William McMillan, free trader

William McMillan and Margaret Dease Photo source: Ontario Archives

William McMillan and Margaret Dease
Photo source: Ontario Archives

This picture is of William McMillan and Margaret Dease. William is the son of James McMillan and Josephte Belisle, whom I wrote about here. Margaret is the daughter of John Warren Dease and Genevieve Beignet, whom I wrote about here. The picture was taken around 1902 when they were both very elderly. If you look closely at William’s left hand, you will note it is damaged. According to Heather Devine’s Informativel article The Indian-Metis Connection: James McMillan and His Descendants (which is available online, just google it):

“Like his father, William had bad luck with firearms. Apparently while on a buffalo hunt, he surprised an Indian trying to steal one of his horses. The Indian attempted to shoot McMillan, who grabbed the barrel of the gun in his hand. The gun went off, burning the flesh off his hand and leaving it permanently withered.”

They are in front of their house, which, although I am not a student of architecture, I’m quite sure was built in a style known as Red River frame construction. That’s the same style as  the Barber House, Riel House, and the William Brown house, which are all still standing in Winnipeg today. William and Margaret’s house was on lot 16 in the Parish of St. James.

Cadastral: Parish Plan of St. John’s, St. James, and St. Boniface, Archives of Manitoba

Cadastral: Parish Plan of St. John’s, St. James, and St. Boniface, Archives of Manitoba

This image, showing his name as William McMullen, is an excerpt from Cadastral: Parish Plan of St. John’s, St. James, and St. Boniface in the holdings of the Archives of Manitoba. This copy is from the website of St. James Anglican Church. For those familiar with the Winnipeg suburb of St. James, the Anglican church is circled bottom right. The lot bearing the name James Bruce is today’s Bruce Park. William’s lot is in the upper left. It would be roughly where Vernon Street and Whytewold Road are today. Strathmillan Street got its name from the fact that it was the dividing line between William McMillan’s property and that of Donald Smith aka Lord Strathcona (you know him as the man hammering in the last spike of the CPR). The river shown at the bottom of the map is the Assiniboine, and the dotted lines mark the Portage Trail which became Portage Avenue.

William was born around 1806 in the North West Territories. I say this despite the fact that when he died, his family said he was 103! Here’s a picture of his gravestone in St. Charles Cemetery, Winnipeg.

William McMillan St. Charles Cemetery Winnipeg, Manitoba

William McMillan
St. Charles Cemetery
Winnipeg, Manitoba

William was raised by his mother and her family near today’s Edmonton. Governor Simpson wrote in 1825 that William at 18 “was the boy of Mr. James MacMillan Chief Trader and [was] under no agreement with the company but never the less [would] …do anything the company require [d] of him”. (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives B60 2/3)

William claimed to be born in 1806 when he applied for scrip.

Library and Archives Canada RG 15 v. 1322

Library and Archives Canada RG 15 v. 1322

According to Heather Devine, William was a contract employee of HBC by 1826 “as a middleman on the York boats. He retired as a bowsman in 1835.”

Margaret Dease was born between 1813 and 1820, either in the Rainy Lake area (Fort Frances, Ontario) where her father, John Warren Dease was in charge of the NWC post, or in Fort Alexander. Here’s her scrip application.

Library and Archives Canada RG 15 v. 1322

Library and Archives Canada RG 15 v. 1322

William and Margaret married in 1832. The Red River Settlement Censuses allow us to track their life to some extent. In the 1838 census they have 4 horses and 5 mares. By 1843 they now have 1 house, 2 stables, 1 barn, 5 horses, 1 mare, 7 oxen, 4 cows, 2 calves, 9 pigs, 1 plough, 1 harrow, 6 carts(these are the famous Red River carts) and 6 acres of cultivated land. By 1846, they also own a canoe and have 8 acres of land cultivated.

When researching at the Archives of Manitoba, I was thrilled to find the notation in that 1846 census that William is “to the plains” meaning that he is away hunting buffalo! In 1849 they have 2 houses, 2 stables, 1 barn, 7 horses, 4 mares, 7 oxen, 1 bull, 4 cows, 1 calf, 5 pigs, 1 plough, 1 harrow, 7 carts 1 canoe, and a “shop of merchandise”.

