McDonalds of Virginia
Chapter 18 -
United States Commissioners of Fish and Fisheries
On December 17th, 1867, at Frankford, Clarke
County, Virginia, he was married to Miss Mary E. McCormick, a daughter
of Mr. Frank McCormick.
In 1875, he
was appointed Fish Commissioner for the State of Virginia and his
successful efforts in the development of fish culture in the State
brought him into very great prominence, and Professor Baird, with whom
he had had a long acquaintancehaving sent "Specimens" to the old
Smithsonian, since his early boyhoodinvited him to join the U. S.
States Fish Commission; which greatly enlarged his field for research,
and brought him wide recognition. His superior fitness was recognized
from the first and he had largely the control of the work.
He was finally appointed United States
Fish Commissioner by President Cleveland, and to quote from a Washington
paper which made the first announcement of his appointment: "Under the
terms of the first bill passed by the Fiftieth Congress, President
Cleveland has appointed a person of scientific and practical
acquaintance with the fish and fisheries to be a Commissioner of Fish
and Fisheries. The new Commissioner, Col. Marshall McDonald, is to hold
no other office and he is to be paid a salary of $5,000 a year. * * * *
Marshall McDonald has received gold medals for improvements in fish
culture from the International Fisheries Commissions at Berlin and
London, a silver medal from the Societe d'Acclimatation de France, and a
special medal for a fishway devised for the river Vienne in France.
"In 1881, he devised the automatic
hatching jars now in general use by the United States Fish Commission,
the several State Commissions and in Europe and Japan. This invention
first made possible the vast extension of the work of shad propagation
accomplished in late years and rendered the work of the U. S. Fish
Commission practical from a commercial standpoint. It was in the winter
of 1882 that he developed at Wood's Holl, the tidal apparatus now in
use, for catching the floating eggs of cod, halibut and other marine
species. The vast work of distribution now carried on by the United
States Fish Commission has been developed by using this apparatus, its
methods perfected, and the cost of the work cheapened, so that vastly
greater results are now obtained without any increase of cost.
"Works from Commissioner McDonald's pen
cover the whole range of fish cultural work, in its scientific as well
as economic aspect, and are to be found in his State reports as
Commissioner of Fisheries for Virginia, the report of the Commissioners
in Forest and Stream, Science, in the annual report of the Fisheries
Society, and in the Quarto fisheries report. He is accounted by
competent judges the most accomplished fish culturist in this country,
if not in the world, and he is known wherever the shad and carp,
propagated by the Government Commission,
have been distributed. The Commissioner is zealous in his work, a good
organizer and an officer who knows how to get along with the economical
allowances of Congress."
In this connection the following letters
will be of interest:
Washington, D. C., Feb.
1515 R. St. N. W.
MY DEAR FLORA:
Your welcome letter reached me yesterday. I am now fully convalescent
and am taking up my official work, but am hardly strong enough to bear
the full burden of it. .Just when the agitation began in regard to the
appointment of "Commissioner of Fisheries," I was prostrated with an
attack of pneumonia and could give no thought to anything, but he took
up the matter, and I think I owe my appointment mole to her
well-directed efforts than to anything else. * * * *
My appointment was fought at every step
by Major ------, who, as Asst. Commissioner, naturally expected to
succeed. He was backed by powerful social influences here, which he has
been able to secure by reason of his wealth.
The President, however, sturdily refused
to yield to those influences, and appointed me, as he said, in deference
to the universal endorsement of all who were interested in the
I think it possible I may get to the West
coast next summer. We have sent the "Albatross" around to investigate
the West coast fisheries, and she will be on the Pacific probably two
The fisheries there, which are now
entirely undeveloped, will in time be a source of great wealth to the
Pacific coast States. You will probably see the "Albatross" at San Diego
in the next two months, if so, you must go aboard and see how thoroughly
she is equipped for her work. Introduce yourself to Capt. Tanner, and he
will show you every courtesy * * * *
The next one, from Senator Stockbridge,
also relates to his work:
United States Senate,
Washington, D. C.
Oct. 3rd, 1890.
M. MCDONALD, ESQ.,
DEAR SIR:I saw the President this
morning at request of Prof. Agassiz, [He had known and corresponded with
Prof. Agassiz since a boy.] in relation to sending, the
"Albatross" to Panama this winter, and he says upon your request, he
will issue the order. I also had a long talk with him as to the general
affairs of the Commission and also advised him of the highly favorable
result of our examination into its affairs. He understands it all and
agrees with us upon all important points.
