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LAVIOLETTE, PIERRE – Volume VIII (1851-1860)

b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

MacDONALD OF GLENALADALE, JOHN (Iain MacDhòmhnaill), army officer and colonizer; b. 29 Sept. 1742 in Scotland, eldest son of Alexander M’Donald of Glenaladale and Margaret MacDonell of Scothouse (Scotus); d. 28 Dec. 1810 on his estate, Tracadie (lots 35 and 36), P.E.I.

John MacDonald was three years old when his father, Alexander, head of the Glenaladale branch of the Clan MacDonald of Clanranald, joined the standard of Prince Charles, the Young Pretender, at its raising in 1745 on the Glenaladale property at Glenfinnan, Scotland. After the prince’s hopes for a Stuart restoration perished at Culloden, his allies, including the MacDonalds, suffered serious economic reprisals at the hands of the British government. It was nevertheless possible to send young MacDonald in 1756 to the famous Catholic seminary at Regensburg (Federal Republic of Germany), where, as a lay student, he received the thorough grounding in languages and the classics to which his later correspondence so strongly attests. Historians have noted that he could “speak, read and write seven languages” and was accounted “one of the most finished and accomplished young gentlemen of his generation.”

Some time after his return to Scotland in 1761 he became the 8th laird of Glenaladale and second in command among the chieftains of the Clanranald family; however, a combination of factors eventually turned his mind to thoughts of emigration. There is evidence that MacDonald had little sympathy with the economic policies of the post-Culloden chieftains, which had led to the oppression of the tacksmen, among whom he had many relatives and friends. At a more personal level, moreover, his dependence on the Clanranalds had become so repugnant to him that he “was determined to take the first Opportunity of throwing off the Same.” He began, therefore, to hope that he and his people might find “a feasible Method of leaving the inhospitable Part of the World, which has fallen to our share,” and in 1770 he became involved in an emigration scheme. That year Colin MacDonald of Boisdale undertook to compel his tenants on South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, to renounce their Roman Catholic faith in favour of the Church of Scotland, under penalty of expulsion from his estate. The Roman Catholic bishops of Scotland concluded that emigration was the only solution for these destitute people, and MacDonald became chief organizer of the plan. He purchased from the lord advocate of Scotland, James William Montgomery, Lot 36 on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and, with the assistance of the Roman Catholic Church, undertook to settle there not only tenants from South Uist but “a Number of other people & our own friends” from the mainland. In May 1772, under the leadership of MacDonald’s brother, Donald, and accompanied by Father James MacDonald*, 210 settlers departed on the Alexander for St John’s Island. The following month the party disembarked on Lot 36 at a place subsequently called Scotchfort.

In 1773, dismayed by reports of distress from the newly established settlement, where the harvest of the previous year had been poor, MacDonald himself embarked for America, landing at Philadelphia, Pa. His progress northward, though rapid, enabled him to acquire some estimate of the capabilities of the various colonies, which served as a basis for comparison with those of St John’s Island; on arrival there he concluded that his settlement could be brought to prosperity. The task of removing the settlers from the point of disembarkation to their permanent locations and thereby placing the estate on a sound organizational basis was, however, interrupted by the outbreak of the American revolution. In June 1775 MacDonald received an invitation from Lieutenant Colonel Allan Maclean* and Major John Small to join them in measures to retain the allegiance of the great number of Scots Highlanders settled in the revolting colonies. It was also proposed to raise a regiment among “some hundreds of discharged soldiers from the several Highland regiments then dispersed in the different provinces on the continent of North America.” Although he hesitated because, as a Roman Catholic, he would occasionally have to conform to the established church, MacDonald acquiesced. Despite the fact that he had never before belonged to the service, he was appointed captain and made company commander in the second battalion of the Royal Highland Emigrants (84th Foot). His sister Helen (Nelly) would manage the family estate, not only while he and Donald, who was to die during the course of the war, were on active service, but for some years afterwards. MacDonald later asserted that he “did not meet the enemy,” but there are accounts of his seizure of an American man-of-war, apprehended on a plundering expedition along the coast of Nova Scotia. Small referred to Captain MacDonald’s “activity and unabating zeal, in bringing an excellent company into the field” and to his being “one of the most accomplished men, and best Officers of his rank, in His Majesty’s Service.” He was placed on half pay in 1783.

