Canadians have for a long time known much about
the prowess of the many American frontiersmen who opened up that great
land to the south of us in their nineteenth century westward expansion.
Truthfully, a plethora of American books, movies and television have
strongly precluded us knowing our frontier history well. Thus, a Scots
born redheaded fellow countryman who outdid all the Yanks is virtually
unknown to us. His frontier activities in the fur trade before June 2,
1827 compare well with any of the American legends, but what he did that
day, battling afoot for his life against a bull bison, makes him,
undisputably, the greatest frontiersman of them all. One writer, Rowland
Bond claims that Finnan McDonald actually dismounted and ‘bulldogged’
the wounded animal making it the most astonishing version of the battle
as others have it begin after he was unhorsed by the bull bison.
As well, Finnan McDonald deserves his place in
worldwide Celtic lore, even though his battle with the giant herbivore
is documented. Rob Roy McGregor and William Wallace brave as they were,
are not known to have fought any giant beast.. On the other side of the
Irish Sea, Finn McColl and Conn of a Hundred battles are not on record
as doing any better.
This makes McDonald's 'battle with the buffalo’ of
mythic proportion, although documented history. Even the epic 'heroes'
of ancient Greece took on no greater adversaries in their myths. The
same can be said of many Indian myths such as the one about trickster
Coyote of the Flathead people where McDonald would spend time living. It
was, alas, where he would also spend some time in intertribal warfare,
too. Author Rowland Bond says of him "war was his glory and piping
peace his aversion". Truth is we don't know for sure if the Greek
and aboriginal figures even existed, but Finnan Mor's battle with the
buffalo is a recorded, if albeit, long forgotten fact.
He survived a potentially fatal
struggle with an animal 7.5 to 10 times his size on the shores of the
North Saskatchewan River. Comprehending the size disparity in this story
is the essence of it’s mythic quality. When I asked him, the affable
curator of buffalo at
Winnipeg's Assiniboine Zoo, told me 'they were as big then as they are
today,' which is 1800 to 2400 pounds. In today’s metric world that
would be 818 to 1091kg. He also said 'unless we know them to be
gentle, we never go into their cages, they are too strong!' They are the
largest land animals in North America. The nearest competitor in size is the polar bear! Their speed at full
gallop is only three miles per hour less than a pronghorn antelope.
Consider too, the smallest buffalo are nine times heavier than the largest pronghorn. They are uniquely shaped, too.
Tall at the shoulder - 1.67m to1.86m for males; long in body - 3.6 to 3.8
metres, again for males; but, they have small hind quarters. Bison speed
comes from their body length, too. Mature bulls can be 3.6m or 11.75ft
to 3.8 metres or 12.4ft. from hindquarters to nose; with a probable
stride of 14 ft. or 4.0 metres
An adult cow often leads the herd, but
young bulls may wander alone. When together bulls can be in herds up to
30 in number. I suspect it’s this type of herd that the Ft.Vancouver
Brigade and Finnan Mor encountered that day. Their keen sense of smell
is their first level of self defence. Research indicates buffalo see
moving objects well, but not so well for fixed objects
If 'a story about legendary persons
and exploits' defines a fable, then Finnan Mor,
as I call him, lived a life that fits. As a four year old he came to
Canada in 1786 with his family: just six years before Glengarry county
was surveyed. This legendary county of eastern Ontario is the only place
where he gets recognition, and then; not all he deserves.
With his father Angus Ban McDonald,
mother, sisters Flora and Margaret, older brothers Archibald, Donald and
John, he came to the land where he should have become part of the lore
and legend: but, sadly, is only a forgotten part. His oldest sister,
Hannah, would come to Glengarry circa 1800 at age thirty-one. Historical
record and family genealogy differ as to Finnan’s mother. Nelly
McDonnell is supposedly the correct name as I found it in several
historical accounts. Helen MacDonald of Stoel, Scotland should be
regarded as his true mother, however, as I have seen this in the family
record as written by Duncan ‘Darby’ MacDonald and sent to me over
the Internet by a direct descendant of Finnan Mor.
James McDonald isn’t even mentioned in Finnan Mor's
short bio in Encyclopaedia Canadiana, but elsewhere I found reference to
him having been a militia officer. In fact genealogical records list
his rank as Lt. Colonel, of the 1st Glengarry Militia. They
also prove he didn’t immigrate as some historians claim. He was born
four years after Finnan Mor and the rest came to Upper Canada. He
married Margaret Mac Lellan Feb 6th 1816, two years after The
War of 1812-14,but there is no record of his service there which is odd
for a man who rose to be a Lt. Colonel. He would have been twenty-two at
the wars beginning, an ideal age to start as a junior officer. He died
in May of 1863 merely seven months after brother Archibald, but he lived
17 years short of Archie Mor’s ninety.
An uncle, Sgt. Finnan McDonald of the 84th
is the only other military relative in the family history. He is
probably Finnan Mor’s namesake.
These same records show that Finnan had large siblings
as 'mor', the Gaelic word for big, is used in the record for all but John.
