MILES MACDONELL

MILES MACDONELL

The Leader not suited for Leadership

by George Siamandas

Miles Macdonell was born in 1767 to a Scottish military family. The family emigrated to the Mohawk Valley of New York in 1773 and then left for Upper Canada. His brother was John an employee of the North West Co. His father was known as Spanish John and Miles also pursued a military career interrupted by periods when he was a farmer. Miles had a difficult life and lost both of his first two wives early in the marriages. Miles invested in his children’s education and borrowed heavily from his brother to overcome his poverty as a farmer.

He was chosen by Lord Selkirk on August 30 1812 to lead a future colony to support the Hudson Bay Co, the rival fur trade company to the NWC. The plan was to create a source of workers, a local food supply, and a place for HBC men to eventually retire. Macdonell was to lead the advance party which would make preparations for the first Selkirk settlers later in the year of 1812.

It was a big job perhaps too big for most men. Miles was not a leader of men. And the North West Co did its best to keep Selkirk’s colony from taking root. From the beginning his task was plagued by bad luck, poor management, and the inability of Macdonell to win the trust and loyalty of his men. Their ship left very late in the season and took 61 days, the longest ever to reach Hudson Bay. The men could not go south and had to spend the winter on the Nelson River. He could not control his men, they didn’t have enough food or lodgings.

By September of 1812 Miles Macdonell and his men reached Red River and he began to establish a site where Point Douglas is today. On September 4, 1812 in front of a gathering of NWC people, Metis and Indian Miles Macdonell in a proclamation ceremony laid claim on behalf of Lord Selkirk amid gunfire and loud cheering. He clashed even with the HBC by trading around their monopoly. By 1813 he cut off relations with the NWC.

He stayed at Red River till 1817. The entire time was a troubled one due to strained relations with the NWC. He was infamous for his pemmican proclamation where he banned the sale of pemmican and began to appropriate it from the Metis and NWC. He lacked the wide range of skills that were needed: diplomacy, sensitivity to the Metis and the Indians. He offended everyone including Lord Selkirk and by the summer of 1814 he resigned his post returning to York Factory where he is described as having had a nervous breakdown.

In 1815 Macdonell was taken to Montreal by the NWC to be tried for his pemmican crimes but never came to trial and returned to Red River in 1815.
The colony was seriously disrupted during this time. The HBC and NWC forts were changing hands the Seven Oaks massacre occurred and hostilities would not cease till 1821.

In 1817 Miles returned to reassume the colony and recaptured Fort Douglas in January. He stayed for a few months as governor and left the North West for ever. Miles had failed in almost every way. Historians concluded that he was arrogant, obstinate, ill tempered and irrational and he is thought to have been mentally unbalanced. He failed to understand the culture in which he was introduced and he lacked the skills of leadership and diplomacy that the job required.

He returned to Ontario to spend his final years but remained in debt. The promises by the HBC to pay him &300 a year and to give him land were not honoured. He died in 1828 at his father’s farm in Lower Canada.

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