McKAY (Mackay), JOSEPH WILLIAM, fur trader, explorer, businessman, politician, jp, and office holder; b. 31 Jan. 1829 at Rupert’s House (Waskaganish, Que.), son of William McKay and Mary Bunn, both of mixed blood; m. 16 June 1860 Helen Holmes in Victoria (B.C.), and they had four daughters and two sons; d. there 21 Dec. 1900.
Joseph William McKay had deep roots in the northwest: his grandfather John McKay*, his uncles John Bunn* and John Richards McKay*, and his father were active in the fur trade. When he was nine or ten years old Joseph William was sent to the Red River Academy where he remained for five years, boarding with his maternal grandfather, Thomas Bunn; according to family tradition his parents had intended to send him to school in Scotland but he literally missed the boat. He joined the Hudson’s Bay Company on 1 June 1844, at age 15, and was sent to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) together with William Charles* and James Allan Grahame*. The following September he accompanied the British naval officers Captain Henry W. Parke and Lieutenant William Peel on their reconnaissance of Oregon Territory [see John Gordon*]. Having been transferred in November 1846 to Fort Victoria (Victoria), which he recalled as “full of bustle” in the wake of the Oregon Boundary Treaty, he participated in a survey that winter of the area around Victoria and Esquimalt. In 1848 he was promoted to the rank of postmaster, and the following year he was Roderick Finlayson’s second in command at Fort Victoria.
Though nominally a fur trader, McKay was also involved in the exploration, economic development, and colonization of Vancouver Island. As an apprentice clerk he helped Chief Factor James Douglas* in 1850 to negotiate the Fort Victoria treaties with the neighbouring Indians. Douglas noted that McKay possessed “an uncommon degree of tact and address, in managing Indians.” During the early 1850s Douglas sent McKay to explore the Cowichan and Comox valleys and to establish the HBC salmon fishery and sheep station on San Juan Island. In August 1852 McKay formally took possession, on behalf of the HBC, of the coalfields at Nanaimo, which had recently been explored by Joseph Despard Pemberton. While in charge there McKay opened a coal mine, a sawmill, a saltern, and a school, so that when Douglas visited the settlement a year later he wrote, “The place has quite the appearance of a little village.”
McKay applied in the summer of 1854 for a three-month leave of absence in order to manage the affairs of the Vancouver’s Island Steam Saw Mill Company, which had been formed three years previously by a group of HBC officers and clerks but which was not yet operational. When his request was denied by Douglas, McKay quit the HBC and soon opened the sawmill. Although he had officially left the company, he was sent during the Crimean War to Fort Simpson (Port Simpson, B.C.) to ensure that the HBC and the Russian American Company remained neutral. In late November 1855 he rejoined the company at Fort Victoria and bought a farm at Cadboro Bay, which gave him the necessary freehold property to stand in the election the following year to the first House of Assembly of Vancouver Island. At first defeated, McKay contested the election of his opponent, Edward Edwards Langford, on the grounds that he did not possess the necessary property qualification. His complaint was upheld, Langford’s election was annulled, and McKay was elected member for Victoria District in his stead. During this period he also took part in the cultural life of the colony. In July 1857 he played Sir Anthony Absolute in Sheridan’s The rivals, produced by a group of HBC men. The fort’s physician and speaker of the house, John Sebastian Helmcken*, remembered him at this time as “a very active young fellow – full of vigor and intelligence,” who “knew every thing and every body.”
Shortly after the beginning of the Fraser River gold-rush in the summer of 1858 McKay was sent by Douglas to search for a route to the gold-fields between Howe Sound and Lillooet Lake. In June 1860 he was made chief trader and placed in charge of the auriferous Thompson’s River district; that month also he was married in Victoria. Two months later McKay left his bride and went to Thompson’s River Post (Kamloops), where he spent six years developing the HBC’s retail provisions business, supplying Europeans, Chinese, and Indians with food and mining equipment in exchange for gold dust, dollars, and furs. McKay welcomed Thomas McMicking*’s gold-seeking Overlanders to Kamloops in 1862 and English travellers Viscount Milton [Wentworth-Fitzwilliam*] and Walter Butler Cheadle the following year. Cheadle described McKay as an “Undersized man in cowhide coat and breeches, jack-boots & large-peaked cap; like an overgrown jockey.” In 1865, in conjunction with John Rae, McKay conducted a survey of the country between Williams Creek and Tête Jaune Cache in anticipation of the HBC’s proposed telegraph line from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to New Westminster (B.C.). Between 1866 and 1878 he was in charge of the company’s operations at Fort Yale (Yale), in the Kootenay district, and in the Cassiar and the Stikine mining districts, and he directed its coastal trade at Fort Simpson; he was promoted factor in 1872. Four years later he was made a justice of the peace, an appointment he held until 1885. In the summer of 1878 McKay was dismissed by the HBC, in part because of his substantial business dealings outside the company. Since the Fraser River gold-rush McKay had invested in silver mines, salmon canneries, and timber leases, and just six months before his dismissal he had been prospecting near Bella Coola on his own account. On 28 Sept. 1878 he entered into a two-year agreement to manage the salmon cannery on the lower Skeena River owned by the North Western Commercial Company of San Francisco.
