“Living here the best way they can”: Archibald Macdonald’s Interactions With Indigenous Neighbours

Jacob Oosterhoff is a fourth year geography major with a concentration in resources, economy, and the environment. He studies history on the side in order to better understand contemporary society. A rural upbringing in Chilliwack still occasionally results in wide eyes as he adjusts to urban life in the Vancouver region. His interests range from philosophy to GIS application, and he loves his guitar very much.

On July 15, 1828 Archibald McDonald wrote the following words in his journal: “Shortly after leaving camp this morning, we passed a number of Indian families, living here the best way they can…”[1] McDonald wrote this while beginning his travels from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Northwest, accompanied by over twenty men including the Hudson Bay Company’s Governor, George Simpson. The writings of McDonald are full of similar passing references to the indigenous people he encountered. Although we must be cautious when doing so, we can use these writings to gain a better understanding of the relationship that he had with the people that he chose to call “Indians.”

1

Glencoe, Scotland – where Archibald McDonald was born. Photographed in 1962. This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, ed. Jean Murray Cole (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001), 5.

McDonald was born in 1790 in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands. Typical of the sons of the tacksmen class, McDonald sought employment in the British Empire. After first taking a position in the service of Lord Selkirk from 1812, McDonald joined the HBC in 1820 as a clerk. Making his way to the Pacific Northwest in 1821, McDonald was one of the first HBC employees to cross over the Rocky Mountains. He succeeded another Highlander, James McMillan, to become the Chief Factor at Fort Langley in 1828. It was here that a large portion of his journal writings were recorded, including descriptions of his interactions with indigenous people in the area. Except for some recent work which integrates Indigenous oral history into the written record, much of the early information we have about the relationships between Indigenous people and Scots in the early years of settlement of what is now British Columbia is through the writings of ‘great men’ like Archibald McDonald.[2]

Owing to the nature of the fur trade, McDonald would have been in contact with Indigenous peoples frequently, including marrying “according to the custom of the country” Princess Raven, daughter of a Chinook Chief in 1823 and Jane Klyne, a Métis woman from the Red River settlement, in 1825; yet his encounters with them were only generally mentioned in passing. For example, when writing a report in February of 1830 to Governor Simpson, Archibald declares that the great number of Indians in the surrounding region would be quite dangerous if not for their lack of solidarity.[3] This acknowledgement reveals that McDonald was aware to a certain extent that a struggle for power was taking place in the area. McDonald never explicitly describes a struggle for geopolitical control and most of his references to his indigenous neighbours are descriptions of trade and labor. On multiple occasions, he refers to “trusty” Indians when he was in need of their services, for example, in carrying letters to different forts.[4]

original.8504

Daguerreotype portrait of Archibald McDonald (1790-1853), Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Co. Source: Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 3191585

The most negative descriptions of indigenous people took place following encounters where McDonald felt that he had been wronged. During violent encounters, he describes them as “bloodthirsty villains,”[5] and when important letters were delayed, he describes them as “unreliable.”[6] When he felt threatened by a passing tribe, McDonald described them as “wretched Indians.”[7] He also writes in his journal that he becomes uncomfortable when tribes camped too close to Fort Langley, because of their inherent proclivity towards “pilfering” and “unpleasant harshness.”[8] Like most European writers of the time, McDonald vaguely communicates ideas of racial superiority; but, for the most part, he is simply dismissive of the activities of the tribes in the area.

Largely, his concern was for trade, and indigenous people were simply useful members of the local economy. Within this context, McDonald’s views were quite innocuous; outside of the walls of Fort Langley his ideas of racial superiority were rather inconsequential since the Europeans, at the time, were at a disadvantage in terms of military might (the writings of McDonald acknowledge this).[9] It would not be until many years later that the ideas of racial superiority held by McDonald and others like him would result in grave consequences for indigenous people.

This is only a brief example of the vast amount of writings on the interaction of Scottish settlers with indigenous people which Archibald McDonald recorded. There is much that can be learned about the views of powerful men regarding their indigenous neighbours. However, it is important to keep in mind that men like McDonald were carefully regulating their words for the sake of their readers (often their employers). In other words, clear biases are revealed in both the positive and negative ways in which indigenous people are described within fur trade journals. More importantly, the views of ‘great men’ are not necessarily reflective of the ideas of the lower class Scottish workers in a place like Fort Langley. Those people may have held similar views to McDonald, but their views also might have been very different. Studying the writings of fur traders like McDonald is only a starting point. Only when historians integrate the oral history of the Indigenous people who encountered these early Scottish sojourners and settlers will we gain a fuller understanding of the history of early contact in British Columbia.

–Jacob Oosterhoff


Sources

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

McDonald, Archibald, “C: McDonald’s Report to the Governor and Council, 25 February 1830,” in The Fort Langley journals, 1827-30, ed. Wayne P. Suttles and Morag Maclachlan, 218-227. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998.

McDonald, Archibald, “Fort Langley, 1829-33,” in This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, ed. Jean Murray Cole, 61-102. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001.

McDonald, Archibald, “Journal Kept by Archibald McDonald, February-July 1830,” in The Fort Langley journals, 1827-30, ed. Wayne P. Suttles and Morag Maclachlan, 142-153. Vancouver: UBC Press 1998.

McDonald, Archibald. Peace River [microform] : a canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific by the late Sir George Simpson (governor, Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company), in 1828 : journal of the late chief factor, Archibald McDonald (Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company), who accompanied him. Ottawa: J. Durie, 1872.

Notes

[1] Archibald McDonald, Peace River [microform] : a canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific by the late Sir George Simpson (governor, Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company), in 1828 : journal of the late chief factor, Archibald McDonald (Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company), who accompanied him. (Ottawa: J. Durie, 1872), 2.

[2] See for example: Keith Thor Carlson, “Reflections on Indigenous History and Memory: Reconstructing and Reconsidering Contact,” in Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact, ed. John Sutton Lutz (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), 46–68 and Wendy C. Wickwire, “‘To See Ourselves as the Other’s Other’: Nlaka’pamux Contact Narratives,” Canadian Historical Review, LXXV, 1 (March 1994): 1-20.

[3] Archibald McDonald, “C: McDonald’s Report to the Governor and Council, 25 February 1830,” in The Fort Langley journals, 1827-30, ed. Wayne P. Suttles and Morag Maclachlan (Vancouver: UBC Press 1998), 219.

[4] Archibald McDonald, “Fort Langley, 1829-33,” in This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, ed. Jean Murray Cole (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001), 62.

[5] Ibid, 66.

[6] McDonald, “Fort Langley, 1829-33,” 74.

[7] Archibald McDonald, “Journal Kept by Archibald McDonald, February-July 1830,” in The Fort Langley journals, 1827-30, ed. Wayne P. Suttles and Morag Maclachlan (Vancouver: UBC Press 1998), 100.

[8] McDonald, “Journal Kept by Archibald McDonald, February-July 1830,” 99. Author’s emphasis.

[9] Archibald McDonald, “C: McDonald’s Report to the Governor and Council, 25 February 1830,” in The Fort Langley journals, 1827-30, ed. Wayne P. Suttles and Morag Maclachlan (Vancouver: UBC Press 1998), 219.

Advertisements

One thought on ““Living here the best way they can”: Archibald Macdonald’s Interactions With Indigenous Neighbours

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of April 8, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s