MITCHELL, DAVID, physician, office holder, fur trader, and jp; b. c. 1750 in Scotland, son of Andrew Mitchell, a manufacturer in Livingston, and Elizabeth Anderson; d. 7 Aug. 1832 in Penetanguishene, Upper Canada.
Nothing certain is known about David Mitchell’s early life in Scotland, although the records of the University of Edinburgh list a medical student of that name in 1770–71. In 1771 the David Mitchell of this biography took ship as a common sailor to the Thirteen Colonies, where he joined his uncle, a medical officer on the army staff at New York City. When his uncle was transferred to the West Indies in 1772, Mitchell was placed in charge of the New York hospital. In 1774 he was appointed surgeon’s mate in the 8th Foot and later that year he accompanied a detachment of the 8th to Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). He was the only trained physician in the fortified trading community and the vast western wilderness of which it was the fur-trade centre.
In 1779 Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair* took charge of the post, replacing Arent Schuyler Depeyster, and Mitchell was one of the few people with whom Sinclair, a fellow Scot, got along. This association broadened Mitchell’s responsibilities. When Sinclair dismissed John Askin* as deputy commissary on 2 June 1780, Mitchell was given that position which he held for several years. Also in 1780 Sinclair, worried about a possible American attack on the weakly fortified post, decided to move the fort and the community to nearby Mackinac Island, and Mitchell’s close connection with the lieutenant governor brought him several choice parcels of land there.
Meanwhile, rumours were circulating that the 8th Foot was to be transferred from Michilimackinac. Mitchell had married a vivacious girl of mixed blood, Elizabeth Bertrand, in July 1776. Unlike many whites who left their Indian families in the wilderness, he was deeply devoted to his wife and would not desert her. On Christmas Day 1780 he requested permission to resign when the regiment left. Permission was eventually granted and he gave up his appointment in 1783. Since the incoming regiment had no physician, however, he continued to serve for several years.
In 1781 the sloop Welcome had transported Mitchell’s house timbers to Mackinac Island and he constructed a large, gambrel-roofed house on Market Street. The influx of men to build the new fort provided him with added opportunity for income. He received an allowance to attend to the Canadians employed on the works as well as to the Indians. To provide for himself when he resigned, Mitchell also began dabbling in trade. His wife’s relatives gave him ready access to the native community and his business prospered. By the time he left the army he had built up a sizeable enterprise. Most of his contacts were along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan from L’Arbre Croche (Cross Village) to Traverse Bay (Grand Traverse Bay). By 1790 he was importing goods from Montreal and was considered one of the principal traders of the post. A freemason, he had helped found St John’s Lodge No.15, which was chartered in 1782; active in civic affairs, he served as a justice of the peace and postmaster.
In July 1796, when the British garrison turned over Mackinac Island to the Americans in accordance with Jay’s Treaty, Mitchell was so firmly established that he did not want to move to the new post on nearby St Joseph Island. Instead, he stayed on Mackinac, and as his sons David and Daniel came of age he involved them in his growing business network. Close contacts were kept with the traders on St Joseph, and Mitchell imported extensive amounts of goods from Montreal. In 1808 and 1809 the Mitchells worked in association with the Michilimackinac Company, in which a number of Montreal firms were involved [see John Ogilvy*].
Occasionally Mitchell went to Montreal on business and in 1806 he had witnessed the marriage there of David Jr to Maria, daughter of John Gregory*. At the invitation of his trading friends in Montreal, both David Mitchells joined the prestigious Beaver Club on 26 Jan. 1807. They attended from time to time until David Jr’s death in 1809. On Mackinac Island Mitchell’s home was one of the primary social centres for the 25 families who comprised frontier “high society.” When the Reverend David Bacon came to Mackinac in 1802 in a futile effort to begin a Protestant mission, his wife spent considerable time at the Mitchells’ attempting to learn the Ottawa language. She was frustrated, however, because their time was taken up by card parties for ladies and gentlemen twice a week, balls, dinners, and teaparties. As members of the élite the Mitchells were concerned about the education of their children. The doctor had a large library, and they sent their sons to Montreal and their daughters to Europe for instruction.
