Many stories could be told of poor boys who came to Canada and made their fortunes. Perhaps none of these is more wonderful than that of Donald Alexander Smith, the bare-footed Scottish lad who rose to a place of honor among the noblest of the British Empire.
He was born in the town of Forres, in Morayshire, Scotland, in 1820. His parents were not rich people but he received a fair education and entered the office of Robert Watson, the town clerk of Forres.
An incident that happened when he was only nine years old shows his thoughtfulness and kindness. One of his little playmates had been drowned by the flooding of a river, and Donald took it on himself to call upon the family, and to tell them how sorry he was. When leaving he said he would like to give something to the family to show his love for his schoolmate, and putting his hand into his pocket, he handed the boy's father all the money he had—a shilling and some coppers.
While in Mr. Watson's office he gave some attention to the study of law, but it did not seem to him that he could get ahead very fast in that position, and as quite a number of Scottish people were settling in Canada he thought he would like to see what he could do there. He got letters of introduction from some of his friends to Sir George Simpson, the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company and on May 16th, 1838, he set sail to Canada in the Royal William.
No one ever dreamed of flying across the Atlantic in those days nor even of crossing it in less than a week. It took him forty-six days to get to Quebec and about two weeks later he presented his letters to Sir George Simpson at his official quarters at Lachine.
Now, Sir George held a very high position in those days, and he liked every one to know it, so he did not spend much time on Donald Smith in spite of all his letters of introduction. It took him only about fifteen minutes to let Donald Smith know how important a man Sir George Simpson was, and how small he was, and to hire him as clerk at Lachine at £20 a year.
Then he said, "You will begin at once, sir, to familiarize yourself with your future duties. Call Mr. Mactavish."
Mactavish, another clerk, came in and bowed to the great man. "Mr. Mactavish," said he, "have the goodness to take Mr. Donald Smith to the fur room and instruct him in the art of counting rat-skins."
And so the new clerk began with the counting of muskrat skins. Next he counted beaver, marten, fox, mink, otter, and other furs and learned their value and the districts they came from. During the next two years he was sent to Lake of the Two Mountains and nearby posts.
In March, 1841, Sir George Simpson was on a visit to Lachine. Calling Donald Smith, he said, "You are appointed to Tadousac. It is now Monday. You will leave by Quebec stage Wednesday morning."
The next six or seven years he spent at Tadoussac and other trading posts along the north of the St. Lawrence. Wile at Mingan, in November 1847, he was stricken with snow-blindness and feared that he might become blind. He wrote to the Governor about going to Montreal to have his eyes treated but no attention was paid to his letters. At last he set out for Montreal; when he reached there the Governor was at his supper. After it was over and he found out what was wanted he got a doctor to examine young Smith's eyes. The doctor did not seem much concerned, said he thought there was not much the matter, and Sir George turned to his clerk and said: "It is now eight o'clock. I will give you thirty minutes to set out for your new post." Thus he was appointed to the Eskimo Bay District on the Labrador Coast and he had to set out immediately on his return from Mingan and from there proceed to the new post. He took two Indian guides with him, but on the journey one of them perished with the cold, while Smith in spite of the trouble with his eyes, which became very bad again, managed to get back safely and soon was on his way to the Eskimo Bay.
Twenty years he spent there and rose to the position of chief factor of the post. When he went there it was one of the least profitable trading posts, but soon his influence was felt in many ways. He encouraged the Moravian missionaries to work among the Indians and Eskimo here, and their condition was much improved. He studied gardening and soon grew crops of vegetables, some under glass. He raised stock of different kinds.
Here is a description of his "farm," written by an American scientist who visited Labrador in 1860:—
"He has even acres under cultivation, of which a considerable portion is under glass. There are growing turnips, peas, cucumbers, potatoes, pumpkins, melons, cauliflowers, barley, oats, etc. Before Smith's house is a flower garden. A bull, twelve cows, half a dozen sheep, goats, fowls, and dogs comprise his live stock."
He read and studied such books as the Bible, Shakespeare, Boswell's Johnson, Pitt's Speeches.
One might have thought that this out-of-the-way place was the last place in the world to go if one were to rise or improve one's position. But Donald Smith spent no time in worry about things like that. Speaking about his life here, he said afterwards: "People speak of the solitude of Labrador. It wasn't a solitude for me. I knew everybody there, from the oldest white traders and fishermen to the youngest Indian hunters and Eskimo, and even their dogs. I knew every turn in the coast-line and every bend in the river, and every natural object had an interest for me. Time never hung heavy on my hands. I was always busy, and when I had no actual and definite task, I was planning."
He married at Eskimo Bay, in 1853, Isabella Hardisty, the daughter of Chief Trader Richard Hardisty, and a daughter, Margaret Charlotte, now Baroness Strathcona and Mount Royal, was born in 1854.
The man who was always busy and always planning, even in this far-off trading post was the man who was soon to be given the chance to plan much bigger things. In 1864–65 he paid a visit to Scotland and England. There he met with directors of the Hudson's Bay Company and it was not hard for them to see that he was a man of more than usual ability.
Soon after this came the sale of the Northwest Territories to the Dominion of Canada. By this time Donald Smith had been appointed General Manager for the H. B. Co. in Canada and was now at Montreal. Trouble arose with the Indians and half-breeds about the taking over of the western lands by Canada, and Sir John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Government, asked Donald Smith to go to the Red River as Special Commissioner and see what he could do to bring about a settlement. He went and although he was not able to stop Riel from such outrages as the shooting of Thomas Scott, still his influence had a great deal to do with quietening the affairs of the colony. For a time he was acting-governor of the new province and was elected a member of its first legislature, and afterwards chosen for the House of Commons. In 1889 he became Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company.
One of his greatest undertakings was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was very active in getting the money and support needed to complete this line.
In 1896 he was appointed to the office of High Commissioner of Canada in London and continued in this office until his death. He was in 1897 given the title of Baron of Strathcona and Mount Royal. Lady Strathcona died in November of 1913 and Lord Strathcona, after a few days' illness, passed away on January 21st, 1914, at the ripe old age of ninety-three.