John McDonald of Garth: The Last Nor'wester

By Green, Larry | Alberta History, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

John McDonald of Garth: The Last Nor'wester


Green, Larry, Alberta History


John McDonald of Garth, the son of a military officer, was born about 1774 on the family estate at Callander, Perthshire, in the Highlands of Scotland. He was destined for a career in the army and when he was fourteen years old his father obtained a commission for him. But a childhood injury intervened. He explains:

My right hand had been dislocated by the carelessness of my nurse in raising [me] up by the arms. It was not perceptible until of age to use it. It was then too late to set it in its original socket and so I remained to make my left hand my right.... It was found that my arm was an objection to my entering the army, so that I did not follow the profession of most of my Forefathers.(1)

His course was diverted from the battlefields of Europe. Instead, he followed the footsteps of so many of his countrymen to the fur trade in the northwestern interior of British North America.

In 1859, when he was in his late eighties, he responded to a request from his youngest son and his "very dear Daughter in law" for "some sketch of [his] long life." He replied: "You will remember that I am in my Eighty ninth (89th) year & that my memory is failing. Also that in any attempt of the kind there must consequently be many errors.... However I shall try & meet your wishes however incorrectly & as briefly as I can.(2) Then, between March 1 and 26, in a clear, firm hand, he penned his memoirs of his days as a fur trader in the "Indians Territory called the North West Territory, but at this day the Hudson's Bay territory."(3) The document, titled "Autobiographical Notes of John McDonald of Garth," contains about thirty-five thousand words and is now reposited at McGill University.

When McDonald wrote his memoirs, he was recalling incidents that occurred between 1791 and 1816 -- sixty-eight to forty-three years previously. It is not surprising that he made numerous errors, his remembrance of the chronology of events being particularly inaccurate. L.R. Masson published extracts from the "Autobiographical Notes" in 1890. He provided scant editorial comment, used McDonald's incorrect dates for the occurrences of events, and did not comment on the inaccuracies. Perhaps he was unaware of them. Moreover, he made numerous alterations of McDonald's original text and took extensive liberties in changing his word and sentence structures. The result is a garbled and abbreviated version which is published in Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest.(4) Masson's editing and publishing of the memoirs was an injustice to their author. Unfortunately, it was, and, remains today, the most readily accessible version of the "Autobiographical Notes."

Arthur S. Morton, the pre-eminent historian of the north-west fur trade, studied the memoirs and commented that they were "written in the boastfulness of old age."(5) Although he recognized the poignancy of some of McDonald's writing, he observed: "We are often teased by his successive fightings with beast and man when so much of greater importance could have been said."(6) Morton's comments had an immense influence on subsequent scholarship, and his dismissive opinions about McDonald probably contributed to the relegation of the memoirs to the periphery of fur-trade studies.

As a result, John McDonald of Garth has not fared well at the hands of historians, many of whom have regarded the man and his "Autobiographical Notes" as of little significance. But, in fact, the memoirs have much to offer the patient reader. They provide a unique insight into the history of the Canadian West during its most turbulent period, the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. They reflect many aspects of the functioning of the North-West fur trade: patronage, the duties of clerks and partners, social inequality, transportation and logistics, violence, and the "exhilaration and grossness"(7) of fur trade society. And they contain some of the most vibrant, picturesque writing to be found in the fur-trade literature. …

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