Ranald MacDonald

Ranald MacDonald (3 February 1824 – 24 August 1894) was born at Fort Astoria (also known as Fort Astor or Fort George), Astoria, Oregon. He was the first son of Archibald MacDonald, a Scottish HBC fur trader, and Chinook Indian Koale’ zoa, sometimes called Princess Raven or Princess Sunday, daughter of big Chief Comcomly.

Ranald MacDonald (1891). Image A-02284, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
Ranald MacDonald (1891).
Image A-02284, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

Ranald MacDonald’s mother died very soon after his birth and afterward his mother’s sister Car-cum-cum raised him at Concomly’s lodge until his father married Métis Jane Klyne at Fort Garry (Winnipeg, Manitoba) in 1825. Jane was a remarkable young lady who grew up on the fur trade frontier. She provided Ranald with a loving family that eventually expanded to include twelve half-brothers and one half-sister. In the late 1820s, the family moved to Fort Langley on the Northwest coast and stayed there until about 1833, from time to time visiting Fort Vancouver, Fort Colville and other places on the Columbia River. One of MacDonald’s playmates at Fort Langley was Tomo Antoine, whom he would meet again in 1864 serving in the VIEE.

In 1834, after spending his early years at several Hudson’s Bay Company posts in the Columbia District, he was sent to the Red River Academy at Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Four years later he went to St. Thomas, Upper Canada, to train in banking at a bank managed by one of his father’s friends, Edward Ermatinger. A restless man, he soon quit his bank clerk job and early in 1841 he left surreptitiously to go to sea. Determined to visit the closed country of Japan and despite knowing the strict Japanese isolationism policy of the time, which meant death or imprisonment for foreigners who set foot on Japanese soil, he shipped from Lahaina (Hawaii) in 1848 on the whaler Plymouth and arranged to be dropped off, appearing to be a shipwrecked sailor, near the west coast of Ezo (Hokkaido).

On 1 July he came ashore on Rishiri Island where he pretended he had been shipwrecked. He was found by Ainu people who remitted him to the Daimyo of Matsumae clan. He was then sent to Nagasaki, the only port allowed to conduct limited trade with the Dutch. Since more and more American and British ships had been approaching Japanese waters and nobody in Japan spoke English with any sort of fluency, fourteen men were sent to study English under him. These men were samurai who had previously learned Dutch and had been attempting to learn English for some time from second hand sources, such as Dutch merchants who spoke a little of the language. The brightest of these men, a sort of language genius, was Einosuke Moriyama. MacDonald stayed in confinement at Daihian, a branch temple of the Sofuku-ji in Nagasaki, for 10 months during which he also studied Japanese.

In April 1849, in Nagasaki, MacDonald was remitted together with 14 (or 15) shipwreck survivors to Captain James Glynn on the American warship “USS Preble” which had been sent to rescue stranded sailors. On board MacDonald was interviewed and stated that the Japanese society was well policed and the Japanese people well behaved and of the highest standard. On arrival of the Preble in Macao, MacDonald promptly signed onto a ship bound for the southern seas. He continued his career as a sailor on board ships of unknown destinations or ports wandering (it is said) throughout China, India and Australia. In 1851 or 1852 he turned up in Ballarat, Australia in the midst of a gold rush. Here as a miner he made and spent money; once kept a gambling house and a dancing booth at the diggings.

He left Australia in 1853 and travelled to Europe where he went to Rome, Paris, London and Scotland before returning, shortly after his father’s death in 1853, to his family, then living in St Andrews (Saint-André-Est), Lower Canada (Quebec). He remained there for about five years during which time he became a freemason.

In 1858 Ranald and his half-brother Allan returned to the Pacific coast to the new colony of British Columbia. They set up a packing business between Port Douglas, at the head of Little Harrison Lake and the Fraser River gold-mines, and ran a ferry across the Fraser at Lillooet. Their younger brother Benjamin later joined them. In 1861-62 Ranald MacDonald and Johnston George Hillbride Barnston, whose families were connected through marriage, set up the Bentinck Arm and Fraser River Road Company to service the new mines in the Cariboo District. The route of this road was a pack trail, running from the site of present day Bella Coola to the Fraser River near Fort Alexandria (Alexandria, B.C.). The enterprise was not completed due to financial difficulties.

