McBEATH (McBeth), ROBERT, farmer, businessman, and office-holder; b. 14 April 1805 in Kildonan (Highland), Scotland, the fifth of eight children of Alexander McBeath and Christian Gunn; m. 19 Jan. 1832 Mary McLean, and they had 11 children; d. 20 Aug. 1886 at Kildonan (now part of Winnipeg), Man.
Robert McBeath came to Canada with his parents as a member of the fourth party of colonists brought out by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] in 1815. Sailing on the Hadlow from Gravesend, England, to York Factory (Man.), they reached the Red River Settlement on 5 November. The colony was in ruins, having been pillaged by the North West Company, and the McBeaths had to sustain themselves over the winter near Pembina (N. Dak.) by hunting and fishing. They returned to the colony in 1816 but when on 19 June Robert Semple*, the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and 20 of his men were killed at Seven Oaks by a group of Nor’Westers under Cuthbert Grant*, the colonists’ houses and goods were ransacked and they were forced to seek refuge at Jack River House, at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. The McBeaths spent the next two years at Pembina when grasshoppers ravaged the colony.
Alexander McBeath was given a farm lot near Kildonan in 1817 by Lord Selkirk in consideration of the hardships, losses, and misfortunes he had suffered. Robert McBeath later farmed this lot, and between 1839 and 1854 he purchased additional lots from the HBC, until, at the time of his death, he possessed over 400 acres. In the late 1850s McBeath opened a general store in Kildonan and carried on a freighting business between the Red River Settlement and York Factory.
McBeath was sworn in as a councillor of Assiniboia on 29 March 1853, the first Selkirk colonist to receive that honour. He attended 60 of a possible 77 council meetings and served on four committees before the council ceased operation in 1869. In 1859 he was appointed to a committee to draft regulations on the importation of liquor into the Red River Settlement. As a result of the committee’s recommendations, importation was limited, a schedule of fines and licence fees was drawn up, and the sale of liquor to the Indians was forbidden. McBeath was also on committees appointed in 1863 and 1864 to mark the main public roads in the settlement and to study the question of a public ferry. In 1865 he was a member of a committee to distribute seed wheat purchased from the HBC.
As a prominent figure in the settlement, McBeath was frequently called upon for jury duty and was appointed a justice of the peace on 19 Nov. 1852. In 1863 he was one of four justices of the peace who sent a petition to Governor Alexander Grant Dallas. Deploring the lack of a sufficient military force in the settlement to prevent jail breaks and to guard against Indian disturbances, the petitioners requested a renewal of negotiations with the Sioux as well as a warning to them to keep away from the settlement. In 1866 the governor was authorized to raise a body of 50 to 100 mounted men to meet any emergency. McBeath served as a magistrate at 38 sessions of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia. His decisions were fair and impartial, although his knowledge of French was inadequate. One of the most important questions which came before McBeath for settlement was the investigation, in 1870, into the death of Elzéar Goulet*, one of Louis Riel’s lieutenants, who was killed while fleeing from supporters of the Canadian party. Although the inquiry ended inconclusively, racial conflict was avoided.
McBeath was a prominent member of the Presbyterian Church, first at Frog Plain (now part of Winnipeg), then at Kildonan, and was one of 80 Kildonan signatories who petitioned the Council of Assiniboia to ratify the constitution of their congregation and declare it a corporate body. The request was refused in 1854 because the council claimed not to possess such power. McBeath’s sons provided hay for the horses and cows of the Reverend John Black, who was the Presbyterian minister at Kildonan for over 30 years. During the disturbance at Red River in 1869–70, Black preached law and order and tried to discourage open resistance to Riel. His influence may partially explain the passivity of the Kildonan settlers throughout the disturbance.
McBeath did not take an active part in the disturbance, although he was present at the meeting on 20 Jan. 1870 to hear Donald Alexander Smith*, the special commissioner from the government of Canada, and when John Christian Schultz* escaped from Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) on 23 Jan. 1870 McBeath gave him shelter for the night. In the first provincial election of December 1870, McBeath voted for the opponent of the successful candidate, John Sutherland, who had represented Kildonan at the convention of January 1870 [see Riel]. This support may have been McBeath’s way of expressing his disapproval of the actions of the convention.
In his later years McBeath’s interests centred around his family, his farm, his garden, and his church. He died at his residence on 20 Aug. 1886, a respected member of the community, who had given freely of his time and means to further projects for the general welfare of the Red River Settlement. Smith wrote that he “was one of my most esteemed friends . . . who so materially aided in the opening up of the great North-West.”
PAM, MG 2, B1, 29 March, 6 Dec. 1853; 22 June 1854; 10 March, 26 May 1859; 28 April, 19 Dec. 1863; 12 March, 3 Nov. 1864; 21 March 1865; C40. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I: 68, 80, 83–84. Manitoba Sun (Winnipeg), 23 Aug. 1886. R. G. MacBeth, The Selkirk settlers in real life (Toronto, 1897). F. H. Schofield, The story of Manitoba (3v., Winnipeg, 1913).