McDONELL, JOHN, known as Le Prêtre (beginning in the 1830s he signed Macdonell), militia officer, fur trader, businessman, judge, office holder, and politician; b. 30 Nov. 1768 in Scotland, son of John McDonell of Scothouse; d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada.
John McDonell was born into a distinguished Catholic family with a long military tradition, the Macdonells of Scothouse (Scotus) in the Isle of Skye. His father, known as “Spanish” John because of his service in the Spanish forces during the war against the Austrians in the 1740s, had been a supporter of the Stuart cause before immigrating to the New World in 1773. That year, with his family and about 600 members of the Macdonell clan of Glengarry, he moved to the Mohawk valley of New York. During the American Revolutionary War, Spanish John and his elder son, Miles Macdonell* (the first governor of Assiniboia, 1811–15), joined the loyalist forces. Young John saw some military service after 1788, when he was gazetted an ensign in the Cornwall and Osnabruck battalion of militia. By that time the family had moved to the province of Quebec and were settled near present-day Cornwall.
By May 1793 John had entered the service of the North West Company as a clerk, and he was sent west to the Qu’Appelle valley. He rose rapidly, becoming a wintering partner about 1796. Three years later he was in charge of the Upper Red River department, where he remained until 1809, when he was given charge of the Athabasca department. While in the northwest he earned the nickname Le Prêtre, apparently because of his piety and insistence that his men observe the feasts of the Roman Catholic Church.
By the early summer of 1812 McDonell was preparing to leave the northwest on rotation to Montreal. In a letter to his brother Miles in July he expressed his uncertainty about whether he would return to the interior; he did, in fact, retire from the NWC that year. Upon reaching Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in July, he learned that war had broken out with the United States and he decided to join other fur traders in a proposed attack on the American garrison at Mackinac Island (Mich.). The expedition was successful [see Charles Roberts*] but McDonell and his friends arrived too late to participate. In October he was commissioned captain in the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs and, after only three weeks of service, was taken prisoner at the battle of Saint-Régis. In April 1813 he was established in the lower Ottawa valley, where he purchased 1,000 acres of land in Hawkesbury Township and near Pointe-Fortune, which lay on the provincial boundary. It is not clear when he actually settled there – he may have remained in the Canadas through at least part of 1814, but he later recalled being in the interior that year. There is also evidence which suggests that in 1814 McDonell was considering retiring in the Red River settlement (Man.), where the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas*] had offered to grant him a township of 10,000 acres.
Apparently McDonell decided not to accept this offer because by about 1817 he had established himself on the Upper Canadian side of Pointe-Fortune, where he built a large house, Poplar Villa, and started farming. To this home he brought his Métis wife, Magdeleine Poitras, whom he had married according to the custom of the country some time before 1797. In June 1812, when he was on his way back from the interior, he had written to Miles that she had been with him for 18 years since coming “under my protection” in her 12th year. Always conscious of his duty, he had no intention of following the practice adopted by many other fur traders of leaving their country wives behind when they retired in the east, a custom McDonell found “cruel.” Instead, he had determined to take Magdeleine with him and to provide his children with a “common education so that they may work their way thro’ life in some honest calling.” Three children had already been sent east to be educated and the remaining three had accompanied John and their mother to the Canadas in 1813. Prior to his departure on the Mackinac expedition the previous year, McDonell had drawn up a will dividing his property equally among the children and providing for an annuity of £50 for Magdeleine. Yet he may never have taken proper steps to ensure their rights to his property. Although a marriage contract had been drawn up on 13 April 1813, just before he purchased the land at Pointe-Fortune, there was evidently no marriage. On 24 April 1853, three years after McDonell’s death, Magdeleine went through an act of posthumous marriage to ensure that she and her children would be his legal heirs. They had had four sons and two daughters.
After settling in Pointe-Fortune McDonell became the leading businessman in the area. He ran a general store in the village, and by 1819 had established himself as an early member of the network of forwarders who kept freight moving on the Ottawa to and from Montreal. He was associated in this activity with the firms of Grant and Duff, and Whiting and Crane, both of which carried on business on the St Lawrence as well as the Ottawa. Between Pointe–Fortune and Hull he worked with Thomas Mears of Hawkesbury Mills and with Philemon Wright of Hull. About 1819 he invested in a steamboat, but it was doomed to failure because, Miles told John in October 1819, the vessel (then at Lachine) drew too much water.
A tall man (at least six feet three inches in height) who occasionally dressed in full Highland garb, McDonell was active in public affairs. In 1816 he was appointed a judge of the Ottawa District Court, a post he held for nine years, and he served as a district roads commissioner. From 1817 to 1820 he represented Prescott in the Upper Canadian House of Assembly. In 1822 he was made colonel in the Prescott Reserve Militia.
Despite his successes in the business world and in public life, McDonell never enjoyed financial security or stability. Undoubtedly, he lost from his investment in the steamboat. He gave lavishly to churches, schools, and his family. Bishop Alexander McDonell of Kingston regularly called upon him for donations. As well, Miles Macdonell, who was always in need of money, drew regularly on his brother’s account with the NWC. It was John who paid most of the expenses for the costly schooling of Miles’s daughters in Montreal and who cared for Miles when his health failed after his return from the interior. An additional cause of his financial distress may have been Poplar Villa itself. In 1820 Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] described McDonell as a man who had made his fortune with the NWC but who “like a fool . . has spent his all in a big house, which he said he can’t now afford to furnish.” Because of this distress McDonell took out numerous mortgages against his property. By 1830 his financial needs were so pressing that Miles’s son Donald Æneas MacDonell* felt it necessary to sign over his own claims to moneys owed his father by the Selkirk estate in order to try to relieve his uncle’s indebtedness. The Selkirk moneys could not be collected, however, and in 1842 John McDonell was forced to list his house and property for sale. Somehow, he managed to avoid selling his home, and he died there eight years later. He was buried across the river in St Andrews (Saint-André-Est, Que.).
John McDonell’s diaries have been published as “Mr John McDonnell: some account of the Red River (about 1797), with extracts from his journal,” Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 1: 265–95, and “The diary of John Macdonell,” Five fur traders of the northwest. . . , ed. C. M. Gates ([2nd ed.], St Paul, Minn., 1965), 61–119.
AO, MU 1780, A-1-1–A-4. Ont. Heritage Foundation, Property Restoration Unit (Toronto), T. A. Reitz, “Macdonell House, Pointe Fortune, Ontario” (archaeological research report, 1981). PAC, MG 19, E1; E4; MG 25, 62: 653–58. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1912: 369. Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), 2: 33–34. Chadwick, Ontarian families. Legislators and legislatures of Ont. (Forman), 1: 43. Reid, Loyalists in Ont., 196. Brown, Strangers in blood. J. M. Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (Toronto, 1963). Ruth McKenzie, “The John Macdonell House, ‘Poplar Villa,’ Point Fortune, Ontario (typescript, Environment Canada – Parks, agenda report, no.1969-10, 1969; copy at Can., Parks Canada, Hist. Sites and Monuments Board Secretariat, Ottawa). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). Rich, Fur trade (1967). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”. M. [E.] Wilkins Campbell, The North West Company (Toronto, 1957). J. G. Harkness, “Miles Macdonell,” OH, 40 (1948): 77–83. A.-G. Morice, “A Canadian pioneer: Spanish John” and “Sidelights on the careers of Miles Macdonell and his brothers,” CHR, 10 (1929): 212–35 and 308–32.