Beckles Willson.

Lord Strathcona, the story of his life online

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The Great Fur Company
The Tenth Island
Drift: Canadian Poems



TO 1902







"there is no secret— the recipe for success is known to and is
within the reach of all, it is — perseverance"








J ORD STRATHCONA'S career has been so
conspicuous and noteiwrthy, that it should be
brought in its e^itirety to the knowledge of the public.
I do not think there is any other civilian nom alive
who has been able to do so much practical good to the
Empire before filling an official position.

Since he has taken office all our fellow-citizens have
been able to recognise his patriotic sacrifices and the
noble example he has given.

His life should nerve every young man to effort, to

work in honesty and hope, and to feel that he also

may become a poiver affecthig for good the destinies

of peoples.

Kensington Palace, May gih, igo2

This book is intended to meet an increasingly felt

Everybody knows that Lord Strathcona occupies a
notable and distinguished position ; but of the career


which has led up to this position there is hut little
knowledge of any definite and widespread kind.
Sufficient however has been gleaned to awaken a desire
for more. It is the aim therefore of the following
pages to supply some information regarding the earlier
portion of a cai-eer which must undoubtedly possess
many features of public interest.

The book does not, I take it, profess to be a biography
in the strict sense of the word. Its design is 7'ather
to provide a picture which will represent some of the
many stirring and significant events and achievements
with which Lord Strathcona's life is associated. And
if the picture is found to be in any respect incomplete
{and the writer of this note does not necessarily identify
himself with every expression regarding the events
alluded to), such incompleteness is largely due to the
fact that Lord Strathcona has always shown a reticence
regarding his personal experiences, and a dislike to
recording his otim performances.

Such a disposition, of course, adds to the value and

appreciation of ivhat can be set forth, and this volume

will assuredly he found to evoke the stimulating

admiration which is prompted by the contemplation of

successful perseverance and energy, together with the

generous manifestatio7i of patriotism and zeal for the

public welfare.



TT has not been a simple task to compile even so
scanty a record of a notable career as is contained
in the following pages. Lord Strathcona's uncon-
querable modesty and his well-known aversion to
publicity have strewn his biographer's path with

But admiring that career as I did, and believing,
too, that the main facts of it should be in the
possession of the public during his lordship's life-
time, I chose to persevere. To the many of his
friends who have assisted me I acknowledge here
my obligation.

May, irjoz




Boyhood in Scotland . . . . i

Fur-Trading in Labrador . . . .16


A Dangerous Mission . . . -37


Undermining the Dictator . . -63


After the Flight of Riel



A Figure in Parliament . . -123

Battles with Dr. Schultz . . -151

A Master-stroke of Finance . . -175


Canada's National Highway . . .192

Raised to the Peerage .... 223

Practical Imperalism .... 237


A. The Red River Rebellion . . .252

B. Commission to Donald A. Smith . . 280

C. Louis Riel . . . • .283

Index ...... 285




'\X7'HEN the couriers of the Prince Regent flew
through the Scottish Highlands with tidings
of the great Battle of Waterloo, there was neither
village nor hamlet where the bulletins of killed and
wounded were not awaited with a personal anxiety.
One may well go farther and say there was no stirring
event in any part of the empire — a siege in Bengal,
a skirmish on Lake Erie, a brush with savages in
New Caledonia or Van Diemen's Land — which did
not have a direct concern for the gentry and peasan-
try of the extreme northern half of this kingdom,
and particularly of Morayshire.

Morayshire, whose name has long since vanished
from the map,* sent of her best to the army, but not
to the army alone. For fifty years — ever since the
building of the roads — the human migration had

* Now known as the county of Elgfin.


been going on. You could scarcely find a single
family without a toiling relation in England or
Ireland, in India, America, Canada, and the distant
parts of the empire and the earth.*

The royal messenger, dashing along westward
from Aberdeen, shouting lustily his news of the
overthrow of the mighty Corsican, may perchance
have overtaken on the high road between Archie-
ston and Grantown a fellow-countryman, tall and
alert, with a characterful face, whose name was
Alexander Smith, f Alexander, going out from
his native village to make his way in the world,
ready for any honest venture, whether for fighting
or farming or trading, was of the type of Scots-
men who have made the British Empire what it is

