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Getting a handle on Ranald

The enigmatic life of Ranald Macdonald spanned the rise and fall of the West Coast fur trade and the Cariboo Gold Rush. Don Gayton's novel-in-progress will explore how and why Macdonald, a half-Scottish and half-Aboriginal bois brulé, born in 1824, turned out to be the first person to introduce the English language to Japan.

March 21st, 2014

Don Gayton

The unparalleled, bizarre and tempestuous life story of Ranald Macdonald has never been successfully told. Don Gayton hopes to be the first to do so.

For his seventh book, Gayton has extensively researched Macdonald’s chequered past in British Columbia (where he mostly lived), in Washington (where he died) and in Oregon (where he was born) for Columbia Son, a novel-in-progress that investigates Macdonald’s life span from the Columbia River to British Columbia. The remarkable and sad tale of Macdonald’s wanderings is as fascinating as it is sociologically significant; there’s no other documented account of how someone with “mixed blood” endured on the “Western Slope” more than a century-and-a-half ago.


Ranald's parents

Randal’s father Archibald MacDonald and a fanciful depiction of his mother.

Born in Fort George (Astoria), Oregon in 1824, Ranald Macdonald was the son of Scottish-born fur trader Archibald McDonald (who spelled his surname McDonald) and Kaole’xoa, the daughter of Tillamook Chief Comcomly, who died soon after her son was born. It has been suggested that Ranald Macdonald was unaware of his Aboriginal ancestry until his late teens or early twenties, but this seems unlikely given his father’s chronic worries about his welfare, as stated in letters to his fur trade peers such as Edward Ermatinger.

“All the wealth in Rupert’s land will not make a half-breed either a good parson, a shining lawyer or an able physician, if left to his own discretion while young,” Archibald McDonald wrote in 1836. Three years later, having sent his son to Ermatinger’s care in the small Ontario town of St. Thomas, McDonald confessed, “I cannot divest myself of certain indescribable fears….” McDonald’s plan was to give his son some training as a gentleman in Ontario: “If he can only keep out of egregious acts of impropriety til we can once more have him back in the Indian country, I shall consider it a great point gained…. Here… he may just crawl through like the Black Bear does—lick his paws. We are all most unfortunate parents.”

MacDonald 1853Ranald Macdonald gained an unlikely position as a bank clerk but felt estranged in Ontario, “while sitting, like a Simon Stylites, on my high stool in the Bank of Elgin, with little money or means….” When a white girl rejected his advances in St. Thomas, Macdonald began to be worried by his mixed blood.

He began to wonder about three shipwrecked Japanese sailors that he had seen as a boy at Fort Vancouver in 1834. Allegedly believing that Japanese were “similar to the Indians and probably ignorant, so that an educated man might make himself something of a personage among them,” he hatched a very unusual plan. Rejecting the uncomfortable prospect of alienation in either Ontario or Indian country, he opted for service as a sailor sometime in the early 1840s.

To make better sense of his own life, Ranald Macdonald had reputedly theorized there was a racial link between North American Aboriginals and the Japanese. The extent to which this idea subsequently prompted the radical action he took to go ashore in northern Japan can never be verified. Don Gayton writes: “Theories abound as to why MacDonald went to Japan. Some say he conceived the notion of a racial link between his dead mother’s Chinook peoples and the people of Japan. Others think it was from childhood associations with a couple of Japanese fishermen who were caught in an intense Pacific storm and blown all the way to the Oregon coast. Still others think his motive was simply a desire for adventure.”

After spending several years at sea, Macdonald secured a place as a deckhand on an American whaling ship that would be passing in the vicinity of Japan. During a period when foreigners were prohibited from entering that country, and Japan was in the grip of intense xenophobia, Macdonald arranged with his captain to be set adrift with a few books in a small boat in June of 1848, at the age of twenty-four.

