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The Glengarry 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 acquaintance—having sent "Specimens" to the old Smithsonian, since his early boyhood—invited 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. 24th.
1515 R. St. N. W.

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 Fisheries.

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 years.

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 * * * *

Your brother,

The next one, from Senator Stockbridge, also relates to his work:

United States Senate, Washington, D. C.
Oct. 3rd, 1890.


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.

Yours truly,

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.

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 Felix.

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 Col. McDonald's."

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 viewpoint.

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 of three.

His body rests in Oak Hill Cemetery, near Washington City.

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 «ill, 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 military ancestry."

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 and Belgium.

"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 applicants.

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