Fate, however, had other things in store for

* "Our parish," writes Rev. Dr. Forsyth, the present minister of
Abernethy, "has continued to give some of its best blood to other
lands. We have sent bankers to England, farmers to Ireland, and
parsons to every county in the Highlands. We have sent settlers to
Canada and the United States, shepherds to Fiji, stock-keepers to
New Zealand, gold-diggers to Australia, diamond merchants to
Africa, doctors to the Army and Navy, and soldiers to fight our
cause in all parts of the world."

t The Smiths were Highlanders long settled in the parish of
Knockando, and there is constant mention of them in all the old
records. One George Smith was out in the '45, and was famous
for his strength and courage. He afterwards served with Clive in


Alexander Smith than fighting in Flanders. It led him
no further than Grantown, where, soon after he set
up in business, he met and won a Miss Barbara
Stewart (or Stuart), of the manor of ''Leth-na-
Coyle," in the neighbouring parish of Abernethy.

The Stewarts were considerable folk in the
countryside. The young lady's particular family
is said to have held Leth-na-Coyle (now called
Lainchoil) for three hundred years.* Among Miss
Stewart's kinsfolk, too, were the Grants, after whom
Grantown was named. By Sir Archibald Grant the
town of Archieston had been founded half a century
before. The match was consequently a most advan-
tageous one for the aspiring young merchant.

Soon after their marriage Alexander Smith re-
moved with his bride to the town of Forres, where
two sons were duly born. The elder was christened
John Stewart, after a famous uncle, of whom we
shall have occasion later to speak. The younger,
destined to be the future financier, statesman, and
philanthropist. Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal,
first saw the light August 6th, 1820, the year in

* Donald and John were the hereditary family names. In 1739
there was a John who was an elder of the Church. His son John
married Marjorie Stewart, of Lynchurn, who died a centenarian at
Grantown in 1830. Their son Donald married Janet, younger
daughter of Robert Grant, of Cromdaie, and had three sons, John,
Robert, and Peter, and two daughters, Barbara and Marjorie, who
survived till 1844.


which the light passed for ever away from the poor
old monarch, George III., and which witnessed
George IV. 's accession.

The birthplace of Lord Strathcona is still standing,
being at the west end of Forres and facing the Burn
of Mosset. It is now occupied by a poor order of
tenant, but at the time of his birth was suitable for
the residence of a middle-class family.

If this part of Elgin is one of the most interesting
districts of the Highlands, Forres is certainly the
most interesting spot in the shire. It has been
rendered classic ground by Shakespeare, in his
tragedy of Macbeth. Time had been when Forres,
which when Donald Alexander Smith was born
contained about 3,500 souls, was a place of greater
importance than the town of Elgin. It is not
known when it became a royal burgh, all the older
charters having been lost ; but in the verse of one
of Scotia's minstrels : —

" Forres, in the days of yore,
A name 'mang Scotia's cities bore,
And there her Judges o'er and o'er
Did Scotland's laws dispense ;
And there the monarchs of the land
In former days held high command.
And ancient architects had planned,
By rules of art in order grand
The royal residence."

One of the local legends which early appealed to


little Donald Smith was that relating to King
Duffus, the son of Malcolm, who is said to have
been murdered in the castle at Forres by Donald,
the governor, in the year 967. There is a curious
story that the body of Donald's victim was hidden
under the bridge of Kinloss, and that till it was
found the sun did not shine. Many years after he
had put a thousand leagues of sea between him and
Kinloss Bridge the young fur-trader, seeing for the
first time the dead body of an Indian hardly less
rudely clad than the early natives of the High-
lands, recalled vividly this enthralling countryside

It was at Forres that King Duncan held his court,
and it is at Forres that Shakespeare has fixed the
greater part of the action of Macbeth. Macbeth and
Banquo, on their way to the camp, meet the weird
sisters on the Hard Muir, in the adjacent parish of
Dyke, and the memorable speech is uttered :

