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MACTAVISH, WILLIAM, HBC governor and governor of Assiniboia; b. 29 March 1815 in Edinburgh, Scotland, eldest son of Dugald Mactavish, a lawyer, and Letitia Lockhart; d. 23 July 1870 in Liverpool, England.

In 1792 Simon McTavish* of the North West Company introduced himself to the Mactavish clan chief, Lachlan Mactavish, and established a friendship which brought Lachlan’s second son, John George McTavish*, into the Canadian fur trade in 1798. When he had become chief factor, John George McTavish in turn placed his nephews, William and Dugald*, into apprenticeships with the Hudson’s Bay Company on 2 Jan. 1833.

William Mactavish sailed to Rupert’s Land that summer, and was appointed to Norway House (Man.) under Donald Ross. Writing to James Hargrave in December 1833, John George McTavish indicated the degree of personal influence involved in the introduction of apprentices: William “has been well educated but it depends greatly on the first master he has in this Country whether that education be of future use to him [.] Gov. [George Simpson*] promised me voluntarily that the boy should be placed under your eye his first winter, why this was departed from gives me uneasiness.” In 1834, however, William was transferred to York Factory to work under Hargrave at his uncle’s insistence.

From the outset William Mactavish’s industrious habits won him the approval of company officers. Ross characterized him as “promising,” and Hargrave thought that “his merits are indeed of the first order.” As an apprentice clerk at York Factory he was trained in accounting and employed in the inventorying and preparation of shipments at this major supply depot. His older sister, Letitia*, reunited with William upon her marriage to Hargrave in January 1840, said that he “pad[ded] about as if he had the whole charge of the Factory, & is in the store from ½ past 4 a.m. till 8 at night.” Apparently overwork frequently jeopardized the young accountant’s health; he spent at least one winter recuperating at the Red River Settlement, in 1836. His ambition was rewarded, however, with a promotion in 1841 to the post of general accountant for the Northern Department and second in command of the factory.

With both his uncle and his brother-in-law to further his career, Mactavish’s energetic efforts brought him up quickly through the ranks of the HBC. Hargrave was particularly interested in preparing Mactavish to succeed him at York. For this reason both John George McTavish and Hargrave saw to it that Mactavish was continually brought to Simpson’s attention, even arranging that in 1845 Mactavish should travel back from a furlough in England with Simpson. The following year Mactavish received his commission as chief trader and took temporary charge of York Factory in Hargrave’s absence. Clearly Simpson had by this time begun to appreciate Mactavish’s talents. In 1847, when it looked as though a new person would be needed to supervise the trade at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) upon Alexander Christie*’s departure, Simpson made plans to move Mactavish to Red River, though, for some unexplained reason, they were not carried out. Instead Mactavish was placed in charge of Sault Ste Marie (Ont.) the following year. He returned to York Factory in 1850, and from 1851 to the autumn of 1856 had charge of it; he received his commission as chief factor in 1852. Replaced by Hargrave, who returned to York in 1856, Mactavish spent another furlough in England before assuming the new post of officer in charge of Upper Fort Garry, the most “troublesome and complicated charge” in Rupert’s Land.

The man who came to Red River in 1857 was not only a thoroughly trained and efficient business administrator. The qualities of “mental calibre,” “energy,” and “determination” as well as “executive ability” were also observed in this “well-bred . . . Englishman.” Tall, sandy-haired, and sporting “the Palmerston style of whiskers and a heavy moustache,” he had a well-modulated voice and manner. A more intimate portrait of Mactavish is offered by his sister Letitia who described his love of fishing and hunting and his sense of humour. Essentially, she saw him as a “dreamer,” with interests in such current theories as phrenology. “William,” she wrote to her father, “has made himself acquainted with the notions of everyone who has got into difficulties with Church or State for being too far in advance of the world.” He also applied his intellectual curiosity to the study of natural history in Rupert’s Land, exchanging specimens and information with his friend Dr William Fraser Tolmie* of York Factory and with other HBC men in the territories. In 1862 he was a secretary of the short-lived Institute of Rupert’s Land.

