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Clan Donald Magazine No7 (1977) Online


Angus William McDonald, Fur Trader. A Condensation of Chapter V
of “One American Family” by Julia McDonald Davis.

The book covers nearly 200 years of American history through the stories of McDonald men and women and the happenings that changes their lives. The Glengarry McDonalds of Virginia were courageous and patriotic participating in alt that occurred to the full extent of their not inconsiderable energies. They flung themselves into the stream of events that made history, and history swept them along.

“Have you heard the melancholy news of your father’s death? He died at Batavia, New York in the middle of October.” It was Anna McDonald writing to her grandson Angus, by now fifteen and in his first year at West Point. The Military Academy itself was only twelve. There were eighteen in his class, all over six feet tall and described as “promising.” His early education had been entrusted to Scottish schoolmasters then prevalent all over Virginia since there were no free schools. He rode to his lessons from “Glengarry” or when the weather was bad stayed in Winchester. His first year at West Point found him poorly prepared, not addicted to study, and, said the record, inclinded to get himself into trouble by “mad pranks.” But his father’s death sobered him. He began to apply himself and in only three years graduated in July of 1817 as a third lieutenant of artillery.

(Angus II’s death in a crowded military hospital during the War of 1812 ended the career of a gentleman who had gambled away his patrimony of vast lands in Western Virginia and Kentucky. They had got accumulated by his father, Angus I, who had landed in Virginia four months after the battle of Culloden with his head intact and nothing else but the marks of a gentleman. He never discussed the details of his escape from the disasterous battle. But he named his home in Virginia, Glengarry, and a son, Charles Edward).

Anna had continued to write to her orphan at West Point in a grandmotherly way. She had lost her husband, Angus I, in 1778. Though only thirty, she had never remarried, held her estate and her family together, and brought up her children to think as their father would have had them think: Scotland was the greatest place in the world, their children the eagle-birds of humanity. Angus William must never feel himself cut off from “the clan”. She had seen enough McDonald men by now to be aware of their restless disposition. She countered it by frequently reminding Angus III that he had a position to uphold as head of the family, and that he must be true to the Highland tradition, for he was of noble lineage. Angus took her words to heart, and throughout his life measured his conduct by them although his love of adventure and his sense of responsibility often came into sharp conflict.

After graduation, Angus was posted to New Orleans and then to Mobile Bay where he advanced to first lieutenant. In new Orleans Angus had heard tales of the fur trade in the Northwest, a territory recently opened by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803. A new frontier drew Angus as it had drawn his grandfather. He tried to get the Army to assign him to this area. When they would not, he resigned in January 1819, and set out alone for St. Louis. He was twenty years old.

The headquarters for the fur trade and its link with civilization was still a village, strung out on one street along the Missouri River. Founded in 1763 by the French whose flag was hauled down in 1803, most of St. Louis’ inhabitants were French or Spanish. To this trading center came the mountain men and buffalo hunters whose stories of the wild lands lost nothing in the telling. As Angus listened his heart leapt with anticipation.

Two thousand miles up river, to be reached only by keel boat, rose the free, the unfenced, unparcelled land, where a man was his own law, bound only by his own code. It would take a whole summer to reach it, for the keel boats could not be pulled or poled up river at a rate of more than eighteen miles a day. But after a year or two, the fur trader might return with a profit of from 70% to 100% on his goods - provided he had not been robbed or murdered in the mountains.

The prospect was irresistible. Angus signed on as clerk with one of the smaller traders at a salary of $500 a year, and the promise of a partnership to come. Off he went up the Missouri with the trader in their keel boat loaded with calicos, butcher knives, tin and copper kettles, axes, finger rings, beads and, of course, raw alcohol and tobacco.

These they would exchange for soft beaver skins to make the high-crowned hats of city men. Buffalo hides would make lap robes in carriages; bear, otter, foxes would adorn fashionable women. The Indians would be as pleased by the trade as Angus. They thought it a joke on the traders that they should sell such things in exchange for pelts which could be had anywhere for the taking. With Angus in the boat were the voyageurs, the boat men who would bring it back before the river froze. There were a handful of engagés to cure the skins and work about the fort they must build against the winter and a scout or two to ride ahead looking for Indians and to bring back game for good. Voyageurs were the motor power. Day by day they dragged the boat upstream by a rope attached to the boat’s mast at a height to clear the under-bush on the bank. Long poles were carried to push off the threat of running aground and oars were used in midstream. Day by day the river fought them. If they relaxed for a moment, the boat went downstream. With incredible labor, they advanced their few daily miles. At night they tied the keel boat to a tree, built fires and ate on shore but they usually slept on board to avoid surprises.

