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THOMSON, EDWARD WILLIAM – Volume IX (1861-1870)

d. 20 April 1865 in York Township, Canada West


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MacKAY, ALEXANDER (he also signed McKay), fur trader and explorer; b. c. 1770, probably in the Mohawk valley of New York, son of Donald McKay and Elspeth (Elspy) Kennedy; m. à la façon du nord Marguerite Waddens, daughter of Jean-Étienne Waddens*, and they had one son, Thomas McKay, and three daughters; another woman was likely the mother of his son Alexander Ross McKay; d. c. 15 June 1811 in Clayoquot Sound (B.C.).

Alexander MacKay participated in two momentous events in the history of North American exploration and westward expansion. As lieutenant in Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean on behalf of the North West Company in 1793, he was among the first Europeans to cross the breadth of the continent. In 1811, as a Pacific Fur Company partner, he became one of the founders of Astoria (Oreg.), the first English-speaking settlement on the Pacific coast.

MacKay’s father, Donald, fought at Quebec in 1759 as a sergeant in the 78th Foot, a Highland regiment whose members contributed many sons to the NWC. Having settled in the Mohawk valley after the Seven Years’ War, the elder McKay brought his family north as United Empire Loyalists. Although they eventually made their home in the Glengarry region of Upper Canada, at Martintown, they first lived near Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada. By November 1791 three sons, Donald, William*, and Alexander, were in the west as NWC clerks.

How much earlier Alexander MacKay had joined the NWC is not known; nor is the date of his first posting to Fort Chipewyan (Alta). He must have been stationed there in 1792, since on 10 Jan. 1793 Alexander Mackenzie asked that MacKay be transferred to Fort Fork (Peace River Landing, Alta) because “he would be of great Service to me should I undertake any expedition.” MacKay joined Mackenzie on 12 April, and on 9 May, together with six voyageurs and two Indian hunters, they began their 74-day journey to the Pacific Ocean.

MacKay’s activities were primarily land-based. His duties were those of a scout, and his tasks included determining the navigability of waterways and choosing the course ahead, selecting portage routes and “cutting a road” through dense bush along steep inclines, and leading the two Indians in the hunt for game. When dangerous waters dictated, MacKay and the hunters would be the first to walk, often an equally perilous course. No wonder that on 22 June he showed “great satisfaction” at riding down what is now known as the Fraser River in an Indian canoe which had joined the party; as Mackenzie observed, he “was thereby enabled to keep us company with diminution of labour.”

Voyaging through uncharted territories peopled by unknown tribes compelled Mackenzie to obtain local Indians as guides and interpreters and then to retain their services by alternating watches with MacKay. The disappearance of a guide twice during MacKay’s vigils led Mackenzie to record, at the first instance, his displeasure with MacKay, and at the second, “painful reflections in my breast.” Elsewhere in his journal, however, Mackenzie cites numerous examples of MacKay’s courage and reliability. Perhaps the most telling occurred at the start of the return from the mouth of the Bella Coola on 23 July, when the men came close to mutiny in their “frantic terror” at the menacing Indians and treacherous terrain ahead. After describing the conclusion of the revolt Mackenzie, as if to reassure his readers about MacKay’s performance, added this footnote in his journal: “It is but common justice to him, to mention in this place that I had every reason to be satisfied with his conduct.” Probably written in 1800 during the preparation of the manuscript for publication, this note, as well as Mackenzie’s recommendation to the NWC in 1799 that MacKay be “provided for indeed he ranks amongst the first,” is convincing evidence of the explorer’s lasting esteem for his subordinate.

MacKay likely spent the years between 1793 and 1800 as a clerk in the NWC’s Upper English River department, near Lac La Loche (Sask.). He reestablished the Île-à-la-Crosse post and in 1799 was reported to be earning £100 Halifax currency per annum. In 1800 he was made a partner and worked in the English River department (probably the Upper division) until 1804. He attended the rendezvous at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) in 1800 but was absent in 1801 and again in 1802, when he received two shares in the company by the agreement of that year.