The number of Red River carts is indicative of the fact that William was a “free trader”, that is, someone who traded in buffalo robes and other merchandise in defiance of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s regulations. He would have traveled south to Pembina and St. Paul. In the book Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century, Gerhard J. Ens states:

“By the late 1860s, there were literally dozens of robe traders making $1,000 or more per year.”

He then lists the names of  several traders including William McMillan and Margaret’s brothers William and John Dease.

William played a  role in the fight against HBC’s monopoly of the fur trade, and advocated for Metis representation in the governing of the settlement. His name is on several petitions in 1845, 1849, and 1850 made to the governor of Red River Settlement and to HBC. He most likely would have been amongst the several hundred armed Metis who surrounded the courthouse during the famous Sayer Trial of 1849.

In the book The Lochaber Emigrants to Glengarry, Hugh McMillan tells of interviewing a grandson of William’s and learning this:

“The family spoke Cree in the home as well as French intermixed with Gaelic and English. Journeys took him as far afield as Kentucky to buy horses in order to improve his buffalo runners. At age 70 he went to the newly-opened Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota for eye surgery but came back nearly blind.”

When William died the Manitoba Free Press published a lengthy article on October 1, 1903 entitled “Death of The First Free Fur Trader” with many interesting, though likely embellished, details:

 

Death of the first free fur trader

 

“In those days the chief occupation of the few people who lived in the Red River Colony was trading and buffalo hunting; and, it was natural that young McMillan should fall in with the customs of the times.
He became a hunter at first, but the instinct of his Scotch blood asserted itself and he began trading on his own account; and was the first free trader in the vicinity – though, his scope of business was confined to the position of “middleman” between his hunting companions and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was noted on the plains for his horsemanship and for his skill as a hunter; and, was always chosen as a leader or captain of the hunts.
In those days, the Indians knew no law but that of the Hudson’s Bay Company and were ever watching for a chance to raid the camps of the traders. The Sioux were the chief aggressors and Mr. McMillan often told of the fights the buffalo hunters had with these bold and warlike aborigines in the Souris and Qu’Appelle districts. These encounters were frequently of a revolutionary nature and scouts, and traders, had to constantly be on guard against surprise or ambush. His experience in this wild life on the prairies qualified McMillan as a guide; and, he had the distinction of being chosen on several occasions to escort titled gentlemen from the Old Country who came to hunt buffalo, half a century ago.
Forty years ago Mr. McMillan purchased a couple of hundred acres of land in St. James, just beyond Lord Strathcona’s Silver Heights farm, and made that his home up to the time of his death. He taught his children farming, but continued himself in the fur trade business until late in the seventies when the business ceased to be profitable.”

Doesn’t William’s life sound exciting?

Of Margaret Dease, I have no details, except that she bore 12 children, of whom 9 survived to adulthood.  Margaret died in 1905. Here is her gravestone in St. Charles Cemetery.

Margaret Dease gravestone St. Charles Cemetery Winnipeg, Manitoba

Margaret Dease gravestone
St. Charles Cemetery
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Here is the descent from William and Margaret to Pépère:

1-William MCMILLAN (1806-1903)
+Margaret DEASE (1818-1905)
2-Philomene MCMILLAN (1848-1923)
+Thomas HOGUE (1840-1924)
3-Thomas Joseph HOGUE (1879-1955)

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2 thoughts on “William McMillan, free trader

  1. Patrice Carrière

    Bonjour Jackie! Bonne et Heureuse Année! I just discovered your blog a few days ago while researching some of my ancestors that were listed in the genealogy I obtained from la Société Historique de St-Boniface. You’ve done wonderful work here! We have at least one common set of ancestors in William McMillan and Margaret Dease. Their daughter, Virginie McMillan was my great-grand-mother. She married Daniel “Bâton” Carrière and they had Patrice McMillan Carrière, my grand-father after whom I’m named. Interesting fact, my dad told me that although Virginie could speak English, she absolutely refused too, being of Scottish and French decent and as such, having visceral antipathy towards the English. 🙂 I look forward to reading your older posts and your future ones.

    – Patrice Carrière, Ottawa, ON

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