I offer the opinion that Finnan Mor developed his considerable skill in
personal combat because of the size of his siblings. I’m sure their
parents had to halt more than one altercation between him and the other
‘young giants’ who were Finnan’s brothers. John’s nickname 'Leborgne'
means 'one-eyed'. Whether he lost his eye to injury or disease or it was
a birth defect, is not known. The man who later rose to HBC chief factor
in the Red River Country was also known as MacDonald Legrand which
suggests he too was a big as his brothers.
They would have been seven of the 500 souls who came
to Quebec under the shepherding of Alexander Macdonnell Scotus, a
legendary spiritual leader among the displaced Highlanders in the years
after 'The 45', as the last Jacobite Rebellion was often called. An
interesting twist to this part of McDonald’s story is that they came
over on the S. S. McDonald. Since this was before the age of steam I’m
sure that means ‘sailing ship’. According to the genealogical
record, 'the great red chief’ or ‘Redhead’ as the first Canadians
called Finnan Mor had seven sisters. No record of their size is known to
His older brother, John Leborgne McDonald, the first to enter the fur trade, was another story entirely.
He would be implicated in the Seven Oaks massacre; the first, and only,
mass murder of whites by whites in western Canadian history. The fur
traders didn't want settlers as they saw them as threatening their
business. The Scots educated Cuthbert Grant, the legendary Metis leader,
as the 'officier in charge', is the one most often blamed!
Finnan Mor surprised and disappointed his older
brother when he showed up in 'The Great Northwest' as a young giant of
22, in 1803. This was just one year after Britain declared war on France
and began the Napoleonic Wars.
Since he'd been sending money home for the education
of his younger sibling, so arose John Leborgne’s disappointment, one
would guess. It's interesting to note that in the biography of the elder
brother, there's no mention of his own education whatsoever!
Also known as McDonald Legrand, because
his size was comparable to, Finnan, his younger brother, he was one of
the original six wintering partners of the North West Co. He was
arrested and charged by Lord Selkirk after the Seven Oaks Massacre.
Tried at York, now Toronto, he was acquitted.
The two feuding fur companies were
forcibly joined in 1821, by the British Parliament at the behest of Lord
Selkirk. So died the great Northwest Fur Trading Company, the
pro-genitor of the term ‘Nor ’wester’, and one year later so died
Angus Bhan father of two of the most legendary to earn that appellation.
The union of the bitter rivals allowed former Nor' wester John 'Leborgne'
McDonald to become chief factor for The HBC. Seven years later John, at
56, would follow his father not to a grave in Glengarry but, to one at
Newmarket, Ontario. He was in charge from 1821 to 1827; first, at Upper
Red River; then of the Winnipeg River district.
It's probable, even though no proof can be found Finnan Mor was on the
way to rendezvous with his older brother when the incident occurred that
should have made him a legend. An annual fur traders ‘rendezvous’
was part of the life style then which was often held at Ft. William, now
Thunder Bay, Ontario. Remember, the Saskatchewan River feeds into Lake
Winnipeg which would have allowed The Fort Vancouver Brigade, the group
McDonald was travelling with June 2, 1827 to reach Ft. Garry by taking
their York boats down The Red, where, today, Winnipeg is presently a
city of 650,000.
Where Finnan McDonald actually
entered 'the fur trade' is unknown, but by 1806 he gains mention
in the logs of Rocky Mountain Hse. as 'an experienced clerk.'
The Glengarry connection prevails here as the post was the one started
in 1799, by John McDonald of Garth and early Nor’ wester who settled
in the county when he retired in 1815. Finnan Mor was 'away to cross
the height of land' with, Thompson, the explorer, one year later.
When the great mapmaker left the west in 1812 never to return he, and
‘Redhead’ as his aboriginal friends were wont to call Finnan Mor had
travelled 50,000 miles on foot, horseback and by canoe. Simon Fraser,
another legendary Glengarrian and Nor’ wester ,only 26 and already a
senior partner of the company commissioned Thompson to explore a
southern route to the ocean; perhaps to complement the northern one he
had explored in the years 1805 to 1807. Fraser and his men made their
now legendary descent of the river that bears his name entirely into
tidal waters. They did what Mackenzie had failed to do when he reached
the Pacific ‘by way of land’ in 1793. To facilitate trade in the
area they built Ft. St. James, Ft. Fraser and Ft. George which is now
Prince George B.C.
Historical record shows that Thompson
traversed Howse Pass, elevation 1,525 metres in 1807 and Athabasca Pass
1,748 metres in 1811. It’s known that he and Finnan Mor ‘rode
together’ until 1812,so; it’s reasonable to postulate that they were
together this time. However, tentative proof can be found in the story
of Thompson ‘and party’ crossing the route pioneered by Jocko Finlay
who walked it alone in 1806. The Howse Pass trip, June 24th
toJune30th 1807, was so arduous that Finnan McDonald had to be along for
who else had the strength and stamina to lead them through. A measure of
the extreme difficulty can be found in the record which shows they took
three days to go 4km Thompson was 12 years older than Finnan Mor, and
had suffered a badly broken leg 19 years before which slowed him
thereafter. Ironically, it was during his recovery time at Cumberland
House that Phillip Turnor an HBC employee taught Thompson basic
surveying and astronomy. These would be the skills that would earn him
the regard that he has today as our premier mapmaker. The description of
the trip has them changing from canoes to horses and then back again
when the went down The Blaeberry River to the Columbia.. This took them
out west of The Rockies near present day Golden, B.C. It suggests they
must have procured horses somewhere on The Howse River, and that part of
their difficulty was transporting the canoes over a very narrow mountain
trail. Thompson had his family along ,two small children among them, so:
it must having been most arduous for them all.
