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Memorable Manitobans: William James “Big Bear” McLean (1841-1929)

Click to enlargeFur trader.

Born on the Isle of Lewis, Rothshire on 27 October 1841, he entered the services of the Hudson's Bay Company in June 1859. Arriving at York Factory, he worked as an apprentice clerk at York Factory, Lower Fort Garry and Fort Norman before being appointed clerk-in-charge at Fort Liard. He then spent the period from 1873 to 1882 at Fort Qu’Appelle, first as clerk-in-charge and later as junior Chief Trader and finally Chief Trader. He later served at Fort Ellice, Ile-a-la-Crosse and Fort Pitt, at the latter during the time of the 1885 North West Rebellion. There he was taken captive by Big Bear and held captive for 63 days. He related his experiences in a series of articles published posthumously by the Manitoba Historical Society.

He served as Chief Trader at Fort Alexander and Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba, retiring to Winnipeg in October 1892. He then spent 15 years working for the federal government, paying treaty money and distributing supplies to aboriginal peoples. In 1908 he was a member of a party that walked nearly 2,500 miles distributing treaty benefits.

He and wife Helen Hunter Murray (1850-?), eldest daughter of Alexander Hunter Murray, had twelve children: Amelia McLean (wife of Frederick H. Paget), Elizabeth McLean (1869-1947), Katherine McLean, John McLean, William A. McLean (b 1872), Angus Samuel Archibald McLean (1875-1951), Duncan McLean (b 1877), Helen McLean (b 1881), Owen McLean (b 1883), Freda McLean (b 1885), Hunter Murray McLean (1888-1979), and Mary L. McLean (b 1890).

He died at his Winnipeg home, 116 Rose Street, on 12 November 1929 and was buried in St. John’s Cemetery.

His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:

Notes and Observations of Travels on the Athabasca and Slave Lake Regions in 1899
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 58, Read 12 February 1901

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 1
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 1972

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 2
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 17, No. 3, Spring 1972

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt during the Northwest Rebellion, Part 3
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 18, No. 1, Autumn 1972

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt during the Northwest Rebellion, Part 4
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 1973

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt during the Northwest Rebellion, Part 5
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 18, No. 3, Spring 1973

Thirst Dance of the Cree Indians
Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 19, No. 1, Autumn 1973


1901 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.

The Story of Manitoba by F. H. Schofield, Winnipeg: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.

“Big Bear” M’Lean, pioneer factor, dies”, Manitoba Free Press, 13 November 1929, page 4.

Obituary, Manitoba Free Press, 13 November 1929, page 21.

Obituary [Elizabeth McLean], Winnipeg Tribune, 11 April 1947. [Manitoba Legislative Library, Biographical Scrapbook B9]

“‘Big Bear’ McLean’s son dies here at 76”, Winnipeg Free Press, 18 May 1951. [Manitoba Legislative Library, Biographical Scrapbook B10]

Obituary [Hunter Murray McLean], Winnipeg Free Press, 23 January 1979, page 45.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Biographical Sheets.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 18 October 2011

Memorable Manitobans

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