DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

CARSON, WILLIAM – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 26 Feb. 1843 in St John’s


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

McGILLIVRAY, DUNCAN, fur trader and author; b. in Inverness-shire, Scotland, probably in the early 1770s, second son of Donald McGillivray and Anne McTavish, sister of Simon McTavish; d. 9 April 1808 in Montreal, Lower Canada.

Duncan McGillivray was one of several kinsmen of Simon McTavish whose education and careers benefited from the patronage of this Montreal fur-trade merchant. By the early 1790s McGillivray had followed his brother William* – from Scotland to Montreal and into the North West Company. His career in the fur trade is best known for the years 1794–95, during which time he kept a journal at Fort George (near Lindbergh, Alta) on the North Saskatchewan River. This document provides vivid descriptions of life and travel in the northwest, of the plains Indians who, finding most of their essential needs met by the buffalo, would not “work beaver” except to obtain rum, and of the Canadian voyageurs, some of whom mutinied at the Rainy Lake (Ont.) post in the summer of 1794 while accompanying McGillivray inland.

McGillivray, a clerk at Fort George and one of 110 men serving under NWC partner Angus Shaw*, recorded the vigorous competition between the Nor’Westers and Hudson’s Bay Company officer William Tomison* and his 35 men at nearby Buckingham House. The rivals cooperated intermittently, as, for example, in putting out a fire at the HBC post on 22 March 1795. But in trade the Nor’Westers carried the day with their manpower and better stocks, and made a good profit from the “7 different nations” of Indians who arrived in the spring of 1795. The following season the NWC founded the original Fort Augustus (Fort Saskatchewan, Alta) farther upriver, and Tomison met their challenge by building Edmonton House close by. Although in November still other rivals came representing the Montreal partnership of David and Peter Grant, the main competition continued to be that between the two more established companies.

HBC records show shifts in personal relations between the rivals. Tomison and the Nor’Westers could not get along; but when in 1796 Tomison left Fort Edmonton for a year’s furlough, his fellow officer George Sutherland* established a cordial relationship with Shaw and McGillivray. In November 1797, when Tomison returned, McGillivray wrote to him urging that since they would probably be neighbours for some years, they should reach “a proper understanding” and “cast away old prejudices & begin a new Score . . . for the good of Both parties And the Interests of the Country in general.” New troubles developed, however, and the HBC trade suffered. On 14 May 1798 Tomison accused McGillivray of stealing furs from the Bungee (Ojibwa) Indians so that they could not pay their HBC debts, but his stern protests against these seizures of “the honourable Hudsons Bay Company’s property” apparently were ignored.

In 1799 McGillivray visited Montreal. While there he became a partner in McTavish, Frobisher and Company, which had a controlling interest in the NWC, and was elected to membership in the Beaver Club. His subsequent inland activities are known only in part. In late October 1800 he was at Rocky Mountain House (Alta), having travelled up the Saskatchewan in the company of HBC man James Bird* who was en route to Acton House. After a short trip that November with David Thompson* to “the great Camps of Peagan [Peigan] Indians” near present-day High River, McGillivray undertook another trip deeper into the mountains in search of new beaver areas reported by Indians, but he was forced back by deep snow and rugged terrain. In a letter of 19 Feb. 1801 Bird noted: “Messrs. McGilvery & Thompson are going the ensuing summer . . . to examine the country west of the mountain as far as the borders of the South sea & ascertain if possible whether . . . an advantageous trade can be carried on with those parts or not either from hence or China.” But severe attacks of rheumatism during the late winter and spring kept McGillivray from joining a springtime exploring journey led by Thompson and James Hughes. Whether McGillivray later that season “conducted in person the exploration planned,” as Arthur Silver Morton* believed, is much disputed.

McGillivray left the interior in 1802 to work more closely with the Montreal headquarters of McTavish, Frobisher and Company (McTavish, McGillivrays and Company from 1806). For the next few years he travelled annually from Montreal to Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.) to represent the firm at summer meetings with the NWC winterers, promoting the continued westward explorations of David Thompson and Simon Fraser* and playing an important role in drawing up specific arrangements for inland operations.