Shortly after coming to Red River, Mactavish ended a life of determined bachelorhood by marrying Mary Sarah McDermot, the mixed-blood Catholic daughter of businessman Andrew McDermot*. Although Mactavish’s will provided for three “illegitimate daughters” in Stromness, Scotland, the four “country-born” children that are known are by his wife Mary Sarah.

Mactavish’s career underwent a dramatic change of direction when in 1858 he was appointed to replace Francis Godschall Johnson* as governor of Assiniboia. He accepted the appointment under protest, and stated 11 years later that he would rather have been “a stoker in hell.” He firmly believed that the administration of the fur trade and of the settlement should not fall to a single person. At the same time he felt himself unsuited to the political arena, particularly because the ever difficult office of company-appointed governor was becoming more so after 1858 with the increased number of Canadian settlers agitating for representative government and the annexation of Red River to Canada. If ever the HBC was an unpopular government, it was during Mactavish’s period in office. Realizing this problem, he tried to secure a permanent military force from Britain, unsuccessfully; he also failed to mobilize what popular support may have existed for his government. Mactavish did not take an active and creative role in the fashioning of a new political structure. When, however, pressure for the reorganization of Red River came from both the Canadian party and the Métis he attempted to respond in what he considered the best interests of the settlement. As a result he drew criticism from all quarters, including his own superiors in the HBC.

Mactavish’s position was further complicated by a multiplication of his responsibilities in the 1860s. For a brief time in 1861–62 he served as president of the courts of Red River and Rupert’s Land when the HBC was unable to find a suitable recorder to succeed Dr John Bunn. Also, when Sir George Simpson died in 1860, Mactavish, in response to Simpson’s wishes, was appointed acting governor of Rupert’s Land. Although supervising a territory considerably smaller than Simpson’s empire (the Western and Montreal departments were now “independent” and under separate authority), Mactavish still acquired a substantial administrative responsibility. Being a good fur trade administrator, however, he assumed the post without the reluctance he had shown for the political appointment. He was relieved as acting governor of Rupert’s Land in 1862 when the company appointed Alexander Grant Dallas* as governor, but with Dallas’ resignation in 1864 Mactavish became governor in his own right.

Thus it was as governor of Rupert’s Land and governor of Assiniboia that Mactavish served throughout the Red River Rebellion of 1869–70. With powers which were in theory absolute, he alone could perhaps have short-circuited Louis Riel*’s Métis uprising, overruled Dr John Christian Schultz*’s vocal agitation, and overseen a less tempestuous transfer of Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada in 1870. His lack of effective action might be seen as a reflection of his distaste for political office and his rapidly deteriorating health. It was also, however, a result of his own assessment of the situation at Red River. He believed that the majority of Red River inhabitants, both English and French speaking, supported at least passively the existing Council of Assiniboia. The opposition which flared up sporadically he considered to be the work of a few “designing demagogue[s].” His sympathies lay apparently with the older inhabitants of Red River, the Métis, the HBC people, and the descendants of the colonists brought by Selkirk [Douglas*], all of whom, he argued, should have had a voice in the transfer of Rupert’s Land.

Although never condoning or authorizing Riel’s provisional government, and gravely fearing the threatened seizure of HBC property by the Métis, Mactavish felt that the Métis had the right to demand a specific settlement with Canada. While attempting to obtain the aid of the Catholic clergy in persuading the Métis to wait for a legal settlement, he reported to the HBC in London in 1868 and 1869 his objections to the Canadian laid claims and to the surveys which were preceding the legal transfer. Mactavish placed the blame for the unrest mainly on the Canadian party and to a lesser extent on the Canadian government. In his correspondence in the 1860s he had expressed continued concern for the way in which the Nor’Wester and men such as Schultz agitated against both company and Métis. At the same time he criticized the Canadian government for its refusal to consult the inhabitants of Rupert’s Land about the transfer and its apparent attempt to assert authority before the transfer had taken place. He suspected that William McDougall*, the federally appointed lieutenant governor of Rupert’s Land, with the Canadian government’s sanction, was encouraging political disturbance so as to precipitate the fall of the HBC government and weaken the company’s position in its attempt to obtain a £300,000 land settlement. Although the Canadian prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald*, claimed that Mactavish had “never intimated that he had even a suspicion of discontent existing,” Mactavish had certainly informed his superiors in London of it, and when he stopped at Ottawa on his return from London in April 1869, he had an opportunity to warn the Canadian government of the difficulties as well, if Macdonald had been prepared to heed him.