In 1781, during MacDonald’s absence, Governor Walter Patterson* had initiated proceedings against certain lots which were in arrears for non-payment of quitrents. The lots were auctioned off in November of the same year, and Patterson and a few of his friends were the principal purchasers. Upon learning of the sales, MacDonald went to London in 1782 and assumed leadership of a movement to secure a remission of the quitrent arrears and the return of the lots to their former owners. Unaware at first that Lot 36 had not been sold, he argued that the quitrents on this property had run unavoidably in arrears through the expense of settlement and his absence in the service. He was, moreover, incensed over the sale to Attorney General Phillips Callbeck* of Lot 35, for which he himself had been making offers to the previous owner, General Alexander Maitland. Patterson later contended that MacDonald and many of his tenants had been pasturing their cattle and making the principal part of their hay on Maitland’s lot for over a decade without compensation to the proprietor and that it was “this loss of the use of another’s property which has occasioned his great activity in the business.” It was, however, the determination of king in council that instructions be sent to the governor to repeal the Quit Rent Act of 1774, in virtue of which the lots had been sold, to annul the sales, and to restore the sold lots to the former proprietors. Patterson refused to comply with these instructions and, for this and further disobedience to Home Department instructions, he was dismissed in 1787 and replaced by Edmund Fanning. MacDonald remained in London to assist in bringing criminal charges against the former governor and to serve as solicitor at the subsequent hearings before the president of the Privy Council in 1789. The purchase of Lot 35 from General Maitland was effected in 1792 after a spirited controversy with Mrs Phillips Callbeck. In the same year MacDonald married Margaret MacDonald of Ghernish (Guernish), his first wife, Isabella Gordon of Wardhouse, having died many years previously.

When MacDonald at last returned to Tracadie in 1792, he found that, despite the exertions of his sister Nelly, his affairs were in a sorry state. Despairing of his return and not having received their permanent locations of land, many of his tenants had provided for their own security by moving to the estates of other proprietors. MacDonald had not only to reinstate his lands in their former condition, but he was also faced with the necessity of retiring the accumulated arrears of quitrents. He proceeded to attempt to develop his property, concentrating on the raising of livestock and the production of hay.

He also strove to bring a measure of tranquillity to his domestic relationships. During the war years he had complained of the “foolish storms of high passion and feeling” which Nelly’s letters conveyed. He once declared to her that “it makes my flesh shrink to read a paragraph of your letter.” Assessing the situation in 1803, he admitted that he himself had “naturally a warm temper” and that he had been “betrayed . . . into occasional Gusts of passion”; “Mrs Macdonald is the same,” he noted, while “in respect to yourself, my dear Nelly, you must not, more than others, cock up your nose, and say you are as white as snow: you too have plenty of spice.” Nelly was, nevertheless, held in high regard. Writing in 1792 to prepare her for his impending marriage, MacDonald had promised, “You need not fear that I shall ever neglect you. . . . If my income were but a shilling a year, you shall have a sixpence thereof.”

In 1797, following upon the publication in the previous year of Joseph Robinson’s To the farmers in the Island of StJohn, in the Gulf of StLawrence, MacDonald complained to Lieutenant Governor Fanning of the existence of a “Levelling Party” on the Island which was working for the establishment of a court of escheat and the subdivision of proprietorial lands. The party, he claimed, “has been for a year past employed in disseminating principles among our tenants and the people at large which may vie with the like which have laid France in ruins.” Fanning could scarcely have been unaware that such a movement existed, particularly in view of the fact that it derived its leadership from members of his own government, chiefly the family of Chief Justice Peter Stewart; but the lieutenant governor, MacDonald charged, pretended to understand that the complaint was of “a levelling party aiming immediately against Government itself by treason and bloodshed than to the sort of levelling party . . . aimed against the proprietors.” When, therefore, fearing prosecution for libel, MacDonald twice refused to appear before the Council to furnish proof of the party’s existence and the names of its members, that body determined that such a levelling party did not exist and that MacDonald “most pointedly declares himself to be the greatest malcontent on the face of the earth.” Fanning passed the matter on to the House of Assembly, and the legislature dispatched the serjeant-at-arms to Tracadie, summoning MacDonald to defend his allegations before the house. Glenaladale disdainfully declined to appear before a group of which John Stewart*, with whom he had scuffled with weapons drawn in the streets of Charlottetown, was speaker, and in a letter to Fanning he delivered a scathing commentary on the origins and integrity of the membership of the house. Considering the matter, an assembly committee chaired by Robert Hodgson drew up a set of resolutions condemning MacDonald for his “false and groundless” assertions but decided that, in view of his “turbulent, restless and factious character” and the possibility that proceedings against him might “raise him into a degree of consequence,” it should dispense with his attendance as had been required. In the late 1790s MacDonald, along with Joseph Aplin and James Douglas, stood virtually alone in opposing the tightly knit Fanning administration.

