McDONELL, ALEXANDER, immigration and land agent and politician; b. 1786 in Scotland; d. 29 Nov. 1861 at Peterborough, Canada West. He married but the name of his wife is not known, and he apparently had no close relatives when he died.
Alexander McDonell probably came to Canada in 1804 with his uncle Alexander Macdonell*, later Roman Catholic bishop at Kingston. He served as an ensign or cadet in the War of 1812 and saw action at least once in the attack on Sacket’s Harbor on 29 May 1813. He was established in Peterborough in 1825 when it was still only the depot for Peter Robinson*’s settlement of 2,000 assisted immigrants from the south of Ireland. His public career began in August that year when Robinson hired him first as a guide and then, from 1 Sept. 1825 to 31 Jan. 1829, as a clerk at 10s. a day. Robinson’s first favourable impression of McDonell as “an intelligent and respectable young Man, well acquainted with the Country” was confirmed by experience, and McDonell played an increasingly important part in locating the settlers until, in the spring of 1827, Robinson left him in charge of the settlement. McDonell’s duties with Robinson’s settlers merged into a wider role as agent for the Crown Lands Department in the Newcastle District after Robinson became commissioner of the department in 1827.
In the early years of McDonell’s agency his friendship with Robinson, his supervision of poor immigrants assisted by the Upper Canadian government, and the large numbers of independent immigrants flocking to his district all combined to give him considerable importance in the land office. He gradually lost his special place as these conditions, and his own interests, changed, but he did not finally retire as agent for Northumberland and Durham counties until 1843. He had, in the meantime, turned to politics and he was elected to the House of Assembly for Northumberland in 1834.
Because he was well known as their land agent, McDonell was very much the candidate of the back townships. He offered pro-British sentiments and “the good old sterling qualities,” while relying for support on his past reputation and his prominence in urging the development of the region, notably as one of the commissioners for the improvement of navigation on the Trent waterway system. He was re-elected easily as a constitutionalist in 1836, and in 1837 he was locally prominent as colonel of the 2nd battalion of Northumberland militia. By 1841 his platform, which he had not modified, was less popular, and he was defeated in the first election in the united province by his radical opponent, John Gilchrist*.
In his later years, McDonell withdrew from his life as “an active and useful public man” to involve himself in business ventures. His duties as land agent had included responsibility for the timber on crown lands. In the 1840s and 1850s he himself acquired timber limits on the Bonnechère and Petawawa rivers and engaged in lumbering. Although he had been an active Roman Catholic, he must also have broken with the church in these years, for his body was refused a Roman Catholic burial “because of his not living to their requirements.”
PAO, RG, A-I-4, 2–4, A-I-6, 8–12, 17, 20–23, 25, 28, 30, 32. PRO, AO 2/34, pp.48–55. Cobourg Star (Cobourg, [Ont.]), 10 Sept.–29 Oct. 1834, 15 June–13 July 1836, 24 Feb.–31 March 1841. Peterborough Examiner (Peterborough, [Ont.]), 5 Dec. 1861. Valley of the Trent (Guillet). T. W. Poole, A sketch of the early settlement and subsequent progress of the town of Peterborough . . . (Peterborough, [Ont.], 1867).