed. Given the difficulties of the drainage system of the Snake country and the Great Basin, such a river, if navigable, would have been of considerable commercial value. It did not exist but hopes were pinned for a time on the Sacramento River. McLeod, who was later described by Governor George Simpson* as an overbearing figure who was nevertheless an “excellent shot, skilful Canoe Man and a tolerably good Indian Trader,” was not quite the man for this search. After reaching the Columbia in the fall of 1825, he set out in May 1826 with his own brigade on a summer trapping expedition towards the Umpqua River (Oreg.). It was characteristic of much that was to come that he turned back short of his destination, though he picked up from the Indians reports of a “great river” south of the Umpqua. In September 1826 he left Fort Vancouver with instructions from McLoughlin “to hunt and explore” in that area. He travelled past the Umpqua to the Tootenez (Rogue) River, but found it unimpressive and partly blocked at its mouth by a sand-bar. He arrived back at Fort Vancouver in March 1827.
In 1827–28 McLeod wintered on the Umpqua, finding few furs, and in the summer of 1828 he commanded a punitive expedition against the Klallam Indians of Hood Canal (Wash.), who had killed five HBC men. The death of more than 20 Indians was to call down on McLeod severe censure from the company’s London committee, but to McLoughlin the expedition had been “most judiciously conducted.” On his return McLeod was given a more ambitious task.
Hopes of finding a large navigable river to the south persisted, and new information about the region had reached Fort Vancouver after the killing of the party of American trader Jedediah Strong Smith in July 1828. McLeod was dispatched two months later to retrieve Smith’s goods and, using the trader’s map of the trail from San Francisco Bay, to head the HBC’s penetration into Mexican California. The first part of the task was skilfully accomplished without bloodshed, but McLeod then left his men on the Umpqua, contrary to orders, while he returned to Fort Vancouver “for instructions” and, some said, for Christmas and to see his family. Sent back to his brigade in January, he continued south and, fighting off Indians, reached the Sacramento valley in April; but as he moved back north, away from the area of Mexican influence, his party was caught by winter in the mountains of northern California. McLeod lost his horses, cached his furs (which were to be ruined by melting snow), and, leaving his men on the Umpqua, arrived at Fort Vancouver in February 1830.
His conduct was widely regarded as incompetent and irresponsible; some, including his friend John Stuart and, perhaps more surprisingly, George Simpson, found reasons for his behaviour in his broken health. McLeod himself wrote of the difficulties of crossing rugged terrain and dealing with unenthusiastic men. But in March the London committee, castigating him as “extremely deficient in energy and zeal,” denied him the chief factorship he expected, and had him posted to the Mackenzie district the following year. His “Southern” expeditions, though they never produced large returns of fur, did serve significantly in maintaining the HBC’s presence in the Oregon country.
The eventful years of McLeod’s career were over. As he journeyed from Fort Simpson (N.W.T.) in 1833 to the Canadas to recover his health, he received a letter from George Simpson, who believed McLeod “would have made an excellent Guide,” promising him his support for a chief factorship if he agreed to serve on George Back*’s Arctic expedition. This he did, faithfully, until 1835, accompanied by his Indian wife and three children. Although, by arrangement, he did not accompany Back down the Great Fish (Back) River to the Arctic Ocean, he hunted, fished, and established camps for the party. His reward came when he was made a chief factor in 1836. His last years in the northwest were spent at Great Slave Lake (1835–37) and Fort Dunvegan (1837–39).
McLeod died in June 1840 while on furlough. He left in his will “some small property” and about £5,000 to the mixed-blood woman he had married according to the custom of the country in his NWC days, and to their seven surviving children, including Sarah* and Alexander Roderick Jr, who had participated in James Dickson’s short-lived army of liberation. McLeod considered their mother to be his “legitimate wife” (contrary to the attitude of many fur traders in country marriages) and in 1841 the Doctors’ Commons in England declared their marriage legally valid.
PAM, HBCA, A.6/22: f.60; A.36/10: ff.9–18; B.39/b/2: 86; D.4/22: f.40d; D.4/123: ff.58–66. George Back, Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835 (London, 1836). HBRS, 3 (Fleming); 4 (Rich); 23 (Davies and Johnson); 30 (Williams). The Hudson’s Bay Company’s first fur brigade to the Sacramento valley: Alexander McLeod’s 1829 hunt, ed. D. B. Nunis (Sacramento, Calif., 1968). Brown, Strangers in blood. R. H. Dillon, Siskiyou trail: the Hudson’s Bay Company route to California (New York, ), 163–64, 177. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”. J. N. Wallace, The wintering partners on Peace River from the earliest records to the union in 1821; with a summary of the Dunvegan journal, 1806 (Ottawa, 1929), 78, 122–34.