Memorable Manitobans: Miles Macdonell (1769-1828)
Soldier, Governor of Red River Settlement (1812-1815).
Born in Inverness, Scotland, he emigrated with his family, who were Roman Catholics, to the Mohawk Valley, New York, in 1773. The family resettled as Loyalists in Lower Canada in 1783. In 1782 Miles became an ensign in the King’s Own Regiment of New York, serving until 1784. He began farming in Osnabruck Township, Upper Canada, and in 1794 was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Volunteer Regiment, rising to captain in 1796. He was stationed at Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1800 to 1802, and was often in financial difficulty. “Mere farming will hardly support my family in the manner I would wish,” he commented in 1804, the year he first met Lord Selkirk, who was touring Upper Canada. Thus he constantly sought military and civilian appointments, usually without much success. In 1800 he was anunsuccessful candidate for election to the Upper Canada legislature for the county of Glengarry.
In 1811 Selkirk selected him as governor of Assiniboia, a role which he readily accepted, despite the difficulties of the endeavour and the association of most of his kinfolk with the North West Company. Macdonell had trouble with the venture from the beginning. He treated the settlement’s first recruits roughly when they became discontented before departure from Stornoway in 1811, and was never able to command their respect during the long winter the party had to spend on the Nelson River. After their arrival at Red River in late August 1812, the next few years went from bad to worse. Food for the new settlers was in short supply, and early in 1814 MacDonell issued the notorious “pemmican proclamation”, which forbade the export of provisions from the jurisdiction over which he claimed authority, a claim contested by the NWC.
He was married, first to Isabella Macdonell, then to Catherine Macdonell, and had several children.
No accountant, Macdonell had much difficulty with the double-entry bookkeeping insisted upon by Selkirk, and the local Hudson's Bay Company people were not at all supportive. Harassed on all sides and clearly not in control of the situation, he experienced a nervous breakdown in August 1814. A year later he surrendered to the Nor’Westers and was taken east to stand trial on a number of charges, while most of his settlers went to Upper Canada in NWC canoes. Never tried, he returned west in 1816 and helped capture Fort William with Selkirk. He advised Selkirk to purchase the furs there from NWC partner Daniel McKenzie. He subsequently led a party of De Meuron soldiers overland to recapture Fort Douglas in January 1817, serving again as governor of Red River in the spring and summer of 1817. He was soon back in Upper Canada, where he spent the remainder of his life attempting to hold Selkirk and his estate to the commitments made him in 1811.
Macdonell died at Pointe Fortune, on the Ottawa River, 28 June 1828. He is commemorated by Miles Macdonell Collegiate in Winnipeg.
Macdonell’s papers are in Library and Archives Canada (LAC); many of them, including a journal for the period from 1811 to 1814, in the Selkirk Papers, are also in LAC. A letterbook, “Selkirk settlement; letter book of Captain Miles Macdonell,” was published in PAC Report (1886), clxxxvii-ccxxvi. There is no full biography.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 26 July 2014