The story goes that the captain of the ship only agreed to Macdonald’s foolhardy request after Macdonald had granted him his share of the whaling profits from the voyage. Macdonald subsequently found himself marooned on Rishiri Island, near Hokkaido, and presented himself as shipwrecked. Seeing his books, the Japanese apparently assumed he was a scholar of some sort, and spared his life, although he was subsequently held as a prisoner.

During Macdonald’s ten-month stay in Japan, he was taken to Nagasaki where he taught English to 14 scholars prior to his deportation in 1849. It was Ranald Macdonald’s tutelage that enabled the Japanese to understand Commodore Perry when he arrived in Japan several years later in 1854.

In Japanese documentation of his visit, there is no reference to Macdonald’s mixed blood background. For one exotic period of his life, he was able to gain acceptance and respect. Upon leaving Japan on an American ship, with the help of a Dutch mediator in Nagasaki, Macdonald worked as a gold miner in Australia, caught up in the gold rush at Ballarat.

According to Don Gayton: ” Ranald’s parents had long since given him up for dead, but the prodigal son eventually returned to Canada, learned that the family had moved to Montreal, and arrived there just weeks after his father died. His stunned family embraced him, but the Oregon Country of his birth called him back.”

Making his way back to British Columbia, he variously worked as a packer, a rancher in the Cariboo, a ferry operator in Lillooet, a gold miner in Barkerville and a road builder in Bella Coola. He also took part in the famous Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition in 1864. In his declining years he retired to a place he knew from his childhood, Fort Colville, Washington, where he settled in one of the buildings of the now abandoned Fort.

Don Gayton writes: “Old men love to tell stories, but Ranald MacDonald became obsessed with telling the story of his significant role in opening up Japan to foreign contact and trade. A man of action rather than a man of letters, he trusted a series of individuals to get his story out, with disastrous consequences. Elizabeth Custer, widow of the famous General, visited him in Fort Colville and 1891 published a scathing and condescending article in Harper’s Weekly, casting doubt on whether MacDonald actually went to Japan.”

Randal late in life

As an old man

Macdonald next turned to a childhood acquaintance, Malcolm McLeod, who had become an Ottawa lawyer, to edit his journal and submit it for publication. In order to encourage positive views of Aboriginals, Malcolm McLeod, who was a mixed-blood himself, inserted passages about Christian charity and brotherly love in his friend’s memoirs, adding his own suppositions about racial links between Japanese and Aboriginals (which were later credited to Macdonald).

According to Juliet Pollard in BC Studies, Nos. 91-92, “In the course of this undertaking in the early 1890s, the elderly McLeod, who had never been to Japan and the aged Macdonald, who had lost his Japan notes, turned to other books, especially Richard Hildreth’s Japan As It Was and Is (1855) for inspiration. At times the borrowing ‘bordered on plagiarism….’ MacDonald was so anxious to get his narrative published that he gave editorial control of it to his sophisticated and lettered colleague McLeod, but after making numerous revisions and inserting his own ideas and biases into the manuscript, McLeod never secured a publisher for it.

Finally another American writer, Eva Emery Dye, interviewed him and published a disconnected, poorly written historical novel partly based on his life. Fortunately, it comes out several years after Macdonald’s death in 1894. Ranald Macdonald was buried in a small cemetery near Toroda, Washington, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. He never officially married, but his siblings and their descendants are numerous.

Ranald MacDonalds graveUpon discovering Ranald Macdonald’s handwritten version of one of his co-written manuscripts, William S. Lewis and Naojiro Murakami allegedly reinforced the notion that Macdonald was motivated by a desire to make racial links between the Japanese and Aboriginals, as outlined in a foreword to McDonald of Oregon, the fictionalized biography by Eva Emery Dye in 1907. [Dye chose to spell the surname as McDonald, in keeping with his father Archibald’s surname. Lewis and Murakami switched the spelling to MacDonald for their purposes; Ranald himself had preferred Macdonald.]

Ranald MacDonald was a loner, a seeker, a man of adventure rather than words, an indefatigable world traveler, and the product of a complex cultural, ethnic and national amalgam. His life story and personal motivations have long remained a fascinating mystery for historians. Don Gayton has since spent several years ascertaining the facts of Ranald Macdonald’s very unusual life in preparation for a novel that will at last provide a sophisticated overview of his life.