With Riel’s seizure of Upper Fort Garry on 1 Nov. 1869, Mactavish’s government virtually came to an end. One of his last reluctant acts before being imprisoned by Riel was to issue on 16 November at McDougall’s insistence a proclamation of the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. After this proclamation the legal status of Mactavish’s government is uncertain, but for practical purposes Riel was in control.

Nevertheless, Mactavish continued to act as HBC governor of Rupert’s Land to the best of his ability until his departure in May 1870. While Riel’s prisoner, and under pressure from him, Mactavish authorized loans to the Métis in money and kind from the trading stores, which closed because furs and supplies were rerouted to avoid Upper Fort Garry. The company lost ground to its competitors both within and outside the settlement, and with the threat of financial losses the chief factors and chief traders expressed dissatisfaction with Mactavish’s handling of the situation. It was as a fur trader rather than as a politician that Mactavish pointed out to Joseph Howe* on 14 May 1870 that any government which sought to remove as suddenly as the Canadian government had done the economic base of a hinterland would cause “widely spread misery and starvation [among the native inhabitants]: and the consequent disorders and embarrassment to the Government which spring from such scenes.” The difficulties of Mactavish’s dual responsibility at this time were compounded by his realization that he was dying. He had, in fact, been bedridden since the summer of 1869, and had conducted both government and fur trade affairs under the severe debilitation of advanced tuberculosis. Still, not until 15 Jan. 1870 did he draft his resignation from the company, declaring himself “so feeble as to be unfit for business of any kind.” He was released from prison by Riel in February and on 17 May he and his family finally left for Scotland. Travelling via St Paul (Minn.) and New York, he reached Liverpool on 21 July where he died two days later.

Those who knew Mactavish in his capacity as governor of Rupert’s Land or as governor of Assiniboia agreed with Mactavish’s own evaluation of himself. Trained in the fur trade, he felt quite capable of administering Rupert’s Land, and was respected in that capacity. By his own admission, however, he found many of the duties of the governor of Assiniboia “disgusting.” A more forceful and decisive course by the governor might have averted the Métis rebellion, but Mactavish, whether through an underestimation of the hostility between the different groups at Red River, a lack of military power, or helplessness born of illness, chose not to act. Thus as governor of Rupert’s Land he became not a master but a victim of his situation.

N. Jaye Goossen

HBC Arch. A.11/96, 11 Dec. 1858; A.12/42, f.94; A.12/44–45; A.33/4, 5 July 1852; B.154/a/24, f.32; B.239/a/13, 2 Aug. 1850; B.239/a/148, 13 Aug. 1834; B.239/a/154, f.58; B.239/a/168, 16 Aug. 1848; B.239/a/176, 12 July 1851; D.9/1; D.10/1. PAM, MG 1, D2; D8, Ewen Macdonald to Robert Campbell, 16 March 1870; D14, 1792; MG 3, D1, Pierre Poitras to Louis Riel, 13 Feb. 1872; MG 7, B4, register of marriages, 1835–60, 17 Oct. 1836; MG 9, A76, file 93, Donald Ross to George Simpson, 19 Feb. 1834; George Simpson to James Hargrave, 30 June 1847. Somerset House (London), PPR/334, will of William Mactavish (copy at HBC Arch.). Begg, Red River journal (Morton). Hargrave correspondence (Glazebrook). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). Nor’Wester, 1861. F. E. Bartlett, “William Mactavish, the last governor of Assiniboia” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1964).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

N. Jaye Goossen, “MACTAVISH, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mactavish_william_9E.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/mactavish_william_9E.html
Author of Article:   N. Jaye Goossen
Title of Article:   MACTAVISH, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   November 29, 2023