The second of five children and the eldest of four sons to issue from the marriage of Captain John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, a Roman Catholic landed proprietor on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and Margaret MacDonald, Donald McDonald was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. He eventually became owner of a portion of the family estate, and in 1852 described himself as proprietor of one-quarter of Lot 35 and one-half of Lot 36, adjacent townships in eastern Queens County. This claim would mean that he possessed some 15,000 acres; other family members, including the controversial priest John*, owned the remainder of the two lots.
Although socially prominent because of his family background – he inherited a leading position among Islanders of Scottish extraction – McDonald does not appear to have played a significant role in politics until the end of the 1830s. The sole documented exception was his participation, as one of a committee of seven local notables, in organizing a public campaign to remove Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith in 1823. No doubt his activism on that occasion was related to an exemplary distress suddenly issued in January against his estate and that of John Stewart*. The action, for non-payment of quitrents, was launched under Smith’s direction by his son-in-law John Edward Carmichael*, the acting receiver general of quitrents. That autumn, McDonald and his fellow committee members were charged before the Court of Chancery with contempt, on the complaint of Ambrose Lane, the court’s registrar and another son-in-law of Smith. Given that the alleged contempt was in fact criticism of the way the chancellor, Smith himself, and Lane conducted the court, few could have been surprised when Smith found the defendants guilty. But, uneasily aware that popular reprisal was a possibility, he put off sentencing them; indeed, Smith did not return to the case before being recalled to London, and in October 1825, almost a year after his departure, the matter was finally officially dropped.
When separate legislative and executive councils were appointed in 1839 by Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, McDonald was the only Roman Catholic named to the former. His marriage around January 1819 to Anna Matilda Brecken, a member of the Church of England, made him a key figure in 1841 when the House of Assembly, then dominated by radicals led by William Cooper*, investigated the local family compact. The assembly’s data, embodied in two resolutions, indicated that McDonald was closely related by marriage to two of his eleven fellow legislative councillors, and that he had close family connections, through birth or marriage, with five executive councillors and more distant family connections with three of the four remaining members of the executive. The strategic nature of his linkages was such that he was the only non-member of the Executive Council mentioned by name in the assembly’s resolution concerning the body.
McDonald attended meetings of the Legislative Council quite regularly over 16 winters, but he did not contribute frequently to debate. He became president by seniority in 1853, succeeding his wife’s first cousin Robert Hodgson*, who had been appointed chief justice in 1852 following the death of Edward James Jarvis. McDonald did not consider himself a partisan, but since he was fiercely protective of the rights of landed property, he was widely regarded as a tory. In the session beginning February 1854, to his chagrin, the home government, acting on advice tendered, in concert with the lieutenant governor, Sir Alexander Bannerman*, by the local liberals when they had been in power, granted rank and precedence to Charles Young, a fellow councillor, making him senior member and thus president. During the same session liberals repeatedly expressed their surprise and sympathy at McDonald’s exclusion from the conservative cabinet formed by John Myrie Holl* and Edward Palmer* in February; apparently the tories had left him out in the hope of avoiding the appearance of a government dominated by proprietors. When Young, with whom McDonald had exchanged sharp words several times over the years, joined the chorus, the provocation was too much for the irascible McDonald, who on 19 April accused Young of dishonesty in denying having played a role in his displacement as president. McDonald’s words were taken down, the committee on privileges met, and on 21 April he was ordered to “make the most ample apology” and to acknowledge having acted “under erroneous impressions and highly irritated feelings.” He responded by repeating his charge, refusing to withdraw it, and, according to the official reporter, “at the same time expressing his intention of resigning his seat in this House. The Hon. Mr. Macdonald then retired.” He never returned to the council, and appears to have resigned.
