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A biography of the Reverend Robert McDonald

Arctic & Northern Biographies

Dateline: June 26, 2022
The source of the following excellent biography is not known. It was photocopied from a spiral-bound document at the Yukon Archives in about 1997 - although it was probably the finding aid for the Robert McDonald fonds, neither the document nor the author of the biography is credited.

    Robert McDonald was an Anglican missionary, born in 1829 in Manitoba. He was thirty-three years old when he was sent by the Church Missionary Society (based in England) to Fort Yukon in 1862. He had intended to stay in the North for two years only; however, he was soon caught up in the challenges of his frontier mission and spent the next forty years preaching, teaching, and writing in northern Alaska, Yukon, and the Mackenzie Delta area.

    These were the early years of contact between the native people of these areas and non-natives. Hudson's Bay Company traders had established Peel River Fort (Fort McPherson) in 1840, and gradually extended their supply and trade routes over the Richardson Mountains, establishing LaPierre's House in 1846, then moving down the Porcupine to the Yukon River to build Fort Yukon in 1847. For the first decade only Hudson's Bay Company traders and natives travelled between Fort Yukon and the Peel River Fort, bringing in trade goods and taking out the rich Yukon furs. The Church Missionary Society of England (Anglicans) and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Roman Catholics) had established rival missions along the Mackenzie River, but neither group had sufficient resources to follow the traders immediately to the Yukon. An Anglican, William Kirkby, was the first missionary to reach Fort Yukon in 1861. He was ecstatic as he met hundreds of Indians enroute who were anxious to learn of Christianity and most importantly, they had not been proselytized as yet by his Oblate rivals. Kirkby wrote to his sponsors in England urging that a missionary be sent immediately for Fort Yukon. He stressed that this person should have good linguistic abilities in order to be as successful as the Roman Catholic priests who quickly learned the languages of the native people they visited.

    Robert McDonald was selected to establish the mission at Fort Yukon. His father, Neil McDonald, is thought to have been a former Hudson's Bay Company servant, while his mother was the daughter of an Ojibway woman and a North West Company trader. Born at Red River, McDonald was educated at a local school and then worked as a schoolmaster for several years. He decided to become an Anglican priest and studied at St. John's College before his ordination in 1853. In addition to his teaching experience and religious training, McDonald was fluent in Ojibway, French and English - all attributes that would serve him well at his new post on the Yukon River. (See: F.A. Peake "Robert McDonald (1829-1913) The Great Unknown Missionary of the Northwest", Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society Vol XVII #3, Sept. 1975, p.54-71.)

    However McDonald was not the only missionary travelling to Fort Yukon in the summer of 1862. Père Séguin was in the brigade boats too, determined to extend the influence of his Order into the Yukon. As winter arrived, the two missionaries set to work to convert the Indians to their particular beliefs. McDonald had considerable assistance from the officer-in-charge of the post, Strachan Jones, a fellow Anglican who provided living quarters, food, and other necessities, and who may have used his trading power to influence the local Indians in their reactions to the missionaries. The priest was not so well treated and spent a cold, hungry winter living in the caribou skin lodge of one of the Company men, a Roman Catholic married to a Loucheux woman. Père Séguin returned to Fort Simpson in the spring, having failed to make any converts, leaving Robert McDonald in triumphant possession of the Yukon mission field. The Oblates did not attempt to proselytize in the Yukon again for another decade, and were never able to match the strong position established by McDonald for the Anglican Mission.

    Despite a warm reception by both the Indians and the Hudson's Bay Company men at Fort Yukon, life was not easy for Robert McDonald. These outposts received very sparse provisions; the traders were expected to hunt and fish for subsistence and when that failed, the men often went hungry. McDonald participated in these activities as well as pursuing his missionary duties, travelling frequently by dog team or canoe to the native groups that lived away from the post.

    This constant travelling, lack of food, and the other strains of adjusting to his new frontier home, took a severe toll on McDonald's health and his Journals record prolonged periods of illness during his second winter at Fort Yukon. The first months of 1864 were extremely difficult for everyone at the post under near starvation conditions, due to lack of game in the area. By summer, McDonald was suffering acute chest pains (probably consumption/tuberculosis) and had written to the Church Missionary Society asking to be relieved of his duties.

    In August 1864 he departed for Peel River, thinking he would never return to the Yukon. Enroute, his Indian friends collected a root they called toi-yahsi (meaning "it saved his uncle"), and McDonald was given tea brewed from the plant. Within a few weeks he was feeling better and agreed to Bishop Anderson's suggestion that he spend a further two years in the North. McDonald was making excellent progress in learning the native languages of the area; the Indians at Fort Yukon liked his preaching and were very distressed by his departure. It was fortunate that his health did improve and he was able to return to the Yukon in September 1865, just as an epidemic of scarlet fever hit the native people with terrifying results. Within a few months, the disease spread to every group in the area, whole families were wiped out, and the survivors were often too ill to hunt or gather firewood for themselves. McDonald visited the widely scattered bands, doing what he could to treat the sick, comfort the bereaved, and help with the basic hunting and gathering requirements of the camps. Gradually the epidemic subsided but the loss of life had been terrible.

