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MacDONELL, ALEXANDER, politician and office holder; b. c. 1774 in Inverness-shire, Scotland; m. Mary –, and they had at least four daughters and four sons; fl. 1813–28.

Nothing is known of Alexander MacDonell’s family or background. His experience as adjutant for the militia of Glengarry, Scotland, prompted him in 1813 to offer his services in a similar capacity to Lord Selkirk [Douglas*]. Impressed by his qualifications, Selkirk engaged MacDonell in January 1814 to recruit colonists in Scotland and accompany them to the Red River settlement (Man.). In June 1815 he embarked with the settlers and the new governor of Rupert’s Land, Robert Semple*, arriving at York Factory in August. MacDonell intended to stay at Red River for a year and then return to Scotland for his family. Selkirk suggested that he might be employed as the colony’s accountant, but Semple considered him too valuable for that post and on 5 Sept. 1815 appointed him temporary second-in-command to Colin Robertson* of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whom he placed in charge of the settlement. After their arrival at Fort Douglas (Winnipeg) in November, Semple sent MacDonell and the settlers to winter at Fort Daer (Pembina, N.Dak.). There, early in January 1816, MacDonell was sworn in as councillor and high sheriff of Assiniboia. Semple had confidence in MacDonell’s fitness for office, having reported to Selkirk that he possessed “firmness, prudence and conciliatory manners” and had earned the esteem of all. After returning to Fort Douglas in April, MacDonell witnessed the growing hostility between Semple and Robertson which resulted in Robertson’s departure early in June. Semple then appointed MacDonell his second-in-command, and the charge of the colony thus fell to MacDonell after the governor’s violent death at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) on 19 June 1816 [see Cuthbert Grant*] at the height of the conflict between the HBC and the North West Company for control of the western fur trade.

Forced by the NWC to leave Fort Douglas a few days later, the settlers were taken by MacDonell to Jack River House, where they wintered. MacDonell re-established the colony in March 1817 and successfully guided it through two difficult years. Frost and high winds almost destroyed the crops of 1817 and grasshoppers those of 1818. MacDonell carefully regulated the cultivation of crops and also kept the colony’s expenses low. Some HBC officers complained about his management and implied that he was dishonest, but they were hostile to the colony anyway. According to Robertson, they protested because MacDonell’s measures prevented them from overcharging the colony for supplies and making excessive profits. Selkirk did not believe the rumours impugning MacDonell’s honesty and the settlers declared their satisfaction with him in a petition dated 2 Aug. 1819.

After his departure for Scotland in the fall of 1819 to see his family, MacDonell was appointed Selkirk’s agent for the Red River colony on 24 Feb. 1820 and, following the earl’s death, agent for Selkirk’s executors in May. By June 1820 he was back in the colony, where he resumed his post as governor locum tenens. As agent, MacDonell was responsible for the regulation of the colony’s economic affairs, with authority to distribute land, settle accounts, and recover debts on behalf of his employers. He was also to superintend Frederick Matthey, who was in charge of defence and public works, and William Laidlaw, manager of Hayfield, the first model farm. MacDonell was therefore responsible for establishing a stable economy and a sound administration. He accomplished neither task.

In the first place, he failed to stop illicit fur trading in accordance with the orders of George Simpson*, governor of the HBC’s Northern Department. Moreover, he initially obstructed the efforts of John Pritchard* to establish the Buffalo Wool Company, though he later purchased shares in the venture. As far as his management was concerned, the settlers charged that only a favoured few received the supplies they requested, that their accounts were incorrectly kept, and that they were being cheated. The Indians, too, accused MacDonell of cheating them. MacDonell aggravated the situation by appointing to responsible positions friends and relatives who often proved dishonest and inept. A group of Swiss settlers, who spent the winter of 1821–22 at Fort Daer housed in ruins and faced with starvation, found that an appeal to MacDonell had no effect. Presbyterian Scots resented MacDonell’s seeming indifference to their desire for a minister.

