CAMERON, DUNCAN, fur trader and politician; b. c. 1764 in Glen Moriston, Scotland, son of Alexander Cameron and Margaret McDonell; d. 15 May 1848 in Williamstown, Upper Canada.
In 1773 Duncan Cameron immigrated to New York with his parents, who settled in Tryon County; seven years later, during the American revolution, he joined a loyalist regiment, probably the King’s Royal Regiment of New York [see Sir John Johnson*]. He came to the province of Quebec in 1785, in which year he entered the fur trade as a clerk for Alexander Shaw and Gabriel Cotté*, independent traders in the Lake Nipigon (Ont.) region.
Cameron soon established himself as a formidable opponent to the Hudson’s Bay Company as it tried to expand into the territory north and west of Lake Nipigon. When HBC man James Sutherland* wintered at Red Lake in 1790–91, he found that Cameron was already “well respected by the Indians as he has been some years at this place.” With dismay, Sutherland noted how well provided his rival was with Jamaican rum, Brazilian tobacco, and elegant uniforms for the Indians; in addition Cameron sported “a large brass Blunderbuss which makes a hidious report” and “a beautiful shaloon flag” that contrasted sadly with his own “old dirty thing.” The winter was not a loss for Sutherland’s company “as two Houses draws more Indians,” but his opponents, with their better supplies and knowledge of the area and their ostentation, kept the upper hand, trading 45 packs of fur to the HBC’s 33. Yet Cameron preserved excellent relations with Sutherland, receiving the latter’s appreciation for “his genteel behaviour and obliging nature” when they parted in the spring. Cameron was again at Red Lake in 1791–92, this time in opposition to HBC man John Best, with whom relations were far less cordial. As wintering agent for the Shaw–Cotté partnership, he also sent traders into the Lake Winnipeg drainage area, on the upper Bloodvein River (Man./Ont.).
In 1793–94 Cameron sent Jean-Baptiste Turcotte to trade at Big Lake (MacDowell Lake, Ont.) and maintained two posts on the Bloodvein River which cut into the HBC’s trade at Red Lake. Cameron wintered in 1795–96 west of Lake Winnipeg at Partridge Crop, on the Fairford River (Man.), having as rivals John Best at Dauphin River and two independent traders, Joseph Rhéaume and Gabriel Atina Laviolette. Trade relations were tense; on 31 March 1796 Best wrote that Cameron was “constantly at variance with me concerning trade, that it is almost Impossible to get ye furrs without fighting for it.”
After Gabriel Cotté died in February 1795, Cameron arranged for the firms of Forsyth, Richardson and Company and Todd, McGill and Company to supply his trade goods. When these firms temporarily withdrew from the northwest trade, a result of their rejection of the shares offered to them in 1795 by the North West Company, Cameron evidently had no choice but to join that concern, in which he became a partner. In 1796 he was placed in charge of its Nipigon department, a position he held until 1807. In 1796–98 he was at Fly Lake (Whiteloon Lake) in the Severn River headwaters, opposing HBC man David Sanderson. The two competed at Sandy Lake from 1798 to 1801, when Sanderson departed for Berens River, leaving the Severn trade largely to Cameron and his men.
In 1803–4 Cameron and 26 men overwhelmed their HBC rivals under James Peter Whitford at Island Lake (Man.). In 1804–5 Charles Thomas Isham* did little better than his predecessor against the NWC there, while Cameron himself wintered at Owl Lake (McInnes Lake, Ont.) in opposition to John Sanderson. Portions of Cameron’s journal from this winter survive, along with a valuable ethnographic account of the region which he may have drafted in the same period. In 1806–7 he wintered at Trout (Big Trout) Lake, east of Lake Severn, where, according to HBC man James Swain, he “dealt with the Natives in a very extravagant way.”
In 1807 Cameron and Alexander MacKay* succeeded the latter’s brother William* in the charge of the Lake Winnipeg department based at Fort Bas-de-la-Rivière (Fort Alexander, Man.). The following winter Cameron traded in opposition to HBC man Alexander Kennedy at Drunken (Wrong) Lake, east of Lake Winnipeg. In July 1808, at Cameron’s urging, the NWC cut the department’s posts and labour force in half since its expenses had greatly exceeded returns. Cameron spent 1808–11 at Fort Alexander, as Bas-de-la-Rivière was by then named, presiding over a trade much reduced by competition and fur depletion. One of his Lake Winnipeg clerks, George Nelson* (who married a cousin of Cameron’s Ojibwa wife), wrote warmly in this period of his “esteem & respect” for Cameron as his bourgeois: “we are (us Clerks) never hapier than when together & in his Company.” Cameron turned his charge over to John Dugald Cameron* in 1811 and went to the Lac La Pluie department, which he managed for three years.
