McMILLAN, JAMES, fur trader, explorer, and farmer; b. c. 1783 probably in Glen Pean, Scotland, son of Allan McMillan and Margaret Cameron; d. 26 Jan. 1858 in Glasgow.
James McMillan joined the North West Company as a clerk in 1803 or 1804 and spent several years in the Fort des Prairies department (Sask.). In 1807 he accompanied David Thompson on his first expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the upper Columbia River. For the next three years he made trips back and forth across the mountains, wintering with Thompson at Kootenae House (B.C.) on the Columbia near Windermere Lake in 1808–9 and at Saleesh House (near Thompson, Mont.) in 1809–10. In the spring of 1810 he carried furs back to Fort Augustus (Fort Saskatchewan, Alta) and in July was dispatched to the Columbia with instructions to watch closely the activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company trader Joseph Howse. During his remaining years with the NWC, McMillan stayed for the most part in the Columbia department, trading at the posts in Flathead country and at Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.). He would seem to have established liaisons with several Indian women. By 1813 he apparently had three country-born children – two in the Columbia and one in the Saskatchewan department and in about 1820 he took a Clatsop woman, Kil-a-ko-tah, as his country wife and with her had at least one daughter, Victoire, born in 1820 or 1821.
With the union of the NWC and the HBC in 1821, McMillan joined the reorganized HBC as a chief trader and was stationed in the Columbia district. After a furlough in 1823–24 spent in the Canadas, he was assigned to accompany HBC governor George Simpson on his trip from York Factory (Man.) to the Columbia. Simpson quickly came to appreciate McMillan as a “Staunch & Manly Friend and Fellow Traveller” and later noted that “it is Men of his Stamp the Country wants.” At Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.) McMillan was sent to explore the lower part of the Fraser River and, although his party successfully completed its mission, he returned with misleading information concerning the river’s navigability into the interior. On the basis of his report, Simpson recommended to the London committee that the HBC consider moving the Columbia depot to the mouth of the Fraser River. Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) on the Columbia River was nevertheless established as the HBC west coast depot in 1824–25, under Chief Factor John McLoughlin. After returning eastward in 1825, McMillan was placed in charge of Fort Assiniboine (Alta) with specific responsibility for surveying the alternative route to the headwaters of the Fraser in New Caledonia by way of the Yellowhead Pass. Appointed chief factor in March 1827, McMillan was again sent to the west coast. He was given the task of establishing Fort Langley (B.C.), at the mouth of the Fraser River, designed to secure the company’s share of the coastal fur trade and to provide a depot if Fort Vancouver had to be abandoned. After a year at Fort Langley, McMillan once again travelled inland with Simpson, to the Red River colony (Man.), and was granted a year’s furlough to return to Scotland. While in Scotland he married Eleanor McKinley.
In 1830 McMillan was appointed to establish an experimental farm for the company at Red River, where he was joined the following year by his wife and their infant daughter. The project did not prosper under McMillan’s supervision and, frustrated by the farming operation and the “Backbitting and Slander” of Red River society, he was transferred to the Lake of Two Mountains district near Montreal in 1834.
McMillan retired from the HBC in 1839 and settled with his wife and eight children in Alexandria, near Perth, Scotland. His country-born children stayed in North America and the records of the Red River settlement indicate that three of them took up residence there. His daughter Victoire remained on the Pacific coast where she married John McLoughlin’s son Joseph in 1839. From his Scottish retreat McMillan maintained contact with the fur trade through periodic meetings with other retired traders and through his correspondence with Governor Simpson, who had assumed control of his financial affairs in the Canadas. In the early 1840s Simpson asked McMillan for his commentary on some information about the fur trade west of the Rockies he planned to include in his Narrative of a journey round the world, during the years 1841 and 1842, published in London in 1847. After McMillan’s death in 1858, his wife and family found themselves in rather serious financial difficulties and Simpson arranged for the extension of his company pension.
McMillan, whose career in the fur trade with both the NWC and the HBC spanned almost 40 years, was, in the words of Governor Simpson, “a very steady plain blunt man, shrewd & sensible of correct conduct and good character.” He was influential in the expansion of the trade to the Pacific coast and McMillan Island in the Fraser River commemorates his contribution.