He is well advised of your good work, and
appreciates your entire fitness for the great work, as well as your zeal
in its performance.
P. F. STOCKBRIDGE.
At one of the White House receptions, a
little incident occurred which illustrates Mrs. Cleveland's ready tact.
As Col. McDonald was passing down the line, Mr. Cleveland said, in a
jocular tone: "I never see you, McDonald, without thinking of the Fish,"
when Mrs. Cleveland promptly interjected: "I never see Col. McDonald
without thinking of the beautiful water lilies he sent me."
It was at Commissioner McDonald's
suggestion, that the great fish exhibits were installed at the Columbian
Exposition in Chicago, and later in London and other foreign
expositions. It was after his return from Germany, where he went to
install an exhibit, that I received the following letter.
Washington, D. C.,
Dec. 15th, 1884.
1515 R. St.
MY DEAR SISTER:
I have been intending to write to you for a long time. It is not the
inclination, but the convenient season that is wanting, and I hope
proscrastination will not make it as hard for me as it probably was for
I can't tell you about Scotland in a
letter. It would take a book to narrate all I saw and learned. I sent
Will a copy of the "History of the McDonalds, and the Lords of the
Isles," which I presume all of you will be interested in.
The single thing that probably interested
me most, was Edinboro' and especially Edinboro' Castle, with a history
running back into mystery, and crowded with events that have moulded
nations and given inspiration to poets and fervor to patriotism.
When I see you I will have much to tell
you about both Scotland and Germany. [It was while on this visit to
Scotland that he had a little adventure, which illustrates both his
self-possession and tact.]
At a dinner given in his honor,
forgetting the English custom of the ladies withdrawing from the table
first, he rose with them, and didn't realize his faux pas until lie had
gone half-way across the room, but nothing daunted, he reached the door
first, opened it; held it for them to pass through, bowed, and returned
to his seat, as if that had been his original intention.
During Mr. Harrison's administration he
had occasion to dismiss an assistant (a Republican), whereupon President
Harrison sent for him and urged Col. McDonald to reinstate him, which he
steadily refused to do, when Mr. Harrison said with considerable
feeling: "Then you prefer losing your own place to reinstating ?"
To which McDonald promptly replied, "Yes,
sir, I do," and left the White House, confidently expecting that he
would be asked to resign. He was not, however, and later the President
told another applicant: "You might just as well ask for my place, as for
A later letter says: "By the blessing of
God, I have lived to see my ideas dominate the United States Fish
Commission and my inventions and investigations open a wider field and
establish a new era for Fish Culture."
A letter from W'ood's Holl,
Massachusetts, August 14th, 1888, says:
"My dear Sister: Will you please send me
the photograph which you have of me, taken just after the war?
"Colonel Jno. S. Wise is writing an
article for the Century Magazine, entitled, `The West Point of the
Confederacy,' in which my name is very pleasantly mentioned, and he
wishes my photograph to use in this connection.
"If you are not willing to send the
original, have copy made and let me know the cost. I am anxious to go
down in History in my Confederate uniform." [There was no good picture
to be found of him in his Confederate uniform or his wishes 'would
certainly have been carried out.]
He was never perfectly well, in all the
years of his laborious researches, and when we take into consideration
the heavy handicap under which he always worked, it is simply marvellous
what he accomplished. But inspired as he was with an intense love of his
chosen work, and gifted with the genius of indomitable energy, he
accomplished a great deal more than many others who are blessed with the
most robust health. Always hopeful, too, and inclined to look on the
sunny side of life, he unconsciously inspired others with his optimistic
The continued strain finally told upon
his delicate constitution and after months of intense suffering he
finally passed away at his home in Washington City, on September 1st,
1905, leaving his wife, one son, Angus, and a daughter, Rose Mortimer.
They had lost a most engaging and attractive little daughter at the age
His body rests in Oak Hill Cemetery, near
He was a member of the Protestant
Episcopal Church, and during his residence in Lexington, a Vestryman in
Lee Memorial Chapel, which he was largely instrumental in building.
Though not approving of Memorial Churches as a rule, he thought that the
religious side of Gen. Lee's life should be emphasized for the benefit
of the young men who attended the two colleges in Lexington.
An issue of the Washington Post said of
the dead Commissioner: " * * * * Although a man of great Ģill, Col.
