Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robert Macdonald

Robert Macdonald (1829-1913)

Neil Macdonald was born in 1794, on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland. In 1813, he arrived at Red River in the employment of the Hudson's Bay Company, two years before Fort Douglas was built on the south banks of Point Douglas, and three before Governor Semple and twenty men from the Selkirk settlement were killed at Seven Oaks.

After several years with the Company, the young Neil Macdonald moved back to Scotland, and later, in 1825, sailed aboard an expedition to the Canadian Arctic led by the fated Sir John Franklin. Two years later, he returned to Red River and lived there until his death in 1871. At Red River, he married Ann Logan, a daughter of Robert Logan and Mary Sauteuse (?-1838), a Saulteaux Indian. The Macdonald's farmed twenty acres on Point Douglas, a short distance to the northeast of Robert Logan's farm house and mill that stood on the site of Fort Douglas.

Robert Logan (1773 - 1866), grandfather of Robert Macdonald and early Point Douglas settler. Credit

Robert Logan was by 1827 a respected member of Red River society, having been the interim governor of the Selkirk settlement in the 1810s, and in '25 had purchased from the Lord Selkirk estate Fort Douglas, its buildings and wind mill, where he established his homestead. (The wooden fort was destroyed in the great flood of 1826, but the windmill was repaired and used successfully by Logan until the early 1860s.) The son of Robert Logan sr., a Jamaican plantation owner, and Anne Stitcher, a "free mulato," Robert was was of mixed ancestry, and was fluent in both French and English.

Advertisement in The Nor'wester for assorted bolts and screws from Robert Logan's old mill. Credit

The eldest son of Neil and Ann was Robert Macdonald, born in 1829. He was educated at St. John's Parish School, which was where St. John's Park is today, and worked on the family farm on Point Douglas. He later completed his studies in divinity at St. John's Collegiate under The Bishop Anderson.

Robert Macdonald moved to the north from Red River to be a missionary for the Anglican Church, first to communities on the Winnipeg River, then far into the northwest, along what is now the Alaska-Northwest Territory border, among the Gwitch'in people. He would remain there for more than forty years.

He was considered one of the more effective Anglican missionaries in the Canadian North, owing to his genuine respect of the Aboriginal people he worked and lived with, and his long-serving tenure. He created a written alphabet for the Gwitch'in language, and translating the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and many hymns. Macdonald also researched Gwitch'in spiritual concepts, to make Anglican Christianity more easy to conceptualize for the Gwitch'in people. Unlike most other Christian missions in the north, the Gwitch'in people that Macdonald lived among were able to conduct their own services in their languages. As a result of Macdonald's work, there has historically been a higher than average level of literacy among the Gwich'in people, and the modern written language of the Gwitch'ins, called Tukudh, or Takudh, is still based on the translating work Macdonald did in the 19th century.

While in the Northwest, Macdonald married a Gwitch'in woman named Julia Kutug, and together they had nine children.

In spite of Macdonald's many years of work for the Church, Macdonald lived in relative poverty and hardship, even into his old age. Considered a "native" minister, Macdonald, like most aboriginal ministers, was paid between a third to half what a British Anglican minister would earn, and was not paid directly, but through credit to the accounts of English ministers. This existed in spite of the petitions of The Bishop of Rupertland, Robert Machray, to reform this unfair system. Even after rising to the position of Archdeacon, Macdonald continued to be paid the same salary, and throughout his life in the north, his family needed to supplement their income with subsistence hunting.

In the winter of 1900, the 69 year-old Macdonald noted in his journal that his wife Julia went on a rabbit-snaring trip, "but to no purpose I fear... Opened a bag of flour, another besides remaining. Our stock of provisions runs low. Only two meals a day." Trading with the Gwitch'ins to survive raised the ire of the H.B.Co., eager to protect their monopoly on trade in the north.

Advertisement in The Nor'wester listing the Macdonald farm on Point Douglas. It is likely that W.G. Fonseca, who built his estate in the vicinity in the early 1860s, purchased the farm

Fire Insurance Map from 1905 showing 57 Macdonald, the residence of Robert Macdonald from 1904 until his death in 1913

Robert retired from his work in the north in 1904, and with Julia and their children, moved to Winnipeg. They resided at 57 Macdonald Avenue, on what was the Macdonald farm he grew up on in the 1830s and '40s, and now was at the centre of a rapidly-growing city. Three of the Macdonald children died in those first years in Winnipeg, and Robert himself died in 1913.

The house in which Macdonald lived his last days, on the street that bears his family name, is buried under the Disraeli freeway.

The article Archdeacon Robert McDonald and Gwich'in Literacy, by Patrick Moore (published in Anthropological Linguistics (2007, vol. 49, no1, pp. 27-53) provided much of the information for this post

1 comment:

  1. Do we know the actual date of his death? (Robert MacDonald is now commemorated in the calendar of The Episcopal Church. Was it December 15?

    Nigel A. Renton