Finan McDonald’s letters

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley
Flintlock Guns

I am browsing through some of my old records, and I stumbled on some research which will be of interest to many besides me. This research was done many years ago, when I was still looking for my Beaulieu ancestor. I didn’t find him here, but the information on this HBC microfilm reel was so interesting that I copied it out anyway. So here goes — by the way, this is from Reel No. 5M1, HBCA — this is one of the North West Company reels that I went through many years ago. There’s a lot of hard to find and very interesting information hidden away in these reels:

Letter from Finan McDonald, written from Kamloops, 12th September 1815

Dear sir; I take the liberty to write these few lines by this opportunity that is leave this in few days hence say the 18th of this month — it was fine voyages last spring up the Columbia till the priest rapids. Bloed so hard in the night broke 2 of the canoes this kept us the most part of the day mending them. Mr. Keith and his brigade left in the morning. The day we arrived at Mr. Ross is [blank] He left it the morning the next day. Mrs Ross start horse back with Mr. Cox and part of the men to trade horses. Mr. LaRoque and self and the rest of the men start with canoes to overtake Mr. Ross which we camp in the evening together and next morning cut of through the mountain to the Yakima River. We were 10 days on our voyage and only the half of the number of horses that we expect to trade not so lucky as we expect to be. Montigny just arrived from the upper part of Fraser River that they call Quesnel’s River his trade no neare so grate as we expect it to be — I was whole month a way this summer, made only 40 od[d] skins with a few salmon and lost 77 skins on my trip. Those nasion [nation], they the poorest set that ever I had seen since I came in the Country hardly any to cover their body start nakit…

I find it hard to know where he is, and suspect that Mr Ross’s place was Fort Okanagan, and Mr. Ross was Alexander Ross, who was in charge of that post. Mr. Cox was Ross Cox, who was at this time making expeditions to the Upper Columbia, Fort Nez Perces, and Flathead country. Mr. LaRoque was Joseph Felix Laroque/Larocque, later of Kamloops, and Montigny was Ovide de Montigny, who was apparently at this time on the Quesnel River. Mr Keith is James Keith, who was soon to become a partner in the North West Company. Finan McDonald is David Thompson’s clerk and the man who fought the bison on the prairie somewhere, which story is told in my York Factory Express book.

So, on to the next letter:

Letter from Finan McDonald from Spokan House 20th April 1820, to J. G. McTavish, Esq:

Dear sir; I was happy to receive your kind letter last Fall by Mr. Haldane at the Forks of the Spokan River as I was going down for the goods to the Okanakan Fort. I went on Mr. McMillan and Mr. Haldane to take their route to Spokane House when I arrived with the goods I slept here only a night went off to the Flat Heads. I trade canoe lode of provisions and sent it down to Spokan House which was grate help for them in the course of the winter. Horses are few to be had in those days. Person cannot get a horse unless you will give guns and kettles, grate change since you left these quarters. It is as much to get from the Indian provision enough to keep body and soul together, all our [illegible] is the Flat Heads for the winter and most part of the summer. The return of the Flat Heads was pretty good this year, 23 pack nearly almost all Beaver, 54 pieces of provision those pieces is 22 bags of Pemmican, 3 bags of grease, 5 kegs of tongs [tongues], 24 bales dried meat and fat. I think as good returns as ever was made there. 

Mr. Haldane left this yesterday with 2 canoes, 32 packs. Mr. J. McMillan went before Mr. Montoure about 41 days ago with men. Mr. Biontoure camp in the snow in the Kootenay Portage, sent word that Mr. Haldane was obliged to sent for them. Mr. McMillin with 7 men went to see if he could drag him on which I expect them in 2 days and then Mr. McMullan is to take the remainder of the Packs in 2 more canoes and run down the currant to overtake Mr. Haldane at the Walla Walla Fort. Mr. Brontaoure and my self is to remain here for the spring. God noes where we are to stear afterwards, we had bad spring raining continual — this place felt short of the number of packs of last year. Last year there was thirty packs made here and this year there is only 20 packs, the flat Heads rise it six packs, if the Kootaney could rise it as much we wood get above it of what was made last year. I am afrade they have less what place the [blank or illegible]. With this place all the Indians have beane at war with each other which keep the returns back this year and grate sickness came among the Indians last summer, they could not work, number died.

I have no more to say at present. I am your obedient and most humble servant, Finan McDonald

Delightful, but very hard to understand. Mr. McMullan (with various spellings) is James McMillan, and Mr. Haldane Chief Factor John Haldane, who was in charge at Spokane House. Mr. Montoure is Nicholas Montour Jr., Metis son of Nicholas Montour of Edmonton House. If you have any idea who Mr. Biontoure/Brontaoure is, you can let me know.

Here is one more Finan McDonald letter, from Flat Head House, written 2nd March 1821.

Dear sir, I received your kind favour of the 24 July last. W. [with?] John Stuart that came across with the express last fall which give me joy, to see that you came safe from there land of such raskels as they are. The most honest of them.. [I think I couldn’t read much of this letter].

