Manitoba History: James McKay (1828-1879): Métis Trader, Guide, Interpreter and MLA
by Scott Stephen
James McKay was a unique individual, but he was also representative of his time: his life and career illustrate both the halcyon days of the western fur trade and its twilight time, as well as the attempts by Métis commercial and political leaders to adapt to the rapid changes that followed Confederation. He found commercial success in the “old” West of the fur trade and the buffalo hunt, and political success in the “new” West of agriculture and settlement. He bridged the gaps between different worlds, nomadic and sedentary, English and French, Protestant and Catholic, Aboriginal and British.
Trader, Freighter, and Guide
James McKay was born at Edmonton House in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Saskatchewan District in 1828. His father, also named James (born Farr, Sutherlandshire, circa 1797), was a seasoned veteran of the HBC, having served as a boatman and guide since 1816. James Sr. retired to Red River in 1840, after spending the last four years of his career with the HBCsponsored Arctic expeditions of Dease and Simpson. Young James’ mother was Marguerite Gladu, born at Cumberland House (circa 1808?) to a First Nations mother (probably Cree); it is not clear whether her father was First Nations, Métis, or French-Canadian.
Young James—known variously as Jamie, Jimmie, and Big Jim—went to school in Red River and followed his father into the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service in 1853. He served mostly in the Swan River District of south-western Manitoba and south-eastern Saskatchewan, although in 1859 he established two HBC posts in American territory. The Company had hired him as a clerk and entrusted him with the management of small trading posts, but it was his skills as an interpreter and guide that gained McKay widespread fame both during and after his time with the HBC.
Let me paint you a word-picture of James McKay in his prime. The Earl of Southesk, visiting the HBC’s territories in 1859, recorded his first impressions of his impressive guide, upon meeting him in St. Anthony, Minnesota Territory:
Southesk described a quintessential image of the Canadian frontiersmen, and in many ways James McKay seemed to be that very image come to life.
McKay had a facility with First Nations languages, apparently speaking several, including Cree and Ojibwa. His linguistic skills combined with his extensive knowledge of the prairies to make him a popular and respected guide. He took great pride in his ability to get people to their destinations in good time, regardless of the weather or other conditions. One account of his guiding HBC Governor Sir George Simpson to Upper Fort Garry described McKay wading through streams and muskegs with Simpson on his shoulders. In 1857, McKay guided the British scientific expedition led by Captain John Palliser from Fort Ellice (St. Lazare, Manitoba) to Fort Carlton (northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan).
In 1860, McKay left the Company’s service despite Simpson’s efforts to persuade him to sign a new contract. He used his growing reputation as a guide and interpreter as the foundation of his own business. He began as a trader and freighter, and soon expanded his activities to include such things as transporting mail and supervising road construction. He ran his many business interests from his beautiful home in St. James, Deer Lodge. There he lived with his wife, Margaret Rowand, the daughter of prominent HBC Chief Factor John Rowand, who had managed the Company’s Saskatchewan District from his headquarters at Fort Edmonton for thirty years. James and Margaret had married in 1859. They had two sons and a daughter (two other sons died in infancy), as well as a girl whom McKay had informally adopted after her parents were killed by Sioux. Margaret’s brother, John Rowand Jr, and his family lived nearby in Silver Heights, originally meant to be their father’s retirement home.
Not only did McKay run a variety of successful business ventures from his home, he made it a social centre of St. James parish and of the Red River Settlement as a whole. Red River in the 1850s and 1860s was a vibrant and bustling place with a population of several thousand living in its eight parishes. Red River hunters and trappers, traders and merchants radiated out from the settlement in all directions. Brigades of Red River carts travelled the Carlton and Edmonton Trails, the Pembina Trail, and the Portage Trail (which passed right by the front door of Deer Lodge). The Swan River brigade consisted of about 50 carts, driven by 15 men, while (by 1870) as many as 1,500 carts and 450 men were travelling between Red River and St. Paul every year. Cart traffic—particularly the St. Paul route—was the largest single employer in the settlement.
In 1868, McKay was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia, the governing body of the Red River Settlement, and was made president of the Whitehorse Plains District Court. This was the eve of a watershed event in Red River’s history. Since the 1850s—and particularly since the 1857 scientific expeditions by Hind and Palliser (the latter of which McKay had assisted)—the Canadian colonies in the east had shown increasing interest in the territories west of the Great Lakes. After Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion government wasted little time in calling for the acquisition of the Northwest. The Canadian government began negotiations with the British government and with the Hudson’s Bay Company—but the people of Red River and the Northwest were not consulted.
At the time, Red River was the largest settled community between Lake Superior and the Pacific coast. The Red and Assiniboine valleys were home to nearly 10,000 people—about 90% of them Métis or English-speaking “mixed bloods.” Red River was also the most significant agricultural community. However, for a variety of reasons farming was a relatively high-risk venture then, and so even full-time farmers supplemented their income with hunting, trapping, fishing, freighting, salt making, and other activities.
Commercially, Red River merchants had strong ties with St. Paul and the Minnesota Territory, but also had connections with Montreal. The possibility of becoming part of Canada offered opportunities to build up those connections with Montreal, as well as to make new connections in towns like Toronto. Canada’s failure to consult them, however, caused some grave concern, and some serious opposition when the HBC sold its lands to Canada in 1869. The stand taken by Louis Riel and his Provisional Government at that time is well known.