    In the years following, McDonald's own health was frequently poor, but he travelled constantly among the native bands and from Fort Yukon to Peel River Post. Later he travelled extensively on the Yukon River, down to St. Michael's and upstream to Stewart River. He met many different groups of natives, observing and recording the profound changes in their lives as more non-natives moved into their homeland in search of minerals and other wealth, or as in his own case, bringing new spiritual ideas and moral values. McDonald witnessed many significant historical events in these years as well, including the takeover of Fort Yukon by the Americans in 1869, the establishment of Rampart House by the Hudson's Bay Company, and the development of missions at Herschel Island, and among the Esquimaux of the Mackenzie Delta. He was joined in his work by his brother Kenneth in 1871, and gradually by other Anglican missionaries - Bompas, Sim, Canham and Stringer among others.

    When the Hudson's Bay Company was forced to depart from Fort Yukon in 1869, McDonald relocated with them at first at Rampart House, but then decided Fort McPherson would be a better base of operations, settling there in 1871. He continued to make frequent trips to the Porcupine and Yukon River camps and posts, as well as working in the Peel River area. In 1875 McDonald was appointed Archdeacon of Mackenzie District by Bishop Bompas.

    The following year he married a young Loucheux woman, Julia Kutug, and they had a large family of nine children over the next twenty years. In the first years of their marriage Julia travelled with McDonald over the pass to the Porcupine River, and she also assisted in his translations of various religious works into Loucheux. As well, she carried on the traditional hunting and gathering activities of a Loucheux wife and was a major provider for the growing McDonald family. When McDonald went to Europe in 1882 to arrange for publication of some of his translations, and to recuperate from another severe illness, Julia accompanied him to Winnipeg, then returned with the children to Fort McPherson to manage on her own for several years - McDonald returned to the North in 1886 to carry on his missionary activities until 1904, when a near fatal bout with bronchitis forced him to retire and move with his family to Winnipeg. He was 75 years old and had spent most of the previous 40 years in the North, preaching, teaching and translating. Life in Winnipeg brought sadness when several of the McDonald children died in the first few years. McDonald died in 1913 at the age of 84, and Julia returned to Fort McPherson. She later moved to Dawson City where she died on July 2, 1938, at the age of 79 [see her obituary from Northern Lights].

    Early in his career McDonald learned the Loucheux language spoken by the native people living near Fort Yukon. With slight variations this was the language spoken by all the people along the Porcupine River and as far east as Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River. These people were the central focus of the Tukudh Mission of the Church Missionary Society, and the presence of a missionary who was fluent in their language had profound effects for Loucheux people. McDonald translated selected hymns, Scripture and services with the assistance of several Indian translators, who were most often the bilingual wives of Hudson's Bay Company servants, and later his own Loucheux wife, Julia. McDonald soon found that the Indian people were eager to learn not only the new religious teachings he offered, but the means by which he could read and write in their language. The vast size of his missionary field plus the difficulties of travel among the widely scattered groups of families added impetus to the concept of teaching the people first to memorize, then to read and write, so that they could carry Christian practices with them wherever they travelled to hunt, trap and trade.

    Initially McDonald attempted to introduce the syllabic system of reading and writing. However, the Loucheux people resisted that system, considering it "foreign" and they insisted that he develop Loucheux texts in English (Roman) letters - like those the traders and the missionary himself used. McDonald acquiesced and translated numerous hymns (published as Tukudh Hymns, 1881), the entire Bible (1898), and the Book of Common Prayer into Loucheux. This is the largest body of literature in any Yukon Indian language, and until recent years the Loucheux were the only Yukon Indian people to have literacy in their own language.

    While these religious translations of McDonald's are well known and used, his personal Journals have not been as widely available nor studied in depth. The Journals provide a wealth of minute and daily detail about the changing lives of both natives and non-natives in this area over an incredibly active four decades from 1862-1904. A further eight years of McDonald's life in Winnipeg are chronicled, until 1912, the year prior to his death. In all these years, only two significant gaps occurred in the flow of daily entries - one between 1883 and 1887 while McDonald was in Europe, and the other between 1904-1907 when he moved to Winnipeg. It is unclear whether Journals for these years were never written or have been lost. The original handwritten notebooks and microfilm copies are located in the Ecclesiastical Archives of Ruperts Land at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba at Winnipeg. A paper copy taken from the microfilm is available at the Yukon Native Languages Center in Whitehorse, along with a typescript of the entire Journals.