McKAY, WILLIAM, HBC official, fur trader, and interpreter; b. 17 Sept. 1852 at Fort Pelly (Sask.), son of William McKay and Mary Jane Cook; m. first 1877 Eliza Tate (d. 9 Dec. 1877) in Fort Carlton (Sask.), and they had one daughter, who died in infancy; m. secondly 1881 Maria Rowland, widow of Henry Hardisty, in Battleford (Sask.), and they had five sons and five daughters; d. 29 Aug. 1932 near Prince Albert, Sask.
William McKay belonged to a highly successful fur-trading family of mixed Scottish and indigenous blood which was associated for four generations with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) on the southern prairies. The McKays became prominent largely because they were able to deftly negotiate the cultural differences in the fur trade, enter into strategic marriages, and take advantage of available educational opportunities. William’s great-grandfather, John McKay*, was an HBC employee from 1790 until his death in 1810. William’s grandfather, John Richards McKay*, served the company for over 50 years at trading posts throughout the North-West Territories. Widely respected by all who knew him, John Richards McKay was known to the Cree and Saulteaux as Mac-quay-ah-ness, “little bearskin,” a name that would long be connected with the family.
John Richards’s son, William, also called Wahannah (“little bearskin” in the Dakota language), spent 46 years with the HBC, including a long posting at Fort Ellice (Man.), which he headed from 1858 to 1870. Isaac Cowie, who worked there under him, wrote of his superior reputation, observing that “he was just and kind to the Indians, into whose affairs he brought the sympathy of knowledge.… He was the model of what a really good Indian trader should be.” To his son-in-law, William Edward Traill, McKay explained his approach to trading: “Never lie to an Indian … never let an Indian know that you fear him, or any number of them … once you have taken a stand bluff it out to the bitter end – never let an Indian have the mastery.”
The younger William McKay, who also received the name “little bearskin,” would enter the occupation of his family, having inherited the propensity of its members for cultivating positive intercultural relations. He enjoyed a childhood that combined the pursuits of hunting, trading, and learning local languages with a formal European-style education obtained at St John’s College in the Red River settlement. In 1862 he was present when his father negotiated a treaty of friendship between the Cree and refugee Sioux from the United States. Several of McKay’s siblings would marry into well-established families. One of his two sisters, Harriet, wedded William Traill, a son of Catharine Parr Traill [Strickland*], and the other, Catherine, was the second wife of HBC official Lawrence Clarke*. His brothers George and Henry were related through marriage to the families of John McLean* and John Inkster*, respectively. William would also marry strategically; his second wife, Maria, was the sister-in-law of prominent HBC men William Lucas Hardisty*, Richard Charles Hardisty*, and Donald Alexander Smith*.
After finishing at school in 1869, William entered HBC service as an apprentice postmaster at Fort Ellice, working under his father. He held the same position at Riding Mountain House, Man., in 1870–71, and then left the company the next year to briefly pursue an independent trading career with his brother Thomas. Upon his return to the HBC he served as clerk in charge of Moose Woods from 1874 to 1875, Fort Carlton from 1877 to 1878, Cold Lake from 1878 to 1879, and Battleford from 1879 to 1884. He was promoted to junior chief trader on 1 June 1884, nine months before the rebellion of Métis under Louis Riel* and indigenous dissidents.
In the mid 1880s the Plains Cree, despite having been impoverished by the disappearance of the buffalo, still maintained a powerful position relative to the white settlers in the west, and under the terms of Treaty No.6 they were entitled to federal assistance in the event of famine. By treating the indigenous people rationally and respectfully, McKay was able to play a prominent role in defusing potentially violent confrontations. The first took place at Cut Knife Hill on the reserve of Poundmaker [Pītikwahanapiwīyin*] near Battleford, where starving warriors assembled in June 1884 to perform a Thirst Dance. Several of them demanded food from the farm instructor, John Craig, and when he refused, one warrior assaulted him and took some provisions. When a detachment of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), led by Major Lief Newry Fitzroy Crozier*, arrived to apprehend the man, the others refused to hand him over. At that point McKay, whose reputation was in good standing both with white officials and with chiefs such as Poundmaker and Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa*], intervened, acting as an interpreter and firmly encouraging a peaceful resolution to the tense situation. The suspect was finally secured by the NWMP officers, there were no injuries, and afterwards McKay ensured that the police handed out food to the starving people.
McKay was again an intermediary on 30 March 1885, after the North-West rebellion had begun, during a stand-off between whites in Battleford and Poundmaker’s warriors, who had come there ostensibly to get information from their Indian agent, John M. Rae, about the Métis military victory at Duck Lake. Rae, afraid of violence, refused to meet with Poundmaker, so McKay spoke to the chief instead, challenging his explanation for coming to the town and showing that he would not be cowed. Then, addressing all the Cree, he asked: “Can any Indian say I ever did him a wrong – ever gave him anything but fair treatment? What reason have I to be fearful of anybody?” Poundmaker responded: “Oh, this is all wrong, Mukwyanasis – that you were to be killed. All lies.” After warning them of the danger of entering into a war with the whites, McKay gave out rations from the HBC’s stores.
Two clues indicate the personal significance to McKay of his Métis identity: his declaration of mixed paternal and maternal ancestry on his application for scrip, and his decision to settle near Prince Albert after retiring in 1892. He used scrip obtained from the Half-Breed Land Claims Commission to purchase river lot 30 in St Catherine’s, an English-speaking Métis community along the South Saskatchewan River whose residents shared historic ties to the fur trade. There, surrounded by members of his family, William McKay lived out the rest of his life in quiet obscurity, aside from occasional mentions of his name in stories about the “adventure of the romantic days of Canada’s fur trade.”
Thanks are extended to Hugh Dempsey, who provided information helpful to the writing of this article.
AM, HBCA, Biog. sheets, McKay, William “C”; McKay, William “J”. LAC, RG 15, DII, 3, vol. 201, file no.HB 6020, scrip 3957, 0157. W. B. Cameron, “Sitting-on-the-tent: an adventure of the romantic days of Canada’s fur trade,” Toronto Star Weekly, 6 Oct. 1928. Leader-Post (Regina), 30 Aug. 1932. W. B. Cameron, “Clan McKay in the west,” Beaver (Winnipeg), outfit 275 (September 1944): 3–7; “When Poundmaker defied the Mounties,” Maclean’s, 1 May 1926: 20–21, 63–65. M. L. Clarke, “Sitting Bull’s wedding gift: the McKays’ relations with the Dakota” (paper presented at the Northern Great Plains History Conference, Brandon, Man., 27–30 Sept. 1995). Isaac Cowie, The company of adventurers: a narrative of seven years in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company during 1867–1874 … (Toronto, 1913). Norma Sluman, Poundmaker (Toronto, 1967). Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Loyal till death: Indians and the North-West rebellion (Calgary, 1997). W. E. Traill, “So the poor Indian” (copy at GA in the Traill family fonds, ser.1, M-1241-20).