In 1864 Ranald was in Victoria and on 18 May he sent his application letter to the VIE-Committee stating he was known to several members of the committee. His father Archibald had been a well know HBC trader and had been befriended with James Douglas in the 1840s which might have helped Ranald attain a position within the VIEE.

On 1 June, at the age of 40, he was formally appointed as “pioneer” of the VIEE. He was undoubtedly popular and the most colorful and entertaining of the group. During the expedition he became very good friends with Frederick Whymper who described him as; “…usually thoroughly good-tempered, and “…at evening camps MacDonald’s stories often begun and never ended.” Ranald was also a member of Foley‘s sub-Exploring party who discovered gold on (and naming) the Leech River on 18 July.

The next year MacDonald led a government-sponsored expedition, exploring for minerals in the Horsefly area of the Cariboo. The following decade he spent in the Cariboo District, exploring, and at his ranch on Hat Creek.

He was also an employee of Barnard’s Express and Stage Line and later of Bonaparte House, the hotel run by Charles Augustus Semlin and Philip Parke at Cache Creek. In 1875 he assisted his cousin Christina MacDonald in her trading operation at Kamloops. He finally retired to a log cabin close to the home of Christina’s brother Donald near Fort Colville (near Colville, Washington), where his own father had developed a large farm for the HBC during the 1830s.

Although his Japanese students had been instrumental in the negotiations to open Japan with Commodore Perry and Lord Elgin, he found no real recognition of his achievements. While in retirement, MacDonald tried to find a publisher for his account of his visit to Japan. His manuscript was edited by Malcolm McLeod and a proposal for publication in Montreal under the title “A Canadian in Japan” fell through in 1892 because of a lack of subscriptions, but a revised version which McLeod prepared the following year finally appeared in 1923, 29 years after MacDonald’s death.

While visiting his niece in Washington State, Ranald MacDonald died on 24 August 1894 at the age of 70 as a poor, unmarried man. His last words were reportedly “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara…”

Today he rests in the Ranald MacDonald Cemetery, Ferry County, Washington. Ranald MacDonald’s Grave is 18 miles northwest of Curlew Lake State Park on Mid Way Road and is a satellite of Osoyoos Lake State Park. The grave bears the following inscription:

RANALD MacDONALD 1824-1894








There are memorials to Ranald MacDonald in Rishiri and in Nagasaki, as well as in his birthplace Astoria, Oregon, where Fort Astoria used to stand.


Copyright © July 2014, Bart van den Berk.


 [Annotated and edited from the following main sources, in order of usage.]

David H. Wallace, “MACDONALD, RANALD,” in EN:UNDEF:public_citation_publication, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 18 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_ranald_12E.html.

—-, Ranald Macdonald, Wikipedia, accessed 14 April 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranald_MacDonald

Roe, Jo Ann, Ranald MacDonald – Pacific Rim Adventurer, Washington: WSU Press, 1997; 256 pages.

Whymper, Frederick, Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska, London: John Murray, 1868, 331 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 4, Contract for monthly stipend of members of the expedition for five months, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.3, file 4, Vancouver Island Exploration Committee: applications for positions on exploring expedition, 1864; 80 pages.

—-, Friends of Macdonald, accessed 14 April 2014, http://friendsofmacdonald.com/

—-, Ferry County: Ranald Macdonald, Secretary of State Washington, accessed 14 April 2014, http://www.sos.wa.gov/history/cities_detail.aspx?i=33#macdonald

Jean Murray Cole, “McDONALD, ARCHIBALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 17 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcdonald_archibald_8E.html.

Lewis, William S., and Murakami, Naojiro, Ranald MacDonald, Spokane – Washington: The Inland-American Printing company, 1923; 336 pages.

Edgerton, Ralph P., Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), Adventurer, HistoryLink.org Essay 7291, accessed 14 April 2014, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=7291

Olsen, W. Harry, Century Scrapbook, 4 July until 1 August 1963. from; Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle, 1963.


(Keyword) biography Ranald MacDonald