Little is known of Alexander McDonald’s life before he settled on the Miramichi River, N.B ., in 1784, and almost nothing at all of his birth and family. It is thought he was born in Argyllshire, probably at Ardnamurchan. Local tradition in New Brunswick says he was a tenant (tacksman) of the MacDonalds of Sleat, but this report seems unlikely since he was aged only about 15 when he joined the 76th Foot. Known as Macdonald’s Highlanders, the regiment was raised to fight in the American revolution and it embarked for the Thirteen Colonies in 1779. After seeing service throughout the colonies, the unit became part of the British forces that surrendered at Yorktown, Va, in 1781. With the cessation of hostilities, in 1783, Macdonald’s Highlanders were returned to Scotland to be disbanded. A portion of the regiment, including Alexander McDonald, was discharged at Shelburne, N.S.
The following year McDonald arrived on the Miramichi, probably some time during the summer. In 1788, and over the ensuing 30 years, he acquired by grant large tracts of land on both sides of the river. By 1818 he controlled approximately 1,400 acres. His partial interest in two islands near the mouth of the Miramichi allowed McDonald to participate in the salmon fishery. By all accounts, however, he took little part in lumbering and shipbuilding, the principal commercial pursuits of Northumberland County. His interests, beyond the fishery, were presumably largely agricultural. At the same time as his landholdings increased McDonald’s status within the community rose. Beginning in 1791, when he was appointed town clerk for the Middle District, Southside, he was extremely active in parish government, serving in numerous capacities. He was reappointed a town clerk annually until 1798, and on various occasions up to 1824 acted as assessor, commissioner of roads, overseer of the poor, and school trustee. The large stone house he built at Bartibog, likely in the period 1815–20, illustrates his opinion of his raised position in society.
In 1799 McDonald was appointed captain commander in the 1st Battalion, Northumberland County militia. As a large landowner and minor public official he had the necessary income to support his militia activities; not only was he responsible for the yearly training exercises, but he had also to meet the costs of his uniform and accoutrements. In 1813 he became major commandant of the 1st Battalion, and it appears that around 1829 he was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel of the same unit. Militia service became a family tradition. At least three of his sons held militia commissions and their land was reportedly used as a parade-ground.
After 1824 McDonald ceased to hold any public office. Two years later, following the disastrous Miramichi fire of 1825, he sold large tracts of land to two of his children: on 2 March 1826, 140 acres to his son James and on 4 April, 800 acres to another son, Ronald. The expenses of building his stone house, advanced age, and the general devastation caused by the fire may have been too much for Alexander McDonald. After a short illness he died at Bartibog on 11 Dec. 1834.
McDonald’s obituary said he was “universally respected” and that his memory would be “long cherished” along the Miramichi. An ambitious man, he involved himself in local political life and militia affairs. His failure, however, to involve himself in the most important economic activities of the area, precluded his becoming a greater political presence on the Miramichi or his having any lasting influence beyond the local sphere. Alexander McDonald arrived penniless, had great designs, but in the end left only a stone house as a symbol of his aspirations. The Province of New Brunswick has restored the McDonald house and surrounding lands as a historic park, in an attempt to illustrate the life of one of the first settlers in the Miramichi region and to tell the story of the early colonist’s encounter with its vast resources and harsh realities.
N.B., Dept. of Natural Resources, Lands Branch (Fredericton), Land grants, book 3, no.170; book 4, nos.326, 328, 340, 1042; book B, no.322; book F, nos.623, 625; book G, no.691. Northumberland Land Registry Office (Newcastle, N.B.), Registry books, 26, nos.163–64. PANB, MC 1, McDonald file; MC 216/66 (“Alexander MacDonald family disposition”); RG 1, RS559, C2a; E10-11; RG 10, RS108, Alexander McDonald, 1787; RG 18, RS153, A/1–4; B3/2–3. Gubbins, N.B. journals (Temperley). Gleaner: and Northumberland Schediasma (Miramichi, N.B.), 30 Dec. 1834. D. P. Lemon, “McDonald Farm Historic Park: critical path” (report, N.B., Hist. Resources Administration, Fredericton, 1978) (copy at PANB).