by John Snarks
It’s sweet being born into the upper-crust and a life of relative ease, but this was notably the case prior to the advent of such gems as air-conditioning, refrigeration, locomotive engines, and basically everything that enables our privy existence in contemporary times. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, life in the aristocracy allowed children to worry less about dying from exposure, malnourishment, leprosy and forced labor. Instead, they were able to pursue other interests, notably school, and go on to do some crazy things in a relatively primitive world. One such child, James McGill III, was born on this day in 1744 in Glasgow, Scotland. Son of a metal-smith, powerful guild man, and member of the House of Commons, James would go on to be educated at the University of Glasgow. Soon thereafter he would depart for the Americas, namely Quebec, Canada, where he became essentially Canada’s most powerful man in terms of riches and political power.
In 1766, the young McGill entered the land’s burgeoning fur trade at present day Mackinac, Michigan, where he moved quickly as a clerk for another Scotsman to trading on his own from Mackinac island (Michilimackinac). James McGill & Co. was born, and he profited greatly in a hardscrabble trade.
The fur-trade in North America was a truly dynamic and momentous occurrence in world history. It founded, or spurred the growth in, many of the Great Lakes region’s modern metropolitan areas – big and small – from the far reaches of Northern Canada to Chicago and westward into the Dakotas and beyond. It was a confluence of empires (French and British), as well as a nation-building exercise in Canada and the United States. It fostered the growth of Catholicism around the region via Franco infusion of Native American tribes, created a crucial (to the fur trade’s survival) Metis population of European and Native American parentage, and bore conflicts, wars and the eventual waves of Euro-Americans that washed over the land and dispersed it’s Native populations. In all, it was paramount to the growth of the Americas in many areas, and filled coffers through out the North Atlantic. It also expedited the downfall of native tribes as a result, shifting power rapidly through an influx of bodies, armed and not, as well as significant monetary interests.
Right in the middle of this historically important surge of economic, political, religious and cultural forces was James McGill. After much success at the peddling hub of Mackinac Island, he moved to the economic and political center of Montreal. In 1773 he partnered with Irishman Isaac “By Jove” Todd to trade at Grand Portage, Minnesota, one of the British-Canadian centers. That partnership, which later became the trading company Todd & McGill in 1776, was one of the charter member entities of the fur-trading empire known as the North West Company, which formed in 1779 and dominated the Upper Great Lakes and Canada. Todd & McGill left in 1783 to trade in regions south of NWC territoties (Mississippi Valley and Lake Michigan areas), but McGill would again become a partner in the company in 1792, and thereafter hold interests in the company as it reigned supreme, leaving his portion of the industry to family in 1810. He further increased his fortune in the logging industry and selling of lands, eventually allowing him to become Canada’s richest man at his death in 1813.
As history has shown, with great financial and business success can come political power, and this was very much the case with McGill. He would serve as a Canadian legislative official and Executive Council member, representing the citizens of Montreal at their surrender to Americans during the American Revolution, and serve as commander of the city’s defenders during the War of 1812. He died shortly thereafter on December 19, 1813, giving much of his money to charities, the poor, and community interests in Montreal.
In death, McGill left arguably a greater profit than his fortunes. He donated his lavish summer home, land and case for the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, which became the prestigious McGill University. McGill University became the cornerstone on which several Canadian universities and colleges were founded, including another leading institution, University of British Columbia.
So, from us at FAM, Happy Belated Birthday James McGill, you intrepid, cunning and benevolent forefather of Canada and guru to fur-peddlers everywhere.