McKAY, WILLIAM, fur trader, militia officer, and Indian Department official; b. 1772, probably in the Mohawk valley of New York, son of Donald McKay and Elspeth (Elspy) Kennedy; d. 18 Aug. 1832 in Montreal and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.
William McKay’s father fought as a noncommissioned officer at Quebec in 1759 and received a land grant in the Mohawk valley after the Seven Years’ War. He and his family were United Empire Loyalists and eventually settled in the area that became Glengarry County, Upper Canada. Around 1790 McKay entered the service of the North West Company; it was probably at about the same time that his brother Alexander* joined the company. William initially traded along the Menominee River in the upper Mississippi valley, and subsequently at Portage la Prairie (Man.) and in the Lake Winnipeg area. His abilities were rewarded in 1796 when he was made a partner in the NWC. During the next 11 years McKay became well acquainted with the lands, Indian nations, and transportation routes of the northwest. He retired in 1807, a prominent partner in the company, and that year was admitted a member of the prestigious Beaver Club in Montreal.
While in the northwest McKay had married, according to the custom of the country, Josette Latour, but she probably remained in the northwest when he retired and she later became the country wife of NWC trader John Haldane*. On 15 Oct. 1808 at Montreal McKay married Eliza Davidson, daughter of the late Arthur Davidson*, a distinguished local judge. The couple would have two sons, one of whom survived infancy.
At the outbreak of the War of 1812 McKay was, in his own words, “one of the first men in Canada that turned out for its defence.” In late June he journeyed from Montreal to St Joseph Island (Ont.) in a mere eight days carrying secret instructions from Major-General Isaac Brock* to Captain Charles Roberts*, commander of the British post on St Joseph Island. They authorized Roberts to use his own judgement in deciding whether to attack the Americans at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.), who were unaware that formal hostilities had commenced. The success of the British and the Indians [see Robert Dickson] in forcing the surrender of the surprised garrison was in part due to the speed and secrecy with which McKay had accomplished his mission. Following his return to Montreal, McKay joined the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs and saw action at Lacolle in November 1812. In the spring of 1813 he was appointed captain in the 5th Select Embodied Militia Battalion of Lower Canada.
For McKay, as well as for other Montreal-based fur traders, the preservation of British hegemony in the northwest was of fundamental importance. The War of 1812 was an opportunity for such traders to grasp and to consolidate territory, especially on the upper Mississippi River, and thus extinguish American competition. McKay therefore devoted his knowledge and experience of transportation in the northwest to the dispatch of supplies and provisions to the British garrisons and “His Majesty’s Indian Allies.”
By early spring 1814 McKay’s steadfast dedication had been rewarded by an appointment to command the Michigan Fencibles, a provincial corps raised at Michilimackinac the previous spring and composed mainly of “Canadians enlisted from the service of the Traders.” According to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert McDouall*, commander at the post, the appointment was a wise decision since McKay was “very popular with [the Fencibles] & all the Canadians.” In April McKay was made a brevet major. Late in June McDouall received news of the capture by the Americans of Prairie du Chien (Wis.). The occupation of that strategic post threatened British military control and Canadian fur-trade interests in the northwest. Thus, with the local rank of lieutenant-colonel and a determined force of Fencibles, voyageurs, and about 136 Indians, McKay was sent out in command of an expedition to retake Prairie du Chien.
En route McKay was reinforced at Green Bay by local militia, more voyageurs, and Indians. By the time he arrived at Prairie du Chien his contingent had swelled to 650 men, of whom, he noted, “120 were Michigan Fencibles Canadian Volunteers and Officers of the indian department the remainder were indians that proved to be perfectly useless.” After two days of preliminary siege operations, McKay prepared hot shot for the cannon in order to set fire to the fort. Seeing that a serious assault was about to be made, the Americans capitulated. The victory of 19 July (the official surrender took place the following day) thrilled McKay and the fort was renamed in his honour. The Indians whom he had so recently maligned won a crushing victory on 21 and 22 July over an American relief column at the rapids on the Rock River. McKay suggested that it was “perhaps one of the most brilliant Actions faught by indians only since the Commencement of the war.” These twin victories, coupled with the successful British defence of Michilimackinac in August, re-established and confirmed British superiority in the northwest until the late spring of 1815.
By autumn 1814 McKay had returned to his duties of conducting canoe loads of provisions and Indian presents from Montreal to Michilimackinac. He was appointed deputy superintendent and agent of the Indian Department at Michilimackinac on 25 December. In the spring of 1815 the official news of peace between Great Britain and the United States reached the northwest. Since the Treaty of Ghent dictated “the mutual restoration of all Forts,” the British, Canadian, and Indian victories in the region seemed shallow indeed. McKay’s painful duty as deputy superintendent was to advise the Indian tribes to cultivate a harmonious relationship with the Americans. At Drummond Island (Mich.), the new British post, he held a series of councils with the Indians throughout 1817 and 1818 and attempted to implement Britain’s post-war Indian policy, which was to reduce “His Majesty’s Indian Allies” from warriors to wards. The evolution of the reserve system in the Canadas had begun and McKay, who served as superintendent of Indian Affairs at Drummond Island from 1820 to 1828, was directly involved in overseeing the first stages in its development. He retained an affection for the Michigan Fencibles and made periodic attempts to obtain land grants for the disbanded soldiers.
William McKay became superintendent of the Indian Department for the district of Montreal in 1830, and continued in that post until he died of cholera in Montreal during the epidemic of 1832. Throughout his life, and especially during the War of 1812, he had exuded energy, enthusiasm, and dedication in supporting the British government and in defending and maintaining the prosperity of the Canadas.
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Robert S. Allen, “McKAY, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckay_william_6E.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:||Robert S. Allen|
|Title of Article:||McKAY, WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 9, 2023|