Finan McDonald

Bison hunt

This is image na-1406-189, Glenbow Archives, and used with their permission. While this is a later bison hunt, those York Factory Express men who took part in the bison hunts on their way down and upriver would have not differed from these men.

Finan McDonald was one of David Thompson’s men, but unlike most of his men he also worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company as a clerk at Spokane House, and later in the Snake parties. According to Bruce McIntyre Watson, the author of Lives Lived West of the Divide, Finan McDonald was known as “McDonald of the Buffalo” because in a buffalo hunt he once wrestled a large buffalo to its death. A large, bearded, redheaded Scotsman born in Aberdeenshire or Inverness ca. 1782, Finan McDonald was an employee of the North West Company and came west of the Rockies as early as 1807. He would have known and worked with my 3-times-great grandfather, David Thompson’s “Beaulieu.”

Finan McDonald never graduated to any position beyond clerking in the Hudson’s Bay Company. His day-to-day language was a mixture of Gaelic, English, French, and a half dozen Indian languages, and he never managed the intricacies of English grammar and spelling. Some of his letters and reports can still be found in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives files, for example, this one, written from Spokane House, April 5th 1824. In fact, I could write an entire blogpost on interesting letters I have found in that archives, and perhaps, sometime, I will.

I am including only one paragraph of his letter in this post, but I think you will enjoy it.

I got safe home from the Snake Cuntre thank [God?] and when that Cuntre will se me againe the Beaver will have gould skin as to sa to keep freemen in order and to there duty I wood prefare to have Band of Indians to Command then Band of free men they thinks no man for an Advise nor will not lasin to that is told to them they naver thinks of there own Profit nor the Companey as long is they gate Buffaloe meat. They ar a troublesum set round Fort Spileing the natives Paying averey articils they Byes double the Price that we give the natives which spiles the Trade it is the thing that will not doe to keep the Free man round Post there is Plenty Beaver in the snake Cuntre and in the Fall of the year after they delivers up ther furs and takes there advance they Can easley return Back to the snake Cuntre before the snoe wood fall in the mountins, the snake Cuntre is not so far off as People expect it to be.

If you want to know more about Finan McDonald, the best source for information is likely an article written by J. A. Meyers, and published in the Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (July 1922) pp. 196-208 — and titled “Finan McDonald — Explorer, Fur Trader and Legislator.” But I am going to tell you a different story in this blogpost — a far less important story than those told in that article.

In 1826, Finan McDonald left the territory in the outgoing Fall Express. This story appears in Lt. Aemilius Simpson’s journal, (B.223/a/3, HBCA). On Sunday October 15, the incoming Columbia Express reached Boat Encampment, and Simpson writes:

On getting out of the Wood, we arrived at a Marsh or Swamp of considerable extent covered with long grass & reeds, & having with difficulty passed through it, we came to a short point of Wood & then to the Boat Encampment at 10 p.m., terminating our Journey across the Rocky Mountain Portage. Here the water communication commences again, which is certainly an agreeable change in our Mode of traveling. We found Mr. [John Warren] Dease & Mr. Finan McDonald here; & a few returning Servants & families on their way across the Mountain, who were waiting our arrival so as to return with our Horses to the other Side of the Mountains.

So Finan McDonald went out in the Fall Express, riding one of the Jasper House horses up the steep Grand Cote to Athabasca Pass and the east side of the Rocky Mountains. He would have arrived at Jasper’s House sometime in late October, and then gone down the Athabasca River with the other people who were leaving the territory — all planning to spend their winter at Edmonton House. They would then join the outgoing York Factory Express when it arrived at Edmonton House in the spring of 1827. Because of Edward Ermatinger’s York Factory Express journals, we know that Finan McDonald did join the outgoing Express of 1827, when this story happened: See The most interesting part of this story is that this does not appear to be the same occasion when Finan McDonald successfully wrestled with a Bison bull! This fight was definitely not successful for the man, at least, although it might have made the bull happy!