In 1803–4 McGillivray was also engaged in bids to negotiate an alliance between the NWC and the HBC, in order to counteract moves in the same direction by Edward Ellice*, London agent of the New North West (XY) Company. Since his Saskatchewan experiences McGillivray had been aware of the advantages of cooperation with the HBC; now the time seemed right for some formal agreement. In 1803 an NWC outpost was founded on Charlton Island in James Bay, strengthening the Nor’Westers’ hand as the two Montreal firms each sought “to obtain a facility from the H. B. Co. to be used to the prejudice of the other.” The death of Simon McTavish in 1804 was followed by the union of the North West and New North West companies and by a new series of negotiations that lasted from January 1805 until February 1806, as McGillivray bargained for the NWC to be allowed the use of routes by sea into Hudson Bay and by inland waterways from York Factory (Man.) to the Red River; he also sought to rent land at York Factory for a depot. Discussions were broken off when the HBC realized that the Nor’Westers also planned to ship furs from the bay to other than British markets, a privilege that its own charter seemed not to allow and that it did not wish to grant to others.

In the last few months of his life McGillivray composed “Some account of the trade carried on by the North West Company.” This essay urged British governmental support for NWC enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. Success in ventures in the far west and on the ocean beyond would mean “a new field will be open for the consumption of British manufactured goods; and a vast country and population made dependant on the British Empire.” McGillivray also reacted against campaigns by William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian most influential in the abolition of the slave trade, and Lord Selkirk [Douglas] to prohibit liquor sales to the Indians, supporting his argument against government intervention with a statement favouring a monopoly: if trade were “confined to a single company,” that company would itself be led “by every motive which self interest can supply” to reduce drunkenness among the natives.

McGillivray died in Montreal on 9 April 1808 and was buried in the family vault of Simon McTavish. He left no record of marriage, but he had one and probably two children with an Indian woman. Magdalene, born in 1801, was baptized in Montreal on 7 Oct. 1804 in her parents’ absence with William McGillivray as witness. Duncan was also probably the father of company clerk William McGillivray, described by Governor George Simpson* in 1832 as a “half breed of the Cree Nation.” William entered the NWC in 1814 and later served in the Athabasca country and the New Caledonia region (B.C.). He married a daughter of HBC chief factor Alexander Stewart (Stuart) and was drowned on 31 Jan. 1832 in the Fraser River.

Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S. H. Brown

[The library of the Royal Commonwealth Soc. (London) holds the mss of Duncan McGillivray’s journal and of his essay “Some account of the trade carried on by the North West Company.” Photocopies of both are in the PAC (MG 19, A10 and B4). A. S. Morton’s edition of The journal of Duncan MGillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794–5 (Toronto, 1929) is based on the PAC photocopy. The manuscript of the essay contains William McGillivray’s annotations, including the new title “Sketch of the fur trade, 1809.” The material was reworked and published anonymously under the title On the origin and progress of the North-West Company of Canada . . . (London, 1811), most likely by John Henry*, who is often cited as the author of the pamphlet. The essay as annotated by William McGillivray was published under its orignal title in PAC Report, 1928: 56–73.  s.v.k. and j.s.h.b.]

ANQ-M, CE1-63, 8 Dec. 1801, 7 Dec. 1804. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), vol.2. Rules and regulations of the Beaver Club (Montreal, 1819). Saskatchewan journals and correspondence: Edmonton House, 1795–1800; Chesterfield House, 1800–1802, ed. A. M. Johnson (London, 1967). [David Thompson], “David Thompson and the Rocky Mountains,” ed. J. B. Tyrrell, CHR, 15 (1934): 39–45; “David Thompson’s account of his first attempt to cross the Rockies,” ed. F. W. Howay, Queens Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.), 40 (1933): 333–56; David Thompsons narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. G. Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). M. W. Campbell, NWC (1957). Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1970). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1973). K. G. Davies, “From competition to union,” Minn. Hist. (St Paul), 40 (196667): 16677. A. S. Morton, “Did Duncan McGillivray and David Thompson cross the Rockies in 1801?” CHR, 18 (1937): 156–62; “The North West Company’s Columbian enterprise and David Thompson,” CHR, 17 (1936): 266–88. J. B. Tyrrell, “David Thompson and the Columbia River,” CHR, 18 (1937): 12–27; “Duncan McGillivray’s movements in 1801,” CHR, 20 (1939): 39–40.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S. H. Brown, “McGILLIVRAY, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgillivray_duncan_5E.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/mcgillivray_duncan_5E.html
Author of Article:   Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S. H. Brown
Title of Article:   McGILLIVRAY, DUNCAN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   February 26, 2024