The Lewis and Clark expedition had
already inflamed the Flathead tribe against all whites with their
arrogance towards aboriginals, so: the scene was set for our greatest
mapmaker and the young giant to earn a place in Canadian and Celtic
legend that has yet to be awarded him.
And so, a 6'4" 240lb, man-mountain,
24 years old, entered 'The shiningMountains', as the
first North Americans called them. They, would be adversaries, friends
and one, his only wife. Peggy Ponderay would add 'romance' to his
legend. In taking a ‘native’ wife Finnan Mor was emulating most of
the great names of ‘The Fur Trade Era’ and ‘adopting’ a partner
who would be gentle, obedient and skilled in the homey crafts of her
people such as making his buckskins. Indeed, Finnan took his wife and
children with him as he moved about the Pacific Northwest, and then east
to Glengarry County to spend her final years there. The birth and
baptismal records for their 13 children still extant in Glengarry county
history give solid credence to this story. What is unique, as author
Rowland Bond points out, is that Finnan’s marital constancy was
uncommon among the Scots fur traders! This gives credence to what was
later said of his gentle nature and leonine courage.
Earlier in his career, his Hudson
Bay superiors would describe McDonald as 'not too bright and better
fitted for dangerous service'. He was bright enough, however, to oversee
the building of Spokane House in 1810 when he was just 24 years. He was,
also, most conversant in three Old World languages. English and Gaelic,
he learned from family and friends in his native Inverness-shire.
French, I suspect he learned from trips to Montreal which is only 30
miles east the St. Lawrence, and from his Canadian neighbours in
Glengarry. As for tribal dialects, he said this in one of his letters
dated Sept 12, 1815, 'I don't understand half of what they are saying' .
Interestingly enough, that means he thought he could understand 'the
other half'!! His letters prove that he could write but that he was a
bad speller. Also,
Records indicate no less than four chroniclers of Finnan Mor's
adventures. One of the unanswered question about Finnan Mor is: did he
leave any journals and where are they? He began as a clerk at Ft.
Athabasca, so, he had some training as a 'journalizer'. The American
historian T. C. Elliot refers to him as ‘Thompson’s principal
assistant west of the Rockies’. The great mapmaker says Finnan Mor
wasn’t much for detail, but; he was always keen to take on dangerous
duty; the more hazardous the better. I suppose this man-of-action trait
contributed to his aforementioned denigration, above!
David Thompson would be first to
chronicle the life of ' the big Red Chief' as he would be known among
his wife's people. A curious but uncorroborated claim is that the great
mapmaker referred to Finnan Mor as 'Mr. McDonald'. If there is any
substance to this it might be their age difference and Thompson’s six
years in a Quaker run charity school before he was apprenticed to the
HBC. Then, there was Ross Cox an Irishman, who wrote Adventures on
the Columbia, four years after the event in 1831; then two more Nor
'westers, Alexander Ross and finally John Work, another Irish born fur
Finnan Mor is said to have united
the gentleness of a lamb with the courage of a lion. In ‘Early Birds
in the Northwest’ R. Bond described him as quick to anger, yet equally
quick to make amends. Affectionate to men of smaller size, he was testy
with men of similar stature if truly angered.
Something else that proves McDonald was a man of uncommon courage and
stamina is that in 1807 he was the first to cross the Rockies three
times and second after MacKenzie among those to do a round trip. The 350
mile jaunt began Sept 23rd and was basically the reverse of
the route he and the rest of Thompson’s party made earlier in June
1807. Simple arithmetic shows he logged 1050 miles through virgin
territory, and was pressed by time, too, to finish before winter . Add to this
that the Oregon Historical Society has him on the Columbia, that same year !
Amazingly enough, he went with David Thompson and family again in summer
1808. Another pioneering feat of Finnan Mor, that year, was the building
of Lake Indian House near Leonia, Idaho; the first post south of the 49th
Parallel. American historians debate the exact location, here: some said
it was near Libby Montana; others Bonner’s Ferry Idaho. The actual
location is still disputed, today, by American historians of the period.
'It's likely this was the time
Finnan Mor traversed Marias Pass in the Montana Rockies near
the International Boundary Oddly enough, he is not
credited with discovery of the pass. That's given to two
Americans, Stevens and Bolden, in 1889 Even more odd, they
seem to have done it at separate times, that year'!