This two years past that I was not at Fort George I cannot tell you much about that Quarter — the last year the Columbia was quite bit higher than it was the year of Mr. Thompson, they had grate deal of trouble to make two voyages to Fort Walla Walla. Last summer this trouble was the reason of the New Caledonia people coming down for goods and had only five crafts sufficient for to bring the goods to in Land Posts here — this winter they are to make 6 botes at Spokan House, five of the old botes to be truin way the wood is rotin in them already. I received letter from Mr. James Keith at Fort George datet 13 of November Last, which I was hoping to say that he has the use of his eye which troubled him since a year ago — that the Bunakegs did nothing. The Iroquis Thomas McKay is doing well with his band in the Welihamit [Willamette].

The band Iroquois that came across the mountain last summer is doing nothing there is marten and [illegible] is band they are 17 men in all. I don’t suppose that they will kill 300 skins in the fall and spring hunt. Their fall hunt is 123 large beaver… and I was told they was coming in with the value of 40 skins so you may think what can be expected from such brouts [brutes] as those. They think they have only to ask for goods and they should have it. I show them last fall that the company expects to get furs from them as well as they expect to get goods from the company so if they intend to pay the company that they must not keep playing with the Indians in the place of looking after their traps there…Old Vare and company I expect that they will do well. Poore old man was wounded by the Payguns last fall at the Buffaloes, got the bal[l] through his breast. He is to leave this part of the Country and going to the Couteney [Kootenay] and to go about with canoes and to have nothing to do with horses — I received a letter the other day from Mr. D[onald] McKenzie dated December the 5th in the summer he went down with the most part of his men as far as the Falls on the south side of the Columbia near the mountains and set them all at work with there traps having showing them the country and where the beaver was to be kild and he brought all the horses back with him and left them with nothing but there traps and guns. Arrived at the Fort Walla Walla five days before the brigade from Fort William got there, went down in the Bots to Fort George to have the eye on the brigade with Mr. Barneiy he runs only 5 days at fort George and start with 4 boats loaded of goods le[f]t that plase he had not a single [h]our of drie weather till he came be low the Big dals and as he came to the Falls the Cold weather began to snow and sharp wind which the river the next day was full of ice and snow and got grate deal of mercy to come to the fort with the crafts the goods all wet as if it was taken from the bottom of the River.

This is fascinating! I had totally missed the fact that he mentioned my great-great grandfather James Birnie coming down to Fort George [Astoria] with the boats. 

Let’s finish the letter:

John Haldane Esq., Mr. William Kittson and Revay [spent] the winter in Spokane House with 6 men and Mr. McMillan at the Coutenay [Kootenay] and they din me the goodness to sent me to this post. The Paygans playing there best in the planes which they gave nothing [the page is ripped here]… they louse more than they gave. Last fall the Paygans [illegible] their people in the planes the Pondaray [Pend-d’Oreille] and Flat Head [illegible] 2 men, one of them is the Little Chief Pondaray which is grate lose to the White Popel. He rise since 2 years ago to be the greatest chief among all the tribes all round which the natives did vary little since he was kild in the way of hunting beaver or provision. I suppose it will leave the Spokan House this year near 170 packs. Last year left Spokane for 57 pack. I quit this wishing you quietness and happiness against your appoindmant. I am our most obedient humble servant, Finnan McDonald.

Delightful! Terrible spelling, but full of news if you know how to translate it and who he refers to. William Kittson had been with James Birnie and Donald McKenzie in the Snake District, at the Boise camp apparently. He was later in charge at Fort Nisqually but became sick and died in 1841 at Fort Vancouver, after being replaced at the post by my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson. I find it interesting, that we Metis, who worked in the West, are so connected, and we all knew each other.

The Payguns mentioned here are the Peigan First Nations, now the Pikani: spelled Peigan in Canada, and Piegan in the United States. They are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The next letter on this reel is from Sam Black, and it concerns his termination from the HBC on the amalgamation of the two companies. I will leave this for another post, when I speak of this most interesting man. But in the meantime, I hope some of you at least enjoyed this post, and found something of interest and value in it. I did. Lesson learned: always read the old material. There’s always something in there you need to know.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Finan McDonald’s letters

  1. Jill Singleton

    Interesting to read about Fort George in 1821; perhaps Fort George could be “tagged” to read more about it?

  2. Tom Holloway

    Yes, fascinating. Finan McDonald is often taken to task for his, let’s say, unpolished prose, but moving past that, his letters are often revealing. I was especially interested in his comments about the Iroquois who he says came west in 1820. The Martin he mentions was no doubt Martin Meaquin, leader of a band of Iroquois freemen. Several of them, along with Nicholas Montour (jr.), were among the 23 freemen who deserted from Peter Ogden’s Snake Country brigade in 1825, and sold their furs to American William Ashley. The complaint in this letter that the Iroquois traded on their own account with local Natives is echoed in reports by Alexander Ross and George Simpson. Thanks for posting this. Do you have anything more by Finan McDonald, say, from 1823?

  3. Tom Holloway

    During the 1823 Snake Country brigade led by Finan McDonald, there was a clash with the Piegans in what’s now eastern Idaho, in which the Piegans holed up in a brushy thicket, which the brigaders set fire to, thus killing several of their enemies. The usual account is from Alexander Ross in his “Fur Hunters of the Far West.” I would be interesting to see something written by McDonald himself.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Of course (and I remembered this in the middle of the night), after 1821 any records would be in the Hudson’s Bay Company reels, and not in the North West Company reels. There may be something in George Simpson’s incoming correspondence.