Exile in the Wilderness: The Life of Chief Factor Archibald McDonald, 1790–1858 – Jean Murray Cole
25 February 2012
— Archibald McDonald, biography, Columbia River, fur trade, fur traders, HBC, history, Hudson's Bay Company, Jean Murray Cole, Manitoba, Oregon, Red River Settlement
I’ve been thinking a lot about my family history lately, as this year will be the bicentennial anniversary of the arrival of one of my maternal branches in Canada. The first of them arrived at Red River Settlement (RRS) in 1812. One of the sources I’ve been using to learn more about them has been the journals of Archibald McDonald, so I was really interested in reading this book when I learned of its existence!
When he was only 21 years of age, Archibald McDonald was recommended to the Earl of Selkirk as a suitable man to lead the 1812 recruits both to and in their new home at Red River. Selkirk immediately recognized the young man’s potential when the two first met in Ireland, just as the settlers were about to sail. The earl held Archy back from the expedition and instead took him to London to ensure that he received further training that would be useful to him at Red River. As a result of Selkirk’s decision, McDonald left with the 1813 group to begin an eventful career in North America.
The first section of the book details McDonald’s experience on the voyage and with the fever that took so many lives, enduring the bitter winter near Churchill and the long spring trek to York Factory, struggling to deal with the wickedly clever manipulation of the settlers at the hands of the NWCo’s Duncan Cameron, and through the aftermath of the resultant destruction of the RRS in 1815. It is this section that was of most interest to me, but by the time I finished with McDonald’s involvement in RRS matters, I was curious enough to want to see how Archy progressed in his new career as a family man working west of the Rockies for the HBC. The career move was interesting, particularly when the HBC had just absorbed the NWCo. and our hero found himself working with men whose actions he came to despise at Red River!
This book is well written and very readable, although sometimes there is a hint of sentimentality that creeps into it. Jean Cole, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Archibald McDonald, has taken great care to allow her ancestor’s voice to tell his life story; she uses his journals and many letters extensively. She is obviously very fond of her subject, but perhaps not unjustifiably so; McDonald was obviously well loved by his contemporaries, and a man who accomplished a great deal wherever he happened to find himself. He was a man deeply concerned for the welfare of his neighbours as well as one whose desire was to serve his employer to the best of his ability. The result was that he led a very interesting and rich life that makes for excellent reading.