During the following two decades McKay worked for the dominion government, being appointed census commissioner for British Columbia in 1881 and Indian agent two years later, first for the northwest coast and then for the Kamloops and Okanagan agencies. While agent he urged Indians to take up stock-raising and to grow western crops, attempted to prevent the trespass of Canadian Pacific Railway crews and European settlers on Indian land, and established an Indian industrial school near Kamloops. He personally inoculated more than 1,300 Indians with smallpox vaccine between 1886 and 1888. In 1893 he was appointed assistant to Arthur Wellesley Vowell, the superintendent of Indian affairs for British Columbia. Throughout this period McKay continued to pursue his business interests. The year before his death he applied for a grant of 40,000 acres on Queen Charlotte Strait, on which he planned to establish a pulp-mill, but he died before he could see it in operation. During his last years in Victoria he also lectured and wrote several articles on the fur trade and on the Indians of British Columbia.
McKay’s varied career, which spanned the fur trade, colonial, and provincial eras, reflects the diversity of the HBC’s interests in British Columbia. In 1872, when requesting a promotion, he had pointed out to the company that he had “been Sailor, Farmer, Coal Miner, packer, Salesman, Surveyor, explorer, Fur Trader and Accountant in Your Service.” Like several of his colleagues, McKay made a natural transition from fur trader to Indian agent, and like most of his contemporaries he exhibited an abiding personal interest in the development of natural resources.
Joseph William McKay is the author of “The fur trading system” in The year book of British Columbia . . . , comp. R. E. Gosnell (Victoria), 1897: 21–23, and “The Indians of British Columbia: a brief review of their probable origin, history, and customs,” British Columbia Mining Record (Victoria and Vancouver), 5 (1899), no.12: 71–83.
Bancroft Library, Univ. of Calif. (Berkeley), J. W. McKay, “Recollections of a chief trader in the Hudson’s Bay Company” (photocopy at PABC). NA, RG 10, B3, files 2959, pt.iv; 19279; 19581. Nanaimo Centennial Museum Arch. (Nanaimo, B.C.), Nanaimo letter-book, 24 Aug. 1852–27 Sept. 1853 (typescript at PABC). PABC, Add. mss 1917; J. W. McKay papers, esp. diary, 1881; McKay to William Armit, 28 May 1872 (mfm.); GR 1304, file 1901/2333. PAM, HBCA, “Joseph William McKay” (typescript, [c. 1958]). S. [L.] Allison, A pioneer gentlewoman in British Columbia: the recollections of Susan Allison, ed. M. A. Ormsby (Vancouver, 1976). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1885–93 (annual reports of the Dept. of Indian Affairs). [W. B.] Cheadle, Cheadle’s journal of trip across Canada, 1862–1863, ed. A. G. Doughty and Gustave Lanctot (Ottawa, 1931), 228. G. M. Dawson, “Notes on the Shuswap people of British Columbia,” RSC Trans., 1st ser., 9 (1891), sect.ii: 3–44; Report on an exploration in the Yukon District, N.W.T., and adjacent northern portion of British Columbia, 1887 (Montreal, 1887). HBRS, 32 (Bowsfield). Helmcken, Reminiscences (Blakey Smith and Lamb). Journals of the colonial legislatures of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, 1851–1871, ed. J. E. Hendrickson (5v., Victoria, 1980). Daily British Colonist and Victoria Chronicle, 18 Feb., 18 July 1865; 16 Dec. 1871. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 22 Dec. 1900. Walbran, B.C. coast names. Mary Balf, The mighty company: Kamloops and the H.B.C. (Kamloops, B.C., 1973). Denis Bayley, A Londoner in Rupert’s Land: Thomas Bunn of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Chichester, Eng., and Winnipeg, 1969), 75–76. H. K. Ralston, “Miners and managers: the organization of coal production on Vancouver Island by the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1848–1862,” The company on the coast, ed. E. B. Norcross ([Nanaimo], 1983), 42–55. Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”: women in fur-trade society in western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg, ). M. S. Wade, The Overlanders of ’62, ed. John Hosie (Victoria, 1931). W. W. Walkem, Stories of early British Columbia (Vancouver, 1914), 75–86. B. A. McKelvie, “The founding of Nanaimo,” BCHQ, 8 (1944): 169–88.
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Cite This Article
Richard Mackie, “McKAY, JOSEPH WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckay_joseph_william_12E.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:
|Author of Article:||Richard Mackie|
|Title of Article:||McKAY, JOSEPH WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|