McDonald, Finan (1782-1851)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 12/23/2010
  • Essay 9668
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Finan McDonald, one of the most colorful characters of the early fur trade period in the Northwest, crossed the Continental Divide in modern-day Alberta and reached the upper Columbia River in 1807 as part of the North West Company expedition headed by David Thompson (1770-1857). During the next 20 years, McDonald worked as a clerk and trader throughout the Inland Northwest, marrying an Interior Salish woman and raising a mixed-blood family. He left behind stories and descendants that remain an important part of the region’s history.           

Early Days

Finan McDonald was born into a military family on the Knoydart Peninsula north of Glencoe, Scotland, in 1782. When he was 4 years old, his family emigrated to Canada and settled in Glengarry County, a Scottish enclave near Montreal.

Nothing else is known of his early life, but he obviously received a rudimentary education, for in 1805, at the age of 23, he entered the service of the North West Company as an apprentice clerk, a position that required basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Two years later, Finan was posted to Rocky Mountain House, far up the North Fork of the Saskatchewan River in present-day Alberta. In 1807, he accompanied surveyor and company partner David Thompson on an expedition across the Continental Divide, charged with exploring the Columbia River drainage and opening trade with the tribes of that region.

Entering the Fur Trade

Between 1807 and 1812, McDonald served as David Thompson’s second-in-command, playing a key role as the Nor’Westers established a network of trade houses that stretched from the source lakes of the Columbia south into Western Montana and Eastern Washington. Thompson’s field journals contain numerous references to McDonald's myriad duties, which included ferrying supplies back and forth across the Rockies, hunting and fishing for provisions, general carpentry, building canoes, making contact with tribal leaders, purchasing horses for transport, overseeing trade houses, and supervising crews of workers. At times he garnered Thompson's praise as "the most clever"; on other occasions, such as the day he lost a bag of musket balls along a trail, he tested the patience of his boss.

Thompson was initially wary of Finan's inexperience, but by the fall of 1808 placed enough faith in his clerk's abilities to dispatch him down the Kootenai River to establish a winter post among Lower Kootenai bands. When harsh winter conditions stopped him short of his destination, McDonald erected a hangard (in fur-trade parlance, a simple enclosure or shelter) east of present-day Libby, Montana, where he made contact with local Plateau bands and conducted a profitable trade for beaver pelts.            

Getting to Spokane House

A year later, Finan accompanied Thompson to Lake Pend Oreille and helped construct Kullyspel House (near present-day Hope, Idaho), then moved upstream on the Clark Fork to build Saleesh House near the winter camps of several Salish bands in present-day Montana. The clerk spent the next three winters between the Kullyspel and Saleesh houses, and during these years he and a Salish woman whom he called Margaret or Peggy (d. 1841) established a country marriage, as the common-law relationships of the fur trade were known. According to tribal tradition, Finan's wife was the daughter of a chief named Chin-Chay-Nay-Whey.              

Late in the fall of 1810, McDonald and two of his North West Company cohorts accompanied a Salish party across the Divide to hunt buffalo. While on the Plains, they encountered a group of Blackfeet, and during an ensuing skirmish, the Nor’westers fought alongside the Plateau people. This infuriated the Blackfeet, and fear of retribution apparently prompted McDonald to move west to the Spokane country, where Jaco Finlay (1768-1828) and a crew of voyageurs were constructing a new trading post at the junction of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers, a few miles north of the present-day city of Spokane.            

There is no record of the date that McDonald arrived at the new Spokane House, or how much work he may have contributed to its construction. But he was there by mid-June 1811, when David Thompson reached the new post with fresh supplies after pioneering a trade route across Athabasca Pass.            

On June 19, 1811, according to the McDonald family Bible, Peggy gave birth to a baby girl, named Helene (1811-1863). Finan apparently remained at Spokane House during the summer, then in August traveled north to Kettle Falls to scout the Columbia upstream as far as Boat Encampment, at the river’s northernmost bend. He was the first known white man to travel those 250 river miles, but left no written account of his journey.           

Meeting the Competition

When David Thompson retired from active duty and returned to eastern Canada in spring 1812, Finan remained in the Northwest. He and the other Nor'Westers soon learned that their monopoly on the fur trade of the Columbia District was being challenged by John Jacob Astor's (1763-1848) Pacific Fur Company out of New York. The outbreak of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain put the members of both fur companies on high alert, and in October 1813, Finan McDonald was among a brigade of North West Company employees in 10 canoes who paddled down the Columbia to Fort Astoria, flying the British flag.

The Nor'Westers set up camp to await the arrival of a supply ship and a British frigate that had orders to destroy the American post. The Astorians, upon learning of the approach of the Royal Navy, decided to sell their inventory to the Canadians and vacate the Columbia. 

Finan McDonald the Man

An Irish clerk named Ross Cox (1793-1853) transferred his allegiance to the Nor'Westers, and in the fall of 1814 found himself posted to Spokane House along with Finan McDonald, whom he described some years later in an account of his adventures. "His appearance was very striking: in height he was six feet four inches, with broad shoulders, large bushy whiskers, and red hair, which for some years had not felt the scissors, and which sometimes falling over his face and shoulders gave a wild and uncouth appearance" (Cox, 185).

In addition to his native tongue, McDonald spoke French and several tribal languages, although Cox noted that he "had a greater facility of acquiring than of retaining the language of the various tribes with whom he came in contact. He was subject to temporary fits of abstraction, during which the country of his auditory was forgotten, and their lingual knowledge set at defiance by the most strange and ludicrous melange of Gaelic, English, French, and half a dozen Indian dialects" (Cox, 185).      

During the next three years, Cox collected many colorful anecdotes regarding his fellow clerk. Although certain incidents were undoubtedly embellished by Cox to add dramatic appeal to his published narrative, he did present a portrait of an appealing character who seemed to vacillate between impetuous pugnacity and calm courage. "M’Donald was a most extraordinary and original character," Cox concluded. "To the gentleness of a lamb he united the courage of a lion. He was particularly affectionate to men of small size, whether equals or inferiors, and would stand their bantering with the utmost good humor; but if any man approaching his own altitude presumed to encroach too far on his good nature, a lowering look and distended nostrils warned the intruder of an approaching eruption" (Cox, 187).           

During the long winter at Spokane House, Cox found McDonald to be a "goodnatured, inoffensive companion, easily irritated, and as easily appeased" (Cox, 187). Describing Finan's domestic situation, Cox wrote: "He had taken a Spokan wife, by whom he had two children. A great portion of his leisure time was spent in the company of her relations, by whom, and indeed by the Indians in general, he was highly beloved. Their affection however was chastened by a moderate degree of fear, with which his gigantic body and indomitable bravery inspired them" (Cox, 185). Although Cox identifies Finan’s wife as Spokane, other sources maintain that she was Kalispel.           

Difficulties and Discontents

Cox and other agents frequently expressed admiration and affection for the red-headed Scot ("a most worthy mortal" according to one of his cohorts), but Finan McDonald’s surviving letters reveal a complicated man, full of frustration with the everyday trials of fur trade life. His handwriting is reasonably clear, and if the phonetic spelling and lack of punctuation sometimes make his words difficult to decipher, his expressive phrasing relays his intentions. In an 1815 dispatch, he described a trip upriver from Fort Vancouver, the trade of the year, and the hiding he gave an Indian horse thief, concluding with personal complaints:

"I have nosion in my heade to Leave this part of the Cuntre  I am tierd of Eating Rottin Salmon since 4 years ago that I am in this Cursed part of the Cuntre Besides other things that laying on me which Mr. McMillin will tell you I only say that I am averey one’s foot Bole if it was in another part of the World they wood dar not doe it as here we must take the warld as it Comes--it will be day to drow accounts and a day to pay" (McDonald to unknown).

(Translation: I have a notion in my head to leave this part of the country. I am tired of eating rotten salmon since the four years I have been in this cursed part of the country. Besides other things laying on me, which Mr. McMillan [the chief agent] will tell you, I only say that I am everyone’s football. If it was in another part of the world they would not dare to do it, but here we must take the world as it comes. There will be a day to draw accounts, and a day to pay.)           

