BALLENDEN, JOHN, fur trader, justice of the peace, and office holder; b. c. 1812 in Stromness, Scotland, son of former HBC officer John Ballenden and Elizabeth Gray; m. 10 Dec. 1836 Sarah McLeod in the Red River settlement (Man.), and they had eight children; d. 7 Dec. 1856 in Edinburgh.
John Ballenden is representative of the class of well-educated young gentlemen, mainly from Scotland, recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 19th century to administer its vast fur-trade empire. Ballenden entered the company’s service as an apprentice clerk in 1829 and was described that year by James Hargrave* of York Factory (Man.) as “a fine modest & intelligent young fellow.” Governor George Simpson felt that Ballenden promised especially well for the “Counting House or Depot business” and, after serving at both York Factory and Red River, he was promoted accountant at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in 1836.
That December Ballenden’s marriage to Sarah McLeod, a daughter of Chief Trader Alexander Roderick McLeod*, was a significant social event in Red River since it meant that HBC officers still considered acculturated mixed-blood women desirable wives, despite the recent introduction of British wives into fur-trade society. In 1840 Ballenden moved with his family to take charge of the HBC depot at Sault Ste Marie, Upper Canada; in 1844 he was promoted chief trader and assumed responsibility for the Lake Huron district as well. Apart from supplying provisions for the Lake Superior and Lake Huron districts, the company depot at the Sault also included a provisions shop for the growing number of settlers in the area. Ballenden participated in the development of Sault Ste Marie, serving as its first postmaster from 1846 to 1848 and as justice of the peace for the Western District of Upper Canada from April 1844. In the mid 1840s he invested in and acted as agent for the Montreal Mining Company, which was developing mining locations on the north shore of Lake Superior. Along with Governor Simpson and other HBC officers, he also invested in the Montreal and Lachine Rail-road.
In 1848, with his promotion to chief factor, Ballenden was placed in charge of the Lower Red River district, with headquarters at Upper Fort Garry. On the canoe trip west that August, he suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis. Although he recovered, his weakened condition put him at a disadvantage in confronting the problems at Red River where the HBC’s fur-trade monopoly was seriously threatened by the growing free-trade movement. Feeling that a stand had to be taken, Ballenden ordered the arrest of the Métis trader Pierre-Guillaume Sayer* and three others for trafficking illegally in furs. Sayer was tried and found guilty but no sentence was imposed, and the Métis population took this outcome as a vindication of free trade [see Adam Thom*]. As a result of this decision, Ballenden recognized that the HBC could best counteract its rivals and secure its trade by offering competitive prices. No sooner had Ballenden begun to get the company’s affairs in order, than he became embroiled in a social scandal centring on his wife.
In June 1850 Ballenden left the settlement to attend the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department, and during his absence Mrs Ballenden found herself ostracized by the Red River society for reputedly committing adultery. Ballenden returned to witness a sensational trial in which his wife’s slanderers were found guilty of defamatory conspiracy. The strain, however, was such that he temporarily relinquished his charge and went on furlough in the fall of 1850. As a result of the continuing scandal surrounding his wife, who had remained in Red River, Ballenden did not take up his charge again but was posted instead to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) in 1851 to administer what was left of the HBC’s Columbia district. Ballenden’s health continued to deteriorate and, after suffering another attack of what was likely apoplexy, he went on furlough again in 1853. That fall he was reunited with his family in Edinburgh, shortly before his wife’s death in December. The next year he was once again placed in charge at Red River, where the company now faced a “swarm” of free traders, but ill health forced his return to Scotland the following season. He retired officially on 1 June 1856 and died in Edinburgh on 7 December. Over the years, Ballenden had sent all of his children to Scotland for their education, and upon his death the five youngest were entrusted to the guardianship of their aunt Eliza Bannatyne. His eldest daughter had previously married HBC officer William McMurray.
A man of integrity and loyalty, John Ballenden was well liked by his contemporaries and pitied in his misfortune.
GRO (Edinburgh), Heriot and Warriston, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 13 Dec. 1856. PAC, MG 19, A21; RG 68, General index, 1841–67: 80, 265. PAM, HBCA, D5. PRO, PROB 11/2257/667. HBRS, 3 (Fleming); 19 (Rich and Johnson). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties.”