" How far is it called to Forres ? What are these
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' earth
But yet are on't ? "

Donald's mother had no intention that he should
tread the somewhat uphill path his father had trod.
She may have recalled the words which Dr. Samuel
Johnson had used to Boswell during his journey
through Morayshire fifty years before : ** Every man


who comes into the world has need of friends. If he
has to get them for himself, half his life is spent
before his merit is known. Relations are a man's
ready friends." With such kinsmen as John and
Donald boasted, therefore, she determined to give
them a proper schooling which would fit them to
deserve Fortune's favour and that of the family.
The Smiths were by no means greatly blessed with
this world's goods ; education at a private school
was expensive, and the question how to obtain what
she sought was not easy. Happily there was a
resource lately established. One Jonathan Anderson,
a native of Forres, who, like many of his neighbours,
had wandered afar in pursuit of wealth and met
with success, made over, some years before Donald's
birth, to the magistrates and town council the lands
of Cowlairs, now forming part of the city of Glasgow,
for the purpose of creating a school and paying a
teacher at Forres. His intention was that the chil-
dren of necessitous parents in his native parish and
those of Raffard and Kinloss should be instructed
in reading, English, writing, arithmetic, and such
branches of education as the provost, magistrates,
and town council should think proper. The build-
ing, in the Grecian style, was erected in 1824, and
Donald became one of the earliest pupils. His
youthful traits at that time were those appropriate
to his later character. A fellow-pupil who remem-


bers him describes him as of a shy, amiable dis-
position, but with a fund of sturdy resolution and
even hardihood when occasion demanded it. When
Donald was nine years the Findhorn and the Spey
broke their boundaries and flooded the country.
Many of the peasant folk with their families came
into Forres to seek relief, and among them the
parents of one of Donald's childish playmates who
was drowned. After school Donald called on the
bereaved family, and "with a gravity far beyond
his years condoled with them, and on leaving begged
they would accept a slight token in memory of his
friend. He then handed over all his pocket-money,
amounting to a shilling and some odd coppers."
Thus was the child father to the man.

The master of this institution of learning pro-
fessed to be a great Shakespearian scholar, and was
especially fond of quoting from Macbeth. His father
had met Dr. Johnson on his Scottish itinerary, and
naturally cherished a large number of anecdotes of
that illustrious man, which he bequeathed to his
descendant. As these were retailed to the school on
all possible occasions, the pupils might have been
forgiven for sometimes confusing the itinerant lexi-
cographer with the royal murderer, as was actually
done on one occasion by a boy named Robertson.

The lads of the school were allowed as a great
treat to ascend the Nelson tower, and Robertson,


one of the biggest boys at Anderson's, who did so
for the first time, was greatly struck by the view.

**Look!" he cried, "yonder is where Dr. Johnson
killed Banquo."

This exhibition of crass ignorance was generally
received in silence, prompted by a wholesome dread
of Robertson's temper. But it was more than Donald
could stand ; he laughed Robertson to scorn, who
became incensed, and threatened to "thrash both
the Smith boys with one hand." Donald stood his
ground manfully, as he afterwards stood it in fur-
trading camp and the halls of legislation, and only
the timely appearance of the master on the scene pre-
vented a fierce combat and put an end to the incident.
Robertson afterwards perished in the Crimea.

The holidays were spent at Findhorn or Aber-
nethy, and these times Donald and his brother
long looked back upon with pleasure. Mrs. Smith
continued to receive occasional letters from her
brother, John Stewart, the daring fur-trader, who
now began to speak of returning home from the
distant wilds of the North American continent.

It is hardly surprising that Stewart's career should
have a peculiar attraction not merely for Donald and
his brother, but for the entire youth of Forres and
Abernethy. Other relations — Smiths, Stewarts, and
Grants — were scattered about the world-wide domain
of the new king, William IV,, doing and daring.


farming and digging, exploring and peopling an
empire ; but, to Donald at least, his uncle John's
career was the most brilliant and seductive of all.*
Many and many a time did the Smith family, now
increased by the birth of a sister, Jane, discuss the
achievements of the heroic pioneer of New Caledonia,
after whom the names of Stewart Lake and Stewart
River have been bestowed.