The mouth of the Platte River was the equator of the prairies. Above was Council Bluffs where the American army had a small garrison at Ft. Atkinson. There they stopped to talk and pushed on. They passed the outposts of the larger trading companies, and finally reached the edge of Sioux country - home of that wandering predatory tribe whose symbol in Indian sign language was the edge of the hand cutting across the throat. Here they made a base, a cabin strong enough to withstand attack. The keel boat went back. They were alone.

The South Dakota winter came down like an enemy, the iron ground rang, and the men could walk across the river. The sky pressed down on the cabin, and the air, filled with icy particles of snow, whirled; cutting the face, cutting the lungs. They survived. They even traded. Angus made a point of learning the dialect of every tribe he encountered, so that he could act as interpreter as well as clerk and bookkeeper. By the time the boat came back in the spring they had amassed the good cargo and could consider the year successful. Angus received what was left of his $500 and was assured that he could count on the promised partnership for the next year.

They returned to St. Louis for new supplies but there the bubble burst. The new formed “company” went broke, the new “partner” decamped with all the money, and left McDonald holding the empty bag.

Angus was stranded, but not defeated. He was now experienced in the wilderness his knowledge of Indian tongues was a great asset. This time he went to the established companies. He was hired by the Missouri Fur Company, the oldest and most respected of them all. He would be manager of Fort Lisa between Sioux and Aricara country. It was considered the most important post on the Upper Missouri.

Even the best of trading posts was not an impressive fortification The palisade had a heavy gate with closed booths on either side where Indians could be admitted one at a time to trade, and goods could be passed out without throwing the fort open to them. Further in were lean-tos where the workers or engagés slept. Another lean-to housed the manager or bourgeois to preserve the distance necessary for discipline. For nine tenths of the year his word was law. He assigned the men their duties and also kept peace among them. This was no easy task when men lived closely together with boredom and Indian squaws to share. Angus was a powerful man but a lonely one who needed inner resources of character and strength. He was twenty-two.

The keel boat came up river every spring soon after the first wild goose was seen flying north, bringing supplies, picking up the waterproof packs of skins, making a hasty turnabout to float back before the water fell too low. For the rest of the summer and the following winter the fort was dwarfed by the immensity of its solitude.

Occasionally Indians appeared, to be closely watched as they approached to see if they were painted for war. Very rarely another trading party passed to be greeted with eager hospitality and pumped for news. Although greeted as friends these strangers might be enemies, as competition among the traders for the goodwill of the Indians was ruthless.

The summer of 1823 saw enough action to suit even McDonald. It also saw the first punitive expedition ever conducted by the US Army against any Indians in the West.

[A bit of excessive abridgment takes place here as the next paragraph doesn’t quite follow R.K.W.M]

Meyer put spurs to his pony and galloped along it arriving at the end almost before anyone had time to fire a shot. The Sioux cheered. Then Angus set his pony into a collected canter, fixed his eyes on the Sioux and rode along the ridge like a general reviewing his troops. Never once did he glance toward the Aricaras, never did he seem aware of the bullets and arrows which flew around him. At the end of the ridge he drew his sword and called on the Sioux to follow him.

This was something the Sioux understood and they swooped down with a full-throated war whoop. Gallop in, shoot with gun or arrow, strike with tomahawk or knife, and whirl away out of reach. The Sioux lost two braves, the Aricaras more, and there they were still looking at each other. The Aricaras were not hurt badly enough to retire to their villages and the white reinforcements, the supposedly irresistible regular soldiers, had not arrived.

When they did, Colonel Leavenworth was warned to do something decisive or he would lose Indian respect forever. “They do not understand the tedium of a siege.” But Leavenworth merely ordered the Sioux out of the cornfields and retired.

The Sioux sat around and laughed. Out to talk, Colonel Leavenworth sternly said that they must return the horses and goods stolen in June from Ashley. The horses were all dead, they said, but they would return the goods. The Colonel warned that the government of the United States was stronger than they thought and they would be severely punished if they did not behave very differently. They would, they said.