Here is a sneak preview.


Columbia Son

He sat upright in his only chair, arms resting on the deal table. Pen, ink and papers lay untouched. Afternoon sun glinted off the nearby Columbia and through the window of the cabin, his new and likely final home. As the single room slowly warmed, he cycled peacefully through the light sleeps and long reveries of an old man, reaching back through decades. Memory was not perfect at his age, but even if it were, he knew it could stray, and even consort with his dreams. He would have to be careful in writing The Account. But still, his was a life worth examining, was it not? There had been few strictures; indeed, during most of his formative twenties, his father and Jane presumed he was lost at sea. Nor had he been bound by a particular culture, having consorted with Canadian, American, Chinook, Scottish, Metis, Hawaiian and of course Japanese. So what he did, what he had made of his life, was purely and uniquely his own design.

Ranald MacDonald cabin

Randal Macdonald’s cabin where Columbia Son begins.

This cabin was no rough pioneer’s shack, it had been carefully built for the Fort’s first Chief Factor, probably back in the 1820s. He liked to think that perhaps he and the cabin were the same age, and would grow old together. It was built of ponderosa pine logs, beveled top and bottom for a tight fit. The inner side of each log had been planed smooth with a drawknife. The aging wood surfaces carried a patina of woodsmoke, and in sunlight they glowed a dull amber. The Hudson’s Bay Company had long since abandoned Fort Colville, moving north out of the contested Oregon Territory, but they still held title to the buildings and grounds. The Company’s Governor had learned of his straitened circumstances, and in honor of his father’s contributions, made him caretaker of the crumbling Fort. The position was honorary, since there was little left to protect. All that remained was the cabin, a bastion, and the stone footings of other buildings long since torn down or burnt.  No more of the glory days, when his father Archibald transformed this isolated Fort into one of the great trading centers of the entire Territory. Still he walked the grounds every day, slowly retracing routes he and his half-brothers had raced along as children. As sons of a Company Chief Factor, the entire Fort had been their playground. Memories from the Fort Colville days were important, since it was one of the few periods in his life that he lived with Father. But even then the man was a distant figure, obsessed as he was with managing every aspect of the Fort.

Growth and decay. He had seen a lot of it. HBC had grown spectacularly, on the backs of beaver and otter, stretching from the Arctic to California. Now its many forts were either mouldering museum pieces like this one, or gone altogether. And then there was the Fraser gold rush, followed by the Cariboo and the Vancouver Island strikes. They too faded. Whaling burgeoned for a time, and then collapsed. Spectacular, clamoring growth, followed by almost instant decline. Now his body was following a similar arc, but at a slower pace

This Fort he was in charge of was originally built as just that; a medieval-looking affair with high fences and a defensive bastion at each corner. The fences were long since gone and only a single bastion remained–a menacing, three-story tower built of squared logs. Its windows out on to this peaceful valley were actually gun ports, just big enough to accommodate the muzzle of a four-pounder. The bastion seemed emblematic of a grim philosophy of defensive enclaves and rapid exploitation. On his daily walks he often speculated on different outcomes. What if the Fates gave us the chance to turn back eighty years so we could re-enact those first encounters—between Hudson’s Bay men and the Colvilles, Hudson’s Bay and the Chinooks, the Nez Perce, the Kwantlens. Could we have transacted them differently? Could we have put aside exploitation and instead set a mutual goal of creating a long-term arrangement with this land and its rivers?