Despite MacDonald’s spirited resistance, the assembly of 1797 declared in favour of escheat and petitioned the British government accordingly. In the resolutions forwarded to London, however, Glenaladale’s lots 35 and 36 were specifically stated to be “settled agreeable to the terms of the grants.” It was not until 1802–3 that, diverted temporarily from its preoccupation with the Napoleonic Wars, the Colonial Office took action on the land question, deciding that the lands of those proprietors who did not pay reduced arrears of quitrents would be escheated. MacDonald, in London at the time in an effort to acquaint the authorities with the true state of the Island, was dismayed to learn that the receiver general of quitrents, John Stewart, “full of destroying enmity to one class, and of favor to his own,” was to commence prosecutions. Judgements were obtained against a number of proprietors; however, fear on the part of both Fanning and the Colonial Office of offending the powerful landlords, coupled with the resumption of war and a change of administration in London, brought proceedings to a halt in 1804.

Although the proponents of escheat had been silenced for a time, there remained the problem of MacDonald’s existing debts, greater, John Hill* once asserted, “than he will be able to liquidate during his life, independent of the quit rents.” He cautioned his family to economy, averring that the alternative was “to go to pieces, scatter, and be beggars, in a place where beggars are not known and every one only thinks of himself.” In 1805, still in England, he attempted to sell his Island properties, but no buyers were forthcoming. He returned home the following year with the help of a loan from the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas]. Although the escheat issue was raised again during the administration of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*, MacDonald seems to have kept aloof from Island politics until his death in 1810.

Stolidly aristocratic in his convictions, MacDonald was nevertheless mindful of the afflictions of the less privileged. He had at one time busied himself with the preparation of petitions on behalf of Highland settlers being prosecuted for back rents by William Townshend, the collector of customs. He had also laboured for the removal of the disabilities which at that time denied Roman Catholics the right to vote. One of the last controversies in which he became involved stemmed from his objection to an edict of Bishop Pierre Denaut whereby the Catholics of St Andrew’s, Naufrage, Tracadie, Three Rivers (the region around Georgetown), Bay Fortune, and East Point were to contribute to the erection of a large chapel at St Andrew’s. In a letter to Father Angus Bernard MacEachern* he declared such “a magnificent Pile of unnecessary Ostentation” to be beyond the exigency and means of the people, particularly when those not within reach of St Andrew’s, including the people of Tracadie, would have to build churches of their own. For a time he forbad his tenants to support the project and had his brother, Augustine, say mass at Tracadie.

Although the child of his first marriage had lived for only a few months, five children were born of MacDonald’s union with Margaret MacDonald, the “Queen of Tracadie.” These were Donald*, William, John*, Roderick C., and Flora Anna Maria. To them and his wife he passed on the Tracadie estate intact, although his will indicates that it was encumbered with unspecified debts. Donald, his successor as head of the estate, was the father of Sir William Christopher MacDonald*, the millionaire manufacturer and philanthropist.

F. L. Pigot

PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., petition of John MacDonald. Private arch., Jean and Colin MacDonald (St Peters, P.E.I), MacDonald family papers, docs.7, 10, 19–20, 22, 26, 67 (copies at PAPEI). PRO, CO 226/3: 50–51, 107–10; 226/10: 94–125; 226/15: 182–83, 208–27, 230–50; 226/18: 31–32, 114–17, 160–62, 166–234. Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, liber 1: f.31 (will of John MacDonald). The lyon in mourning, or a collection of speeches, letters, journals, etc . relative to the affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, comp. Robert Forbes, ed. Henry Paton (3v., Edinburgh, 1895–96), 3. [John MacDonald], “Glenalladale’s settlement, Prince Edward Island,” ed. I. R. Mackay, Scottish Gaelic Studies (Aberdeen, Scot.), 10 (1965): 16–24. P.E.I, House of Assembly, Journal, 17 July 1797. Weekly Recorder of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), 1 Jan. 1811. Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Macdonalds and lords of the isles; with genealogies of the principal families of the name (Inverness, Scot., 1881). Canadas smallest prov. (Bolger). J. F. S. Gordon, The Catholic Church in Scotland, from the suppression of the hierarchy till the present time; being memorabilia of the bishops, missioners, and Scotch Jesuits (Glasgow, 1869). F. L. Pigot, A history of Mount Stewart, Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1975). J. M. Bumsted, “Captain John MacDonald and the Island,” Island Magazine, no.6 (spring–summer 1979): 15–20. A. F. MacDonald, “Captain John MacDonald, ‘Glenalladale,’” CCHA Report, 30 (1964): 21–37. MacNutt, “Fanning’s regime on P.E.I,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1, no.1: 37–53.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

F. L. Pigot, “MacDONALD OF GLENALADALE, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_of_glenaladale_john_5E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_of_glenaladale_john_5E.html
Author of Article:   F. L. Pigot
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   March 4, 2024