McDONALD, JOHN, businessman, justice of the peace, office holder, and politician; b. 10 Feb. 1787 in Saratoga (Schuylerville), N.Y., fourth son of John McDonald and Amelia Cameron; m. 10 Feb. 1831 Henrietta Maria Mallory, daughter of Benajah Mallory, and they had one son and four daughters; d. 20 Sept. 1860 in Gananoque, Upper Canada.
John McDonald spent his earliest years in Athol, N.Y., where his parents had eventually settled after emigrating from Blair Atholl, Scotland, in 1785. “At an early age,” however, he left Athol for Troy, N.Y., eventually becoming involved in “commercial business.” In 1809 his brother Charles* settled in Upper Canada at Gananoque on the St Lawrence River and gradually built up a prosperous mercantile business. During the War of 1812 John McDonald’s business in Troy apparently suffered losses and in the post-war depression his prospects there may not have seemed promising. During a visit to Gananoque in September 1815 he was probably impressed by the thriving business carried on by his brother. In late 1817 he left Troy for Gananoque and in January joined his brother as a full partner in a new firm, C. and J. McDonald.
Formed primarily as a lumbering business, the company would take advantage of the expanding market for colonial timber protected by British preferential tariffs. During the 1820s the business, which held the water rights along the west side of the Gananoque River, rapidly expanded to control a greater part of the lumber trade on the river. In 1825 John McDonald acquired property on the east bank of the river, thus solidifying the firm’s control of water-power on the river and assuring its growth.
When British trade preferences were extended to Canadian wheat and flour in 1825–27, the firm moved quickly to expand the grist-mill it had operated since the partnership was established. In 1825 the company, which became C. and J. McDonald and Company when younger brother Collin was taken into partnership that year, made plans to dam the river for increased water-power and to build a new flour-mill. By July 1826 the new mill, reportedly one of the largest in Upper Canada, had gone into operation with four run of stone. After the death of Charles on 7 October of that year control of the firm effectively fell to John. Wheat for the mills was purchased locally and by agents throughout the large region of the province around the upper St Lawrence. The brand of flour put out by C. and J. McDonald and Company became well known, as the “Gananoque Mills” gained for the firm a prominent position in the flour and wheat trade in Canada. When the Reverend William Bell visited the mills in August 1830 he reported that he “had never before seen an establishment so extensive, so ingenious, and so complete” and he was told that the mills were capable of producing 160 barrels of flour a day. Although he found the sawmills no less impressive, and reported that “many hands were employed in the river, rafting timber and plank, for the Quebec market,” this side of the business appears to have been considered secondary to grist-milling. In 1831 the company sent to Montreal and Quebec 20,000 barrels of flour and 10,000 bushels of wheat, as well as the lumber from 10,000 logs.
As his business grew, McDonald became interested in the various schemes for canal improvements which proliferated in the Canadas during the 1820s and 1830s. In 1828, on a trip to Bytown (Ottawa) and Hull, he had been impressed by the works on the Rideau Canal, then under construction [see Thomas McKay]. Eight years later his interest led to his involvement in two navigation projects.
On the local level, McDonald became involved in the Gananoque and Wiltsie Navigation Company, organized in 1836, which proposed to finance the construction of a series of locks and dams on the Gananoque River to make it navigable for commercial shipping as far upriver as Charleston Lake. In this way the cost of transporting wheat from the rear townships to the St Lawrence would be reduced. In September, McDonald, the company’s president, hired as its engineer Nicol Hugh Baird*, who had prepared the initial report and estimates on the proposed waterway. Survey work began the same month but the project was never completed, reportedly because of the rebellion of 1837–38 and the subsequent “unsettled state of affairs.”
Earlier in 1836 McDonald had become involved in another, much larger project. In March the president of the Commission for the Improvement of the Navigation of the River St Lawrence, Jonas Jones*, recommended him as a commissioner to replace John Macaulay. Jones described McDonald as a “gentleman of high character and standing, great enterprise, experience and business talents” who had always taken considerable interest in canal works on the St Lawrence and in improvements generally. By the time McDonald had taken his seat in May, the commission had overcome initial labour problems and legal battles over lands appropriated for the canal system. Construction had already begun on the first project, the Cornwall Canal, and plans were underway to extend work to other sections of the river. After 1837, however, the prospects for the St Lawrence canals changed drastically. As a result of the depression of that year and the disruptions caused by the rebellion, the project sank into financial difficulties. In the midst of this crisis, in May 1838, McDonald replaced Jones as president. In addition to the commission’s financial difficulties, McDonald found himself contending with divisions caused by internal bickering involving Philip VanKoughnet* and John Hamilton* and later by scandal within the commission itself. At the end of June 1838 he was informed that the government would supply no further funds for the project and that the works were to be suspended. The increasingly costly project had become too expensive and by June 1839 work had been halted.
