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The Glengarry McDonalds of Virginia
Chapter 4 - Angus William McDonald.


Life at West Point and on the Frontier

Angus William McDonald, the subject of the following sketch, was born in Winchester, Virginia, February 14th, 1799, and was the oldest child of Angus McDonald (2nd) and Mary McGuire (his wife).

When ten years of age he lost his mother and went, with his brother and little sister to live with his grand-mother at Glengarry, who carefully instilled into his youthful mind, not only a love of truth, but a genuine admiration for all the attributes of a sterling character. Angus, who was of an ardent, romantic nature, early developed a restless disposition and his grand-mother constantly reminded him of his noble lineage and his untarnished escutcheon, which as the oldest of his family it was his supreme duty to guard and forefend.

When about twelve years of age he, with his cousin Hugh McGuire, Holmes Conrad, and others, attended a school in Winchester, taught by a Mr. Hetterick, a Scotchman, and during that time he lived at the home of his uncle, Edward McGuire.

On July 30th, 1814 (according to the records at West Point) he entered the Military School there, having received his appointment from President Madison. The following October he lost his father,

he having died at Batavia, New York, after a forced march. This information was conveyed to him through a letter from his grand-mother, which said:

"Have You heard the melancholy news of your father's death? He died at Batavia, New York, the middle of October."

This letter is dated November 20th, 1814, and the original is in possession of Mrs. Anne S. Green. His death seems to have occurred at least a month before his family heard of it.

being quite young, as well as poorly prepared, Angus could only gain admission to the fourth class, and near the foot at that, but from the first his class-standing improved, though now and then some mad prank would Iower it again. In time however, he became a hard student and made such distinguished progress that he was permitted to pass at the middle of his third year, from the second into the first class, thus crowding the labors of two years into one. He often expressed regret afterwards, that his foolish ambition to wear a pair of shoulder-straps. should have cost him his fourth year at college. His father's death occurring so soon after his entrance into West Point and the sudden responsibility thus thrust upon him, was, most likely, largely responsible for his eager determination to improve his opportunities and fit himself for the sterner duties of life.

The records at West Point show that he was graduated July 17th, 1817, and was promoted in the Army, to Third Lieut. Corps of Artillery. On Feb. 13th, 1818, he was promoted to Second Lieut. 7th Infantry; and on April 1st, 1818, was promoted First. Lieut. 7th Infantry. Served in garrison at New Orleans, La., 1817, and Mobile Bay, Ala., 1818. Resigned Jan. 31, 1819."

We can recall but one or two incidents of his life at West Point. Upon one occasion, when Officer of the day, he discovered that a party of his comrades had stolen off and gone down the Hudson on a skating frolic. This knowledge placed him in a very uncomfortable attitude. It was plainly his duty to inform on them, but if he did so, the consequences would be serious, for several of his closest friends were among them. There was not much time for reflection, however, so he had to decide at once. He went to his superior officer, informed him of the truant party, then ran with all his might to the scene of the frolic and told his friends what he had done. Thus warned, they made good their escape before the arresting party arrived.

Another incident, illustrative of his love of mischief, also occurred at West Point. He was drilling a squad of Cadets one day, among whom was James Ashton, one of his best friends and who was noted for his neatness as well as for his love of dress. It had rained the previous night and there were several pools of water standing on the drill-ground, and while taking the cadets through their many evolutions, suddenly, in a spirit of mischief, he conceived the idea of so manoevering the squad that he would compel Ashton to step into the muddiest pool on the Campus. And it required considerable dexterity on Ashton's part to avoid the catastrophe. Finally, when, after many masterly movements to compass the pools without soiling his immaculate linen, it seemed inevitable, Ashton suddenly halted on the verge of the muddiest and exclaimed, with an oath, "I'll not dress back into a mud-puddle for you or any other man." The spirit displayed by Ashton on this occasion only welded their friendship into a closer bond and it was not terminated except by death.

