Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Finnan McDonald
by Neil J.MacDonald

<July 10th, 2001, 07:30 hrs. Finnan Mor's True Fable>

Finnan McDonaldCanadians 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.

battle with the buffalo

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 historians.

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 shining Mountains', 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 trader.

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, also.

He 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 to Lake 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 Saskatchewan River 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 reached Clark'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 wars?

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 blindness, also.

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 great explorer.

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 ever serving.

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 married name.

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 methodical. The 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 craft.

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 1822-23.

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.

Internecine struggles 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 Ft.Vancouver.

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 nearby bluffs.

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. Douglas'. He 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 Factory. Considering 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 to be.

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 him.

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!

Return to Canadian Scottish History


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus