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Manitoba History: Review: Jean Murray Cole, Exile in the Wilderness: The Life of Chief Factor Archibald McDonald, 1790-1853

by N. J. Fredrickson
Cargill Grain Company, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Ballachulish Ferry no longer plies the Highland waters at the mouth of Loch Leven. I hear that a causeway was built there two or three years ago to facilitate heavy tourist traffic along Scotland’s west coast. Yet an image of that mist shrouded boat is one of my most vivid recollections of Scotland.

Perhaps, when Archibald McDonald recalled his homeland after many years of “Exile” in America, he too, remembered the Ballachulish Ferry which had carried him away from Glencoe.

In 1811, life in the Highlands had a bleak prospect for young, ambitious Scots. With the clearances at their height and the economy in disarray, many young men looked to North America for better opportunities. When McDonald left Glencoe in 1811, he was bound for a meeting with Lord Selkirk in Stromness, to begin his new job as supervisor of Selkirk’s Red River Expedition. After 7 years in Red River he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, and spent most of his Company service in the Rocky Mountain region. He retired to Montreal where he died in 1853 without ever returning to Scotland.

Jean Murray Cole’s Exile in the Wilderness is a biography of Archibald McDonald’s life in the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories from 1812 to 1853. As her title suggests, she sees her great-great-grandfather as a man who by that one decision placed himself in exile from the culture and society of his homeland, and forever afterward suffered the deprivations of that exile.

Her very detailed account is based on the private journals and correspondence of McDonald which offer readers an insight into the personal life of a fur trader in the early 19th century. McDonald’s many letters to family and friends provide a useful counterpoint to the business-like company reports which he, like other factors in the HBC, kept at each of their fur trade posts.

By quoting extensively from the journals, Cole allows McDonald to tell his own story of many events. The account of his experiences with the first Red River settlers illustrates his lack of confidence in the leadership of Miles Macdonnell and offer some insights into the plight of that ill-fated first attempt at settlement.

In 1820, McDonald left Red River to join the Hudson’s Bay Company. He joined along with another young Scot, George Simpson of Ross-shire who later became Governor of the Company. Thus began a close association which was to last over 30 years. Simpson’s infamous Character Book described Archy McDonald as a “shrewd, clear-headed man,” and a “better figure at our council meetings,” but cautioned that he might be “overbearing if in power.” When Simpson became Governor of the Northern Department in 1821, he sent his friend to the Rocky Mountain region where he saw the HBC to be in need of stronger management.

For the social historian, this book contains interesting information on the human aspects of the fur trade. It discusses the relationships between Indians and traders, and among traders. It also illustrates the ways in which these traders cultivated their scientific and literary interests, in spite of communication difficulties and lack of material for study Certainly the life of Archibald McDonald in America was much different from the one he might have led in Scotland, and the author is careful to point out those differences. These are the evidences of exile.

Yet the man who retired to his farm just outside Montreal and named the place Glencoe, had spent more of his life in the fur trade country than in his homeland. His wife, his children, his life’s work, were part of a unique fur trade society When he reviewed his life far from the peaceful comfort of “Glencoe”, did he really wish to be going back on the Ballachulish Ferry?

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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