Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), Adventurer

  • By Ralph P. Edgerton, Esq.
  • Posted 10/26/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7291

Ralph P. Edgerton was a judge in the Sixth Division of the Spokane County Superior Court and a member of the Spokane Corral of The Westerners. He wrote this biography of Northwest native and seafarer Ranald MacDonald, which appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter 1969), pp. 1-12. It is here reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Ranald MacDonald

"Ranald MacDonald, son of Princess Raven and Archibald McDonald. His was a life of adventure. Sailing the seven seas. Wandering in far countries. But returning at last to rest in his homeland." So reads the epitaph on a monument at Toroda where his remains lie buried in a neglected grave. Framing this are the years of his life, 1824 to 1894, and the names of the places where he lived and traveled: Astoria, Japan, Australia, Europe, the Cariboo and Colville. It has been claimed for Ranald that his principal exploit and the report he made of it induced Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan to open its ports and end its world isolation. More than this, it has been asserted that it was MacDonald's suggestion that prompted Perry to prepare and take to Japan working models of machinery and other inventions of western ingenuity. Perhaps this is so but there seems to be no evidence, certainly no substantial evidence to support the claims and it is likely that his influence in this regard was indirect and cumulative only, like the pebble cast in a large body of water whose ripples reach the farthest shore.

As indicated by his epitaph, he began life at Astoria, then known as Fort George, sometime during the "salmon running time" of 1824. That was usually May or June. His father was Archibald McDonald, who later became a Chief Factor for the Hudson's Bay Company. His mother, Princess Raven, a daughter of King Comcomly, became known as Princess Sunday after the marriage to McDonald. Comcomly, a polygamist and slave holder, was the titular chief who dominated the confederacy of the lower Columbia Indian tribes who spoke the Chinook language. These peoples occupied the area between the Cascade Mountains and Cape Disappointment. Reputedly he was friendly to the whites in the area and is described by Washington Irving as having had but one eye. He died at the age of 65 in 1830, victim of the epidemic that then swept the tribes of the lower Columbia.

Grandson of a Chief

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, the wedding of Archibald McDonald and Comcomly's daughter must have been one of pageantry and spectacle. The pathway from the groom's canoe to the point some 300 yards away where Chief Comcomly waited for him to present his bride, was strewn with beaver and otter furs. Lining this pathway was an honor guard of 300 of the chief's so-called slaves. Some 64 years after the event, Ranald, in telling about it, could not, of course, describe what ceremony, if any, transpired. He did write that it was the occasion for a potlach. Writing about it he showed something of himself and his grandiloquent style "And so, away from her home, away from her people; as Ruth of old, did Naomi, did the princess of the Pacific, cleave unto my father, and become my mother -- mother in holiest wedlock, wedlock perfect in its simplicity, with no adventitious ceremony of man to mar its sanctity; with no epithalanium to proclaim or bless it -- only the soughing of the breeze through the ever harping trees, and, grander still, the deep organ bourden [sic] of the ever-sounding sea, by the shore, with ‘music in its roar.’"

A good marriage, it soon ended with Princess Sunday's death not long after Ranald was born. The next year Archibald McDonald journeyed to Fort Gary, now Winnipeg in the Province of Manitoba, Canada, and there he married a second wife, Jane Klyne. With her, he returned to the Northwest and she it was who reared Ranald during his formative childhood years. During infancy, Ranald lived a couple of years with his maternal aunt, Car-cum-cum in an Indian lodge near Fort George. His father, Archibald, who came to America as private secretary of Lord Selkirk, eventually entered the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company and during his sojourn in the Northwest, operated at various places meeting countless interesting figures and personages. Although during the years 1825 to 1830, he was at Kamloops, British Columbia, he seems also to have passed considerable time during his early years among his Chinook relations.

Apparently he was a favorite of his grandfather, Comcomly, and he had the deep and abiding love of his stepmother, Jane Klyne McDonald. He reciprocated her affection and was grateful for her kind rearing of him. In the late 1820s, the family moved to Fort Langley on the Northwest coast, and there stayed until about 1833, from time to time visiting Vancouver, Fort Colville, and other places on the Columbia River. Generally these travels were by bateau, but some were made on horseback.

