The following pages are an attempt to present a word
picture of the life of one of the greatest of the many great men who have
lived and wrought during the Victorian age. His coming to Canada
synchronizes with the elevation of Queen Victoria to the British throne.
During her long and illustrious reign she had many famous and notable
subjects. Among these, none filled a larger or more important place than
the poor Scotch lad, who, the same age as herself, sailed for distant
Canada in the year that saw her crowned Queen of Great Britain and
Among the great men who took part in Canadian
development during the Victorian age, who discovered its resources and
shaped its political destiny, it is not too much to say that he was an
outstanding figure. In the Selkirk range of the Rockies there towers over
its fellows a lofty mountain called "Mount Donald." It was named after
Donald Smith, and splendidly typifies his position among the men of his
time. Very few of his cotemporaries occupied so prominent a position in
the public eye.
He was born in Scotland. That little northern
country—"]and of brown heath and shaggy wood"—has been the breeding place
of strong men. They have gone out to the ends of the earth, have adapted
themselves to all conditions, and have become leaders in every sphere of
life— politics, commerce, war and literature. By their industry,
shrewdness, perseverance, courage, self-restraint, and endurance, they
have been carried through all difficulties, and over all obstacles, and
have risen to the chief places. Nothing daunts one of that nationality.
There is no situation he cannot meet. There is no set of circumstances
into which he cannot fit. Adaptability describes the race.
Shakespeare, in "Macbeth," mentions Forres. It was
near that place that the witches danced upon the moor and brewed their
''hell broth." It was at Forres that Macbeth murdered the King, and it was
at Forres on Aug. 6th, 1820, that Donald Smith was born. It is a small and
insignificant place. No one dreamed that the infant born -on that summer
day in that little town would become financier, statesman, philanthropist,
and one of the best known and most honored men in the British Empire.
He came of enterprising stock. His relations, Smiths, Stewarts and Grants,
had wandered far afield in the world-wide Empire. Perhaps, from the
standpoint of an imaginative youth, the career of none of them was so
fascinating as that of his uncle, John Stewart, the bold and enterprising
fur-trader of British North America. lie was so far away, and his life was
so full of adventure, that it could not fail to catch the fancy of the
lad. From him there came, across the sea, tales that must have quickened
the pulses of the boy. For it was told how this uncle had traversed the
continent, had crossed the Rocky Mountains, and had been the companion of
Simon Fraser, who discovered the famous river called after his name. He
had in time entered the service of the Hudson Bay Company, and was Chief
Factor at Lesser Slave Lake. his romantic and adventurous life formed the
subject of many discussions and conversations in the Scottish home, and
the mind of the growing youth must have turned impatiently from the prosy
existence in the little old town to contemplate that wild, free life of
which he had heard so much, and of which his uncle wrote—in that land of
boundless prairies and great mountains, mighty lakes and rivers—inhabited
by roving tribes of Indians—where men ranged free, and hunted, and fished
and sometimes fought, to their hearts' content. It was a life of action,
of possibilities, and of achievement that must have held a powerful charm
for the boy.
But his mother had no such feeling. She was not content that her clever
son should be nothing more than a fur-trader. Her ambition was that he
would enter into one of the professions and attain eminence in it. She
wished Donald to be a lawyer, and, in due course, we find him in the
office of the town clerk of Forres, trying to master the intricacies of
the legal world.
But it was not to be. Fate, or Providence, had in store a greater destiny.
Donald was not satisfied with his position. He had a chance to enter a
business firm in Manchester, when he was eighteen years of age, and would,
probably, have accepted the offer, had not an event occurred which changed
the whole course of his life, and lifted him out of the narrow place and
set him free to follow his inclination. This was the return of his uncle,
John Stewart. That settled the question of his vocation for him. The
actual presence of this man, the embodiment of his dreams, rekindled the
flame of his ambitions and hardened his purpose to try his fortunes in the
new world. His uncle's interest secured for him a position in the Hudson
Bay Company, and he took his departure from his parents, whom he was never
to see again, and front his native land, to which, after many years, he
was to return, as an honored guest, one of the most famous men of the
Here, then, we have the picture of this Scotch lad, 18 years of age,
standing on the threshold of his career, and venturing into the great
unknown. He had crossed the Rubicon. lie had burnt his boats behind him.
He had severed the ties which bound hint to the quiet and ordered life.
For weal or woe he had joined his fortunes with those who, in a far-off
wilderness, in hardship and danger, were blazing the trail, which others
might follow; laying the foundation, on which others could build—pioneers
indeed of that future Dominion, whose vast extent would be a home for
millions of British subjects, and which would prove to be a mighty prop of
the Imperial State.
The boy sailed away in a ship of 800 tons bun den, and the voyage across
the Atlantic took 42 days. Now we can take the same journey in a week,
travelling in a palatial steamer, with every comfort and luxury. This
difference in travel is typical of the difference between those days and
these, between the Canada of '37 and the Canada of to-day. It is difficult
for its to conceive the conditions of this country when our hero landed on
its shores. Its population was meagre, the only cities being Quebec and
Montreal (35,000) and Toronto (13,000 or 15,000). There was then no United
Canada. The immense territories west of Ontario were under the control of
the Hudson Bay Co. The Provinces in the cast had no bond of union.
Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and
Newfoundland, treated each other as independent communities.
In 1837 Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec) were seething with
rebellion. The attempt to govern the people without giving them proper
representation and control of the taxes, had failed. A feeling dangerous
to British connection had gathered strength, and, in sonic quarters, had
actually broken out in open resistance. Truly the Canada of 1914 is as
different from that of 1837 as the great modern steamer is different from
the 800 ton clipper of former days.
But Donald Smith had nothing to do with these stormy times. For 13 years
his lot was to be cast in the remote and desolate region of Labrador and,
after that, many more years on the dreary shores of Hudson's Bay. From
1838 until 1868 he gave all his talents and attention to the great
commercial company, into whose services he had entered when a lad. This
was the Hudson Bay Company.