In a letter from Spokane House dispatched to Columbia District chief factor John McTavish (ca. 1778-1847) in April 1819 (here translated into modern English), McDonald described discontent with his job location at Spokane House:

"I bound myself for three years last spring to remain on this side of the Mountains, [but] I assure you that I am getting tired of this side. I would be very happy to be a couple of years on the other side to play with the English to know what they are made of. It was partly against my will that I remain for such a long time."

He portrayed his relations with the local Salish tribes, especially the Spokane, as far from beloved: "For my part this is the last place that I would wish to pass the spring in the whole country. I am not fond of the natives and they are still less fond of me" (McDonald to McTavish, 1819).           

Finan also confided struggles with finances and the size of his growing family. "I am sorry that you were so late in giving your advice about Peggy and not having children," he wrote to his superior. "I had one on the stocks ready to be launched when I got your advice. It can’t be helped -- it is adding one more to the family.  More the merrier. A fool is able to gain money, but it is a wise man that is able to keep it.  Which I am a Fool. I have no more to say" (McDonald to McTavish, 1819).           

Life at Spokane House, Hudson's Bay Era

When the Hudson’s Bay Company absorbed the North West Company in 1821, Finan continued to work at Spokane House for a time. A surviving post journal, for the year beginning April 1822, bears the notation: "Kept By Finan McDonald," and is full of terse but pithy insights into Finan’s world. After completing the roster of residents at the post and the appointments of other traders and voyageurs in the district, McDonald turned his attention to spring gardening, counting more women and children living at the post than men.

"Wednesday 17th

Examined our seed potatoes in the Cellar and found them to be far short of my expectations

Friday April 19

All the men and women belonging to the fort employed digging & preparing a piece of new ground & likewise the old piece of ground for the purpose of planting our potatoes.

May 4

People employed finished the fences of the gardens &c." (Spokane House Journal, April 1822).

Daily entries recorded the number of fish trapped in two elaborate weirs or "barriers" that had been anchored near the confluence of the Little Spokane and Spokane rivers. From spring steelhead and trout through runs of summer chinook and and fall coho salmon, Finan methodically tallied the catch each day, as well as any trades for tribal foods or goods.           

McDonald also paid close attention to the horses, counting them regularly. Since goods and pelts were constantly being packed between various locations, the company needed a constant supply of fresh horses, and Finan often negotiated with tribal owners for extra stock; there was nothing strange about a band of Nez Perce appearing at the post with a string of horses for sale.            

During the course of the year, members of at least 10 tribes visited Spokane House, and McDonald recorded their ebb and flow in the logbook, beginning with the spring root gathering in April. It was his job to determine the exchange value for the meat, berries, and other foodstuffs that these tribal traders brought in to swap for goods.           

Independent trappers, company voyageurs, and traders also came and went frequently, staying over for varying amounts of time and sometimes becoming a burden on the post. At one point McDonald had to accept into his care a number of company men from Fort George (at the mouth of the Columbia) who were thoroughly disabled with venereal disease. From April to late July, the journal recorded a steady stream of business, weather, work, trade, and movements of people.            

Then, on July 22, after taking stock of the inventory on hand at the post, Finan signed his duties over to James Birnie (1800-1864), a young clerk much more suited to the sedentary life.

A Conflict

A few weeks later, Birnie recorded an unusual departure from the usual mundane entries.

"August 28

This morning as Mr. Lewes & Mr. McDonald went down to see our barrier, there happened to be some of the indians there spearing the salmon coming up the river. Mr. McD spoke to them but they being in a canoe, put all his threats at defiance. he lost no time in springing into the water & broke the canoe. The Chief of the place was much displeased and went and broke down nine of the palisades of the garden" (Spokane House Journal, August 28, 1822).

That evening, the Nor’westers took the unusual step of posting a guard in case the incident heated up again, which it apparently did not, for the next day Birnie recorded business as usual, and neither the broken canoe, the dismantled fence, nor anyone’s fishing rights was ever mentioned again.            