But this is not the Finan McDonald story I am going to tell in this post. Mine is a much smaller story, but it amused me to find how often it was mentioned in the journals that followed the 1826 York Factory Express journal. Apparently, as he came down the Athabasca River to Fort Assiniboine in November 1826, Finan McDonald cached a canoe somewhere along the river bank. The York Factory Express men tried in later years to find said canoe, but had some difficulty in recovering it. But they did in the end…

As a matter of fact, they found it almost immediately, according to this story. In 1827, Edward Ermatinger has this to say of Finan McDonald’s canoe:

Sunday, 6th [May 1827] At 10 o’clock come up with Mr. [George] McDougall and 4 men from New Caledonia who have been following the ice these 9 days past from Jasper’s House. Remain here 3 or 4 hours and proceed again 6 or 7 miles, the ice having given way so far. Mr. McDougall gets a bark canoe, left here by Mr. Finan McDonald last fall, repaired to take down in place of a skin one which. he brought from Jasper’s House.

And yet, in 1828, in Edward Ermatinger’s outgoing journal:

9th [May] Fine weather. Embark at half past 3 a.m. Remain 2 hours gumming a Boat which was left on the banks of the River 2 years ago and placed in it 3 men, one out of each canoe, to take it down to [Fort] Assiniboine.

So both a boat and a canoe were left on the banks of the Athabasca River in Fall 1826? Perhaps the boat is the skin boat that was left behind when the birchbark canoe was picked up in spring 1827? It can’t be, because this report says it was left on the river two years ago, not one. 

Nevertheless, the story continues, as all Métis stories do. The men who worked along these rivers had long memories. However, George Traill Allan makes no mention of boat or canoe in 1831. In 1835 there was so much ice and snow along the river that James Douglas made no mention of either boat or canoe. Nor did George Traill Allan mention it in 1841 — but he wouldn’t. If it did not concern food and feasts or hunting, it did not interest him. 

 However, in 1847, as he was coming up the Athabasca River from Fort Assiniboine, on his journey home, Thomas Lowe has this to say:

Tuesday 5th [October 1847] Dull cloudy weather, and a little rain. Came the usual distance. In the forenoon passed the Cache that Mr. McDonald made three years ago.

This cannot be the same cache that Finan McDonald made in 1826, unless the date was changed in the story that Thomas Lowe heard. But the Cache is in the same place as Finan McDonald’s cache, or close to it. Which McDonald came into the territory in, say, 1844? None that I can see, either in or out. Still, no wonder I noticed all of those caches made by McDonald, whether Finan or not.

Again, in 1848, Thomas Lowe mentions “McDonald’s Cache.” 

Wednesday 27th [September] Strong head wind all day, but very warm. The two men who started ahead yesterday broke their canoe and we embarked them again late in the afternoon. Encamped at Mr. McDonald’s Cache.

Thomas Charles did not mention this Cache in his outgoing journal, and his incoming journal did not get kept up after he left Edmonton House, so we have no information from him. Interesting, though, how McDonald’s Cache keeps showing up in the journals, and it is quite possible that it is still Finan McDonald’s Cache. The men who worked on these rivers remembered all the stories of the river, even if the stories got mixed up as they were passed down to them. That is part of the traditions of the fur trade and the Métis men who worked in it.

And if you turn that “three” into “thirty,” it works. These journals are very hard to read, especially as you can only look at the originals on microfilm!

Finan McDonald did make it home to Canada West (Ontario), likely with his Spokane wife and children. In 1828, he bought himself a farm at Charlottenburg, in Upper Canada, where he raised his family. He was at Williamston, Ontario, in 1835 and on January 4, 1838, he was commissioned captain in the First Regiment of the Glengarry Militia. Seven years later he was elected a member of the Provincial Parliament for Canada West [Ontario], 1843-1844. Some years later he became involved in litigation of his brother’s estate and went to jail, probably because of this litigation. He died in 1851, and you will find his gravesite in the St. Raphael Roman Catholic Cemetery in Charlottenburg, Ontario.

So not everyone who appears in these York Factory Express journals has a happy ending. In fact, from recent blogposts I would say that most did not. If you want to find out more about The York Factory Express stories, then you can order the book here: Alternately, speak to me and I can send you a signed copy! And thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.  

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4 thoughts on “Finan McDonald

  1. Nick

    Great work. Thanks for this Nancy! Can you refer me to more info on Finan McDonald from 1807- 1812 while he worked with David Thompson?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Likely the best source of information on all these men is Jack Nisbet’s book, Mapmaker’s Eye.
      The Washington Historical Society article mentioned in the blogpost is the next best source.
      Jack Nisbet wrote about Finan McDonald in his October 2007 Boundaries article — google “Another Dose of Finan McDonald: the Buffalo Stomp.”
      Then there’s something I have titled NCM September 2007, Finan. I have no idea what or where this article is found but you can try googling it. Someone may have given it to me, it might be a Jack Nisbet article, I don’t know but its in my file.
      I also have an article titled “Finnan McDonald” by Neil J. MacDonald, from from 2003. (Notice, 2 nn’s in Finnan).
      But he spent a lot of time in the wilderness, and so his story is only partially known.
      Have fun.

