William MacKintosh’s birthplace and parentage remain obscure. He joined the North West Company as a clerk about 1802 and was posted to Lesser Slave Lake (Alta) for the winter of 1803–4. In 1805 he replaced John Clarke* on the Peace River, which probably remained his wintering ground until 1819. MacKintosh played a vital role in opposing the Hudson’s Bay Company’s invasion of the Athabasca country, the Nor’Westers’ most profitable department. Clarke, who joined the HBC in 1815, established Fort Wedderburn on Lake Athabasca that year but, being short of provisions, he planned to winter his party near MacKintosh’s post, Fort Vermilion (near Fort Vermilion, Alta), where game was usually more plentiful.
MacKintosh shattered this opposition. Provisions were scarce and he “used all his influence, and some force” to prevent Clarke from encountering Indians or trading with them. Nor’Wester Willard Ferdinand Wentzel, writing from Fort Chipewyan, expressed “exultation” at the result: “No less than 15 men, 1 clerk with a woman and child died of starvation going up Peace River.” Three of these deaths had occurred during the winter while the HBC party waited for MacKintosh’s terms. Every HBC post had to surrender trade goods to its NWC neighbour in exchange for provisions to survive the winter. MacKintosh was rewarded when the NWC made him a partner on 22 July 1816. His role was never forgotten by the HBC; Nicholas Garry* summed him up as “the man who arranged the starving of Mr. Clarke’s Men in Athapascow.” According to HBC officer Colin Robertson in 1819, “the whole of his conduct during the present contest, was marked by the most deliberate and wanton acts of cruelty towards the Company’s servants.”
After the 1815–16 season the HBC sent stronger parties to the Athabasca country. In 1818 Clarke surprised Fort Vermilion, and held MacKintosh briefly. Wentzel reported the encounter as an NWC victory, but historian Edwin Ernest Rich has determined that Clarke retrieved from Fort Vermilion goods which MacKintosh had seized earlier. By the spring of 1819 the prestige of the Nor’Westers on the Peace River had sharply declined.
Late in June the NWC suffered a further blow, at Grand Rapids (Man.), when HBC Governor William Williams intercepted and arrested MacKintosh, Benjamin Joseph Frobisher*, Angus Shaw*, John George McTavish, and other Nor’Westers on their way to council at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.). At the time of his capture on the 23rd, MacKintosh was suffering from diarrhoea, which “required his frequent retirement” to the woods. There he built a raft and escaped, leaving suicide notes to discourage pursuit. Of the four partners captured at Grand Rapids, only MacKintosh was available for service in 1819–20. The NWC sent him back to the Peace River, but to Fort Dunvegan rather than Fort Vermilion. Near Frog Portage (near Pelican Lake, Sask.) in the autumn of 1819 he was again seized but senior HBC officers let him go. In January Robertson reported with satisfaction that MacKintosh had sent away most of the families at his post and was living there with his wife, short of provisions. Some time before 1820 he had married according to the custom of the country Sarah Gladu, daughter of a Métis freeman on the Peace River.
At the union of the HBC and the NWC in 1821, the deed poll named MacKintosh a chief trader, and provided for his promotion to chief factor, which occurred in 1823. The amalgamation brought him once again into contact with Clarke. After travelling together one day, probably in the winter of 1821–22, they ended a dispute by exchanging pistol shots across a camp-fire.
MacKintosh held no important commands under the HBC. In 1822 the Council of the Northern Department sent him back to Fort Dunvegan, where his nominal control of all Peace River business was resisted by his subordinates and by Edward Smith, the chief factor in charge of the whole Athabasca district. During MacKintosh’s tenure at Fort Dunvegan, an epidemic carried off a quarter of the natives trading at the post, and because of his intention to move Fort St John (near Fort St John, B.C.), he may have been partly responsible for the bad relations with the Beaver Indians who traded there, which led to the murder of five employees.
In 1824 MacKintosh was assigned to serve with Clarke at Lesser Slave Lake. Governor George Simpson* feigned surprise when the two quarrelled, and the following year he had Council move MacKintosh to become the sole officer in the Nelson River district, which had been virtually stripped of fur-bearing and game animals. A colleague reported to Simpson in 1825 that he thought MacKintosh so much under his wife’s control that the HBC’s interest suffered in his district. In the summer of 1829 MacKintosh took charge of Cumberland House (Sask.), a quiet post astride the route to the districts farther north and west. Following his transfer back to Fort Dunvegan in 1832, his health began to fail. He was given sick leave in 1834–35, and after two years on furlough he resigned on 1 June 1837. MacKintosh was at the Red River settlement (Man.) on 28 June 1836 when the Reverend David Thomas Jones formalized his country marriage. He later moved to Lachine, where he died on 16 Feb. 1842 “after a short illness.” His elder son, William, died nine days later. The bulk of MacKintosh’s property went to his surviving son, with £1,000 going to his unmarried daughter and £100 to each of his three married ones.
MacKintosh was so closely linked to violent and controversial events that a balanced evaluation of his career is hard to achieve. John Tod*, writing long afterwards, added an attempt to poison James Murray Yale* to the list of MacKintosh’s crimes, and described “his ever shifting countenance & restless black eye” that suggested “nature had designed him the harbinger of plots, treasons, & strategems.” The desperate partisanship which sustained him on the Peace River was wasted and frustrated after the coalition of 1821. If he is to be remembered, it must be as a fitting adversary for John Clarke. The two were, to rely again on Tod, “close neighbours, & in fact always considered as forming part of the advance guard of the two opposing bodies, who had kept the country in a state of civil war so long.”
ANQ-M, CE1-80, 1842. PAC, MG 19, A38; B1, 3: PAM, HBCA, A.33/4: ff.191–97; B.39/b/2: 33–40, 44–47, 52, 60; B.141/e/2: ff.l–2d; B.239/k/1–2; D.5/7: f.273d;. E.4/1b; E.11/1: f.170d. UTFL,