R .Bond says McDonald often accompanied
The Flatheads on their war excursions, just for the sheer joy of a
fight! Cox is the
only one to allude to an 1819 skirmish where Finnan Mor was wounded and
then almost scalped. Until his struggle with the buffalo there is no
other mention of him being seriously wounded.
In the summer of 1812 McDonald was at
the buffalo plains with Flatheads when a severe contest ensued
with some Blackfeet they happened to fall in with, there. According
to the Irishman, Ross Cox, he was seen galloping about like a mounted
berserker urging his friends, the Flatheads, onto glorious victory.
But he was living the quieter life of an explorer in the years just
before this. He was beyond 'The Shining Mountains' with David Thompson and several others whose names would enter the annals of
'The Nor' westers'. In the summer of 1807, at just 25 years, he was
already second-in-command with Thompson's outfit in the Howes Pass area.
He assisted with building Kootenay House at Toby Creek, below
Lake Windermere. It was likely in the area of present day Windermere
B.C. as modern map references still contain some similar names.
An interesting but mostly uncorroborated fact that I found while
'surfing' the Net was that the Northwest Company had a trading post
called McDonald's House on the Kootenay River in 1808-09. Ross Cox A
friendly contact on 'the Net' confirms that it really did exist,
established Lake Indian House, the first one in Idaho, below
Bonner's Ferry. This was autumn 1807 and over the following winter and
spring he explored the area. Two of his men crossed unknown terrain to
Pend 'oreille Lake,
45 miles away.It seems that in peace and war, Finnan
Mor, was always on the move. He was back at Kootenay House in time to
meet that other iterant fellow, David Thompson, and for both of them to
be exploring down the river toLake Kootenay
by April 20, of '08.Thompson’s notes are somewhat incomplete
here. Surprisingly, Thompson writes of coming upon four men, Finnan Mor
among them, with a cache of furs they had endured privation to acquire.
That winter they ate their dogs to survive. The date of this encounter
was June 8th. The following November was so cold that canoe
travel was truly impossible. McDonald secured horses upon returning to
Kootenay House and then made it only as far a Rainy Creek, near Libby
Montana. Here, he had the only wintering place suited to horses in the
whole area.Thompson was writing two years after the fact,
according to the article which may explain the slight confusion.
The following year, April 17, 1809
all The Traders descended The Columbia to Howse Pass where they had once
crossed 'the height of land'. They reached the headwaters of The
July 14, 1809. Almost eighteen years later this river would figure very
prominently in the life of Finnan McDonald.
The second house, ever to be built,
would be erected in Idaho that year . A party of men led by Finnan Mor
reachedClark's Fork, September 9, 1809 and the site was chosen
the following day. Construction began two days later, after a
three-month canoe trip. Thompson was away on another exploration of the
area which took him down the Saleesh, near to Metaline. It's still on
current maps of northeast Washington state. Finnan had been busy for
Thompson wrote, Mr McDonald had traded for about two packs of good
furs in my absence.
McDonald was trusted regularly by
David Thompson. He oversaw building Kullyspell House where he
remained under Thompson orders, until April 21, 1810. Thompson had
another house built in his travels by someone he identifies as Jocko
Finlay or Jacques Raphael. Apparently as this was being undertaken about
May 7, 1810, Finnan Mor was engaged in 'hostilities'. In the battle
described two men
were killed and one wounded. McDonald fired forty-five shots so the
account goes. Considering that he was likely using an old flintlock it
shows his prodigious strength from another standpoint. Was he 'in
training' for the great 'warrior versus bull buffalo' tussle that was to
come seventeen years later? He was about the business of begetting a
family with his wife Peggy Ponderay, for sure, for their first child
'Hellene' was born June 19,1811.
Another child, James, is also listed in the Metis chronicles where I learned of Hellene,so:
perhaps it wasn't their very first one . Six months later her uncle James the
military officer most likely was mustering in for the duration with the
Glengarry Fencibles who served with ‘distinction’ in the 1812-14 war
which ranged from the Eastern Townships of Quebec, then Lower Canada, to
the Niagara Peninsula. of Ontario, then Upper Canada A valid question,
here, is how much did the people in the western fur trade know about the
wars in Europe or back east in ‘The Canadas’ ? Was the ‘moccasin
telegraph’ a reality and did it carry news about ‘the white-man’s
Before he retired to Glengarry county,
Finnan Mor and wife Peggy would have eight more. They, in turn, have
descendants living today in the US . Finnan Mor's, first child was
likely born in her father's absence for Thompson's journal has him
exploring the Columbia River from Kettle Falls to the Upper Dalles.
McDonald is credited with being
the first to explore this area.
Thompson chronicled much of the
activity of Finnan Mor when he was under his command. He retired fifteen
years before McDonald, but would live just six years longer. He returned
to his old work of the surveyor in 1816 and would spend the next ten
years accurately mapping the border from Montreal to Lake of the Woods.
