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MACDONELL (Greenfield), ALEXANDER, fur trader, politician, and office holder; b. 20 Nov. 1782 in Greenfield (Highland), Scotland, son of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield and Janet Macdonell (Aberchalder); d. 23 Feb. 1835 in Toronto.

Alexander Macdonell immigrated to Upper Canada in 1792 with his family. His father, head of a cadet branch of the Macdonells of Glengarry, was a militant Highlander, renowned for his courtly manners, traditional dress, and skill in the forest. By his own account he became a clerk of the North West Company in 1803. In 1806 he was a clerk in the Monontagué department and in September 1809 he was posted to the Red River department. There he helped to welcome his brother-in-law and cousin Miles Macdonell, who arrived in 1812 at the head of the advance party for the colony envisaged by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*]. Early relations between the cousins (and the conflicting interests they represented) were friendly and cooperative, although by April 1813 Miles had accused his kinsman of “insidious and treacherous conduct during the winter in endeavouring to swerve my people from their duty,” charges which Alexander could quite legitimately deny.

Despite the breakdown of cordiality, open hostility between the colony and the NWC did not emerge until after Miles’s notorious proclamation of January 1814 prohibiting the exportation of all provisions, including pemmican, the staple food of the Nor’Westers, and his subsequent successful attempts to enforce the embargo. Alexander and his senior colleagues, Duncan* and John Dugald* Cameron, initially failed to respond to the embargo with much vigour or enterprise, and were severely criticized by their superiors for their inaction. Alexander was upset by the censures, but he agreed that Miles’s embargo should have been forcibly resisted. Alexander was made a partner of the NWC at its meeting in 1814 and, with Duncan Cameron, was placed in charge of the Red River department, perhaps on an implicit understanding that he would be more militant in future. For several years afterwards, with Cameron, he took the lead in organizing the resistance of the local freemen, mixed-bloods (particularly the Métis), and Indians to the Red River colony and, in a number of letters intercepted or captured by the HBC, expressed extreme views about the conflict between the contending forces. His words and actions led William Bacheler Coltman, whose report of 1818 on the events of the fur-trade war in the northwest was on the whole studiously fair-minded, to describe his conduct as one of “general violence,” although Coltman was careful to note the conflicting testimony for most of the specific allegations made against Macdonell by Lord Selkirk and the HBC.

The contradictory evidence which characterizes the dispute makes it impossible to provide an unbiased account of Alexander’s activities between 1814 and 1816, much less of his involvement in some of the more violent episodes. In general, it can be asserted that Alexander – along with Duncan Cameron – encouraged the early inhabitants of the region to fear and oppose the establishment of the colony. He probably helped to promote the articulation of a sense of aboriginal rights among the Métis and Indians; that he and Cameron invented the notion of these rights, as some sources suggest, is fairly dubious. Whether he bore direct responsibility for the violent means employed by the Métis is another matter, for he was not present during most of the incidents, and he did on more than one occasion express a desire to avoid the “shedding of blood,” if possible. He certainly led the Métis in their successful seizure and dispersal of the settlement in the late spring of 1815, but these goals were achieved without the loss of life, although there was much intimidation.

Over the autumn of 1815 and the following winter he recruited a large part of the Métis force headed by Cuthbert Grant*. Macdonell led the Métis to Fort Qu’Appelle (Sask.), dashing about in military costume; yet he remained there until after the subsequent battle at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) on 19 June 1816. Grant’s men at Seven Oaks were under Macdonell’s orders, but it was never proved that those orders directly provoked the killing of Robert Semple*, governor of the HBC territories, and about 20 men. Available evidence suggests that Seven Oaks was an inadvertent confrontation between antagonists who had been made extremely suspicious of each other’s intentions. Less open to dispute than this conclusion are contemporary reports that Macdonell publicly rejoiced at its bloody outcome. Although he was one of those charged with responsibility for the murder of HBC employee Owen Keveny* in September 1816, Macdonell always maintained that the actual culprits, a Métis named Mainville and Charles de Reinhard, had acted on their own initiative.

Despite the many allegations against him, Macdonell was allowed by Coltman to escape westward in 1817, and he was never tried in any Canadian court for his actions. In 1819 A narrative of transactions appeared in London under his name; it attempted to exculpate him from the “calumnious libels” levelled against him. The work was probably at least partially ghost-written by Samuel Hull Wilcocke, who was at the time the NWC’s paid pamphleteer and who provided an unsigned preface to the work. Macdonell returned to Upper Canada in 1821, but by special order of Andrew Colvile of the HBC he was specifically omitted from the rosters of NWC men carried over after the merger of the two companies in that year.

In 1821, following in his family’s tradition of involvement in the politics of Upper Canada, Macdonell was elected to the House of Assembly for Glengarry, a riding which his brothers John* and Donald* would also represent at various times between 1812 and 1841. He held the seat until 1824. Ten years later he successfully contested the riding of Prescott as a tory, but he died in February 1835 of consumption while attending the assembly. He had been sheriff of the Ottawa District since 1822.

J. M. Bumsted

Alexander Macdonell (Greenfield) is the author of A narrative of transactions in the Red River country, from the commencement of the operations of the Earl of Selkirk, till the summer of the year 1816 (London, 1819); it was probably written with the help of Samuel Hull Wilcocke.

PAC, MG 19, El. PAM, HBCA, Nicholas Garry file. W. B. Coltman, “Summary of the evidence in the controversy between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North-West Company,” N.Dak. State Hist. Soc., Coll. (Fargo), 4 (1913): 451–653. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). G.B., Colonial Office, Papers relating to the Red River settlement  (London, 1819). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming). Report of trials in the courts of Canada, relative to the destruction of the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement on the Red River; with observations, ed. Andrew Amos (London, 1820). Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto), 15 March 1835. Patriot (Toronto), 13 March 1835. 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). M. A. MacLeod and W. L. Morton, Cuthbert Grant of Grantown; warden of the plains of Red River (Toronto, 1974). G. C. McMillan, “The struggle of the fur companies in the Red River region, 1811–1821” (ma thesis, Univ. of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1955). C. [B.] Martin, Lord Selkirk’s work in Canada (Toronto, 1916).

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Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “MACDONELL (Greenfield), ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_greenfield_alexander_6E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_greenfield_alexander_6E.html
Author of Article:   J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article:   MACDONELL (Greenfield), ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   2016
Access Date:   February 22, 2024