When he finally decided to settle, there were a dozen places to which he could have returned, to live out his remaining years.  Fogbound Astoria. The wilds of the Cariboo. The ranchlands of Bonaparte Creek. The fertile Fraser Valley, or sophisticated Victoria. Or even to the still-wild west of Montana. But this particular valley and this very cabin seemed destined to be his final domicile, and he was content with that. There were the memories to look back on, and his dear niece Jenny lived nearby. He accepted his body’s reduced capabilities, and declared himself healthy. It had taken him a whole day to walk up to the north side of nearby Gold Hill to collect a basket of moss, and another day to carefully chink it into the gaps where the cabin’s logs had separated. Making things tight for the winter was not only a satisfying job, but a practical one as well.  One of his nephews brought him two cords of unsplit Douglas-fir firewood. He was still handy with an axe, albeit now he relied less on muscle and much more on sharpening the edge and carefully planning each blow. Between the stone fireplace and the ornate old Home Comfort cookstove, he could easily keep the cabin warm even on the coldest of winter days. His narrow cot was close to the stove. On it were a couple of good wool Point blankets, and his wooden block pillow. He cursed that carved block for his first few months at Rishiri Prison, but got accustomed to it and had slept with it ever since.

He had a small quantity of gold dust left over from his mining exploits in Barkerville, hidden in a small leather satchel under a loose floorboard. Periodically he went to the bank in Colville with a pinch, and traded it for dollars to buy food and supplies. Time was an odd commodity: he was somewhere near the end of a long life, and yet his days now were filled with a rich and almost luxurious idleness.

Warmth, light and quiet suffused the cabin. Pen and paper were still untouched. He drifted again, to a distant seacoast lying somewhere between childhood memories and an old man’s dreams.


The trail down to the ocean beach winds through dense fir and shore pine, but then breaks out into an open, stiff-grassed pampa. Then up over the hump of foredune, and down onto the gray  beach, stretching limitless. The horizon, out beyond the rhythmic breakers, is a blurry, cottony fogbank.  Long lines of black seabirds fly just above the waves. He looks for clams and crabs, or anything else a child might fancy. A friendly voice from behind him calls out, and Daisuke catches up to him, wordlessly holding up a strange glass ball he has found. It is transparent pale green, and completely magical. Tiny air bubbles are frozen within the glass skin. They take turns holding it, and then Daisuke drops to his knees. Picking up a stick, he starts drawing in the firm, wet sand. First, a fish. He looks up at me and I nod: yes, I understand this. He is talking excitedly to himself in Japanese, but the real communication is unfolding from the end of his stick. Next to the fish he carefully draws a long series of crosshatches. A fence—no, a net. Yes, a fish net! I drop to my knees too: we are both excited now. He motions me closer as he draws a series of little circles on the top of the net, and points to the ball I am holding. Then he draws a little sailboat near the net, and a line in between. A fish net float! We stand again, sharing private knowledge, the float and everything else in our lives. Then Daisuke points gravely to the west, out across the tideflats, past the restless breakers to the distant fogbank. Then he presses his hand to his heart.

We continue down the beach, the glass float carefully tucked into a gunnysack. The tidepools are our favorite destination, a rocky platform rising a few inches out of the sand. Sculpted depressions in the rock hold water at low tide, and we approach them quietly, ready to observe the tiny living constellations in that moment before fear and flight. In one, a scaly, prehistoric-looking bullhead moves about, scouring the rocky bottom. In another, a tiny and delicate octopus explores by touch. Daisuke suddenly bends down, to look closely at a dark swelling on the rock at the bottom of a pool. He motions me to watch. Reaching in slowly with both hands, he grabs a big chiton before it can clamp itself to the rock. Then he holds the underside up for me to see. The creature’s shocking orange and florid flesh makes us both laugh with embarrassment. Then he puts it back on the bottom, and signs that it is not for eating. His people obviously know the ways of the oceans.

Our favorite detour on the return to the Fort is to a dense grove of pole-sized Douglas-firs, just right for tree climbing. At the precise height of our weight, the flexible trunk starts to bend. Continue upward, carefully now, until the stem leans out at a crazy angle, and then make a wild grab for the next tree. If you have judged correctly, the tree you just left springs upright, and the tree you are now on genuflects briefly in one direction, and then slingshots forward toward the next tree, which you make a wild grab for. And so on. Another in the great stock of private freedoms Daisuke and I enjoy—the privilege of movement detached from the ground.