  2. Kevin Nichol

    You missed some of the best stories about Finan McDonald! From a novel I am writing… “But notwithstanding this legend of the lost Spaniards, and also with due consideration for the likelihood that fur trading companies had been dispatching Saulteaux, Iroquois and French Canadian “Coeureurs de bois” (Free Traders)4 over the Rocky Mountains in the late 1700’s, the first documented non-native paddle stroke on the upper Columbia River was on July 12, 1807 at the mouth of the Blaeberry River at Donald, near modern day Golden, BC when David Thompson, his native wife Charlotte and three of their kids, as well as his clerk and trusted friend Finan McDonald and eight French Canadians climbed into their two birch bark canoes and headed up stream (south) to Upper Columbia Lake (Lake Windermere). There they built “Kootanae House”, which was their base camp and trading post from 1807 to 1812, and they explored the Kootenay River as far south and as far west as Bonner’s Ferry and southern Kootenay Lake, and also the Flathead River (Clark Fork), Lake Pend Oreille and Pend Oreille River, and the Columbia River right to its mouth. Thompson and his men built Kullyspell House at Lake Pend Oreille and Saleesh House (Flathead House) on the Clark Fork near Thompson Falls, Montana in 1809. Between 1807 and 1810, Thompson and his men came up and down the upper Kootenay River many times, crossing back and forth between the Blaeberry River and Rocky Mountain House via the Howse Pass, packing trade goods one way and furs the other…
    …Thompson’s faithful sidekick, Finan McDonald, a massive Scotchman with a big red beard and a contagious laugh, was the first known white man to paddle up the Upper Columbia River from Kettle Falls and to the first rapids past “Grand Batteur” (Big Eddy – Revelstoke) in the summer of 1811. Unfortunately, Finan McDonald, a man every bit as deserving of a novel as Richard Fry, was not the kind of man to keep a record of his travels; but David Thompson, who has had countless books written about him, was. Thompson’s journal says that Finan, four white men and two Indians from Kettle Falls went up the river to Big Eddy and returned on August 27, 1811. When Finan returned, Thompson paddled north from Kettle Falls to the Big Bend having then completely explored the Columbia River from source to sea…
    … On May 10, 1807, David, Charlotte and their three kids, all younger than 6 years old, along with Finan McDonald, Jaco Finlay and eight voyageurs set out to cross the Rocky Mountains. Thompson sent Finan and five Hivernants; Augustin Boisverd, Francois Lussier, Le Camble, Joseph Beaulieu, and Buché up the North Saskatchewan River by canoe, and the Thompson family matched their progress using horses, along the banks of the river with the French Canadians Bercier, Boulard and Clement. Also, along for the journey were Boulard’s wife, Lussier’s wife and their three children and a pack of dogs. Bercier and Boulard rode point for they had come this way with Jaco and Nicolas Montour the previous year. Days turned into weeks and with many challenges on the river as the men pulled their canoes up the fast current, they finally all arrived at the Kootenay Plains on June 3rd. Here, Thompson met two Ojibway trappers, whom he hired to come along with the party as hunters.
    On June 5th, Thompson left Finan to take care of the women, children and livestock at Kootenae Plains, and the rest of the group continued west, up the river by canoes. A couple days later, after taking a south fork in the river and following the Howse River for a time, the channel became too shallow, and the men were stopped because of deep snow. When the weather took a turn for the worse, Thompson sent all but three men back to the Kootenay Plains, with instructions to return to Rocky Mountain House for more horses. The remaining party stayed at Kootenay Plains and waited while Thompson and his remaining men set up a tent, fell trees and split wood for making boxes. It took a couple weeks for the horses to arrive, due in no small part to snow which still covered the ground, and a trail which was difficult to follow. Another week went by while the party waited for the spring rains and mushy snow to stop, and finally on June 22nd, Thompson, Jaco Finlay and Michel Bercier were able to ascend to the “height of land” and see into the Columbia Valley, “where the Springs send their Rills to the Pacific Ocean; this sight overjoyed me.”