Although Selkirk had emphasized the importance of cooperation among the colony’s officers, MacDonell accused Matthey of plotting against him and encouraged dissension between Matthey and Laidlaw. The Council of Assiniboia did not function during his tenure of office. Instead, he ran things as he wanted, alienating officers of the HBC and prominent settlers.

By September 1821 Simpson had concluded that MacDonell’s mismanagement was hurting the colony and making it unattractive to respectable settlers. His investigations led him to conclude that the accusations of dishonesty and favouritism were true and he corroborated settlers’ charges of drunkenness and immorality. He also expressed disapproval of some of MacDonell’s private financial transactions, such as his sale to the settlers, at a high profit to himself, of horses he had purchased, ostensibly for the colony. MacDonell was dismissed in March 1822 and Andrew H. Bulger* replaced him in June. Within two years of his return to the Red River settlement MacDonell had lost the confidence of his employers and the respect of the settlers; according to Red River historian Alexander Ross* he became known as the “grasshopper governor” because “he proved as great a destroyer within doors as the grasshoppers in the fields.”

MacDonell was retained in the service of Selkirk’s executors for one more year in the hope that his experience would be useful. He also served as councillor of Assiniboia under both Bulger and his successor, Robert Parker Pelly, and became a special constable on 21 Oct. 1823. But instead of working with the new administration, he encouraged dissension and cooperated with neither governor. He supported settlers in requests that challenged the authority of the HBC, using official documents he had kept to support his statements. Such actions convinced Simpson of the desirability of MacDonell’s departure.

MacDonell appeared determined to remain in the colony. In 1822, with Pritchard and Robert Logan*, he applied, unsuccessfully, for permission to open a retail store. But his main interest was farming. He had received land from Selkirk in 1818 and his family had arrived in 1823. In 1824 he owned 2,576 acres, but by 1827 his holdings had declined to 36 acres. His losses perhaps resulted from the settlement of his account with Selkirk’s executors, a process which thoroughly discredited him. MacDonell’s demands were seen as exorbitant and fraudulent. His threats in 1824 to take his claim for board to court enraged Andrew Colvile, a director of the HBC, who declared that MacDonell was not to receive a deed to his land or have the right to sell it until he had settled his accounts. MacDonell was vulnerable because he had not applied for a deed, disliking the terms offered. As early as October 1824 he had been forced to recognize the sale of some of his land. In the end MacDonell had to settle on the executors’ terms.

By 1824 Simpson considered MacDonell “disaffected,” one of the most dangerous men in the colony, and inimical to the interests of Selkirk’s executors. Simpson refused to associate with him or admit him to the society of HBC officers. This ostracism blocked all avenues to social prominence and influence. MacDonell’s financial situation received another blow that year when he was denied credit at the company’s store. By 1828 he had left. In April of that year he was in York (Toronto), looking for a farm.

Edith Burley

A transcript of Alexander MacDonell’s journal is at PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1: 17928–8177.

PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, vols.1–79 (mfm. at PAM); E11 (copies); MG 30, D1, 20: 636–43. PAM, HBCA, D.5/3: ff.196–97; E.5/1: ff.3d–4; E.8/6: ff.2–2d, 102–4d, 182–93; MG 2, C21, files 125, 150 (mfm.); C23, nos.7, 9, 36. The Canadian north-west, its early development and legislative records; minutes of the councils of the Red River colony and the Northern Department of Rupert’s Land, ed. E. H. Oliver (2v., Ottawa, 1914–15), 1. Alexander Ross, The Red River settlement: its rise, progress and present state; with some account of native races and its general history, to the present day (London, 1856; repr. Minneapolis, Minn., 1957, and Edmonton, 1972). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (Thomas; 1973).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Edith Burley, “MACDONELL, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_alexander_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_alexander_6E.html
Author of Article: Edith Burley
Title of Article: MACDONELL, ALEXANDER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: July 24, 2014