Education in the Wilderness

The winter of 1833-1834 found Ranald attending a school conducted by John Ball, an American, graduate of Dartmouth College who was enlisted by Dr. McLoughlin as a teacher upon his arrival at Fort Vancouver. Here it was that he met three Japanese castaways who came to Ball's school. They were the sole survivors of a wrecked Japanese junk, one, which unfitted for ocean travel, was set loose in a storm, drifted on the Japanese Current for most of the year until finally wrecked on a Pacific Northwest shore. All others of the crew had died of starvation, disease, and exposure. During their sojourn at the school, it is said that one of them took sick, and Ranald, at the request of Dr. McLoughlin, waited upon him. Here he may well have acquired some of his thirst and hunger for adventure, particularly his great desire to visit Japan, his yearning to break the bamboo barrier thus to learn about the land of mystery so long forbidden to foreigners. It was his first Japanese contact and in the light of subsequent events must have made lasting impact. [Editor's Note: Subsequent scholarship has shown that 10-year-old MacDonald left Fort Vancouver with his father before the Japanese sailors arrived in July 1834. Although it's possible that stories about the castaways prompted his interest in Japan, he never met them. See Frederik L. Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2003).]

In the middle 1830s, Archibald McDonald was transferred to Fort Colville and there he was stationed until 1843. It was here that he was later promoted to the position of Chief Factor for the company. In 1837, the Reverend Elkanah Walker, then missionary at Tschimikain, on visiting the McDonald establishment, was most complimentary of McDonald's farming operations, saying they were the best he had seen, including some eastern farms in more developed areas. Here it was that Ranald heard his stepmother argue on even terms with Cushing Eells and Elkanah Walker, the different orthodox views of their respective churches. Educational opportunities in the Northwest were limited, extremely so, but such as there were, Ranald had them. His father taught him arithmetic but being mindful of the schooling limitations in the Pacific Northwest, and desiring the best for his son, he resolved to send him, and did, to the Red River settlement for further instruction. He wrote his friend, Edward Ermatinger, concerning his son:

"Our great password is a handsome provision for our children, but behold the end of this mighty provision, which we are amassing like exiled slaves; the off-spring is let loose upon the wide, wild world while young, without guide or protection (but always brim full of his own importance) to spend money and contract habits at his own free will and pleasure. The melancholy examples resulting from this blind practice are, I am sorry to say, but too common -- much better to dream of less, to set ourselves down with them in time, and to endeavor to bring them up to habits of industry, economy and morality, than expire at all this visionary greatness for them. All the wealth Of Rupert's land will not make a half-breed either a parson, a shining lawyer or an able physician, if left to his own discretion while young. By 1838, I think he ought to be qualified enough to begin the world for himself. Will you then do me a favor to take him in hand? Without flattery, I feel confident he cannot be under a better guardian. You know their facility with a pen, and indeed, their aptness altogether while young. He will not at the time I am speaking of, be a learned lad, but with the help he can pick up with you, will have knowledge enough to develop what may be in him as a man. Bear in mind he is of a particular race, and who knows, but a kinsman of King Comcomly is ordained to make a great figure in the new world; as yet he bears an excellent character."

Enroute to the Red River Settlement to attend school, Ranald and his party camped on the shores of Arrow Lake. A mountain of perpendicular rocks hundreds of feet high stood immediately behind their campsite. On the face of it, there were three large holes about two or three feet across completely filled with arrows. Up about thirty feet from the shore they had apparently been fired from below and were tightly wedged in. Even then Ranald was an inquisitive lad so at his request, Duncan Finlayson fired a shot into the hole to bring down some of the arrows. Some fell, and though broken, could be examined. The source of the arrows is unknown, but they gave the lakes their name.

During the four years of school at the Red River Settlement, Archibald McDonald's concern for his son's progress and education continued. He wrote his friend Ermatinger frequently and in March, 1839, he wrote:

"Having seen nothing of him myself for the last four years, I am much at a loss how to speak of him to you now. All say he is a promising, good-natured lad. Before he went to Red River in '34, I had him myself pretty well advanced in arithmetic, so that one would suppose he is now something of a scholar; yet, I am aware, boys of his age leaving school not infrequently are very deficient, and that a little practical learning about that time brushes them up amazingly. I will just quote a sentence about him from the Reverend Mr. Cochran's letter to me last fall: "I preached at the upper church last Sunday, and saw the boys. They were all well them, Angus (the little white headed boy you saw crawling about at Okanogan House) still takes the lead; but Ranald has certain indescribable qualities which lead me to imagine that he will make the man that is best adapted for this world." So far, good, still I cannot divest myself of certain indescribable fears, which you can conceive as well as I can; but in your hands, without flattery, I feel the grounds for those fears are considerably removed.