Although McKay was named one of the English councillors in the Provisional Government, in reality he did his best to remain neutral. Like many Red River businessmen, he was prepared to welcome Canadian rule provided that it came on terms agreeable to Red River. At the same time, he understood, and to some extent sympathized with, the frustrations of Riel and his supporters. When push came to shove, McKay could not support Riel, but made abundantly clear his intention not to oppose him by force: “I cannot take up arms against my own people.”  Partly to avoid being forced by the course of events to take actions with which he was uncomfortable, McKay even left Red River for the United States during a critical period of that eventful winter of 1869–1870.
When Riel’s resistance had achieved its end, and Manitoba entered Confederation as a province rather than as part of the Northwest Territories, James McKay was perfectly placed for the next phase of his political career. By walking a very fine line, he had demonstrated loyalty to both the Canadian government and the people of Red River, without irrevocably associating himself with one side to the exclusion of the other. When Lieutenant Governor Adams Archibald formed his first government in January 1871, McKay was a natural choice. He was named to the Legislative Council (where he served until it was dissolved in 1876), and his colleagues’ respect for him was illustrated by their election of him as the Speaker of that house (a position he held until 1874). In 1877, McKay was elected to represent Lake Manitoba in the new provincial Legislative Assembly.
McKay was also named to Archibald’s Executive Council, serving as president of that body until 1874. In naming McKay as the fifth member of that body, the Lieutenant Governor explained that he was not upsetting the balance he had already created by naming two English and two French members, “since his father was Scotch, his mother French Half-breed and though he himself [is] a Catholic he has two brothers Presbyterians.”  His wife, Margaret (Marguerite), also bridged linguistic and ethnic divides, having a Scots-Irish father and an English-Cree mother.
In his political dealings, McKay earned a reputation for good judgment, and for being fair and open-minded. In the words of one contemporary, “he considered those opposed to him, and was at all times willing to discuss public questions with his opponent, with a degree of justice, and at times wonderful adroitness.”  This stood him in good stead, as his greatest political legacy was facilitating the peaceful transition of western Canada from a fur trade economy of hunters, trappers, and traders, to an agricultural economy of farmers, ranchers, and merchants. Both at the provincial level—he was the Minister of Agriculture in Robert Davis’ government (1874–1878)—and at the regional level—he was a member of the Council of the North-West Territories from 1873 to 1875—he worked to advance agriculture and encourage immigration, while at the same time concerning himself with issues facing the Métis and First Nations (such as alcohol and the disappearance of the buffalo).
Perhaps the most direct way in which he facilitated the transformation of the West was through his involvement with First Nations treaties. He assisted in the negotiations of Treaties One (Lower Fort Garry) and Two (Manitoba Post) in 1871, and of Treaty Three (Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods) in 1873; and he was one of the commissioners for Treaty Five (Winnipeg) in 1875 and Treaty Six (Forts Carlton and Pitt) in 1876. He often acted as both interpreter and negotiator, making good use of his multilinguism. Although there were many flaws in the ways the numbered treaties were negotiated and implemented, in many ways McKay represented the best aspects of the treaty process: he was honest, respected, respectful, generous, and genuine. As was the case in 1869–1870, he sought compromise and accommodation, and saw no contradiction in declaring himself both Aboriginal and a British subject.
Let me close with another example of how committed James McKay was to the peaceful transition from one way of life to another. During the 1860s, he had brought to Deer Lodge a few buffalo calves from the North Saskatchewan River valley, letting them run with his cattle. This became the basis of his “buffalo park,” the first of its kind in the West. In 1877, McKay became president of the Winnipeg Game Club, devoted to the preservation of game in Manitoba. Later that year, however, ill health forced him to sell these buffalo (including some that had crossbred with the cattle) to Samuel Bedson, Warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Bedson moved the buffalo to Stony Mountain, where they stayed until 1889, when he sold the herd (now more than 100 strong) to a chap from Kansas named Buffalo Jones. However, a few were given as a gift to Lord Strathcona, who returned them to Deer Lodge. In 1898, Strathcona donated his herd to the Dominion government, who then donated four of the animals to the City of Winnipeg: they were the foundation of the herd at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
Increasingly ill health forced James McKay to retire from politics in 1878. He passed away at his home, Deer Lodge, on 2 December 1879; his wife of twenty years, Margaret, had passed away in February. Their stately home later became a country inn—appropriate considering the McKays’ well-known hospitality—and during World War I was turned into a veterans’ hospital. The memory of James McKay, however, faded with time in the new Manitoba—a Manitoba that he had helped create through his commitment to accommodation and peaceful transition.
1. This article was originally given as a lecture in Creative Retirement Manitoba’s “Men and Women in History” series, 31 March 2008.
2. Quoted in Irene M. Spry, The Palliser Expedition: The Dramatic Story of Western Canadian Exploration 1857–60, 2nd ed. Calgary: Fifth House, 1995, pp. 54-55.
3. Bumsted, J. M., Louis Riel v Canada: The Making of a Rebel. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2001, p. 87.
4. Turner, A. R., “McKay, James,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. X, pp. 473-474.
5. Turner, pp. 473-474.
Page revised: 11 June 2014Back to top of page