By 1811 war between England and the United States appeared likely. Mitchell went to St Joseph Island and on 7 December rejoined the British army as a hospital mate. Living at St Joseph was his daughter Jessie, wife of the prosperous trader Lewis Crawford. Crawford was deeply involved in recruiting Indians for the British cause and Mitchell helped furnish supplies. When war was declared, Mitchell accompanied the British and Indian force under Captain Charles Roberts* that surprised and captured the garrison at Fort Michilimackinac in the first action of the war, on 17 July 1812. Mitchell had returned home in a most dramatic way.
Throughout the war Mitchell continued to serve as hospital mate on Mackinac. Occasionally he attended conferences with the Indians, and during the winter of 1813–14 he accompanied Robert Dickson’s expedition to what is now Wisconsin. When in the summer of 1814 the Americans unsuccessfully attacked Mackinac Island, Elizabeth Mitchell actively recruited Indian allies for the British from her Ottawa relatives at L’Arbre Croche. As a token of appreciation, the authorities granted her an allowance of £50 a year for two years. The Ojibwas also respected her highly. In November 1814 they presented her with a deed to Round Island, their traditional burying ground located half a mile southeast of Mackinac.
The Treaty of Ghent which ended the war confronted Dr Mitchell with a serious dilemma. Mackinac Island was returned to the Americans, whom he had grown to hate. A man of iron will, he decided to accompany the British forces when in July 1815 they moved to Drummond Island to build a new post. He secured an appointment as assistant surgeon in the Indian Department. Not willing to leave their extensive holdings on Mackinac unsecured, Elizabeth Mitchell stayed behind to manage their large hay farm, fishing enterprises, and fur-trade business.
Tension ran high in the months following the cessation of the war. The Indians, who had never been defeated, were indignant at the ending of hostilities. Elizabeth Mitchell’s influence with them was resented bitterly by William Henry Puthuff, the newly appointed United States Indian agent on Mackinac. On 9 Sept. 1815 he posted a notice on the church door prohibiting her from holding conferences with the Indians. When “those unfortunate deluded People” continued to visit he threatened to arrest her. There followed a flurry of letters and recriminations between the British and American commandants at Drummond and Mackinac. Faced with being sent to Detroit for trial, she fled at night in a small canoe to join her husband.
Hostile feelings between the Americans and British cooled, and in 1816 or 1817 Elizabeth Mitchell returned to Mackinac. For the next ten years she spent most of her time on the island, where her home was still the centre of society, while the doctor remained on Drummond. At both locations they maintained retail stores, and the comings and goings of Elizabeth and their sons provided ample opportunities for trade and occasional smuggling. When son William came of age he became an American citizen and an active partner in his mother’s fur-trade activities. Daniel, George, and Andrew resided on Drummond with their father. This family trade network was lucrative, and the Mackinac Island tax records for 1823 indicate that Mitchell was the island’s third largest taxpayer.
On Drummond Island the ageing Dr Mitchell continued to attend conferences with the Indians and to minister to their medical needs. He also served as a justice of the peace. On 20 Feb. 1820 he presided at a double wedding when his son George married Harriet Ussher and his granddaughter Elizabeth Ann Hamilton married Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson*. At about this time Mitchell was described as “built large and bony, with broad, rugged features, crowned with tangled masses of grizzled hair.” Elizabeth visited him now and again, and died at Drummond Island on 26 Feb. 1827. On 18 April her son Andrew sadly took her corpse back to Mackinac for burial.
The following year the British garrison was forced to leave the post because Drummond Island was determined to be within the boundaries of the young republic. Consequently Mitchell, who was nearly 80, had to move once again, this time to Penetanguishene in 1828. There, accompanied by Andrew and George, he built one of the first houses. Death found him on 7 Aug. 1832 – the result of cholera, according to family tradition. He was buried on his farm at Penetanguishene.
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