The most conspicuous period of Cameron’s career began in 1814 when, with Alexander Macdonell* (Greenfield), he took over the Red River department and confronted the HBC colony of Red River, established two years before by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and governed by Miles Macdonell*. By this time the Nor’Westers had stepped up their opposition to the colony, encouraging the local freemen, mixed-bloods, and Indians to take action against it [see Cuthbert Grant*]. In August 1814 HBC man Peter Fidler* described the appearance of Cameron and Macdonell at Red River “dressed in regimentals” and en route to the NWC’s Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg). Styling himself a captain and Macdonell a lieutenant, Cameron asserted that he and not Miles Macdonell was the “Chief of this Country,” and he sent for all the freemen in the neighbourhood, “wishing to hire them – to prevent them . . . from killing Buffalo for the support of the Settlement.” On 5 September, acting on a warrant issued by Nor’Wester Archibald Norman McLeod as a magistrate for the Indian country under the Canada Jurisdiction Act, Cameron and seven armed men arrested John Spencer, sheriff of the colony, “for breaking open their stores at Brandon House last spring.”
In June 1815 the Nor’Westers’ continuing pressures to disperse the colony, reinforced by reports of Sioux and Métis threats against it, led to the departure of about 140 settlers and to Miles Macdonell’s giving himself up to Cameron in exchange, he hoped, for the safety of the remaining colonists. When depredations against them continued, however, they too departed. They were persuaded to return to Red River by Colin Robertson, who met them on their way to York Factory (Man.).
In March 1816 Robertson raided Fort Gibraltar, seizing documents which implicated the NWC in raids that had been made on the colony and arresting Cameron, who was sent to York Factory and then, after a year’s detention, to England. Released without standing trial, he returned to the Canadas about 1820, when he took legal action against Robertson “for false imprisonment . . . [and] for damages to an enormous amount.” Retiring from the fur trade, he settled in Glengarry County in the Williamstown area, where other Nor’Westers had also located, among them David Thompson*.
During at least the years 1807–12, Cameron had had an Indian wife and family, a connection that evidently linked him to the Ojibwas of the loon clan in the Nipigon area. A letter of 28 July 1812 contained a warning to a young relative against allowing “Love to get the better of Raison . . . if he should get Married before he is settled in a proper way, then all his future prospects are dished . . . this I too well know by dear bought experience.” In the fall of 1820 Cameron married Margaret McLeod, in Upper Canada, and they had a daughter and three sons, including Sir Roderick William*, who became active in the shipping trade to Australia. Duncan Cameron represented Glengarry in the Upper Canadian House of Assembly during the ninth parliament (1825–28). He died at Williamstown on 15 May 1848.
AO, MU 2102, 1812, no.14, item 2; MU 2198, no.3 (photocopy). MTRL, George Nelson papers, journal no.5: 190, 199, 206–7, 227; letter to his sister, 4 June 1811. PAC, RG 1, L3, 107: C14/252; RG 5, A1: 38177–78. PAM, HBCA, B.3/b/46: ff.32–33; B.51/a/1: f.18; B.149/a/7: f.3; B.177/a/1: ff.11–12, 16, 22–23, 26, 31–32; B.198/b/5: f.44; B.235/a/3: ff.4–5. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), vol.2. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming). “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into the losses and services in consequence of their loyalty; evidence in the Canadian claims,” AO Report, 1904: 1093. Legislators and legislatures of Ont. (Forman), 1: 57. Marriage bonds of Ont. (T. B. Wilson), 39. H. W. Duckworth, “The Nipigon trade to 1796” (paper presented at the fifth North American Fur Trade Conference, Montreal, 1985). J. G. Harkness, Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry: a history, 1784–1945 (Oshawa, Ont., 1946). V. P. Lytwyn, The fur trade of the little north: Indians, pedlars, and Englishmen east of Lake Winnipeg, 1760–1821 (Winnipeg, 1986). J. A. Macdonell, Sketches illustrating the early settlement and history of Glengarry in Canada, relating principally to the Revolutionary War of 1775–83, the War of 1812–14 and the rebellion of 1837–8 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Rich, Fur trade (1976).
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Jennifer S. H. Brown, “CAMERON, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_duncan_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Jennifer S. H. Brown|
|Title of Article:||CAMERON, DUNCAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|