That fogbank beyond the breakers once curtained the edge of my world, but no longer. That night I asked Father about where Daisuke came from. He gravely unrolled a de la Perouse map of the Pacific Ocean and spread it on a table for me to see. The distance separating us from the Orient was vast and unimaginable. But Daisuke had managed it, and so might I.

Don Gayton at the gravesite of Ranald Macdonald, just south of the Canadian border in Washington.

Don Gayton at the gravesite of Ranald Macdonald, just south of the Canadian border in Washington.


Don Gayton, born in 1946, has been a prolific contributor to a wide variety of publications including Equinox and Canadian Geographic, writing chiefly about ecology, history and geography. He came to live in Canada in 1974 and has produced seven wide-ranging books since his arrival in British Columbia in 1989. Information about his books can be found at ABCBookWorld. Here are just his three most recent titles.

Merging fiction and non-fiction, Man Facing West has been described as “a story of commitment to the causes of peace, rural development, and ecology.” Gayton recalls his American childhood infused with guns, Republican politics and dissent. “A stint in the Peace Corps spawns an enduring interest in small-scale agriculture, but then Gayton comes home to the moral quagmire of Vietnam, and the Draft. Becoming a passionate Canadian, he rediscovers his attachment to the rugged landscapes of the Canadian and American West.”

As a range ecologist with the BC Ministry of Forestry for ten years, Don Gayton placed the garden within both historical and artistic perspectives, examining the garden-related works of painters and writers, as well as the work of park designer Frederick Law Olmstead and architect Christopher Alexander, for Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden. He traces the apple back to Kazakhstan, explains how the tulip arrived in Holland from Turkey, and relates how a smuggled Asian cherry tree ruined B.C.’s cherry orchards.

In Okanagan Odyssey: Journeys through Terrain, Terroir and Culture, Don Gayton examines British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, from Osoyoos to Armstrong, describing and enjoying local fruits and regional wines. Gayton matches up books and landscapes with local vintages, and, as an ecologist, he “negotiates the tension between the beautifully delicate Okanagan and the Okanagan that is the mecca for developers and urban refugees.” Not a travel guide, Okanagan Odyssey is nature writing for both pleasure and education.

Don Gayton describes his racial background as “Shanty Irish” and Norwegian. He has been the 2009/2010 Haig-Brown Centenary Writer in Residence at the University of Victoria and served as a judge for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 1999, but mostly he has lived outside the mainstream of B.C. literature, mostly residing in Nelson and now Summerland, as a science writer whose work has gradually led him to fiction.

In 2011, he wrote, “I’ve reached a stage in life where writing is a distinct pleasure, and I use it to indulge a series of personal fascinations. The evolution of landscape painting. The aerodynamic mysteries of the airplane wing. Rural development, the ecology of natural grasslands, the geology of the Great Spokane Flood. And more of that ilk. I call myself a scientist, because I flunked Algebra.”

For Gayton, science is the undiscovered country of the literary imagination. As a reader, fiction has always been his first love, followed closely by scientific journals. “So as a writer,” he says, “I like to threaten the fortified boundaries of non-fiction, shouting and waving my arms. More and more I gravitate to story as our primal form of communication.”

Gayton his 1950’s childhood mostly in southern California, “in a new invention called the suburb.” His father’s powerful attraction to fishing prompted a move to a tiny coastal community on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, where he spent a couple of glorious years roaming beaches and fields and forests. The family moved to Seattle, where he attended a multi-racial highschool, played football, read Dostoevsky and channeled the beatniks. After graduation, Gayton hitchhiked around Europe then “answered Kennedy’s call,” spending several years in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

My father was deeply offended by the hippie movement of the 1960s,” he recalls, “particularly by its rejection of technological progress and established values, not to mention the hair. I, in turn, as part of that movement, was deeply offended by technology and established values, not to mention Vietnam, which loomed larger and larger.”