Some of his journals were written at Williamstown. They were edited in
1916 by JB Tyrrell for the Champlain Society, but can still be found in
the Ontario Archives. The great explorer would suffer a business failure
that would leave him in poverty in his last years. He would suffer
Finnan Mor is buried in St. Raphaels
cemetery in Glengarry County just 9.3km from St.Andrews cemetery where
lies Simon Fraser, Vermont born but a legendary Canadian explorer and
Nor ’wester. Incidentally, Fraser named the Thompson River after the
The great cartographer would never
see the river that bears his name. David Thompson would retire years
before McDonald, but his fate in his last years would be sadly
different. He would spend his last years in penury near Longueuil,
Quebec as a result of a business failure that was never identified.
Williamstown is where Finnan McDonald would retire to in 1827. Here, he
would take up the life of a farmer and family man until his death in
1851. McDonald was joined in eastern Ontario [Canada West] by Peggy
Ponderay and their children.
David Thompson was responsible for
significant cartography in western North America, too.
Writing in 1922, the American J.A. Meyers claims McDonald was elected
member of the Canada West legislature from Williamstown for 1843-44, but
according to the Ontario Archivist, there is no record of Finnan Mor
The great explorer would have been
enjoying the results of his boundary mapmaking when Finnan Mor would
have had his encounter with the angry bull buffalo on the banks of the
North Saskatchewan June 2, 1827. David Thompson was buried in the Mont
Royal Protestant Cemetery beside Charlotte Small, his half-blood,
lifetime spouse. The plot is the Landell plot which was his daughter's
Thompson had travelled 50,000 miles
on foot, by canoe and horseback by the time he retired in 1812. As well,
he had accurately mapped the main travel routes through 1,062,500 sq.
km. of Canadian and American territory. Did he take credit for the work
of his young protegee?
There is, however, no record of how
much Finnan Mor travelled at the great explorer's request. It would have
been comparable as they both were possessed of great wanderlust, history
shows. Since I alluded to McDonald's temperament early in this
narrative, it seems fitting to compare Thompson's.
The great explorer-cartographer is
described as fearless, energetic, tirelessly persistent, precise and
frontiersman and the geographer were alike in two of their traits, at
least. Both were men well suited for their frontier careers. Another
interesting point is that in the journals of Peter Skene Ogden Finnan
Mor is credited with being the first into the Klammath River region of
Oregon in 1808. Ogden notes also that Finnan Mor had departed the
American Northwest for the Red River county by 1825. But, did he? John
Work, who would be his chronicler after Ross and Cox, has him at Ft. Nez
Perce in 1826!
Anyway, he now had a new chronicler.
Ross Cox, the Irishman, becomes the next source for Finnan Mor's
exploits. The time in question is 1812 when Thompson left Saleesh House
for Montreal on March 13, until Cox descends the Columbia, voyages to
Montreal and departs the service of the Northwest Company. That was
after May 14, 1817 according to the Irishman's journal. It's interesting
to note that 'this rough inarticulate fellow' as
he has been described by other writers was once more left in charge by
the 'persistent, meticulous' cartographer, David Thompson. Ironically,
Cox began as a competitor of The Northwest Company. He and a partner
named Farnham were with the Astoria Fur Company at Bull River between
Noxon and Heron, Montana after which he quit John Jacob Astor's firm.
He, McDonald and other men were attacked at the cascades by hostiles
while making their second portage. The date of this fracas is not
mentioned. However, Cox does say they left Ft. Astoria October 29, 1813,
so it must have been soon after. Finnan Mor, who would be later deemed
unfit for promotion, was left in charge, again. He would be in charge of
the gang at the lower cascades while the fight began, and had charge of
the night watch when they were fired upon. The traders fired back and by
the reported moans it's reckoned some of the hostiles were wounded.
Finnan Mor was the post factor at Ft. Kamloops during the winter of
1813-14, Cox states in his journal. A summer 'rendezvous' took place as
traders from McDonald's post, Spokan House and Okanagan [spelled
Oakinagan in Cox's notes] collected to travel to Ft.George on the coast.
They arrived June 11,1814. They left Astoria August 5. I found no
explanation for the two names for one post, but my guess is that it was
Ft.George first and Astoria later. It probably came under the control of
the John Jacob Astor Fur Company when that occurred.
The party leaving then was much the
same size as the one that came there in June. But once more, an attack
at the Cascades occurred, and one man was killed. The trip was simply a
return to the posts they had left earlier in the year. Cox, for
instance, returned to Spokan House August 31. It seems, the traders had
a seasonal habit of travelling to and from Ft.George. The next entry in
the Cox chronicle is about a round trip that involved a skirmish with
Indians as the traders were returning to the interior.
The Nor 'westers left Okanagan
October 24, arriving November 8, 1814 where they sojourned for ten days
before returning to the interior. Six Sandwich Islanders were among the
party of fifty-four who departed in eight canoes. The point where they
expected danger had passed, so, most had stowed their arms. At first,
the native brigade seemed friendly which allayed any sense of imminent
danger in the traders, even though they had their weapons available.
