Memorable Manitobans: James McKay (1828-1879)
Trader, politician, MLA (1877-1878).
Not to be confused with judge James McKay (1861-1931).
Born at Edmonton House in 1828, the eldest son of James McKay of the Hudson’s Bay Company, brother of Angus McKay, he was a mixed-blood whose “father was Scotch, his mother French Half-Breed and though himself a Catholic he has two brothers Presbyterian.” He was educated at Red River, and became employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
McKay was described by George Simpson as “Immensely broadchested and muscular ... he weighed eighteen stone; yet in spite of his stoutness he was exceedingly hardy and active, and a wonderful horseman. His face -- somewhat Assyrian in type -- is very handsome: short, delicate, aquiline nose; piercing dark gray eyes; long dark-brown hair, beard, and moustaches; white, small, regular teeth; skin tanned to red bronze from exposure to weather.” He favoured Red River dress -- a capot (hooded frock-coat), flannel shirt, moccasins, trousers of homemade woollen material, and a sash. A “quasi-king among halfbreeds,” he had great authority with Aboriginal peoples, having mastered several Aboriginal languages. He served as a guide on several scientific, missionary and pleasure expeditions and assisted the Canadian government in the negotiating of Treaty Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.
McKay was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia in 1868 and was a member of the Famine Relief Committee of 1868-1869. His mixed racial status made him an ideal member of the Manitoba Legislative Council, serving until its abolition 1876, and its Speaker from 1871 to 1874. In the by-election of January 1877, he was returned by acclamation for the Lake Manitoba constituency, replacing his brother Angus McKay. He served as Minister of Agriculture from 1874 to 1878 before retiring due to ill health. He was one of the founders of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, in 1873.
In 1859, he married Margaret Rowand (1825-1879), third daughter of HBC Chief Factor John Rowand Sr (1787-1854) and sister of John Rowand. They had five children: Jane Dallas McKay (1863-1916, wife of Louis Gagnon), John Henry McKay (1863-1863), James Alexander McKay (1865-?), John Angus McKay (1869-?), and Marie McKay (?-?), and an adopted daughter, Augusta McKay (1858-?).
1870 Canada census, Library and Archives Canada.
The Canadian Parliamentary Company, 1874. Canadiana.org.
“Death of Hon. James McKay,” Manitoba Free Press, 3 December 1879, page 2.
Obituary [Dallas Gagnon], Winnipeg Tribune, 24 January 1917, page 15.
“James McKay - Noted pioneer of the northwest,” Winnpeg Free Press, 24 October 1970.
“McKay's granddaughter recalls old times,” Winnpeg Free Press, 24 October 1970.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Obituaries and burial transcriptions, Manitoba Genealogical Society.
We thank Oliver Bernuetz (Legislative Library of Manitoba) for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 9 April 2022