McKAY, JOHN, fur trader; probably the brother of Donald “Mad” MacKay; m. c. 1791 Mary Favell, daughter of John Favell and his Indian wife Titameg; d. 5 July 1810 at Brandon House (Man.) and was buried there beside his wife.
There is some indication that John McKay and Donald MacKay came from the valley of the Brora River, Scotland. They entered the fur trade by way of Montreal, and by 1788 John was working for Alexander Shaw and his son Angus at Lake St Ann (Lake Nipigon, Ont.). In 1790 he and Donald went to Fort Albany (Ont.) to join the Hudson’s Bay Company, Donald taking with him a plan for crippling the Nor’Westers by competing with their communication posts and supply bases. The HBC adopted a modified version of this scheme and for the next two decades John played an important part in carrying it out. For the summer of 1791 and the outfit of 1792–93 he was sent back to Lake St Ann, an area poor in furs, but for the next four outfits he was assigned to the more important Rainy Lake post (near Fort Frances, Ont.). There he faced opposition led by Charles Boyer, Peter Grant*, Donald McIntosh, and others, who found that he enjoyed peaceful and friendly competition but was not to be cowed by threats of violence. Despite the superior numbers of his competitors he obtained about half the trade of the area.
In April 1797 James Sutherland*, the master at Brandon House, died and McKay was sent to replace him for the next outfit. Three seasons at Osnaburgh House and Martin Falls (Ont.) followed. Then in the autumn of 1801 he was posted back to Brandon House, where, with the exception of the outfit of 1806–7, he remained in charge until his death in 1810. From Brandon House he sometimes sent his traders on dangerous expeditions as far afield as the Mandan country (in the vicinity of Stanton, N.Dak.) [see Alexander Henry]. At his post he was at first encircled by houses competing with one another, but after the consolidation of the North West and New North West (XY) companies in 1804 [see Sir Alexander Mackenzie] the opposition united against him and became more effective. However, even though his men were greatly outnumbered and he was often short of goods, McKay continued to obtain more than his share of the trade. At the same time he accomplished the strategic aim of disrupting and weakening the provisioning system of the Nor’Westers, who were dependent for pemmican and other supplies on their Red River posts.
From about 1804 he began to show signs of failing health, and in January 1810 he contracted a cold which persisted till his death on 5 July. His wife died in childbirth on 19 March of that year. They were survived by three daughters and five sons, of whom John Richards* and William were the most notable.
With McKay’s passing the HBC lost one of its most loyal and zealous servants. In letters to Albany the London committee had expressed appreciation of his work, and in 1794 he was nominated to the Albany council. He was liked also by his opponents, for he was always considerate of those in trouble. When in 1805 John Pritchard* was lost on the prairies and found almost dead from starvation McKay cared for him, and Pritchard wrote later, “My friend McKay of the Hudson’s Bay Company . . . became both my surgeon and nurse.” The following winter McKay himself became so ill he was delirious, and his opponents Pritchard, Charles Chaboillez, and Pierre Falcon took turns in watching over him – surely a tribute to a troublesome rival. He also enjoyed to a remarkable degree the friendship and loyalty of many Indians who found him just, reliable, and sympathetic.
McKay’s journals were written for the information of his employers and disclose little of his private life. They do show, however, that he was a family man, watching over and often employing his wife’s brothers. As his older sons became useful he sometimes noted their accomplishments with pride. He is revealed as a man of even temperament and humane disposition, with a sound understanding of the men who opposed him and the Indians with whom he traded. His journals rise above the usual recording of weather and daily happenings and are among the most interesting of the period.
PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 40: 15501–42 (transcripts). PAM, HBCA, A.5/4; A.6/15, 17; A.11/5; A.32/4; B.3/a/108; B.3/b/28, 34, 42; B.22/a/5, 9–18a; B.86/a/45; B.105/a/1–4; B.123/a/6; B.149/a/1; B.155/a/14–16; B.166/a/1–2. PRO, PROB 11/1542/147. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). John Pritchard, “Lost on the Prairies,” Beaver, outfit 273 (June 1942): 36–39. Morton, Hist. of Canadian west. Rich, Hist. of HBC.