Apparently, the trouble arose out of a 'mooching' scenario engendered by
the Indians. The traders were persuaded to give the aboriginals tobacco,
but the scene turned ugly when, at the canoe manned by Larocque and
McMillan, they attempted to take more valuable goods by force. Grasping
hands were repulsed with smacks from traders canoe paddles, but to quote
Cox the 'dernier resort' was eschewed. Keith, the brigade leader, had
already ordered restraint. But, then the scene shifted to Finnan Mor's
A hostile, as described, 'a tall
athletic fellow' made a move that clearly told the traders they were
about to forcibly lose property. One of the traders, McKay, simply
butted the truculent tribesman with his flintlock when he refused all
entreaties to abandon property he had claimed. This caused him to drop
the 'booty' and draw his bow. Finnan Mor, who managed to fire his black
powder rifle in quick fashion in an 1810 skirmish, reacted with utmost
deliberation. To quote Cox 'the latter [McDonald] cooly stretched out a
brawny forearm, seized the arrow the Indian had placed in his bow, broke
and disdainfully flung it into his face.' As a result of being so firmly rebuffed, the savage ordered his canoe to
leave. But, enraged by it all, the hostile drew his bow, with an arrow
in it, once more . This time a trader, McKay, felled him instantly with
a rifle ball between the eyes. Two others of the war party were shot by
Finnan Mor with his double-barrelled gun before they could succeed in a
similar effort. This was an intertribal war party on Walla Walla tribal
land which resulted in 'Morning Star' chief of the Walla Walla having to
act as a peacemaker. It was now December 1, 1814 and the standoff was
underway for several days. The intertribal renegades wanted 'the big red
chief' as one of several trader-prisoners. Finnan Mor was so overjoyed
by the possibility the story goes that 'he grinned a horrid ghastly
smile' when told. McDonald wanted to chastise the renegades forthwith.
Perhaps he wanted to deal the renegades their ‘Waterloo’ just as
Napoleon would experience his in Europe in summer of 1815.
Finnan Mor returned to his old
responsibility at Kamloops in the spring of 1816, according to Cox, his
chronicler of the moment. The entry is for April 30,1816 which leaves
the time back to his previous entry without clarification. It is
difficult, therefore to know if the entry refers to times past or what
followed thereafter, something of a faux pas for a writer such as Cox.
McDonald must have spent ten months
at Kamloops; for the next time he is recorded as on the move, the date
of entry in Cox's journal is February 12, 1817. A new man enters into
the story, that of Donald McKenzie. McKenzie obviously admired Finnan
Mor, for he said this 'I passed an agreeable time with our friend Finnan'.
Apparently, McKenzie is writing to Cox, here. 'He is a most worthy
mortal and desires to be remembered to you',
is the rest of the McKenzie communication. It seems, McKenzie had been
in Finnan Mor's territory to personally select horses. The narrative
moves onto May 4th of that year and we learn for the first time about
Finnan Mor's ability to write.
Cox, encamped at Kettle Falls en route to Montreal and departure from
the North-west Fur Company, wrote this 'arrived from Spokan House with
letters from McDonald which 'contained no intelligence of interest'!
Again, it begs the question what was the real reason that his HBC
superiors saw him as 'unfit for promotion and good only for dangerous
service'. He could write, which means he could read. As noted earlier he
was fluent in English, French and Gaelic. His time among the Indians
suggests he had some facility in learning tribal dialects, too. Was this
big, tough, rawboned Scots frontiersman 'too much man' for his effete
bosses? Before the amalgamation engineered by Lord Selkirk, had he been
a 'bitter enemy'? The size of the HBC after amalgamation and Finnan
McDonald's position is an interesting sidelight at this time.
These figures are for the period
1821-22 and show his position on the new company seniority list. He was
in the bottom half of the new fur trading giant despite almost twenty
years in the business. Finnan Mor, ranked 1132 out of 1984, had 852 less
senior to him. His brother, John Lebrogne, was ranked number three on
the company roster in this same period.
After this McDonald has a new
chronicler. Alexander Ross takes up the journey of Finnan Mor in 'The
Great Northwest' from this point onward. Ross is the author of 'The Fur
Hunters of the Far West', a most original title. According to Ross,
Donald McKenzie's retirement left some trappers jobless. McDonald is
listed as the boss of an expedition that was outfitted to explore the
Snake River country. The author doesn't give an exact date for this
excursion starting, but later historians reference it as sometime in
This is where Peter Skene Ogden
enters into Finnan Mor's life as he offers to pay him a 'good salary' to
lead a combined mega-expedition. Ross expresses displeasure with Finnan
Mor, here, for being
at Spokan along with all the men who went on the Snake River Expedition
when he expected them to be a Ft. Nez Perces. Interestingly, Ross
actually claims it 'was a departure from the Company's views'. Perhaps
it had some bearing on McDonald's being deemed 'unfit for promotion'. Was the big redheaded fellow too independent for 'his own good' ?
The amalgamation of the North-west
Fur Trading Company with the Hudson Bay Company was imposed by Lord
Selkirk after England granted his appeal to end their seven years war.
One infamous incident in this was the attack on The Selkirk Settlers,
supposedly led by Cuthbert Grant. This led to John Lebrogne McDonald,
Finnan's brother being tried and later acquitted. If Grant was the
'savage' he was supposed to be, how did he manage to graduate from the
University of Edinburgh. Educated in Montreal and Scotland, his Scottish
born father, Cuthbert Sr., may have been 'out west' as early as 1750.
