Montrose McGillivray

Montrose McGillivray was a flashy dresser

Montrose McGillivray was known as a flashy dresser. He had the best gun money could buy, and wore the finest clothes available.

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 that carries Ronsdale Press’s books is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you! 

There are many fabulous people who worked in the fur trade, and Montrose McGillivray was one of them. When I write my book on Deaths and Murders, McGillivray will feature in at least two important British Columbia stories — the first, a murder: the second, his death.

First, from our basic research tool if you write about the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains: here is Montrose McGillivray’s story from Bruce McIntyre Watson’s books, Lives Lived West of the Divide:
McGillivray, Montrose, 1822-1850, Mixed descent
Birth: British North America, 1822. Born to Simon McGillivray and a Native woman
Death: Probably Fort St. James, January 22, 1850
Montrose McGillivray was baptised late at the age of thirteen at Red River on April 19, 1835, and after being hired by the HBC in 1838 as a native apprentice, was attached to the Columbia District [Fort Vancouver, Vancouver WA].
Because of his family status (being descended from the NWC’s powerful McGillivray family), he travelled with Sir George Simpson’s round the world expedition for a short time. He worked at the HBC’s California post until he was dismissed by William Glen Rae for excessive drinking. McGillivray, who had by this time spent his father’s legacy, felt this was unfair as Rae was an even heavier drinker.
The twenty-two year old then ran up a large debt and left the Company to go to Red River in 1846, but rejoined in 1847.”

He was immediately sent up to New Caledonia with a message for Anderson, to begin a second exploration through the Fraser Canyon in 1847 — the HBC gentlemen sent all the drunks up to New Caledonia to sober up.
So McGillivray became a member of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s party searching for a north-of-49-parallel route from New Caledonia to the coast.

“In January 1849 in the New Caledonia area (near Quesnel, B.C.) McGillivray headed a punitive group of fifteen men on a search for Tlhelh, who, to avenge the death of Tlhelh’s wife, had shot a “white man,” Alexis Bellanger, who may or may not have had anything to do with her death.”

There is more to this story — and so McGillivray is attached to three historic deaths, including his own. To continue with Watson’s biography:

“When McGillivray arrived at Tlhelh’s Quesnel village, Donald McLean shot death Tlhelh’s uncle, Nadetnoerh, as well as Nadetnoerh’s son-in-law and the son-in-law’s child. The mother, possibly a daughter of Fort Nisqually’s Simon Plomondon, was injured in the shoulder. Both McGillivray and McLeod were exonerated for this unnecessary carnage of three innocent people. Later Tlhelh was killed by another uncle, Neztel, who, no doubt trying to stop the carnage and restore peace, very much regretted doing it. Montrose McGillivay died January 22, 1850, of an inflammation of the lungs, likely tuberculosis.”

I was fascinated to read that Montrose McGillivray was a part of that slaughter of three innocent persons in New Caledonia. I always knew that Donald McLean was there, but the story had no mention of other persons present. I checked this story out carefully, and it happened after Alexander Caulfield Anderson left Fort Alexandria. I was pleased to find that it was not Anderson who forgave these men for their behaviour, but Donald Manson. He had good reason to do so, though.

Secondly, in the Fort Vancouver letters I found the letter that Montrose McGillllivray carried north to Fort Alexandria in 1847. Do you realized McGillivray travelled from Fort Vancouver to Fort Alexandria, New Caledonia, in mid-winter?

“Vancouver, January 12, 1847, to A. C. Anderson

“Dear sir; We have to acknowledge the receipt of your different communications from Langley and Alexandria with your report and Sketch of the different routes you examined, and we have now to convey to you our approbation of the zeal manifested by you in the performance of your arduous duty and the success that attended it.

“Recent information received by Chief Factor [James] Douglas [from James Murray Yale of Fort Langley] induces us to hope that a route can be opened from [Fort] Langley to Thompson’s River [Kamloops] even more favorable than the one you returned by. A great objection to it appears solely to arise from the depth of snow that the Brigade might be liable to meet with and while there is a prospect of another route being found preferable we feel most anxious to ascertain if it be so ere we decide on commencing operations.

“We consider it highly expedient that it should be explored and we see none more fit or suitable for the Expedition than yourself and we have therefore to request you will take the necessary measures to carry the same into effect. The enclosed instructions and Sketch will [fully] explain to you the route and every particular connected with it…

“Montrose McGillivray and Michael Ogden are appointed to accompany you and as they do not form any part of the interior Brigade their loss will not be felt… Peter Skene Ogden and James Douglas.”

Historians have often written about Montrose McGillivray’s death. Amazingly it is only quite recently that we Canadians have had access to the records and journals that were held by the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, England. That is why so little has been written of our fur trade history, and why historians have to take their information from secondary sources such as Morice’s “History of British Columbia.” Now we can go straight to the source, and request primary records from the HBCA in Winnipeg, on microfilm.

So here is a letter from Governor George Simpson’s son, George, that refers to Montrose McGillivray’s death in 1850:

“Fort Colvile, April 18, 1850, My dear father….. There has been a disease raging in the interior the past winter, which has swept off numbers of the inhabitants, with some of the companys servants and amongst the number Montrose McGillivray.”

Since that time I have looked at the Fort St. James journals in HBCA, and found this:

“Monday, 20th January 1850… In the evening an Indian arrived from Fraser’s Lake [50 miles to the west] and gave me information of the melancholy intelligence of the death of Mr. Montrose McGillivray. This [poor] young man has been considered dangerously ill some time ago and Mr. [Ferdinand] McKenzie was sent to remain with him. He then recovered much and was considered by Mr. McK as [per not in danger]…

“Wednesday, February 20… Mr. McKenzie returned to Fraser’s Lake accompanied by James Boucher, who has been sent to bring hither the widow & family of the late Mr. McGillivray…

“Thursday, May 18th … In the morning the property of the late Mr. Montrose McGillivray was disposed of by auction & sold very high indeed, several of the article notwithstanding their having been much worn, fetched three times the original price.”

And so here is Montrose McGillivray’s story, sad as it is. Measles was the illness that killed so many Natives that year in New Caledonia; Montrose McGillivray probably died of tuberculosis, which can be inflamed by an attack of measles. Measles destroys the immune system and allows other diseases to take over, and kill.

A tiny update: Montrose had a wife named Sophia, who was probably a Native woman. He also had a girl child who attended the Fort Victoria school in 1851. Her name was Frances Ann.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Montrose McGillivray

  1. Susan

    Well, I am fascinated by all of this and am eagerly awaiting your Deaths and Murders in the Fur Trade book. Also, Waccan (Jean-Baptiste Boucher) died of measles, I believe. (He was one of the men with Simon Fraser in 1808). He has many descendants in Quesnel and area.

    1. nancymargueriteanderson Post author

      Oh, I got so excited that this was a real person and not a spam that I waved my hands around and scared the cat off my desk.
      Yes, the Deaths and Murders book will be so much fun to write. I am looking forward to it myself.

    2. nancymargueriteanderson Post author

      Yes, I think measles or complications of measles. Apparently an attack of measles can set off tuberculosis — very interesting. When A.C. was in charge at Fort St. James, he had a conversation with Boucher re: something that happened at Fraser’s Lake post, I think.

    1. nancymargueriteanderson Post author

      They only say measles in the research. (I think). It was probably red measles, and I do know it started in Eastern States and Canada, spread down and west to California before coming north to Walla Walla and up into British Columbia. It also traveled separately to the Northwest coast, but there was a lot of Native communication between the interior of the province and the coast.