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Original title:  Portrait of William James McLean, Chief Factor at Fort Pitt in 1885; taken in a photo studio. Photo credit: Provincial Archives of Manitoba. From University Library, University of Saskatchewan http://saskhistoryonline.ca/islandora/object/ourlegacy%3A38395.

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McLEAN, WILLIAM JAMES (Big Bear), fur trader; b. 27 Oct. 1841 on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, son of Angus McLean and Ann McRae; m. 23 Aug. 1866, at Fort Simpson (N.W.T.), Helen Hunter Murray, daughter of Alexander Hunter Murray*, and they had six daughters, including Amelia Anne, and six sons; d. 12 Nov. 1929 in Winnipeg.

W. J. McLean joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1859 at the age of 18. He worked until 1864 as an apprentice clerk successively at York Factory (Man.), Lower Fort Garry (Man.), and Fort Norman (N.W.T.). In 1864 he was transferred to Fort Liard (N.W.T.), where he became clerk-in-charge. From 1873 to 1882 McLean was stationed at Fort Qu’Appelle (Sask.); there he was promoted chief trader and played a role in the conclusion of Treaty No.4 [see David Laird*]. After service in 1882–83 at Fort Ellice, Man., in 1883–84 he was chief trader at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), on the English (upper Churchill) River, and in 1884–85 he was stationed at Fort Pitt, on the Saskatchewan River. Thus, although McLean was a newcomer to Fort Pitt when the tumultuous events of 1885 erupted, he was not new to the northwest or to negotiating with native peoples.

The events that earned him the nickname Big Bear McLean occurred in rapid succession from April to June 1885. Early in the morning of 3 April McLean learned from farming instructor George Gwynn Mann and others coming to Fort Pitt for protection that nine settlers had been shot and killed at Frog Lake (Alta) on the previous morning by members of the Cree band led by Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa*]. McLean immediately organized the inhabitants of Fort Pitt, including Inspector Francis Jeffrey Dickens* and 23 North-West Mounted Police, to barricade and defend it against an expected attack (“I did not sleep two hours out of every twenty-four,” McLean would later write). Nothing happened until 13 April, when Big Bear and about 250 Cree arrived at the fort. They asked that McLean speak with the chiefs the following day. McLean agreed, “in hope of being of some service to the Country and to those who were unfortunately so precariously situated with myself at Pitt.”

Negotiations began cordially. According to McLean, both the Plains and the Woods Cree indicated that although they had no objection to the HBC’s presence in their lands (and in fact did not want the company to leave), they were interested in driving out “the Government” and “his” adjuncts, the “Red Coats” or mounted police. McLean attempted to convince them that taking on the government and settlers was both “hopeless” and “dangerous.” Wandering Spirit [Kapapamahchakwew*], armed and speaking for the Plains Cree, insisted that his words came too late, and that he must obey them and remain in their camp. According to his earliest report, McLean “felt wretched and helpless, filled with remorse at my falling a victim to the misplaced confidence and hope which I held but a few hours past of being able to convince the Indians of their errors and folly.” Talks were interrupted by two NWMP scouts and one civilian galloping through the camp; they had been sent out the previous day by Inspector Dickens to look for Big Bear’s men. Interpreting their presence as an attack, the Cree retaliated, killing one man and wounding another, while the third escaped. Wandering Spirit told McLean that he must swear to remain with the Cree and assured him that he would not be killed, nor would his family be hurt, saying “I know your tongue is straight.” McLean agreed, and negotiated as best he could for the safety of the others at the fort, who also were to come to the Cree camp, and for the safe departure of Dickens and his men. William Bleasdell Cameron*’s account, Blood red the sun, reprinting a note from Big Bear to Sergeant John A. Martin of the NWMP on 14 April, suggests that the decision to allow the police to leave had already been made. The police departed down the Saskatchewan River in a scow that had been hastily built in the preceding days, and McLean’s family, the HBC servants, and all who had taken refuge at Fort Pitt joined Big Bear’s camp. McLean’s reports of these events reveal his feelings of impotence, but also his alertness to practical concessions that could still be gained.

McLean, his wife (pregnant with their tenth child), and their nine children remained with the Cree until mid June, when they were released by the Woods Cree, who had split off from the Plains Cree. By this time all others held by Big Bear's camp had been released or had escaped. On 24 June the McLeans finally arrived back at Fort Pitt. During the family's captivity, they had survived the battles of Frenchman Butte and Loon Lake as the Cree clashed with pursuing NWMP. According to his reports, McLean worked with various friendly Woods Cree and Riding Mountain Cree to prevent Big Bear's men from joining with Poundmaker [Pītikwahanapiwīyin*] at Battleford and Louis Riel* at Batoche.