The fact that he was said to bear a striking physical
resemblance to his uncle did not diminish this interest.
John Stewart had early in the century left Grantown
for Montreal, and taken service with the North-West
Company, of which famous body of fur-traders we
may read in Washington Irving's romantic narrative,
Astoria. Another relation, Cuthbert Grant, had pre-
ceded him, and doubtless on his advice, John Stewart
had gone out to the distant and unknown regions

• John Stewart accompanied Simon Frascr, the discoverer of the
Fraser River, to the Pacific in 1808, and was present during the
Astoria troubles of 1813. When the two companies amalgamated in
1 82 1 he remained in the country, and during his nephew Donald
Smith's boyhood was Chief Factor at Lesser Slave Lake. He died
at Springfield House, Forres, in 1847, having directed in his will that
he should be "interred in the tomb of his ancestors in the parish
churchyard of Abernethy, south-cast corner of the church."

As for Lord Strathcona's other maternal uncle, Peter, he went into
the army, and was for some years Fort Major at Belfast, Ireland.

John Stewart married while in North America and had two sons,
Donald and John, who died comparatively young. The former was
a lieutenant in H.M. 78th Regiment of Highlanders, and took part
in the Crimean War.


west of the Rockies.* Those were the days of in-
tense and bloody rivalry between the Hudson Bay
Company and the intruding North-Westers, and the
Stewarts, the Grants, and other of young Smith's
kinsmen were in the thick of the action. Many
years afterwards Donald himself, addressing on a
memorable occasion an excited body of half-breed
insurgents in the Canadian North-West, said : —

"Though personally unknown to you, I am as
much interested in the welfare of this country as
others you know here. On both sides I have a
number of relations in this land, not merely Scotch
cousins, but blood relations. Hence, though I am
myself a Scotchman, you will not be surprised that
I should feel a deep personal interest in this great
country and its inhabitants."

But although the lad was dazzled by his uncle's

* John Stewart was not the only fur-trader of the trio of Donald's
uncles. Robert was also in the service of the North-West Company,
and soon became celebrated for his courage and ability. His death
was very tragic. One day sailing dow-n the Columbia River his
canoe was upset, and he and his three companions were flung into
the water. A temporary refuge was furnished by a rock, but Stewart
was the only swimmer of the four, and he was therefore the onlj'
one they could turn to for assistance. " He bade them be of good
cheer — that if God permitted he would save them. Then taking- one
of them on his back, he struck out for the shore." His enterprise
was successful, so far as the first and second man were concerned ;
but his further efforts to save the third man cost him his life. His
strength had ebbed, and he and his companion he bore sank down in
the mighty rush of waters and were never heard of again.


career, Mrs. Smith was very far from being reassured
by the accounts which reached her of the life and
prospects which might await her son in the North-
West. In her heart of hearts she looked higher than
a fur-trader's career for her sons : she wished to see
John a physician and Donald a lawyer. And as
both showed mental aptitude, it seemed as if, in spite
of the secret longing of the one to be a soldier and
the other to be a rich fur-trader, the maternal designs
would attain fulfilment. For in course of time John
was sent to Aberdeen to study medicine, and the
subject of this memoir entered the office of Mr.
Robert Watson, the Town Clerk of Forres.

It soon became evident, however, that while he
applied himself rigidly to study, her younger son's
heart was not in Hume and Dalrymple : the
chances at the law were few, and he himself urged
a calling in which he could find scope for his
talents and his aspirations.

At this time there resided in Manchester, where
they had achieved great wealth and were highly
esteemed for their personal characters, a family of
merchants named Grant, cousins of the Smith family.*

• The story of the Grants of Manchester is a most romantic one.
William Grant, the elder, occupied the farm of "The Haugh " at
Elchies, of Knockando; adjoining that was his first cousin, Alexander
Smith, Lord Strathcona's father. Grant was engaged in the pre-
carious trade of "droving," that is, buying cattle in the country and
taking them south for sale. The years 1782-3 were notably bad


Some few years after Donald had made up his mind
about his future sphere of labour, a friend of the
rising young London novelist, Charles Dickens,
took him to Manchester, where he made the ac-
quaintance of these two warm-hearted men. Under
the name of the ^'Cheeryble brothers" Dickens has
given them to the world in his novel of Nicholas

Mr. Smith wrote to the elder of these Grants about
his son Donald, saying he was not content to remain
in Scotland (how very few young Scotsmen are !)
and craving his advice. The result was a reply,
that if the young man would accept a stool in their
office he was welcome, and zeal and industry might
lead to profitable advancement.