Among his other close and valued friends at West Point was Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a native New Englander, and the friendship was so strong for him that he named his second son after him, Edward Allen Hitchcock. Indeed the attachment was mutual, for when fifty years afterwards, during the unhappy war between the States, when Col. McDonald was a prisoner of war at Wheeling and suffering worse than a convict's fate, through the personal spite of a Federal officer, a letter from one of his daughters (Mrs. James W. Green) to Gen. Hitchcock, telling of her father's inhuman treatment, had immediate effect; his hand-cuffs were at once removed and for the remaining days of his imprisonment, which was only prolonged that he might gather strength for his journey home, he had every comfort and privilege possible, and received a letter from Gen. Hitchcock begging him by the memory of their old friendship to accept money or anything else that was in his power to offer. But with his old, characteristic pride, which had not been broken through all the painful stress and strife of his declining years, he replied that he would accept his liberty, and for that he would be profoundly grateful.

While Lieut. McDonald was in command of the Fort at Mobile Bay an incident occurred which will illustrate his self-reliance. One of the men deserted. It was known that he had formerly belonged to Lafitte's famous band of pirates and the soldiers of the Garrison hated and feared him. Upon the discovery of his absence Lieut. McDonald ordered a Corporal and two men to go after him. It was suspected that he had taken the road through a dense swamp, and he had sworn to kill any one who attempted to pursue him; hence the Corporal hesitated to carry out the order, and yet was afraid to disobey. It was whispered among the men that the fellow had deserted for the express purpose of getting McDonald to follow him, and that McDonald was exposing others to a danger which he would not encounter himself.

Upon hearing this, McDonald determined to go and catch the man himself. He followed him for twenty-five miles through the swamp and finally came up with him in a cabin, eating at a table with his gun standing in a corner near. He made him walk before him back to the Garrison. As all night long they travelled through the swamp, hungry wolves hung around their path. The deserter begged for a weapon of defense, when finally McDonald exacting a promise from him that he would not attempt to escape, lent him one of his pistols. The man kept his promise, and moved by the trust reposed in him, was ever afterward devoted to his Lieutenant.

But the life of a soldier during peace times, soon grew distasteful to the ambitious and impatient spirit of young McDonald. The monotonous and constantly recurring routine of drill and dress-parade, made him long for a more stirring career than army life then seemed to promise.

It was about this time that the attention of the entire country was being directed towards the golden opportunities which awaited the daring and intrepid pioneer on the Western frontier. Dazzling accounts of brilliant successes, which had been achieved in this enchanted region, were heard on all sides and this New Eldorado became the Mecca of many restless and ambitious spirits. Lieut. McDonald would now and then hear these tales, and on his visits to New Orleans, would sometimes meet with these fascinating border heroes, when the hot blood of his romantic and adventurous Celtic ancestry would be stirred within him, as he listened; and like the Knights of old he longed to draw his lance and try his mettle.

He made every effort to be assigned to duty in that enchanted land, but failing in that, he, with quick decision, resigned his commission Jan. 31st, 1819, and set out for the \Western frontier. At St. Louis he met with many congenial spirits, who had also responded to the call of the wild, as well as some who had already engaged in the alluring pursuits of frontier lifeósuch as buffalo-hunting and Indian trading. It was in company with one of these wily traders that McDonald got his first lesson of disenchantment, and discovered that beneath the glamour and glitter of all the glowing pictures which had caught his youthful fancy, there were many stern and rough experiences to be encountered.

He embarked at first, in the capacity of clerk for a Missouri Company, to which this trader belonged, but before his first year of service had expired, he had mastered the more important of the Indian languages in that section, and assumed the duties of interpreter as well as chief clerk of his Company. The second year he was taken into full partnership and was beginning to realize some of the gilded fruits of the fur-trading fraternity, of which he had heard so much, when suddenly, without warning, the crash came and the 'Company" broke full-handed, decamping with all the money, and leaving young McDonald to hold the empty bag. This was a great blow to all his high hopes, but he lost no time in useless repining, but engaged very successfully in the trapping and trading business on his own responsibility for the next three years.

During his life on the frontier, he was brought into intimate association with many of the friendly Indian tribes, and with some of their Chiefs he was a great favorite. There was one of whom he was especially fond, named Tobacco, a powerful Chief of the Mandan tribe, whom McDonald always spoke of as an "Apollo in form and a Mars on the field of battle." Hearing one day that a hostile tribe had waylaid and massacred his white brother, Tobacco at once went on "the war path" against the suspected murderers, mercilessly capturing and scalping ten of them. 'Then returning to his home, he refused all sustenance and lying upon the ground gave himself up to inconsolable grief. Lieut. McDonald hearing of it hastened to the Indian village and found his friend half dead with hunger and grief. Tobacco's joy at the unexpected appearance of his friend was indescribable; he embraced his knees and wept like a child, for very delight.