The elder Grant is said to have travelled with Alexander MacKenzie.
Back in the good graces of HBC Cuthbert Jr. was clerking for it in 'The
Red River' in 1825. This was the same time as Finnan Mor combined with
Peter Skene Ogden to explore 'The Snake River Country'. He would later
become an officer of the HBC with the title 'warden of Assiniboia'. As
a repentant sinner Cuthbert Grant was 'blessed' by the HBC with a
promotion. Could this have been Finnan Mor's failing, that he was
recalcitrant.? An interesting comment from the Ross narrative is
'Everything considered, the trip was as successful as could have been
expected in furs, for McDonald was a zealous and faithful servant'.
Unfortunately, Finnan Mor didn't gain much from this high praise as the
book by Ross wasn't out until 1855, four years after McDonald died! Did
his brother's relationships with the Hudson Bay Company, since his trial
and acquittal in 1818, have any adverse impact on Finnan Mor's rating by
his HBC bosses? Remember, he didn't want him in the fur trade back in
1803! Ironically, John Le Borgne McDonald would die one year after
Finnan’s incredible encounter with the bull bison.
Finnan Mor would have been 39 years
old at the time of the forced amalgamation of the rival fur companies.
Lord Selkirk was an HBC director, was a favourite of that time at
Buckingham Palace, and the Nor 'westers had massacred his colonists.
But, Finnan Mor had been in the Pacific Northwest! The area bounded by
Ft.Kamloops on the north, Libby Montana on the east, the Klammath River
country on the south, and Astoria on the west was his domain. McDonald
hadn't been in Red River Country since before he 'crossed the height of
land' with David Thompson in 1807. But, the battle off the millennium
between herbivore and man was yet to come.
The last journal entries of Alexander
Ross, concerning Finnan McDonald, were about wounding and death,
unfortunately. It probably happened in 1823, but the fur trader isn't too
clear at this point in his notes. One incident apparently involved
Finnan Mor and some of the eastern Iroquois who were of his own party.
He was hurt when a gun was accidentally discharged. In this same pitched
battle he lost seven men. It all started when a trader, Anderson by
name, was treacherously shot by the Piegans. They were the enemy this
time, it seems.
notwithstanding, the traders did well against the Piegans. They were
outnumbered by thirty fighters according to Ross who chronicled the
battle. Seven traders were lost in the encounter that took place as they
manoeuvred through five small branch streams at the headwaters of the
Missouri. No fixed date is available, but it can be reckoned to be
sometime before April 15,1824.
A new writer, John Work, takes over
the chronicle at this point. From County Donegal, Ireland, his family
name was originally Wark. He was the only historical source the Nor'
westers had during the years 1824 to1834. He has Finnan Mor wintering at
Ft. Kootenay which was in the area of the current Canadian-American
border. John Work, actually travelled with McDonald and Peter Skene
Ogden. He died in Victoria B.C. in 1861 after a colourful career
wandering from British Columbia to California in search of furs.
Sixteen months later McDonald would
encounter David Douglas for the first time. In an entry dated August 15,
1825 Douglas wrote: 'Toward afternoon left [Ft.Vancouver] in a
small canoe with one Canadian and two Indians, in company with a party
of men going on a hunting excursion southwards. Oddly, David Douglas
doesn't make it clear that Finnan Mor was on this trip. An entry dated
almost a year later, July 5, 1826 is more informative. Here, Douglas
actually refers to Messrs McDonald [Finnan Mor] and McKay as being
present at Ft. Nez-Perces, or Walla Walla, Washington.
Some historians question Douglas'
identity. Was he the 'Mr Douglas' that was on the York boat when
McDonald has his epic clash with the wounded bull buffalo or not? But, a
quote by John Work says something that leaves no doubt what his purpose
was in the area: to wit, 'Mr D. Douglas accompanies us on his
botanical pursuits'. Further corroboration for the botanist as one of the witnesses can be
found in both Encyclopaedia Canadiana: the Grolier and the later Hurtig
editions. The two short historical bios have him in the area at the
time. Jenny Brown, of the RUPERTSLAND Studies Institute of the U of
Winnipeg, and David Anderson both claim that the botanist witnessed the
events of June 2, 1827, however. David Anderson of Bethune-Thompson
House, Williamstown, Ontario is an historian who specializes in 'The Nor
'westers'. The Snake River expedition that Finnan Mor went on with Peter
Skene Ogden was well documented. It's cross referenced in the journals
of John Work, and David Douglas, to give it more validity. Everyone, including David Douglas would make the farther trip to
The party that left Ft. Nez Perces
July 17, 1826 must have given the botanist David Douglas cause to worry
for it's said they have a squabble with Indians on July 30th.