McDonald had never been physically strong. :Much of his work was
performed through an inability to sleep. His appearance was that of a
delicate man and his features showed his high strung, nervous
organization. He was extremely sensitive to honest criticism, but was
able to pay no attention to slurs and denunciations which came from weak
and unreliable sources. His bearing was always kind and gentle and his
tread and manner carried for him a remembrance of his long line of
The Richmond Dispatch of the same date
says: "In the death of Commissioner Marshall McDonald, the United States
Government loses an accomplished and faithful officer. The greater part
of his life was devoted to pisiculture, and his eminence in it was
conceded by experts the world over. * * * He devoted himself to the
duties of the office with great ardor and industry and he was
instrumental in stocking many of the large streams of this country with
valuable food fishes. He did a good work for the country and the future
will, we believe, show that it was one of the best investments into
which the country's money was ever put.
"The deceased was a son of Colonel Angus
W. McDonald, one of the most loyal and courageous sons that old Virginia
ever had, and he inherited his father's abilities and sterling
qualities. He was in Richmond last at the meeting of the Oyster-men's
Convention, in which he was deeply interested, as indeed he was in all
the affairs of Virginia."
The National Cyclopedia of American
Biography (Vol. XIII) says: "Marshall McDonald, ichthyologist,
pisiculturist and inventor, was born, etc. * * * *' In 1875, he was
appointed Fish Commissioner of Virginia and in this capacity began to
make a specialty of the study of pisiculture and became one of the
foremost ichthyologists. His work having come to the notice of Prof.
Baird, of the Smithsonian Institute, in 1879, he was invited by the
latter to join the United States Fish Commission, with which he was able
to continue his researches, and where his experiments and inventions
secured for him distinguished recognition at home and abroad.
"From the first, he had practical control
of the Commission, shaping its development and giving direction to its
operations. In this department, for many years the United States
Government has made a practice of supplying gratuitously, food fishes
for rivers and brooks and lakes adapted to their propagation, and Major
McDonald was in charge of this distribution.
"His inventions, consisting of automatic
hatching-jars, now in general use and known by his name, fish-ways, a
cod-hatching box, etc., have rendered the propagation and distribution
of fishes and lobsters practicable, and have saved the government large
sums annually. He also devised a tidal apparatus for hatching floating
eggs of cod, halibut, etc. For these inventions and for improvements in
fish culture he was awarded medals by England, France, Germany, Russia
"He was U. S. Corn. of Fish and Fisheries
during 1888 -1895. One of his most important works was to place a
biological and physical survey of far greater thoroughness than any
previously undertaken. lie was convinced that the first step towards a
comprehensive knowledge of the conditions of greatest production of the
fisheries, was an understanding of the primary food supply `the aquatic
pasturage.' This lie hoped to gain by an accurate analysis of the
unicellular, plankton and littoral life, which in turn, involves the
questions concerning the ultimate relation existing between land waste
and sea utilization, and incidentally a study of the life histories and
inter-relation of myriads of animals and plants. * * * * He was the
originator of inland salt-water aquariums, the first of which was
installed at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, and the most elaborate
of which is to be seen in Battery Park, New York.
"Under him, pisiculture in this country
advanced rapidly to the secure foundations of scientific methods.
His only son, Angus, died at Milner, Idaho, Jan. 17th. He was a graduate
of the Columbian Law School in Washington and a most gifted, fascinating
man. He was connected with the newspaper bureaus of Washington City for
some time, and when the Spanish-American war broke out he enlisted in
the Third Virginia Infantry, but was shortly after detailed as a
courier. After that war, he was sent to South Africa by C. P. Huntingdon
in the interests of some of his railroads, but Mr. Huntingdon dying
shortly thereafter the matter upon which Mr. McDonald was despatched was
dropped, and being left with no means he promptly enlisted in the
British army which was at that time engaged in the Boer Nvar. He was
again attached to the courier force, and as a member of Locke's Horse
was one of Lord Robert's escort from Cape Town. He was awarded a medal
by the British Government for his services in South Africa.
After returning to this Country he went
out to Idaho and was connected with an irrigating company at the time of
his death. He had given his family no intimation that his service in the
British army had been anything out of the ordinary, and not until
letters came from the British War Office, enquiring where he eras, did
they know that he was entitled to receive the handsome gold medal which
was shortly sent him.
His daughter, Rose, also occupies a
rather unique position, being the only woman fish culturist in the
world. And the position did not come to her by appointment, but she
showed upon examination that she was better fitted for it than the other
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