They produced their gaily-painted peace pipe decorated with floating feathers and passed it around. Officers who knew Indians refused to smoke until curtly ordered to do so by Leavenworth. Dusk fell on a day without a fight. During the night the Sioux got out of hand and stole six army mules and seven horses.

The next day the American officers were invited to visit the villages and see for themselves that the Aricaras were humbled and wished only peace. When they arrived, they found the palisades weaker than they had supposed and got a promise of a boatload of provisions in addition to what they had stolen. This seemed fair to Leavenworth who had to draw up a treaty himself because the others, knowing Indians, refused. Angus was far down the chain of command to be consulted. When the treaty had been signed, the Aricaras returned as stolen property; one horse, three rifles, and sixteen buffalo robes. Colonel Leavenworth, surprised, refused to sign the treaty. The Aricaras drifted off, Indian fashion.

A US attack was inevitable but Colonel Leavenworth delayed it for one day. It was growing late and the Colonel did not wish to have a lot of wounded men on his hands after dark. Morning was best for an assault.

In the morning, no attack was necessary. The villages were empty. Colonel Leavenworth spent two days looking for them in an effort which the others knew to be useless. Finally the Americans started back down the river, as angry now with each other as they had been with the Indians.

Before they had gone more than a mile or two the sky behind them filled with smoke and flames. The Aricara villages were burning. Colonel Leavenworth had no idea who had set the flames.

The question as to who burned the Aricara villages has remained unresolved by historians but it was no mystery to Angus. He did it. The following statement was later found among his papers:

“I executed the burning of the villages as a deliberate and rightful act of self defense. My conscience still approves me for having driven such treacherous villains beyond striking distance of my present residence.”

He spoke as a veteran of the frontier. He knew what it meant to hold Fort Lisa with only eleven men against an attacking tribe. He knew what it meant to drag through short winter days and long nights, always hoping the Indians would stay friendly, trusting his own courage and the white man’s prestige to get him through. When the white man made himself a laughing stock, the only way he could think of to scare them off was to burn their empty villages.

In order to fulfil his contract, McDonald had to spend one more winter on the frozen Upper Missouri. When he resigned, without the fortune he had hoped for, he went back to St. Louis in the summer of 1824.

In St. Louis Angus found his brother, Edward, who had been surveying as far as Santa Fe on the Mexican border. It was Edward’s turn to talk of glowing projects which could fire the romantic blood of a McDonald.

To the southwest rose painted mountains, laced with green valleys, unbroken, unfenced unclaimed land. The Americans there were eager to shake off inefficient corrupt Mexican rule and gain independence or rejoin the United States. In Texas a resolute man could live like a king.

Angus listened and began to dream again. St. Louis was full of adventurous young men like himself, the sort of men who within twenty-two years would raise the Stars and Stripes on the Pacific coast. Before long he and ten others had concocted a plan to seize Texas from Mexico and make it independent.

Samuel Houston did this only twelve years later, instead of Angus who went East to visit his family. Here he found a little girl who had bloomed into young womanhood during the six years away. She was, in fact, the woman.

The effect of love has always been total on the McDonalds. The possible King of Texas abandoned his dreams without a second thought. He read law in William Naylor’s office and just before his twenty-eighth birthday, married Leacy Naylor, the lawyer’s daughter.

(Angus and Leacy had nine children. Four years after she died, he married Cornelia Peake who had nine more children before the Civil War started. She raised the younger ones in the horrendous setting of Winchester, Virginia where their home became wartime headquarters for both armies depending upon whether the Confederate or Union army held the town. Her diaries as a civilian record of the period are found in most US libraries. After the war began when Angus was over 60, he raised a dashing cavalry regiment which, as mounted commandos under Stonewall Jackson, hampered Yankee movements in northern Virginia and became famous as the Laurel Brigade. When Angus became a prisoner of war, his rough treatment came to the attention of a Northern Major General who had been a classmate at West Point and for whom he had named a son: Ethan Allan Hitchcock. Quickly released, he soon died and was buried in Richmond in 1864).

The foregoing by the author of nearly thirty published books is based upon careful research for which Angus’ life as a fur trader furnished inspiration. One American Family, the latest about the Glengarry McDonalds of Virginia, has been adapted by this condensation to illustrate the impact of dashing Highland ancestry upon future generations, born far from Scotland. The author’s mother was Julia McDonald who married John W. Davis, eminent lawyer, who ran for President of the US in 1924.

Photograph: One of the earliest photographs in the US. Angus William McDonald, Abt. 1850.

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