After the 1805 rendezvous at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.), which he did attend, MacKay went down to Montreal on rotation, returning to Kaministiquia in 1806. In the assignment of departments that year, his was somewhat unusual: “to Watch De Lorme.” MacKay did more than “watch” Delorme, a trader attempting to compete with the NWC by way of Grand Portage. He and his engagés forced Delorme to abandon his adventure by cutting trees across his path, an action later denounced by Lord Selkirk [Douglas] in A sketch of the British fur trade in North America; with observations relative to the North-West Company of Montreal (London, 1816).

Following the winter of 1806–7, which he spent at Lake Winnipeg, MacKay returned to Fort William, as Kaministiquia was now called, where he declared his willingness to retire in place of John Sayer on the same terms Sayer had been offered. Sayer chose to retire, however, and MacKay wintered on the Winnipeg River as proprietor before returning to Fort William for the last time in 1808. Resigning on condition that he receive £1,000 for one share in the NWC and retain his second for seven years, he then retired to Montreal.

Perhaps it was this, or some other arrangement, that led to the “disgust” MacKay is said to have shared with other retired Nor’Westers and that led them to join the venture by American businessman John Jacob Astor to found a post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Mackay, along with Donald McKenzie* and Duncan McDougall, signed a preliminary agreement with Astor in New York on 10 March 1810, whereupon they began recruiting in Montreal for land and sea expeditions to the Columbia. Among those enlisted by MacKay were Gabriel Franchère*, David and Robert Stuart, and his own 13-year-old son, Thomas, all of whom joined him for the sea voyage. Another recruit was Jean-Baptiste Perrault*, who later withdrew from the land party at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.).

In the mean time, MacKay had joined the Beaver Club on 17 Dec. 1809 after first attending on the previous 1 April as guest of Alexander McKenzie*, nicknamed the Emperor. At his last recorded attendance, on 21 April 1810, he introduced three guests, “two Mr. Stewarts and Mr. McDougall,” all associates in the Pacific enterprise.

Not in New York on 23 June 1810 for the formal ratification of the Pacific Fur Company agreement, which allotted him 5 of 100 shares, MacKay created a sensation by arriving on 3 August in a birchbark canoe manned by colourfully bedecked Canadians singing their voyageur songs. In contrast, during their forthcoming voyage on the Tonquin, similar displays of the Nor’Westers’ spirit would provoke the everlasting loathing of its captain, Jonathan Thorn. Before embarking, MacKay consulted British ambassador Francis James Jackson regarding his status and that of other British subjects in the company, should war with the United States break out. Whether he also divulged information that would contribute to the later surrender of Astoria to the NWC, as charged by Washington Irving, has not been proved. Nor can it be known whether some duplicity on MacKay’s part contributed to Astor’s mistaken impression that all company members from the Canadas had become American citizens.

Also controversial and perhaps, as Alexander Ross* would have it, “an egregious inversion of the ordinary rules of prudence,” was Astor’s very choice of MacKay for the sea voyage, his exploration and fur-trade experience having prepared him rather for the land expedition. Yet the party that sailed on 6 Sept. 1810 aboard the Tonquin came to consider him more their leader than Astor’s proxy, Duncan McDougall. Confusion over leadership not only led the two partners to quarrel, but undoubtedly contributed to their catastrophic relationship with Captain Thorn, a martinet against whose ruthlessness MacKay many times intervened, albeit in vain. The enmity between Thorn and MacKay, aggravated by Thorn’s attempt to maroon his adversary and others of the party at the Falkland Islands, was indirectly responsible for the Tonquin’s final tragedy.

The ship reached the mouth of the Columbia in March 1811, and early in May MacKay led a trading and exploring party up the river. Then, at the beginning of June, he left as supercargo on the Tonquin’s trading mission up the Pacific coast. Before sailing he confided his premonition of impending disaster to Alexander Ross, in whose care he left his son Thomas. At Clayoquot Sound, Thorn’s callous treatment of the Indians, contrary to MacKay’s admonitions, evidently provoked an attack. In the fighting and the subsequent blowing up of the ship all but one of those on board the Tonquin were killed. Highly respected by the Indians, MacKay none the less was reportedly the first to fall.

