Memorable Manitobans: William McTavish (1815-1870)
Fur trader, governor.
Born at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1815, he came to the Hudson Bay in 1833 as an apprentice with the Hudson's Bay Company under the patronage of his uncle, Chief Factor John George McTavish. He worked at York Factory under James Hargrave, soon to be his brother-in-law. In 1857 he moved to Red River to take charge of Upper Fort Garry, the most “troublesome and complicated charge” in the company. He was tall, sandy-haired, and sported Palmerston whiskers with a heavy mustache.
He soon married Sarah McDermot (?-?), the mixed-blood Catholic daughter of Andrew McDermot and Sarah McNab (1802-1875). Appointed Governor of Assiniboia in 1858, he believed the governance of the fur trade and the settlement should be separated. Nevertheless, in 1869-1870 he was Governor of both Rupert’s Land and Assiniboia. His lack of action in the Canadian crisis was partly due to his dislike of politics and his ill health, but also because of his sympathies with the old inhabitants. He believed the locals had a right to a proper arrangement with Canada, and objected to Canadian imperialism. He criticized Canada for ignoring the inhabitants. McTavish had all sorts of power in 1869 that he refused to exercise. Why he did not act is a fascinating question.
From 16 November 1869 to February 1870 he was virtually (and sometimes actually) imprisoned in Upper Fort Garry by Louis Riel, mostly bedridden with advanced tuberculosis. What actions he took were through the agency of his private secretary, Joseph James Hargrave (his nephew) and Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne (his brother-in-law). He resigned on 15 January 1870. He and his family left for Scotland on 17 May 1870, and he died upon disembarkation at Liverpool in July.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
We thank Gloria McNabb for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 23 July 2020