Snake River Country

The following spring, Finan McDonald was appointed to lead a group of 52 trappers south into the Snake River country, a notoriously difficult duty that involved traversing an unfamiliar landscape and trying to avoid conflict with both unfriendly tribes and American trappers who were pushing west across the Rocky Mountains. Hudson’s Bay Company agent Alexander Ross (1783-1856) later wrote that:

"the trip was as successful as would have been expected in this for McDonald was a zealous and faithfull servant; but in other respects, it was rather an unfortunate trip. In a conference with a war party of the Piegans one of his men got treacherously shot! In a pitched battle which took place between his party and the Blackfeet, he lost seven more of his men! and in a squabble with the Iroquois of his own party, he got badly wounded from an accidental discharge of a gun" (Ross, 207).            

Gettinig Ready to Retire

Upon his return to Spokane House in April 1824, Finan wrote that "I got home safe from the Snake Country -- when they see me again the beaver will have gold skins" (McDonald to McTavish, 1824). When George Simpson (ca. 1792-1860), governor of the Hudson Bay Company's North American operations, stopped at Spokane House during a tour of the Columbia district that October, McDonald let his boss know that he was anxious to retire, and Simpson agreed that Finan and his family could depart with the brigade to eastern Canada the following year.

By the next spring, however, Simpson had decided that a planned expedition south to the Umpqua River required the leadership skills of McDonald, "who is better qualified for such a charge than any other person now at our disposal" (Simpson, 135).  The governor met McDonald at the mouth of the Spokane River in early April, and reported that Finan had  "fallen in with my views" and had agreed to postpone his retirement for one more year (Simpson, 135).           

When Finan McDonald finally departed from the Columbia country and headed upstream to cross Athabasca Pass on his way to lower Canada in September 1826, he was accompanied by Peggy and four of their five children, thus becoming one of the few fur trade clerks to take his mixed-blood family east. By the next summer, they had joined Finan's Scottish clan in Glengarry County. There Finan apparently thrived; it wasn’t long before he was negotiating to buy the country home of his former boss, David Thompson. Although that deal fell through, in 1838 McDonald was commissioned as a captain in the First Regiment of the Glengarry Militia, and in 1843, two years after Peggy's death, he was elected to the Provincial Parliament for Canada West, (now Ontario). Finan passed away in 1851, and was buried beside Peggy in a Glengarry cemetery.           

Finan McDonald's Northwest Legacy

When Finan and Peggy left the Columbia in 1826, their eldest daughter, Helene, remained behind. She married William Kittson (1795-1841), one of Finan’s former Spokane House colleagues, and they lived at Fort Vancouver with their daughter Jemima until Kittson's death in 1841.

Four years later, Helene married Richard Grant (1794-1862), the chief trader at Fort Hall on the Oregon Trail, and they had three daughters. Around 1856, they relocated to Hell Gate Ronde, the easternmost section of Washington Territory (now known as Missoula, Montana), where they established a large cattle ranch. When Helene died in 1863, she was survived by three daughters, whose descendants still recognize Finan as a not-so-distant ancestor.

Sources: Ross Cox, The Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); T. C. Elliott, "Richard (Captain Johnny) Grant," Oregon Historical Quarterly 36 (1935), p. 5; Finan McDonald to J. G. McTavish, April 9, 1819, F.3/2, fos. 202-202d, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Finan McDonald to J. G. McTavish, April 20, 1820, F.3/2, fos. 228-229, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Finan McDonald to J. G. McTavish, April 4, 1824, B.239/c/1/, fo. 140-141d, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Finan McDonald to unnamed correspondent, September 12, 1815, F.3/2, fo. 125, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Duncan McDougall, Annals of Astoria: Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company, 1811-1813 ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); J. A. Meyers, "Finan McDonald  -- Explorer, Fur Trader and Legislator," Washington Historical Quarterly 13 (July 1922), pp. 196-208; Alexander Ross, Fur Hunters of the Far West ed. by Kenneth A. Spaulding (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956); George Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire ed. by Frederick Merk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); Spokane District Journal, 1822–1823, B.208/a/1, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; David Thompson, Columbia Journals ed. by Barbara Belyea (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994).

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