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McTAVISH (Mactavish), JOHN GEORGE, fur trader; b. c. 1778, probably in Dunardary, Argyll, Scotland, son of Lachlan Mactavish, Chief of Clan Tavish; d. 20 July 1847 in Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Oka), Lower Canada.

The second son of the impoverished last chief of Clan Tavish, John George Mactavish was recruited into the service of the North West Company in 1798 by his illustrious distant relative Simon McTavish*, whose spelling of the family name he adopted. A well-educated young man, he apparently spent his first years clerking at the company’s headquarters in Montreal, although he did attend the summer rendezvous at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) in 1802. As Montreal offered little adventure, in 1803 he was excited to be part of the NWC expedition which attempted to challenge the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly directly by building posts on James Bay [see Simon McTavish]. Arriving at Charlton Island (N.W.T.) by sea from Quebec in early September, he was given charge of the warehouse erected there, Fort St Andrews, but he frequently travelled to the post built on Hayes Island (Ont.) near Moose Factory. Relations with the HBC people were cordial enough that McTavish took for a country wife Charlotte, a daughter of John Thomas*, the HBC’s chief at Moose Factory, and his native wife. By the fall of 1806, however, the Nor’Westers had decided to abandon their enterprise at James Bay and McTavish returned to Quebec, leaving a distressed Charlotte behind.

Subsequently, McTavish was posted to the interior, wintering at Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River in 1808–9. References to his attendance at meetings of the Beaver Club indicate that he was in Montreal in 1810–11, but later in 1811 he was part of the brigade under John McDonald* of Garth which crossed the Rocky Mountains to supply David Thompson* on the upper Columbia River. McTavish wintered at Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.) and accompanied Thompson back to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in 1812. McTavish was then to play an important role in the NWC’s successful challenge to the Pacific Fur Company on the coast. He and his brigade reached the American company’s Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.) in April 1813 to await the arrival of an NWC supply ship, but when it failed to appear they returned to the Spokane posts for the summer, being provisioned by the Astorians. McTavish and an enlarged flotilla returned to Astoria in the fall with the news that Britain and the United States were at war and that ships were being sent to capture the American post. McTavish forthwith entered into negotiations with the Pacific Fur Company to sell its assets to the NWC, the deal being completed on 16 October. Although he was to be criticized for having accepted unfavourable terms, his actions were supported by William McGillivray*, the head of the NWC. He had been made a partner earlier that year. It was probably during this period that McTavish took as his second mixed-blood country wife, Nancy McKenzie*, who had been entrusted by her father, former Nor’Wester Roderick Mackenzie, to the guardianship of trader John Stuart of New Caledonia (B.C.).

For McTavish, the 1813–14 season was a troublesome one at Astoria, now called Fort George; there were conflicts over management and trouble with the Indians. In the spring of 1814 he led an armed expedition up the Columbia to retaliate against the tribe that had attacked and pillaged two NWC canoes at the Cascades (near Cascade Locks, Oreg.). He appears to have been on furlough the next year, but spent the 1815–16 season again in the Columbia department.

McTavish was apparently east of the Rockies from the 1816–17 season on, and became embroiled in the final stages of the conflict with the HBC. In 1818 he was sent to winter in the Athabasca country: on coming out the next summer he was one of the partners captured by the HBC governor, William Williams, at Grand Rapids (Man.). He was transported to York Factory and sent to England for trial, but when these proceedings came to nothing, he left for North America in March 1820 aboard the James Munroe. At Montreal he was instructed to proceed post-haste into the interior to retaliate, and he was in charge of the party that arrested Colin Robertson in June at Grand Rapids. In the last season before the coalition of the two companies, McTavish was given charge of Fort William.

At the union in 1821 he was made a chief factor, and it is a mark of his influence and the esteem in which he was held that he was placed in charge of York Factory, now the main depot for the HBC’s Northern Department. Governor George Simpson*, who had taken a liking to him even though they had been trade rivals when they first met aboard the James Munroe, had high praise for his business skills and his efficient management at York. In 1824 McTavish was named to preside at Council in the event of Simpson’s absence. During the 1820s McTavish’s family was growing apace: he and Nancy McKenzie, whom fur trade society regarded as Madam McTavish, had at least five daughters.

On 22 Feb. 1830, however, when on furlough in Scotland, McTavish married Catherine A. Turner of Turner Hall, Aberdeenshire, thus taking the unprecedented step of casting aside his mixed-blood wife without first making provision for her. Simpson, who supported him in this action, did likewise two days later. The McTavishes returned to North America with the Simpsons later that year, travelling with them by canoe from Montreal to Michipicoten (Michipicoten River, Ont.), where McTavish branched off to take his bride to his new posting at Moose Factory, headquarters of the Southern Department. Although he had been well liked for his kind and generous nature, his cruel abandonment of his native family led to severe attacks upon his character, particularly by John Stuart and Donald McKenzie*, which hurt him deeply. Simpson, as his remarkably detailed and intimate correspondence with McTavish reveals, staunchly defended him and arranged for Nancy McTavish to be married off. In spite of this loyalty, the governor did confide in his “Character book” of 1832 that he was concerned about McTavish’s extravagant living habits and signs of intemperance.

By the early 1830s McTavish had become so corpulent that a friend declared he had never seen “such a stout man.” Because of his health, McTavish was given a furlough in 1835–36 and was then transferred to the comfortable post of Lake of Two Mountains near Montreal. In 1837 he purchased the farm given up by the company at Lac des Chats (near Quyon), Lower Canada. He was grief-stricken by the death of his wife in October 1841; she had brought him much happiness and two more daughters. Finding life unbearable as a widower, he married in March 1843 a woman much his junior, Elizabeth (Eppie) Cameron, a niece of Chief Factor Angus Cameron*. This union produced another pair of daughters.

After a career of almost 50 years in the fur trade, McTavish died following a short illness in 1847. In his will he divided his estate, which was valued at approximately £6,000, between the daughters of his marriage to Catherine Turner and his current wife and family.

Sylvia Van Kirk

A letter by John George McTavish was published under the title “The Nor’Westers invade the Bay,” ed. W. S. Wallace, Beaver, outfit 277 (March 1947): 33–34.

ANQ-M, CE1-63, 11 oct. 1841; CM1, 1/12, 20 juill. 1847 (will of J. G. McTavish) (copy at PAM, HBCA). PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1. PAM, HBCA, B.4/b/1: f.15; B.135/a/91–94; B.135/c/2; D.4; D.5; E.4/1a: 39, 44d, 61 d; E.24/4; F.3/2; J. G. McTavish file. Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 10 (Rich); 30 (Williams). Letitia [Mactavish] Hargrave, The letters of Letitia Hargrave, ed. Margaret Arnett MacLeod (Toronto, 1947). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties”.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Sylvia Van Kirk, “McTAVISH, JOHN GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mctavish_john_george_7E.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_john_george_7E.html
Author of Article:   Sylvia Van Kirk
Title of Article:   McTAVISH, JOHN GEORGE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   April 15, 2024