Several dates listed show that Douglas was well acquainted with Finnan
McDonald before the epic battle of herbivore and frontiersman. August
19th 1825 is the first time they meet and July 31,1826 the last,
according to the botanist's journal. There isn't much to tell in this period until the epic battle nine and
one-half months later. The battle scene can be pieced together from
several sources. He
got separated from the rest of the hunting party, was unhorsed and
chased by the big bull, who caught Finnan Mor despite being wounded.
McDonald, seeing the moment as the greatest challenge of his 45 years,
turned and grabbed the big herbivore by its hairy forehead. His
tenacious hold dislocated his wrist when the bull forced him to let go. The mighty bull, albeit wounded, offered one more horrendous butt then
dropped as if struck by a rifle ball. McDonald and his animal adversary
lay dazed for more than an hour. Then the buffalo arose and fled up the
Finnan Mor's friends from the Ft. Vancouver brigade carried him back to
the York boat in a makeshift stretcher, on their shoulders. Dr.
Richardson who treated him, supposedly of Franklin Expeditionary fame,
must have been a very quick traveller. If he was at Cumberland House
Sask., June 9th: whence had he come? Was it before or after he had
sailed our Arctic Coast as part of the second Franklin Expedition?
Finnan Mor left the North Saskatchewan River for his adopted county of
Glengarry. He would outlive his brother John Leborgne who had outdone
him in the nineteenth century corporate world. But, no one, as far as is
recorded, has ever endured a documented battle of this nature before or
since. Edward Ermatinger, a fur trader, born on the Isle of Elbe of
Swiss descent was on the boat that day, June 2, 1827, as was 'a Mr.
would later to gored to death on Hawaii after accidentally falling into
a pit used to trap wild bullock.
The botanist David Douglas left Ft.
Vancouver in March of 1827 with the brigade that was en route to York
that McDonald had been part of that same brigade for some time it's
likely that he was the mysterious 'Mr Douglas'. The fact that an
historian may have been too dismissive of the coincidence has to be
taken into account, too.
The bull was wounded by the time
Finnan Mor joined the pursuit. The fur-trader and writer, Edward
Ermatinger and Harriot, an unidentified man, were the original hunters,
it seems, although Douglas doesn't clarify this. Both chroniclers of the
event agree on many points, however. The giant Scots-born frontiersman
was badly mauled after being tossed several times by his much larger
four-legged adversary! He was gashed from the knee the buttock in the
back of one leg and had two ribs broken. Finnan Mor admitted in his own
account that he fainted several times.
He was grateful for the necessities that
were at his waist. His wadding, shot-balls and other things he had in
his buckskin pouch saved him from being gored through to the heart by
the enraged bison. Such a wound would have been undoubtedly fatal.
As for treatment of his wounds, legend has it that he was promptly
stitched up my an Indian woman with sinew and then taken down river to
Carlton Hse. where Sir John Richardson, British Naval Surgeon of the
Second Franklin Expedition, was supposed to be on site. This suggests
that the encounter was west of Carlton Hse. perhaps along the tree lined
banks that are common in the area which would have been that 25
mile stretch from Langham to Ft. Carlton Historic National Park. That
the banks slopped would have been to the big fur traders disadvantage,
as well it’s known that the buffalo ate from the stacks of hay near
Carlton Hse, so it’s possible the ‘encounter’ took place close to
medical help had the great Royal Navy surgeon been where he was supposed
But; contrary to expectations, the good
doctor Richardson wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Ft. Carlton
Historic Site is just one hours drive north of Saskatoon, today, so it
wouldn’t have been more than 40 miles upriver to the site. McDonald
ran for the trees at the outset, but didn’t make it. That means it
happened where parkland gives way to forest. The Ft.Vancouver Brigade
who took Finnan Mor from the site took several more days to catch up to
Another kind of wound that was
hurtful to his career, at least, was the dubious attitude expressed
towards his lack of education. There is no way to compare him to his
brother John Lebrogne or his contemporaries.
John Strachan, said in 1806, and others
in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, that parents were ‘anxious
to get boys introduced into business’ so, advanced schooling was out.
The Scots born Strachan would later become the first Anglican bishop of
Toronto. The view was
supported by R. Cartwright, and also E. A. Talbot writing in 1824.
It would seem, therefore, that Finnan McDonald was a well schooled as
the average for his time. Another question I didn't find an answer to
was the general level of education among his superiors in the HBC when
he was written up as deficient.
He was literate enough to comment
ironically about his lot. In a letter to be found transcribed in the
Hudson Bay Archives he says this about his diet 'I'm tired of eating
rotten salmon. In this same letter to J.G. McTavish written Sept 12th
1815 he also says 'I am every one's football'. Writing to this same man
in 1819 he leaves us some notion of his opinion
of ‘the powers that be’. He said, ‘I’d like to spend a year
outside [east of the Rockies ] among the English, just to play with them
to see what they are made of’. He was an atrocious speller that anyone
who reads the same verbatim transcripts will be able to attest. But then
he was hired to trade in furs and engaged in exploration, not win
spelling bees. Much in the chronicles of this legendary figure is clear;
some of it isn't: but his journals are still lost. Glengarry county
where he died in 1851, just barely remembers him, too. One thing I claim
is he was the greatest
frontiersman of them all!
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