MacARTHUR, DUNCAN, HBC employee, businessman, politician, and author; b. 29 May 1840 in Nairnshire, Scotland, eldest son of John Macarthur and Sarah Dallas; m. first 1873 Catherine Robertson, and they had one son; m. secondly 4 June 1876 Christian Ross in Winnipeg, and they had one daughter; m. there thirdly 7 Sept. 1886 Elizabeth S. McKeagney, daughter of James Charles McKeagney*; d. 20 Jan. 1907 in Chicago.
Duncan MacArthur was educated at the Free Church Academy in Nairn, Scotland. He signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1864 and immigrated to Lower Canada, where he joined his younger brother Alexander* as a clerk in the head office of the Montreal department. Although described as being by nature a serious-minded, determined-looking man, “even on the Sabbath he could not disguise a friendly twinkle in his eye.” When Alexander retired from the company in 1868, Duncan succeeded him as senior clerk. This position brought him into contact with many of the HBC’s senior commissioned officers, some of whom became close friends and future business associates.
Three years later, after visiting Alexander who had relocated in Winnipeg, Duncan resigned from the HBC to accept the position of manager of the new Winnipeg branch of the Merchants’ Bank of Canada, the first branch of a chartered bank in that city. He did not sever all ties with the HBC, however, since the company and its agents were among the bank’s clients during its early years of operation.
The following decade was one of unprecedented growth in Winnipeg. After it was incorporated in 1873, the city actively sought to attract railways and settlers, advancing schemes in which MacArthur would play a significant role. He was first associated with the Manitoba South-Western Colonization Railway Company, incorporated in 1879 to promote development in the southwestern part of the province. In 1881 Winnipeg experienced a brief but spectacular land boom. With the attendant upsurge in construction, the lack of reliable insurance agencies became increasingly apparent. MacArthur had made enquiries into the insurance business as early as 1872, but it was not until 1880 that he incorporated the North-West Fire Insurance Company, serving as its first president. Wholesale, retail, and real-estate ventures multiplied in the city, providing lucrative investment opportunities for local financial institutions. MacArthur soon earned a reputation as a shrewd businessman and he served as director of several insurance and investment companies.
Also in 1880 MacArthur became managing director of the newly incorporated Nelson Valley Railway and Transportation Company, which was involved in the construction of a railway to Hudson Bay, opening up the fertile land to the north of Lake Winnipeg. After the amalgamation of the Nelson Valley Railway with the Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway and Steamship Company in 1883, MacArthur turned to a new venture. The Manitoba Central Railway was incorporated that same year with him as president. The following year, by provincial legislation, the railway obtained the right to construct a line south to the international boundary. This and its subsequent legislative attempts to challenge the monopoly of the Canadian Pacific Railway were, however, consistently disallowed by the federal government [see Sir John A. Macdonald*]. Meanwhile, MacArthur had been involved with another railway, as president in 1882 of the Portage, Westbourne and North Western Railway, which was to extend from the Manitoba–United States border north to Prince Albert (Sask.) and Edmonton. Sometime that year Montreal capitalist Sir Hugh Allan* purchased controlling interest of the line. The following year, after Sir Hugh’s death, his brother Andrew Allan, with the help of local investors among whom may have been MacArthur, revitalized the railway and changed its name to the Manitoba and North-Western Railway Company of Canada. MacArthur served as vice-president of the new line in 1884.
MacArthur retired from the Merchants’ Bank of Canada in 1883 but he continued his association with the institution as president of its local board of management, supervising the bank’s business in Manitoba and the northwest. He entered into partnership with William L. Boyle and George Campbell to form MacArthur, Boyle, and Campbell, bankers and financial agents. He stayed with them until 1885, when he became the first president of the recently incorporated Commercial Bank of Manitoba.
MacArthur had political aspirations as well. In 1887 he was nominated as a Conservative candidate to represent Winnipeg in the House of Commons. With vague promises of a future senatorship, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald persuaded him to withdraw in favour of the other Conservative candidate, William Bain Scarth, in order to prevent a split in Conservative votes. The senatorship never materialized. In January 1888 MacArthur won the by-election held in the provincial riding of Assiniboia. He reluctantly agreed to run in Kildonan against former premier John Norquay* in the provincial general election held five months later, but he lost by two votes.
His political defeat foreshadowed an even greater personal set-back. The Commercial Bank of Manitoba, which had an authorized capital of one million dollars, had been experiencing difficulties as early as 1887. Public confidence was further shaken by the directives of CPR president William Cornelius Van Horne* to his station agents that they not hold the bank’s bills longer than was necessary before forwarding them for redemption. MacArthur was known as “a man who found it difficult to disagree with anyone; he disliked to say no and it was dear to his heart to oblige or assist any and every applicant,” qualities better suited to the boom days of the early 1880s than to the subsequent period of economic stagnation which set in around 1882 and dogged the province until 1896. Matters came to a head in July 1893, when the bank suspended payment after several weeks of heavy withdrawals. Although it was later proved solvent, it never reopened its doors.
The bank’s collapse marked the end of MacArthur’s financial career in Winnipeg. He moved to Chicago in 1898 to pursue other business interests and stayed there for several years. The remainder of his life was spent near his brother Peter in Reaburn, Man. There he completed two manuscripts on the North American fur trade and continued an interest he had developed earlier, that of writing articles on various subjects, particularly on economic opportunities in Manitoba.
Duncan MacArthur died in Chicago while on a business trip to promote railway ventures. His body was returned to Winnipeg for burial in Kildonan cemetery. Although he was later acknowledged as a leading figure in Winnipeg’s early economy, credited with bringing millions of dollars of British capital into the province’s public enterprises, in 1907 the stigma of failure remained strong and in his obituaries his accomplishments were largely ignored.
The two manuscript histories of the fur trade which Duncan MacArthur prepared, probably between 1902 and 1905, are in his papers at the PAM (MG 14, B5). He is also the author of Manitoba: an address, delivered at the Nairn Literary Institute, 29th August, 1889 ([Nairn, Scot., 1889]); Sketches of a holiday trip, and the principles of success in business; being two addresses delivered before the Young Men’s Christian Association, Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1891); The Scottish Highlander: his origin, literature, language and general characteristics . . . (Winnipeg, 1893); “The proposed new route from British North America,” Westminster Rev. (New York and London), 144 (July–December 1895): 178–92; “How to consolidate the empire,” Empire Rev. (London), 9 (February–June 1905): 140–44; “The fur trade,” New England Magazine (Boston), new ser., 33 (September 1905–February 1906): 255–63.
Man., Legislative Library (Winnipeg), Biog. scrapbooks; Vert. file, Mcarthur family. PAM, HBCA, B.134/g/40–48; MG 12, E; MG 14, C21; P4348, MacArthur family file. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 7 April 1885; 8 Sept. 1886; 3 July 1893; 22, 26 Jan. 1907. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). CPG, 1887, 1889.
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Cite This Article
Eleanor Stardom, “MacARTHUR, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macarthur_duncan_13E.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:||Eleanor Stardom|
|Title of Article:||MacARTHUR, DUNCAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||March 24, 2023|