Angus McDonald

The Kettle River Valley, part of the brigade trail system in British Columbia

This is the valley of the Kettle River, which the Fort Colvile brigades followed west from the Columbia River ford south of the fort. Their trail led over or around Anarchist Mountain to Okanagan Lake, the Similkameen River Valley, and the foot of Tulameen Plateau, where it joined the brigade trail from Kamloops.

When Chief Trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson was transferred to the charge of Fort Colvile in summer 1848, his clerk was a young Scotsman named Angus McDonald. Angus was born in Ross, Island of Lewis, in 1816, and so was about thirty-two years old when he first met Anderson at Fort Colvile.

The Anderson family grew to love Angus. McDonald was a natural entertainer, though not a good one. He sang, but his singing voice was off-key. He wrote poetry too, and if you want to learn more about his poems then you must read Steve A. Anderson’s book, Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The uncommon Life of a Fur Trader, 1816-1889 [Museum of North Idaho, 2011]. As Steve says in his book: 

In transcribing McDonald’s work, I realized that he was no Charles Dickens, nor did he aspire poetically to the likes of a Robbie Burns or James Hogg. His pen drew heavily from personal experience or from the lives of the indigenous people living in the “savage wilderness” of what we now call the Inland Empire — southern British Columbia, eastern Washington and Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana…

I have a few stories I have discovered about this man, and I will not be able to tell them all in one post. James, son of Alexander Anderson, said that “It was a treat to hear him sing in Gaelic, strutting about as if in the act of playing the bagpipes, and to see him dance the sword dance.” Angus McDonald must have entertained the Anderson family on many occasions when he visited Fort Colvile, but it appears he left his bagpipes behind at Fort Connah. In later years, when he visited the Andersons in Victoria, he was made welcome.

The story I am telling now will have taken place in summer 1849, 1850, or 1851. These are the three years that Anderson took out the brigades over the new trail to Fort Langley from Fort Colvile. Here’s the story, told by Anderson’s eldest son, James Robert:

A few days before the date of my Father’s expected arrival on his return journey from Fort Langley, Mr. Angus McDonald, the gentleman in charge of the post in the Flathead country [Fort Connah], made his appearance to await the brigade and convey his outfit to his post. Two days before my Father was due, Mr. McDonald suggested to my Mother that he and I should proceed a day’s journey and meet my Father. This having been decided upon, we made a start after breakfast on our horses for the Mission where we were to cross the Columbia, but what was our chagrin when we espied my Father cantering towards the Fort by another road. Having his eyes fixed on his destination he did not see us, and we had to follow ignominiously in his wake. Needless to say, we were most unmercifully chaffed… [“Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon: Memoirs of James Robert Anderson,” p. 124, Transcript in my possession but also in British Columbia Archives, Mss 1912].

In later years [1910 or so], James wrote this about McDonald:

Angus McDonald lived and died in the interior; he was always employed in the Flathead country and vicinity and as late as 1860 was in charge of Fort Colvile, as will be seen by the copy of his letter to my Father in another part. He was a rough specimen of a Highlander and despised many customs as effeminate. I met him last at Fort Vancouver about 1865 and on that occasion he expressed his contempt of the galvanic battery, offering to take the highest charge. Dr. Benson accepted the challenger and I was deputed to work the instrument; it was an old-fashioned concern and in the act of increasing the voltage the bar slipped and the highest charge was given; McDonald gave a yell and dropped to the ground, much to his consternation and disgust. [Memoirs, p. 126-127]

Christina, McDonald’s daughter, had much to say of her father. “For all his years in the Northwest,” she wrote:

Father was never weaned from his Scotch habits and ways. Once when I was with him in Victoria he engaged a coach, and taking Big McLean, a bag pipe player, we set off to pay a visit to s’gatch poose Anderson, a fellow countryman and old acquaintance who lived near Esquimalt [actually, in Saanich], and was so named by the Indians on account of a gathering or scar on his cheek. He was an old Hudson’s Bay Company man formerly from Fort Colvile.

Driving to Anderson’s the woods rang with McLean’s spirited playing. Anderson and his wife, when they heard the pipes, cryed with joy and said its Angus coming with his pipes. They were overjoyed to see us. The next day Mr. Anderson told us that on hearing the pipes the Indians had all run away from the neighbourhood, thinking there was a big fight going on. [Christina MacDonald McKenzie Williams, “A Daughter of Angus MacDonald,” at www.digital.lib.washington.edu/ojs]

From this, I presume (perhaps incorrectly) that Anderson’s “s’gatch poose” nickname came from the Natives that surrounded Fort Colvile. One more story about Angus McDonald, written by Susan Allison in A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: the Recollections of Susan Allison, Edited by Margaret A. Ormsby, p.9-10 [University of British Columbia Press, 1976]. Susan Allison lived in Hope in 1860 to 1864.  

I shall never forget my first sight of a Hudson’s Bay Company Brigade train coming in from Colvile. I had gone for a stroll on the Hope-Similkameen trail. There were still a few berries and I was getting a “feed” when I heard bells tinkling and looking up saw a light cloud of dust from which emerged a solitary horseman, the most picturesque figure I have ever seen. He rode a superb chestnut horse, satiny and well groomed, untired and full of life in spite of the dust, heat, and long journey. He himself wore a beautifully embroidered buckskin shirt with tags and fringes, buckskin pants, embroidered leggings and soft cowboy hat. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, for he abruptly reined in his horse and stared down at me, while I equally astonished stared at him. Then, as the Bell Boy and other horses rode up, he lifted his hat and passed on. I never met him again, but was told he was a Hudson’s Bay officer in charge of the Colvile train and that he said he was never more surprised in his life than to see a white girl on the trail — he had lived so long without seeing anyone except Indians.

Angus McDonald loved his horses, by the way! Another note in the same book identifies the year this happened: it was 1860. “Susan Moir [later Allison] never forgot the sight of Chief Factor Angus McDonald, dressed in buckskin garments and beaded leggings, leading the Colvile brigade in 1860 down the last stretch of the trail, or the mad dash of the horses as they advanced to the Flat through a cloud of dust. The activity at the fort was intense during the following days as the furs were unloaded for shipment and the packs were made up for the return trip. The chief factors conferred at the fort and finally reached agreement on all the details concerning the operations of the coming season.” [page xviii of above Susan Allison book]

And then there’s the story of the Cheese… but that will come in a later post, along with the story of the celebrations at Fort Nisqually in 1855. When I write it, it will appear here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/cheese/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.