McDonald’s prominence in business was reflected in the local posts he held. Although American-born, McDonald had married the step-granddaughter of Colonel Joel Stone*, the early loyalist settler, and his loyalty was not in question. He received his first commission as a justice of the peace in 1828 when, as well, he was appointed postmaster for Gananoque, a position which carried with it the free mailing privileges of value to his business. During the general election of 1836 he was a deputy returning officer for Leeds County. In 1838 he became commissioner of the Court of Requests (an early small claims court) at Gananoque. Furthermore, in 1838–39 he supplied the government with information concerning Patriot movements in the Gananoque area and across the border in New York [see Daniel D. Heustis*].
Primarily a businessman, McDonald showed little interest in politics beyond its practical effect on business or on his local area. His early political association was with Jonas Jones, the ardent tory from Brockville. During the late 1830s, however, McDonald’s political views, based on conservative instincts, seem to have moderated. As well, he may have become disillusioned with Jones in 1837–38 for his open attempts to resign from the St Lawrence canals commission in the midst of difficulty and for his inability or unwillingness, as member of parliament for Leeds, to help him alleviate the shortage of magistrates in the Gananoque area. In 1837 he turned for help to the influential Ogle Robert Gowan*, the county’s other representative.
In 1839 McDonald received his first political appointment, to the Legislative Council under Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur. His general lack of interest in politics and his moderate conservatism are both borne out in his career as a legislative councillor. After serving on council during the tumultuous debates of the pre-union years, he was reappointed in 1841 to the new moderate Legislative Council of the united provinces under Lord Sydenham [Thomson*]. During the council’s first session, when the government sat at Kingston, McDonald attended regularly but by 1843 his attendance was infrequent. Preoccupied with his business affairs and the St Lawrence canals, on which construction had resumed in 1842, he found little time to attend the legislative sessions in Montreal after 1843. In 1848 he forfeited his seat for non-attendance.
During the 1830s and early 1840s McDonald’s business affairs had continued to flourish. In 1834 his nephew William Stone McDonald entered the firm as a partner. Collin McDonald withdrew from it in July 1839 and soon set up a business in Cleveland, Ohio, but this may have been an extension of C. and J. McDonald and Company, since he seems to have bought American wheat for shipment to the mills at Gananoque. Taking advantage of the Canada Corn Act of 1843, which allowed American wheat ground in Upper Canada to qualify for colonial preference, McDonald had Gananoque declared a free warehousing port in late 1845, thereby permitting his importation of an increasing volume of wheat for his mills to flour. The company’s growth was based not only on business acumen but also on colonial preference and, when milling and lumbering businesses throughout the province suffered after the abolition of the corn laws and timber preference in 1846, C. and J. McDonald and Company was no exception.
In 1847 McDonald was 60 years of age – perhaps too old to deal with the new economic difficulties. By 1851 he had passed control of the firm to William Stone McDonald. When John McDonald died in 1860, he was still a wealthy man. After a large debt to Forsyth, Richardson and Company, his former forwarding agent, was paid, his estate left $600 annually to his widow and an extensive amount of property to be divided among his four surviving children. His substantial two-storey brick house, built about 1831–32, remains standing as Gananoque’s town hall.
AO, MS 393, E-3, box 17, “Other projects: Gananoque and Wiltse Waterway”; MS 519; MU 1760; RG 21, United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, Leeds and Lansdowne townships (front), census and assessment rolls, 1818–33; RG 22, Johnstown District, oaths of office, 1833–42, John McDonald, oath, 26 March 1836; affidavit, 13 Feb. 1838; ser.12, vol.7, 14 Nov. 1837; ser.176, John McDonald. BLHU, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 18: 89. Leeds Land Registry Office (Brockville, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Leeds Township (mfm. at AO, GS 4572). PAC, MG 23, HII, 1, vols.2–4; RG 1, E1, 48: 650; E3, 31; RG 5, A1: 42136–37, 70768–70, 79083–86, 89181–84, 95115–19, 103043–44, 108211–14, 110327–32, 111482–83, 113408–11, 114452–58, 114772–75, 130974–78; RG 11, A2, 94: 276; RG 43, CV, 1; RG 68, 76: 323; General index, 1651–1841: 455, 462, 477, 516, 671. QUA, William Bell, diaries, 7: 77–78. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1846, app.F; Journals, 1841–45. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1828–40; Statutes, 1836, c.8. Colonial Advocate, 24 Feb. 1831. Daily British Whig, September 1860. Kingston Chronicle, October 1826. Reporter (Gananoque, [Ont.]), September 1860.