The Man That Took the Fall for the Riel Rebellion

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas

On Nov 2, 1869, Louis Riel seized power at Fort Garry. The HBC man on the scene was the last Gov of the company William Mactavish. On Nov 16 Mactavish made a last ditch proclamation asking the rebels to give back Fort Garry. For Mactavish it would be the end of the road, and nearly the end of his life.

Mactavish was born in March 29, 1815 in Edinburgh Scotland to an affluent family that would help him advance his career over time. It started with an apprenticeship to the Hudson Bay Co in 1833. He sailed to Rupertsland and was appointed to work at Norway House. And later moved to York factory by his uncle's influence. His uncle would continue to further Mactavish's career.

Mactavish proved to be industrious and was trained in accounting. His job was the inventorying and preparation of shipments. The marriage of his sister to Joseph Hargrave gave Mactavish additional career help, and permitted him to work at a series of posts.


In 1857 Mactavish was placed in charge of Upper Fort Garry considered the most "troublesome" and difficult assignment in Rupertsland. He was by now thoroughly trained for the task at hand. He had energy, and determination. Tall and sandy haired he had the Palmerston style whiskers and a heavy moustache. He had a great sense of humour and loved hunting and fishing. Mactavish became very interested in natural history and exchanged specimens with other executives at the HBC, even forming a natural history society. Shortly after arriving at Red River he married Mary Sarah McDermot, the half-breed daughter of businessman Andrew McDermot. They would have four "country born" children.


In 1858 Mactavish was appointed to be Gov of Assiniboia. He accepted the job under protest. He hated it and spent years trying to get out of it. He did not feel he had the political skills and abilities to do this by now very difficult job. Besides, Mactavish had genuine sympathy for the interests of the rebels. He was between a rock and a hard place. The HBC was an unpopular govt and on its way out. The increased numbers of settlers as well as the Metis were clamouring for representative govt. He drew criticism from all quarters.


It is thought that had Mactavish been more forceful he might have short-circuited the Riel rebellion. His sympathies were with the Metis and he felt that the federal govt had been too hasty to take over. And the Canadian Party was to blame. On Nov1 1869 his govt came to a virtual stop. Riel seized Fort Garry. By this time Mactavish was very sick and mostly bed ridden suffering with advanced tuberculosis. Riel imprisoned him. Under pressure from Riel, Mactavish agreed to loans to the Metis. In March he was released.


A very ill Mactavish left Red River May 7, 1870. He reached Liverpool on July 21 and died two days later. It seems this man of promise had been the wrong man at the wrong time. Or, he may have been the right man after all.


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