James McKay

Fur Trader, Guide and Politician

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas



One of the most distinguished and successful Metis to emerge in Red River was Big Jim McKay. James McKay began his successful career like many others in the North West by first becoming a Hudson Bay man which he did 146 years ago on Oct 20, 1853.

A prime example of a Red River Metis, McKay was the son of James McKay Sr. of Sutherlandshire, and Margaret Gladu. It is not known if his mother was Indian or Metis. McKay is thought to have been born at Fort Edmonton in 1828 and later to attend St John's School at Red River.

After his start with the HBC he worked freighting goods on the cart trail between St Paul and Red River. In later years he was postmaster at the HBC's Qu'Appelle, Fort Ellice and Fort Pelly. He later worked on a Fort near the Sheyenne River near present day Fargo. He was a sought after guide and served as Sir George Simpson's personal guide on many of his trips returning through the US. "Jeemie" McKay was always proud that ten days after their start at Crow Wing (Minnesota), the Gov would be home before the noon Fort Garry bell rang. If necessary he would wade into deep mud and water to bring Simpson out on his shoulders.


McKay went into the transportation business, something he had been informally doing for a long time. With great stature, broad-chested and muscular and with a handsome face and piercing blue eyes, at 320 pounds McKay was known as a man of great courage and ability. He had helped people like Bishop Anderson, and John Palliser with their travels.

Later McKay would team up with John Alloway to form another transportation company that serviced the building of the CPR.


In 1868 he was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia. When Manitoba became a province, McKay became speaker of the upper house. In 1872 he was appointed to the North West Council. On the NWC McKay proved to be very sensitive to the needs of the Indian population. McKay saw the need to begin regulating the declining buffalo herds. McKay served as minister of agriculture in Davis govt of 1874-1878. During this time he represented Lake Manitoba in the legislature.


With knowledge of Cree, Ojibwa, Sioux, French and English and with good relations with all Indian tribes including the much feared Sioux, McKay served both informally and later more formally as an Indian Commissioner in most of the western treaties.


In 1859 McKay married Margaret Rowand daughter of John Rowand, Chief factor of Fort Edmonton. Rowand was one of the HBC's richest men and after his death, James McKay also became wealthy and a man of property. The McKays built a home on a tract of land near the Assiniboine River and named it "Deer Lodge." And while his social status had risen immensely he was turned down for the job as Chief Trader in 1860. Their one son died in infancy but shortly after a daughter named Augusta whose parents had been killed by the Sioux and who lived with the Grey Nuns was informally adopted by the McKays.

McKay died Dec 2, 1879 and was buried in the St Boniface cemetery. This early Manitoban who was a mixture of Cree, French Canadian and Orkney is another Metis Manitobans can take great pride in.

The location of his house and the tradition of hospitality at Deer Lodge, including the name Deer Lodge lived on. It is now the site of Deer Lodge Hospital.


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