Best known to his contemporaries as a landlord, McDonald was so thoroughly identified with his estate that he was frequently referred to by its name, Tracadie. Surviving documentation suggests that he was a mixture of paternalist and tyrant. He encouraged organizations promoting agricultural improvement, such as the Central Agricultural Society, an Island-wide body, and the Monaghan Farming Society, a local group of which he became founding president on 3 June 1840. He attempted to attract colonists and, according to testimony before a committee of the assembly in 1841 and a land commission in 1860, he was not overly scrupulous in the information and the terms he gave to prospective tenants. He offered short leases, and was reputed to be ruthless in using distraint and eviction, and to insist upon the payment of sterling rents at the going rate of exchange, rather than at the much smaller one-ninth premium on local currency customarily accepted by many Island landlords. Indeed, in 1852 Joseph Pope*, an executive councillor, cited McDonald’s practices as evidence of the need for a statute regulating extraction of sterling rents.
McDonald had serious difficulties with his tenants, most of whom were Irish Roman Catholics. On 5 Feb 1838, at the height of the escheat agitation, he wrote, “I cannot obtain a shilling [of rent] now and . . . I am Credibly informed they are Sworn to protect each other . . . I have been threatened by my own Tenants and warned not to attempt to collect my rents.” A letter he wrote in 1844 to Bernard Donald MacDonald, bishop of Charlottetown, indicates that he considered the Irish-born priest in the area, James Brady, who had been there since July 1838, responsible for much of the discontent on his estate. He even threatened to evict his co-religionists and replace them with Protestant settlers who would not be influenced by Brady or any other “escheating, leveling Priest.” In 1850–51 the colony’s first formally organized tenant league appeared in a part of eastern Queens County that included his estate, and almost certainly drew upon his tenants for support.
Fires set by one or more arsonists early in the morning of 21 July 1850 destroyed McDonald’s unoccupied Arisaig Cottage on Lot 35 and three outbuildings belonging to him at Glenaladale on Lot 36. An advertisement he placed offering 200 acres of freehold land for discovery of the perpetrators within six months indicated that the burning of the cottage brought to four the number of houses on his property destroyed “at different periods” that summer. The fires led him to place armed watchmen on his premises, and in the darkness of late evening on 8 August, while standing at his door, he was mistaken for an intruder and shot; he sustained “severe” buckshot wounds to the head, one arm, and both legs, but recovered soon after. He apparently continued to have problems with fires set on his property, and although charges were eventually laid, no convictions ever resulted.
On the morning of 25 July 1851 McDonald was shot at the outer gate of his property as he left for Charlottetown, and was wounded in at least two places. An Englishwoman who visited the Island three years later was told that shots came from both sides of the road and that he “fell weltering in blood. So detested was he, that several persons passed by without rendering him any assistance. At length one of his own tenantry, coming by, took him into Charlotte Town in a cart, but was obliged shortly afterwards to leave the island, to escape from the vengeance which would have overtaken the succourer of a tyrant.” Although Lieutenant Governor Bannerman offered a reward of £100 for information leading to conviction of the attempted assassins, he told the Colonial Office that “the occurrence . . . may be exaggerated,” and he linked it to the proprietor’s explosive temper. Subsequently, according to a dispatch by Bannerman dated 24 March 1853, McDonald was convicted of assault. The lieutenant governor believed that McDonald, who always went about his estate armed, “would not hesitate, at any moment of excitement to carry into execution any threat which after reflection might cause him to regret.” It was this rashness which Bannerman cited to London as the reason the proprietor of Tracadie was “not exactly qualified to preside at the Legislative Council.”