Gayton returned to the US in the fall of 1968, to race riots and body counts. “The notion that my government would ask me to help peasant farmers in the Peace Corps, and then ask me to kill them in Vietnam, did not sit well. Tumultuous years followed, ending in our move to Canada. We have six children (thank god for socialized medicine!). All of us are proud Canadians, but America still tastes of home waters to me, in spite of the politics.”

The places Don Gayton has lived or worked include San Pedro, Pasadena and Fullerton, California; Dungeness, Seattle, Twisp, Tonasket and Omak, Washington; Las Cruces, New Mexico; San Felipe de Ocoyotepec, Mexico; Riosucio (Choco) and Zuluaga (Huila), Colombia;  Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia; Munich, Germany; Saskatoon, Regina and Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan; Nelson, Vancouver and Summerland, British Columbia.

For many years Don Gayton mainly worded as an ecologist, specializing in grasslands, grazing management and fire ecology, and he wrote in my spare time. He liked to say, “In the last century, the physicists interpreted science for the public; in this next beleaguered century, we ecologists will get our turn.” Now his evolution as a writer has led him to a fascination with Ranald Macdonald, resulting in his manuscript-in-progress, Columbia Son.


(2002) Ghost River: The Columbia  Journal of Ecosystems and Management, Vol. 1 no. 2, p. 1-4. (2002) Little Bluestem and the Geography of Fascination (nature essay) in Eye in the Thicket, Sean Virgo, ed. Thistledown Press, Saskatoon, SK. (2001) Landscape Mathematics (nature essay) in Northern Wild: Best Contemporary Canadian Nature Writing, David Boyd, ed.  Greystone Books, Vancouver. P. 223-233. (2001) Ground Work: Basic Concepts of Ecological Restoration in BC. FORREX, Kamloops. 25 pages. (2001) All Flesh is Grass (feature article on elk and native  grasslands) Bugle Magazine, 18:1, p. 69-75. (2000) A Schooner In Memory in Going Some Place: Creative Non-Fiction Across Canada, L. Van Luven, ed, Coteau Books, Regina, Sask. p. 231-250. (1999) Sonora North (article on yucca and horned lizard) Equinox Magazine, Vol 105, p. 58-70. (1999) The Cartography of Catastrophe: Harlen Bretz and the Great Spokane FloodMercator’s World, May-June 1999 Vol 4 (3) p. 54-61. (1998)  Healing Fire  (article on fire ecology) Canadian Geographic, July/August, 1998, pp. 32-42. (1997) Cry of the Wild (article on endangered species) Canadian Geographic May/June, pp. 30-42. (1996) Turf Wars (article on crested wheatgrass) Canadian Geographic May/June 1996, pp. 70-78. (1993) Big Bluestem and the Tallgrass Dream (ecological restoration). Equinox, Jan/Feb., pp. 30-39. 1991: Grazing Pressure on Saskatchewan Rangelands (technical article) Rangelands, 13 (3):107-108.


Canadian Science Writers Award, 1999
Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for Non-fiction
US National Outdoor Book Award (for Landscapes of the Interior)
Peace Corps Travel Book Award, 2011


(2010) Man Facing West. Thistledown.

(2010) Okanagan Odyssey: Journeys through Terrain, Terroir and Culture. Heritage.

(2007) Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden. Thistledown Press.

(2003) British Columbia Grasslands: Monitoring Vegetation Change. Forest Research Extension Partnership (FORREX), Kamloops. 49p., illus.

(2002) Kokanee (book on the kokanee salmon) New Star Publishers, Vancouver 96 pages, illus.

(1996) Landscapes of the Interior: A Re-exploration of Nature and the Human Spirit. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C.  176 pages.

(1990) The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape (book of essays) 156p.  Fifth House, Saskatoon.  (Second edition published fall, 1992)

— by Alan Twigg

3 Responses to “Getting a handle on Ranald”

  1. Library Lover says:

    –Hey somebody’s listening! The typo misspelling Ranald as Randal has been corrected. Bravo!

  2. Library Lover says:

    How about this for a headline: “Ranald is Often Misspelled?”

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