Donald McLean

Grasses on the Coquihalla brigade trail of Eden

Grasses on the HBC brigade trail over the Coquihalla, under the snow (November 2015). Photo thanks to Kelley Cook, Hope Mountain Centre

I just spent two weeks creating the Index for The HBC Brigades, and it was an exhausting chore! Please, remind me to never again write a book that has so many characters in it, no matter how interesting they might be.

Anyway: My book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, was published by Ronsdale Press in July, 2024. You can order the book through your local bookstore, or via Amazon. For American Booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press books in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

But at the same time, there is one character in this book who I found particularly interesting (much to my surprise) — and that character was Chief Trader Donald McLean of Kamloops.

In BC history, there are a ton of stories about Donald McLean, and not many of them are flattering. I address his reputation in The HBC Brigades: like many other men who worked in the North West Company fur trade, as well as in the HBC, he was an enforcer — what they called a Bully, which was, as it happens, an actual position in the fur trade. As always, things were different in the past than they are today: one of my followers is a descendant of an HBC man who beat one of his voyageurs. He is somewhat ashamed of his ancestor — but he shouldn’t be. Things were different then, and you can’t always apply modern rules to the actions of men who lived and worked almost two hundred years ago.

However, Donald McLean had his faults. We all know that. But frankly I have a lot more respect for Donald McLean than I have for Paul Fraser, especially as the men who worked for Fraser clearly did not like him. In my opinion, Donald McLean wasn’t a bad guy. The people with whom he worked liked him: Fort Langley’s James Murray Yale called him a “luxuriant man” who “seems to think” the difficulties of the trail “a matter too slight to advert upon…” Donald McLean also got along with the other Chief Traders, which is more than I can say about A.C. Anderson, Donald Manson, and Paul Fraser. And McLean was human: When in 1857 dysentery broke out at the Kamloops post and sickened many of the men and killed one of his children, McLean wrote a poem to celebrate his child’s short life. This poem is in the BC Archives [E/B/M221.9, Peter Skene Ogden’s papers], and this is how it reads:  

Oh, what is it, late yester night

My boy was alive and well

And now his spirit pure and bright

Has gone where angels dwell.

However, there is one story that is written up that is a bit of a mystery: and I wanted to solve that mystery, even if only for myself. I first stumbled on the story in Harley Hatfield’s article in Okanagan Historical Society’s Forty-fourth Report, 1980, titled: “The Proposed Cascade Wilderness.” In it, he quotes these lines from Lieutenant Henry Spencer Palmer’s “Report on the Country between Fort Hope, on the Fraser, and Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River.” Lieutenant Palmer, a Royal Engineer, rode over the brigade trail from Fort Hope to Fort Colvile in September 1859 — not in the company of Donald McLean, but with Angus McDonald who told him the story that follows. In Lieutenant Palmer’s words: 

Before closing my description of this mountain I may mention that the snow which in winter falls to a depth of from 25 to 30 feet on the summit, renders the route impracticable for at least seven months of the year, and dangerous before the 1st of June or after the 1st of October.

Mr. [Donald] McLean of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who crossed in 1857 or 1858, on the 16th of October, had a very disastrous trip, and lost 60 or 70 horses in the snow.

Traces of their deaths are still visible, and in riding over the mountain, and more particularly on its eastern slope, my horse frequently shied at the whitened bones of some one of the poor animals, who had broken down in the sharp struggle with fatigue and hunger, and been left to perish where he lay.

Someone else also mentions this story, saying that no one knows exactly when it occurred. So this was my challenge: what year did Chief Trader Donald McLean ride over the brigade trail in the month of October, losing sixty or seventy horses in a severe snowstorm?

The years in question are 1857, or 1858. James Douglas was still a chief factor in the company, and he visited the Fraser River in both summers, to see that the brigades arrived at Fort Langley in safety, and that they began their return journey in time. While 1857 seems to have been a fairly normal year for the HBC fur trade on the coast, in summer 1858 James Douglas was kept busy dealing with the influx of American gold miners who had come north for the gold fields. Hundreds of miners were trapped at Fort Hope when the Fraser River freshets prevented them from reaching the goldfields on the Thompson and Nicoamen Rivers. In fact, there was almost a war on the river — a war that was narrowly averted when the freshets subsided and the Americans could make their way upriver. 

And so, to discover what year this disastrous loss of horses might have occurred, let’s look at James Douglas’s correspondence. It is the only source I have available to me, I believe. 

In July 1857, the incoming New Caledonia and Thompson River brigades came into Fort Langley, and McLean reported on the presence of dysentery at Kamloops. There was a lot of other things happening at this time: Angus McDonald, who had been unwell at Fort Vancouver, was now returning to his position at Fort Colvile, and Chief Trader Donald Manson was leaving New Caledonia on furlough, while Douglas hoped that he would return to his position in a year’s time. In September 1857, Douglas reported that he had heard the brigades had safely returned to the Kamloops post, where more gold was being traded than ever before. On September 25, 1857, Donald McLean informed Douglas that he had come to Fort Langley for supplies, and he also brought out 62 ounces of gold that had been traded from the Métis who had come north from Fort Colvile to pan for gold on the Nicoamen and other rivers local to the Kamloops post. And in November 1857, Douglas reported that he had “received a letter from chief Trader Donald McLean of Kamloops, dated Thompson’s River, 19th October last.” If there had been a snowstorm in the mountains in 1857, James Douglas would never have been able to receive that letter by the time he wrote his own. Nor does Douglas mention the loss of any horses in Donald McLean’s brigade journey, which is something he would certainly have mentioned, given his past record of crankiness at the thought of losing any valuable horses at all!

And so, I believe that the snowstorm that killed sixty to seventy horses on their way to Kamloops in October of 1857 or 1858, did not happen in 1857, and could only have happened in 1858. In both years, Donald McLean would certainly have had to come to Fort Langley for additional supplies, considering that all the American gold miners were busy panning for gold in the rivers that surrounded his post. And clearly, in 1857, he made it home safely. 

I have very little information on what the winter of 1857 was like, although couriers are travelling over the Tulameen Plateau to Fort Hope even in December: using snowshoes, of course. That does indicate that the trails are open, even if not for horses. I do have some information on the winter of 1858 and its weather, as it happens. Winter shut down the diggings on the lower Fraser River in early November, with heavy rain in October followed by severe cold and snow. Hundreds of hungry miners flooded south to Fort Victoria and San Francisco, and on the new Harrison-Lillooet route, a steamship was frozen into the ice on Harrison’s River.

And as we all know, weeks of rain on the low lands means weeks of snow in the mountains.  So I am positive that this tragedy happened in 1858, and not in 1857. 

I have just discovered that I have Lieutenant Palmer’s “Report on the Harrison and Lillooet Route, from the Junction of the Fraser and Koyosch rivers, with Notes on the Country beyond, as far as Fountain.” The Harrison-Lillooet trail is part of the story of the early goldrush, and so I am feeling I also have to write its story. I have tons of information on the trail: collected many years ago and never used. It is just so badly organized that it will not be an easy series to write. But I will try. And it will be interesting, and may give us information that we have not previously read. [Oh, but the chaos!]

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Donald McLean

  1. Mark Young

    Donald McLean was the last settler killed during the Chilcotin War. Three of his sons, Allan, Charley, Archie, and Alex Hare, formed the ‘Wild McLeans’ gang, or the ‘Kamloops Outlaws’. They were hanged for the murder of John Ussher in 1881.

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