Donald McDonald was an extreme case of a certain sort of landlord in 19th-century Prince Edward Island, and the only one against whom assassination is known to have been attempted. Thus the incident in 1851 – which was never solved – ranks with the slaying of land agent Edward Abell by tenant Patrick Pearce in 1819 as the most serious recorded incidents of physical violence in the history of the Island’s land question. McDonald appears to have evoked a singular spirit of vengefulness, and a visitor to the Island, who described him as “a high-minded man,” wrote in 1853 that “a house which once gave him shelter was burnt to the ground immediately afterwards.” McDonald’s imperious nature, obstinacy, and hot temper were major factors in his unpopularity among his tenants, and these qualities were also evident in his family relations. A letter written by his brother John in 1821 indicates that they were on poor terms, apparently because of differences over money, and that Donald was in conflict with their mother. In later years he fell out with his youngest son, William Christopher* (later Sir William, the tobacco magnate), his second daughter, Helen Jane, who became a Protestant, and possibly the second of his three sons, Augustine Ralph. Yet there appears to have been a reconciliation when he visited William and Augustine in Montreal in the summer of 1854. Impressed with their success in business, he decided to dispose of his estate, which was encumbered by debt, and move to Montreal. However, he died a few days afterwards when he contracted cholera at Quebec, where he had gone to place the youngest of his four daughters in a convent school. He was survived by his wife, his sons, and two daughters. Had he lived, it is quite possible that he would have acted upon his plan, for by August 1851 it was known that he was considering leaving Tracadie and moving to Charlottetown or even off the Island. But the property remained within the family, and the outbuildings of his eldest son, John Archibald, who inherited his temperamental characteristics and continued many of his proprietary practices, became the target of arsonists during the agrarian disturbances of 1865.
[There may have been more than one attempt to assassinate Donald McDonald: see B. W. A. Sleigh, Pine forests and hacmatack clearings . . . (London, 1853), 170; [I. L. Bird], The Englishwoman in America (London, 1856; repr. Madison, Wis., and Toronto, 1966), 46–47, 473; and William Henry Pope*, in an editorial note in the Islander, 30 June 1865. Contemporary evidence concerning the situation on McDonald’s estate in 1850–51 will be found in Examiner (Charlottetown), 24 July, 10 Aug., 11 Dec. 1850; 13 May 1851; Haszard’s Gazette (Charlottetown), 13 Jan. 1852; Islander, 2, 9, 27 Aug. 1850; 22 Aug. 1851; 30 Jan., 20 Feb. 1852; Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 23, 30 July, 13, 20 Aug. 1850; 28 July, 4 Aug. 1851; 19 Jan., 9 Feb. 1852; PRO, CO 226/79: 212–16; PAPEI, RG 6, Supreme Court, minutes, 9, 12–13 Jan. 1852. The four indictments against alleged arsonists Fade and John Hayden, together with a record of acquittal survive in PAPEI, RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1852.
Further information on McDonald as a landlord and colonizer will be found in P.E.I., House of Assembly, Public documents on various subjects connected with the interests of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1841), 75–76, a copy of which is available in the Palmer family papers, PAPEI, Acc. 2849; Abstract of the proceedings before the Land Commissioners’ Court, held during the summer of 1860, to inquire into the differences relative to the rights of landowners and tenants in Prince Edward Island, reporters J. D. Gordon and David Laird (Charlottetown, 1862), 114–16, 212; Report of proceedings before the commissioners appointed under the provisions of “The Land Purchase Act, 1875”, reporter P. S. MacGowan (Charlottetown, 1875), 558, 584; Donald McDonald to Bernard Donald Macdonald, 11 Oct. 1843, 30 April 1844, in the latter’s papers at the Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown, a source brought to my attention by G. Edward MacDonald; Examiner, 25 Sept. 1848; Islander, 6 Feb. 1852; Prince Edward Island Register, 27 Jan. 1829; Royal Gazette, 16 Feb. 1836; 29 Jan., “Extra,” 1852; 21 Feb. 1853; 20 Feb. 1854; PRO, CO 226/39: 112–13; 226/56: 110–14; 226/82: 83, 108–10. McDonald died intestate, but papers of administration in the Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, give detailed information on his property, his financial situation, and the holdings and arrears of his tenants, together with John Archibald’s estimates of the probability of collecting the arrears. His burial at Quebec on 22 July 1854 is recorded in ANQ-Q, CE1-1.