In emerging from these events, McLean had to account, in the claims of the HBC against the Canadian government, for his role in the loss of Fort Pitt (which was looted, and later burned). His story differs from that of Inspector Dickens, an officer not known for his competence. According to McLean, when the Cree first arrived at Fort Pitt on 13 April he and Dickens had agreed it was important that McLean go to the Cree camp to talk, as the Cree had requested. Once there, he was told that the presence of the NWMP put everyone at Fort Pitt in jeopardy; unless they left, the Cree would burn the occupied fort. In his reports McLean implies that Dickens had shown lack of judgement in sending out inexperienced scouts who missed the movements of the Cree and stumbled into their camp, jeopardizing negotiations. Mrs McLean had helped an indecisive Dickens by recommending the HBC scow and by waiting until the NWMP had safely left Fort Pitt before joining the Cree camp.

According to Dickens, the NWMP initially refused to leave Fort Pitt unless the Cree dispersed. McLean, without consultation, agreed to talks, thereby becoming entrapped in the Cree camp, where his family and other civilians decided to join him. With no civilians left to guard, Dickens was free to “look to the safety of my own men” and leave the fort; he blamed “the surrender of the civilians” on “the pusillanimity of Mr. Maclean.” Some newspaper accounts of the time also censured McLean. New settlers and those unused to relations with native people (Dickens was famed for his lack of tact in such dealings) saw negotiating with them as a concession. McLean, however, as an experienced HBC trader, would have thought it natural to meet and talk with them. The Cree, in turn, respected his advice (even if they were not always interested in following it) and his willingness to keep his word.

After the events of 1885, McLean became chief trader at Fort Alexander, Man.; he then served as chief trader in charge of the Lake Winnipeg district at Lower Fort Garry from 1886 until he retired in 1892. In 1893 he was called upon by John Christian Schultz*, lieutenant governor of Manitoba, to undertake a confidential survey of the District of Keewatin. McLean reported on the use of alcohol and criminal activity (there was little of either), the condition of non-treaty indigenous peoples, forest fires, and fishing regulations. His main concern was the preservation of fur-bearing animals, whose rapid decline was affecting the survival of the natives. He recommended that a system for the protection of moose, bear, and beaver, not just in Keewatin but throughout the northwest, be brought before parliament. Letters to his brother Duncan in 1899 indicate that he became involved in leading a party in exploring for gold in the Yukon, using his past experience and native contacts during his time as an HBC clerk at Fort Liard. In 1901 McLean read before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba a paper entitled “Notes and observations of travels on the Athabasca and Slave lake regions in 1899.” In it, he makes only one brief mention of “enormous mineral deposits,” focusing mainly on the rugged scenery of the northeastern part of Great Slave Lake (so remote and silent, he comments, that it seems “nature had ceased to exist”), the “profusion” of fish, and the hunting of the caribou on their annual summer migration through the area. At the ruins of Fort Reliance (N.W.T.), McLean muses over the history of explorers in the region, and imagines a future in which “sportsmen and tourists” from Europe and the United States make it “an annual resort.”

Little is known of his subsequent activities. An obituary in the Beaver in December 1929 noted that McLean was still active with the Department of Indian Affairs in Winnipeg at the time of his death.

Lally Grauer

William James McLean’s “Notes and observations of travels on the Athabasca and Slave lake regions in 1899” appears in Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Trans. (Winnipeg), no.58 (1901).

AM, HBCA, D.20/35/1b, ff.134–58; E.218. Bob Beal and R. [C.] Macleod, Prairie fire: the 1885 North-West rebellion (Edmonton, 1984; repr. Toronto, 1994). W. B. Cameron, Blood red the sun (rev. ed., Calgary, 1950). F. J. Dickens, “Report of Inspector Dickens, North-West Mounted Police,” in Settlers and rebels: being the official reports to parliament of the activities of the Royal North-West Mounted Police Force from 1882–1885 (Toronto, 1973), 78–80. Robert Watson, “Late chief trader W. J. McLean,” Beaver (Winnipeg), outfit 260 (December 1929): 315–16.

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Cite This Article

Lally Grauer, “McLEAN, WILLIAM JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mclean_william_james_15E.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/mclean_william_james_15E.html
Author of Article:   Lally Grauer
Title of Article:   McLEAN, WILLIAM JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   February 23, 2024