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Memorable Manitobans: William McTavish (1815-1870)

Click to enlargeFur trader, governor.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he came to the Bay in 1833 as an apprentice with the Hudson's Bay Company under the patronage of his uncle, chief factor John George McTavish. He worked at York Factory under James Hargrave, soon to be his brother-in-law. In 1857 he moved to Red River to take charge of Upper Fort Garry, the most “troublesome and complicated charge” in the company. He was tall, sandy-haired, and sported Palmerston whiskers with a heavy mustache.

He soon married Mary Sarah McDermot, the mixed-blood Catholic daughter of Andrew McDermot and sister of Annie McDermot Bannatyne. Appointed governor of Assiniboia in 1858, he believed the governance of the fur trade and the settlement should be separated. Nevertheless, in 1869-70 he was governor of both Rupert’s Land and Assiniboia. His lack of action in the Canadian crisis was partly due to his dislike of politics and his ill health, but also because of his sympathies with the old inhabitants. He believed the locals had a right to a proper arrangement with Canada, and objected to Canadian imperialism. He criticized Canada for ignoring the inhabitants. McTavish had all sorts of power in 1869 that he refused to exercise. Why he did not act is a fascinating question.

From 16 November 1869 to February 1870 he was virtually (and sometimes actually) imprisoned in Fort Garry by Riel, mostly bedridden with advanced tuberculosis. What actions he took were through the agency of his private secretary, J. J. Hargrave (his nephew) and A. G. B. Bannatyne, his brother-in-law. He resigned on 15 January 1870. He and his family left for Scotland on 17 May, and he died upon disembarkation at Liverpool in July.

See also:

William McTavish, Dictionary of Canadian Biography IX, 529-32.

“William Mactavish, the Last Governor of Assiniboia” by F. E. Bartlett, MA dissertation, University of Manitoba, 1964.


Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 31 January 2011

Memorable Manitobans

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