For McDonald’s participation in various Scottish and agricultural organizations see Royal Gazette, 26 Jan. 1836; 29 Jan., 9 July, 10 Dec. 1839; 16 June 1840; 26 Jan. 1841; 4 April 1853; 2 Jan. 1854; and [A. A.] MacDonald, “Scottish associations in Prince Edward Island,” Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), 1 (1899–1900): 425–30.
Concerning McDonald’s involvement in the political turmoil of 1823, see Prince Edward Island Register, 13 Sept., 4, 11, 25 Oct., 1, 8, 15 Nov. 1823; 6 March 1824; PRO, CO 226/39: 16, 26–27, 153–61, 191–99, 264–84, 414–23; Petitions from Prince Edward Island . . . (London, ), especially 41, 50, 55; PAPEI, RG 6, Court of Chancery, minutes, 14, 16, 27 Oct. 1823; 3, 5 Oct. 1825; orders and commissions, 14, 16, 28, 30 Oct. 1823; and PAPEI, Acc. 2702/784, Ambrose Lane to John Edward Carmichael, 6 Jan. 1824. The author is deeply indebted to Mr H. Tinson Holman for making available his unpublished study of the Court of Chancery under Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith.
The basic sources for McDonald as a legislative councillor are the journals of the Legislative Council, 1839–54, and the reports of its debates which appeared in the Royal Gazette, 1844–49, 1851–53, and in the Examiner, 1854, particularly P.E.I., Legislative Council, Journal, 1839, 2nd session: 9; 1841: 96–97; 1845: 55; 1853: 43–44; 1854: 11–12, 18, 21, 48, 50–51; Royal Gazette, 26 March 1844; 29 April, 6 May 1845; 3 March, suppl., 21 April, 19 May 1846; 22 March, “Extra,” 1849; Examiner, 27 Feb., 27 March, 10 April, “Extra,” 15, 22, 29 May, 28 Aug. 1854. See also Islander, 21 April 1854; PRO, CO 226/69: 206; 226/80: 96–105; 226/81: 46–47.
Family information relevant to Donald McDonald will be found in the MacDonald family papers in the custody of Colin and Jean MacDonald of St Peters, P.E.I., docs.56, 60, copies of which are available in PAPEI, Acc. 2664; J. F. Snell, “Sir William Macdonald and his kin,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 23 (1943–44): 317–30, and his Macdonald College of McGill University: a history from 1904–1955 (Montreal, 1963), 6, 8, 222, 224; and handwritten copies of a letter from McDonald to his mother, dated 31 July 1813, and of a letter from McDonald to John Archibald, dated 13 July 1854, in the J. F. Snell papers, McGill Univ. Arch. (Montreal), MG 2007. McDonald’s connections with other members of the “family compact” are detailed in Royal Gazette, 27 April 1841, and P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1841: 151. There is miscellaneous family information concerning the McDonalds of Tracadie on file at the P.E.I. Museum; included there are a genealogical chart, some of whose dates are incorrect, and a typescript copy of the marriage settlement between Anna Matilda Brecken and Donald McDonald, dated 22 Jan. 1819. The Land Registry records in PAPEI, RG 16, Conveyance reg., contain much information concerning land arrangements within the McDonald family. See also J. M. Bumsted, “Captain John MacDonald and the Island,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.6 (spring–summer 1979): 15–20; I. R. Robertson, “Highlanders, Irishmen, and the land question in nineteenth-century Prince Edward Island,” in Comparative aspects of Scottish and Irish economic and social history, 1600–1900, ed. L. M. Cullen and T. C. Smout (Edinburgh, ), 227–40; and J. C. Macmillan, The history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island from 1835 till 1891 (Quebec, 1913), 23–24, 64, 244–48.
Only two surviving numbers of Island newspapers contain notices of McDonald’s death, and they are brief and identical; see Islander, 4 Aug. 1854, and Haszard’s Gazette, 5 Aug. 1854. i.r.r.]