The terrible mistake that the old Chief had made, however, cost Lieut. McDonald a pretty penny, for in order to appease the friends of the ten Indians whom he had put to death, McDonald had to pay five horses, a box of tobacco and three barrels of whiskey. Lieut. McDonald possessed to an unusual degree those traits of character and physique, which appeal strongly to those imaginative children of nature. Almost a Hercules in build and strength, he was regarded by them as a rare specimen of manly beauty. Athletic and confident, fearless, though cautious, he was a dangerous enemy, though a true and magnanimous friend and these poor hunted creatures, though fearing him in a certain sense, admired and trusted "Big Knife" implicitly, for that was the admiring and expressive sobriquet by which he was known among them.

I well remember one incident which will prove the esteem in which he was held by the trappers and their friendly allies among the Red men. There had been an Indian outbreak of considerable violence, and an expedition, composed of volunteers from the traders, hunters, and friendly Indians, was organized for the purpose of punishing the offenders, numbering, all told about a thousand men. Made up as it was of so many discordant elements, it was difficult to choose a leader.

"Big Knife" had a large following, but another competitor for the honor was a cunning half-breed named Meyer, to whom McDonald refused to yield the leadership. So while drawn up in front of the Indian town, it was proposed by Meyer to apply a test to the courage of the two aspirants. To this end he challenged "Big Knife" to follow him along the enemy's front, exposed to the arrows of the sharpshooters. McDonald accepted the challenge, and away darted Meyer in a swift gallop along the brow of a hill, but taking the hostile Indians so completely by surprise that they scarcely realized what was passing, until he was safely beyond their reach. But not so with "Big Knife," who rode at a deliberate pace in full view of the enemy, which was now fully alertódetermined to win or die. A storm of arrows and bullets greeted him, but he moved at an easy canter across the entire field, appearing more like a General reviewing his troops than one running for his life. The shouts of applause which greeted him as he rejoined the waiting columns, proclaimed his victory, and the disappointed Meyer no longer disputed his well-earned right to be their leader.

St. Louis was the great center of Western commerce, and McDonald frequently visited that city with cargoes of furs and skins. He made a good deal of money while engaged in this business, and though earned almost at the risk of his life, he spent it in princely fashion whenever he met his friends.

After spending about four years on the Western frontier, the undeveloped condition of the great southwest territory began to attract his attention, along with other ambitious spirits, whose minds had also been impressed with the magnificent opportunities which might await the bold pioneer, who would undertake to develop this almost unknown Iand. Finally McDonald, with ten confederates decided upon a plan of action, which for grandeur and boldness of conception equalled anything of its kind that had ever been concocted. They were to organize a body of emigrants on the American frontier and enter Texas, then a part of Mexico, and with the aid of other adventurous spirits wrest it from Mexican rule, and convert it into an independent government. (This plan was actually carried out by Bowie, Houston and others, ten years later, and doubtless some of the original eleven participated in it.) Full of his project, Lieut. McDonald returned to his old home, Winchester, Va., to get recruits and take leave of his old friends. And when they talked of crops and fees, he spoke of the wonders of a land where Dukedoms and even Empires might be the fruits of daring enterprise.

With the clairvoyance of a sanguine mind he foresaw the wonderful future of Texas and the rich dowry that awaited the leaders in the revolutionary movement, and decided to make it his future home. But during his visit to Winchester, and while making preparation for his final departure, an event occurred which changed the whole course of his life. He made the acquaintance of his future wife, Miss Naylor, of Hampshire, a daughter of William Naylor, a prominent lawyer of Romney, Va., and in a little while had resigned all of his ambitious dreams and decided to become a hard-working, every day citizen. The profession of law, as a means of livlihood, held most attraction for him, as it frequently afforded (although in a purely intellectual field), the excitement of conflict, and involved those contingencies of success which always stimulate and entertain the energetic mind. So selecting this profession for his future vocation, he settled in Romney and applied himself with his usual diligence and enthusiasm to its study, and while thus employed, also performed the duties of deputy-sheriff for the County of Hampshire.


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