Donald Smith was eighteen years old when he had
thus to choose a calling for life. It is not much
in doubt which of the two offers he would have
accepted, had not an event happened which com-

seasons : he had gone south with a drove, but failed to sell at
Falkirk, Pressing on across the Border into Lancashire, he found
no market, and footsore and weary, passed the night with his
son William on top of a high hill. In the morning he sprang up, and
overlooking the fair valley of the Irwell bathed in sunshine, cried
out, " Ah, this is a paradise ! Here I would like to have my home."
Vain as the wish seemed to this poor Highlander, a stranger in a
strange yet beautiful land, yet it was to prove true. In this very
spot he and his family settled, and by honest industry built up a
huge business, that ranked them amongst the merchant princes of


pletely overturned his mother's plans for him and
rendered a decision in another direction altogether
irresistible. His uncle, John Stewart, the redoubt-
able fur-trader, returned to Forres, and through his
influence came the offer of a junior clerkship in the
service of the great Hudson's Bay Company.

Thus it came about that in his eighteenth year,
before the fair young Queen Victoria had been many
months on the throne, Donald Smith took an
affectionate farewell of his parents, whom he was
never to see again, gripped his uncle's hand, and
sailed away from Scotland for the Canadas. Mr.
Smith, his father, was then living at Archieston,
not in very robust health, and a dozen years later he
died. His widow and daughter remained in Archies-
ton for many years. While still in her prime
Mrs. Smith's eyesight failed her : but to the last her
son's letters were amongst the chief pleasures of her
life. Although at that time even she could not foresee
her boy's future renown, it was a saying of hers long
remembered in the district, "They'll all be proud of
my Donald yet."

It is worth while our pausing a moment here to
take note of a curious omen.

Was it not of significance to other than the
superstitious that the patron saint of Donald's
native town should be St. Lawrence?

For it was to the River of St. Lawrence that


the ship was bearing away an obscure youth, who
was destined to spend many years on and in the
immediate neighbourhood of Laurentian shores.
He was destined also to return no longer obscure.
Although his real life-work was but just beginning
at the period of his first return, Donald Smith had
already been admitted into the councils of the wisest
and most eminent in his adopted land.


Lord Strathcona's kinsman, William Grant, one of the
originals of Dickens's " Cheeryble brothers," once wrote
a letter to a friend, which gives some very interesting
particulars of their beginnings in Manchester. "My
father," he says, "was a dealer in cattle and lost his
property in the year 1783. He got a letter of intro-
duction to Mr. Arkwright (afterwards Sir Richard and
owner of one of the only two mills in Manchester), and
came by way of Skipton to Manchester, accompanied by
me. . . . We called upon Mr. Arkwright, but he had so
many applications at the time he could not employ him.
My father then applied to a Mr. Dinwiddle, a Scotch
gentleman, who knew him in his prosperity, and who was
a printer and manufacturer near Bury. He agreed to
give my father employment, and placed my brother James
and me in situations where we had an opportunity of
acquiring a knowledge both of manufacturing and print-
ing (cotton) ; and offered me a partnership when I had
completed my apprenticeship. I declined this offer, and
commenced business for myself on a small scale, assisted


by my brothers John, Daniel, and Charles." Success
attended them, and they rose to great wealth and in-
fluence. " In 1818 we purchased Springfside, and in 1827
we purchased the Park estate and erected a monument
to commemorate my father's first visit to this valley, and
on the very spot where he and I stood admiring the beauti-

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Online LibraryBeckles WillsonLord Strathcona, the story of his life → online text (page 1 of 21)