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McGILLIVRAY (Dalcrombie), JOHN, fur trader, gentleman farmer, justice of the peace, office holder, landowner, and politician; b. c. 1770 in Strathnairn, Scotland, son of Farquhar MacGillivray of Dalcrombie and Elizabeth Shaw of Dores; m. first c. 1796 à la façon du pays an Indian woman, and they had one son and one daughter; m. secondly 23 Feb. 1819 Isabella McLean, daughter of Neil McLean*, and they had four sons and four daughters; d. 13 Oct. 1855 at his farm near Williamstown, Upper Canada.

John McGillivray was a child of the late 18th-century Highlands: born at a time of major economic change and social readjustment, he was familiar with both traditional Gaelic life and the modern commercial world. The Dalcrombies were a cadet branch of the McGillivray clan chiefs and had been active Jacobites. As a boy John learned the language of the community – Gaelic – and its songs, with which he later delighted Highlanders in Montreal, but he also received a good Scottish primary education in English. The Highlands offered little opportunity for promising young men, and so, when North West Company partner William McGillivray*, a distant cousin, visited Inverness-shire on furlough in 1793–94, John likely decided to go to North America with him.

The younger McGillivray was engaged as a clerk by the NWC on 18 July 1794 for a seven-year term. He served in the Lower English (Churchill) River department under the direction of Alexander Fraser* and was stationed at Rat River (Goose River, Sask.) in 1797, built a house at Pelican Lake (Sask.) in September 1798, and opposed the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Sturgeon Lake (Cumberland Lake, Sask.) in the winter of 1801. The NWC offensive to protect the profitable Athabasca trade, opened up by Peter Pond*, was waged here in the Churchill and along the Saskatchewan River where the Canadians’ stiff opposition kept the HBC fully occupied and out of the far west. In the Lower English River department, however, as Fraser acknowledged to Alexander Mackenzie* in 1799, NWC prospects were “not very favourable the English have got so fast a hold there.” Relations between traders in the area were unfriendly. In the spring of 1798 McGillivray had reacted to the desertion of an NWC indebted servant to the HBC’s Granville House (on Granville Lake, Man.) by seizing three packs of furs from its master Thomas Linklater. To accomplish this end, McGillivray, according to HBC trader William Auld*, “was obliged to give repeated orders to his men before any would obey & then he set them the example.” Such actions reflected the private settling of grievances that was the NWC norm in the fur trade, one that imitated the traditional practice of Highland society.

McGillivray became a wintering partner in the NWC at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) in 1801; it was probably then that he transferred to Athabasca River, a small department south of the larger Athabasca department. Certainly from 1806 until 1810 he headed the smaller district from his post at Lesser Slave Lake. After a furlough over the winter of 1810–11, he moved to Fort Dunvegan (on the Peace River at 118°40´ W) and took charge of the important Athabasca department, succeeding Donald McTavish*. In 1815–16 the HBC mounted a large expedition to Athabasca under John Clarke: McGillivray orchestrated the isolation of the HBC men from the Indians, eliminating the newcomers’ trade and starving them into surrender.

Although not as well known as his explorer-colleagues David Thompson and Simon Fraser*, John McGillivray was an important figure in the bitter competition between the HBC and NWC. For more than 20 years he worked effectively in areas of rich returns and strong opposition. McGillivray was a righteous man convinced of his own probity and worth, and ruled by standards of “urbanity and decorum suitable” to a gentleman. His administration of Athabasca was, however, criticized by other NWC partners; Archibald Norman McLeod claimed that he “would not have been left [there] so long . . . were his name not McGillivray.” McLeod’s comments that McGillivray was too slow and “unfit to conduct an opposition” suggest that he was not as ruthless as some of his colleagues, who could nevertheless not name a man better able to do the job.

On his arrival at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) on 20 Aug. 1816, two months after the massacre at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) [see Cuthbert Grant], McGillivray was taken prisoner by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and sent east under guard three days later to join the other NWC partners arrested earlier. McGillivray denied complicity in the Seven Oaks incident and pleaded his powerlessness as an individual to alter company practices. The charges against him were not pursued and McGillivray spent the ensuing winter in Great Britain. In 1817 George Keith assumed charge of the Athabasca department. McGillivray returned as far west as Rainy Lake (Ont.) where he organized brigade departures, but, his health weakened by rheumatism, the ageing partner retired from the NWC in 1818 to settle in Upper Canada.

With his purchase of a farm for £1,450 near Williamstown and his marriage to Isabella McLean, McGillivray was drawn into the kin-based gentry of Glengarry County and successfully established himself as a leader in the Highland community there. The retired trader held a variety of local offices, including justice of the peace and commissioner of the court of requests. A Presbyterian, he was an influential member of St Andrew’s Church [see John McKenzie] and was chosen an elder on 7 July 1822. McGillivray had property interests across the eastern part of Upper Canada and in 1840 advertised “very desirable locations . . . for sale” to emigrants. He also acted as financial adviser and agent to the Roman Catholic bishop, Alexander McDonell*. In Glengarry, McGillivray enjoyed the convivial and cultural meetings of the Highland Society of Canada, and his home was well known for its proverbial “kind highland welcome” to visitors.

Only two major episodes broke the calm of McGillivray’s retirement. Appointed with his neighbour Alexander Fraser, he served as a member of Upper Canada’s Legislative Council from December 1839 until its dissolution in February 1841. Dismayed by the “passion of self Interest” that ruled “some mighty would be Individuals” in Toronto, McGillivray was one of the moderate tories who supported the union of the Canadas and the compromise settlement of the clergy reserves [see William Morris]. In his own words, he willingly helped bring “Down the mighty Doves of . . . [that] place” who had “had their own time of the Loaves & Fishes.” Then in 1852 he returned to Scotland briefly to claim the estate of Dunmaglass and recognition as chief of the McGillivray clan; this recognition was officially awarded to his son in 1857.

As was proper for a Highland gentleman, John McGillivray passed an active, even predatory, early adulthood, but later settled down to raise a Scottish family. Although McGillivray came from a different part of Inverness-shire than did most of the Glengarry settlers, his descent from a clan chief and his successful fur-trade career assured his position as a leader of the community. Men such as McGillivray and Fraser played a mediating role between the Gaelic-speaking county and the rest of Upper Canadian society. The inheritance of the traditional position of clan chief was a fitting seal to McGillivray’s life.

Marianne McLean

PAC, MG 19, A35; B1; C1; E1 (transcripts); MG 24, I3; RG 4, B46. PAM, HBCA, B.42/a/124; B.118/a/1; F.1/1 (mfm. at PAC). HBRS, 26 (Johnson).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Marianne McLean, “McGILLIVRAY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgillivray_john_8E.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_john_8E.html
Author of Article:   Marianne McLean
Title of Article:   McGILLIVRAY, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   April 24, 2024