MacKay’s death, according to Gabriel Franchère, was “an irreparable loss” to the Pacific Fur Company. Characterized by his contemporaries as “brave and enterprising,” though also as “whimsical and eccentric,” MacKay became known in the Oregon country not only because of his role in the Tonquin Astoria saga, but also through his son Thomas’s career there as a fur trader. Marguerite Waddens, whom he had apparently left behind when he retired in 1808, became the wife of Dr John McLoughlin*.

Jean Morrison

McCord Museum, Beaver Club minute-book, 1807–27 (transcript at PAC). Oreg. Hist. Soc. (Portland), ms 231 (Elliot coll.), Alexander MacKay folder; ms 927 (McLoughlin–Fraser family papers), David McLoughlin corr. PCA, St Gabriel Street Church (Montreal), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 19 Sept. 1805, 17 Oct. 1815 (mfm. at AO). [J. J. Astor], “John Jacob Aster relative to his settlement on Columbia River,” ed. D. W. Bridgewater, Yale Univ. Library Gazette (New Haven, Conn.), 24 (1949–50): 47–69. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). P. Campbell, Travels in North America (Langton and Ganong). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). [Thomas Douglas], Earl of Selkirk, A sketch of the British fur trade in North America; with observations relative to the North-West Company of Montreal (London, 1816). Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). [D. W. Harmon], Sixteen years in the Indian country: the journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800–1816, ed. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1957). Mackenzie, Journals and letters (Lamb). [John McLoughlin], The letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the governor and committee, first series, 1825–38, ed. E. E. Rich, intro. W. K. Lamb (London, 1941). New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). J.-B. Perrault, “Narrative of the travels and adventures of a merchant voyageur in the savage territories of northern America . . . ,” ed. J. J. Fox, Mich. Pioneer Coll., 37 (1909–10): 508–619. Alexander Ross, Adventures of the first settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, ed. M. M. Quaife (Chicago, 1923; repr. New York, [1969]); “Letters of a pioneer,” ed. George Bryce, Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Trans. (Winnipeg), 63 (1903). [David Thompson], David Thompsons narrative of his explorations in western America, 1784–1812, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1916; repr. New York, 1968). D. [S.] Lavender, “Thomas McKay,” The mountain men and the fur trade of the far west . . . , ed. L. R. Hafen (10v., Glendale, Calif., 1965–72), 6: 259–76. J. S. H. Brown, Strangers in blood: fur trade company families in Indian country (Vancouver and London, 1980). Ross Cox, The Columbia River; or scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains . . . , ed. E. I. and J. R. Stewart (Norman, Okla., 1957). Roy Daniells, Alexander Mackenzie and the north west (Toronto, 1971). J. R. Harper, 78th Fighting Frasers in Canada: a short history of the old 78th regiment or Frasers Highlanders, 1757–1763 (Laval, Que., 1966). Washington Irving, Astoria, or anecdotes of an enterprize beyond the Rocky Mountains, ed. R. D. Rust (Boston, 1976). D. [S.] Lavender, The fist in the wilderness (Garden City, N.Y., 1964). K. W. Porter, John Jacob Astor, business man (2v., Cambridge, Mass., 1931; repr. New York, 1966). J. K. Smith, Alexander Mackenzie, explorer: the hero who failed (Toronto and New York, [1973]). J. U. Terrell, Furs by Astor (New York, 1963). Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many tender ties: women in fur-trade society in western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg, [1980]). T. C. Elliott, “Marguerite Wadin McKay McLoughlin,” Oreg. Hist. Quarterly (Salem), 36 (1935): 33847. Dorothy and Jean Morrison, “John McLoughlin, reluctant fur trader,” Oreg. Hist. Quarterly (Portland), 81 (1980): 377–89.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jean Morrison, “MacKAY, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_alexander_5E.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/mackay_alexander_5E.html
Author of Article:   Jean Morrison
Title of Article:   MacKAY, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   April 20, 2024