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McTAVISH, DONALD, fur trader; b. 1771 or 1772 in Strath Errick, Scotland, son of Alexander McTavish; drowned 22 May 1814 at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Like many Nor’Westers, Donald McTavish entered the fur trade through kinship ties, his first cousin being Simon McTavish, the North West Company’s principal director. Having joined as an apprentice clerk about 1790, he apparently spent the following 18 years in the Upper English River department, as the NWC designated the basin of the upper Churchill River. Some time before 1795 he was on the Beaver River, in that department, most likely establishing the Lac Vert post (Green Lake, Sask.). David Thompson* met him at the Beaver River in 1797, and in the following year McTavish reported that he had sent Thompson from Lac Vert “by land to touch at Fort George,” an NWC post on the North Saskatchewan about 40 miles west of the present-day Alberta border. Perhaps as early as 1797 McTavish was promoted to a partnership. Certainly he was a partner by 1799, for he was listed along with Angus Shaw* as a proprietor in the Upper English River department that year. Following the company’s annual meeting at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in 1804, he went on rotation to Montreal. In 1806 he was again assigned to the English River.

In the course of the 1808 meeting at Fort William (as Kaministiquia was by then named), McTavish was one of five wintering partners appointed to recommend solutions to various financial difficulties, including the problem of heavy inventories. As one of the “proprietors named to the Athabasca department that year, he took charge at Fort Dunvegan (on the Peace River at 118°40´ W) in place of Archibald Norman McLeod. Apart from his annual journey to Fort William, McTavish remained at Fort Dunvegan until 1811.

The NWC continued during this time to expand its trade westward. David Thompson explored the Columbia River and its tributaries, and the East India Company was approached for a licence that would allow the NWC to sell its furs in China. In the summer of 1811 the NWC resolved to “enter into adventure and a Trade from England, and China to the North West Coast of America” with Donald McTavish in command. On his rotation McTavish travelled to Britain for the winter of 1811–12. He purchased an estate in Scotland for his retirement and then joined William McGillivray* in London to make preparations for an expedition to the northwest coast. It may have been at this time that he was enrolled as an original member of the Canada Club, founded in 1810 to lobby the British government on behalf of Canadian commercial interests. Following the London fur sales of April 1812; he returned to Fort William, where Thompson reported not only his success in reaching the Pacific but also the establishment of Astoria at the Columbia’s mouth by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Taking advantage of the recently declared war between the United States and Britain, the wintering partners determined to seize Astoria by “the sending a Vessel thereto,” and at the same time confirmed McTavish’s appointment as the venture’s leader since “we hope much from his known integrity.” Accompanied by his second in command, John McDonald* of Garth (who apparently was somewhat miffed at being “deprived” of first place), McTavish set sail for England where arrangements had been made to have the NWC ship Isaac Todd escorted by a naval frigate with orders “to destroy, and if possible totally annihilate,” any American settlements on the northwest coast.

The Isaac Todd, under Captain Fraser Smith, set sail from Portsmouth on 25 March 1813, but not before most of the NWC voyageurs and clerks had been temporarily impressed into the Royal Navy. McTavish blamed McDonald for this episode and another incident at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where the voyageurs underwent a brief imprisonment as suspected citizens of France. At Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, McDonald transferred to the convoy ship. Left for the remainder of the 13-month voyage on the lumbering Isaac Todd, with a crew who reportedly came to detest him “beyond all measure,” McTavish had for consolation the charms of Jane Barnes, a Portsmouth barmaid whom he had induced to accompany him.

The Isaac Todd reached the Columbia on 23 April 1814, only to find that Astoria had already been acquired by an overland party of Nor’Westers through purchase on 16 Oct. 1813 [see Duncan McDougall], and had been renamed Fort George upon its formal possession by the sloop Racoon on 13 December. The management of the post was in disarray when McTavish assumed charge. He immediately demonstrated his well-known reputation for “securing the good will and alliance of the Indian Nations.” Not only did he pay “uncommon attention” to all Indians coming to trade, regardless of status, and allow the chiefs to sleep inside the fort because of rain, but he managed to arrange a murder trial and execution by firing-squad of some Indians with the complete approbation of the chiefs, with whom he then “smoked the calumet of peace.” But what created more of a stir was his “flaxen-haired, blue-eyed” companion, Miss Barnes, and the transfer of her affections to Alexander Henry. Being of an “amorous temperament,” however, McTavish was sympathetic to others’ liaisons and understandingly gave up his room two nights later “for the convenience” of three colleagues and their Chinook women; he subsequently took a Chinook woman “in tow” himself.

On 22 May 1814 McTavish drowned with Henry when their boat capsized on its way to the Isaac Todd, a mishap some Nor’Westers later blamed on Captain Smith. McTavish’s body was found a day or two later and buried near the fort. According to his gravestone he was 42. The following November, before his death became known in Montreal, McTavish, McGillivrays and Company, principal shareholders in the NWC, nominated him as an agent.

But for the Columbia adventure and the manner of his death, Donald McTavish might not have been one of the more memorable Nor’Westers. Yet it was through his rather typical activities in the English River and Athabasca country that he not only realized an “independent fortune” but won the respect of NWC agents, partners, and clerks. Eulogized in the Quebec Gazette for his “enterprising genius,” he was remembered by Ross Cox*, a member of the expedition to Astoria, as “a man of bold and decided character” who appreciated merit “without reference to a man’s family or connexions.”

Jean Morrison

Oreg. Hist. Soc. (Portland), Scrapbooks, SB 49: 3. PAC, MG 19, E1, ser. 1 (transcripts; mfm. at Old Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.)). UTL-TF, ms coll. 30. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 442–43. [D. W. Harmon], Sixteen years in the Indian country: the journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800–1816, ed. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1957). Duncan McGillivray, The journal of Duncan M’Gillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794–5, ed. and intro. A. S. Morton (Toronto, 1929). Mackenzie, Journals and letters (Lamb), 476. New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). [David Thompson], David Thompsons narrative of his explorations in western America, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1916; repr. New York, 1968). Quebec Gazette, 14 Dec. 1814. B. B. Barker, The McLoughlin empire and its rulers . . . (Glendale, Calif., 1959), 161. J. G. Colmer, The Canada Club (London) . . . ([London, Ont.], 1934), 7. Ross Cox, The Columbia River; or scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains . . . , ed. E. I. and J. R. Stewart (Norman, Okla., 1957). Grace Flandrau, Astor and the Oregon country ([St Paul, Minn.], n.d.). Alexander Ross, The fur hunters of the far west, ed. K. A. Spaulding (Norman, 1956). B. M. Gough, “The 1813 expedition to Astoria,” Beaver, outfit 304 (autumn 1973): 44–51.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jean Morrison, “McTAVISH, DONALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mctavish_donald_5E.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/mctavish_donald_5E.html
Author of Article:   Jean Morrison
Title of Article:   McTAVISH, DONALD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   November 30, 2023