"I should like to give him a trial in the way of business, and with this in view, have him bound to yourself, as an apprentice. By the spring of '40, you will be able to judge of his conduct and capacity, when I shall trouble you for a full expose of all you think about him. My reply to that letter you will have in the fall of '41, which will either confirm all our plans of making him a gentleman tout de bon of him, or have him enter on a new apprenticeship at any trade he may select for himself. You know the Rock on which split all the hopes and fortunes of almost all the youth of the Indian country. Ranald, I hope, will have none of those fatal notions. His success in the world must solely depend on his good conduct and exertions. He has a few letters his father and mother lately addressed him, with the very best advice we could give, situated as we are; which you will have the goodness to see that, the better to impress their import upon his mind. he will frequently peruse.

"Above all, let him be a constant attendant at church. Had I known the name of your Episcopalian preacher, I would certainly have taken the liberty of addressing a few lines about the moral duties of my son, which I dare say the reverend gentleman would not take amiss. We had him vaccinated some years ago, but, as the inflammation was scarcely perceptible, there would be no harm in giving it him again."

Somewhere about this time, Ranald had some desire for an army career. This disturbed his father greatly, for he couldn't afford a commission, and somehow didn't think it was the right choice of vocation for him. So Ranald completed his schooling at the Red River Settlement, then moved to the town of St. Thomas where he lived with his father's friend and correspondent, Edward Ermatinger, and, as he put it, was put by way of trial to a bank stool.

Apparently he had not learned yet and did not learn until late in life that Jane Klyne McDonald was not his real mother. When he did learn the truth he professed the same love for her as if she had been his own mother and continued to hold for her the same affection and esteem. It follows that at this time he was also ignorant of his Indian blood. However, there is a story that it was at this time that he first learned he was a half-breed. It was revealed, according to the tale, during his courtship of a Canadian girl. His Indian blood is supposed to have somehow blocked the marriage. Reputedly disconsolate, in consequence it is suggested he decided never to marry and ran away to sea. This makes an interesting, entertaining tale, but while romantic, is doubtful. For long after this MacDonald, himself, speaking of his stepmother, says that it was, "Late in life, when I learned by accident, from strangers living at and about the place of my birth, the real state of our relations."

His autobiographical sketch places the time for discovery of his origin as far removed from this period and mentions the nipped romance not at all.

Ranald did not like banking. It was not his dish. Though kindly disposed to his employer and benefactor, and not unappreciative, he felt no particular obligation to him, and felt that by leaving he would be on his own and no longer a charge upon his father. So, in 1841, when he was just 21, grip sack in hand, he simply walked out.


Years later he said the world might call his action a mad scheme, "In its smug, imprudence," however, he did it, he said, not for any vain glory to himself but rather that from it some good might come to others. When Ranald MacDonald was first seized by an ambition to penetrate the Japanese bamboo curtain is hard to say. He does tell us that he ever felt an uncontrollable urge in his blood for wandering freedom, suggests that heredity may have played a part, that it may have been his inheritance of Scottish blood from a highland father and again from his Indian mother. Environment and association are more likely causes because he lived in eventful times. Times of risky enterprises. His earliest years were spent in the most adventurous surroundings. His earliest associations were with the greatest of adventurers. In any event, Ranald MacDonald was seized with a great urge to seek adventure. From his childhood recollections and experiences he knew Japan was the next frontier beyond the Northwest. As a lad he had met the three Japanese castaways. He knew that death was the supposed fate of any foreigner touching the shores of Japan, and even of any repatriated Japanese who had left. All these things excited and fired his imagination.

But it is doubtful if his plans to penetrate the mysteries of Japan had at that time fully materialized. Perhaps he had considered the possibility but it is unlikely that the idea was full blown, that it had become an ultimate ambition that with him was eventually to become a compulsive must.

Thus he made his way to New Orleans, apparently as a boat hand, and from there, on to New York. In New York he made for the docks and thinking his chances of signing on as a sailor would be greater if he were rudely dressed, he put on a buckskin shirt trimmed with fringe, heavy wool trousers tucked into his fur trimmed leggings, and a fur cap with a tail at the back. More a hunting costume than nautical it would seem but it must have worked for he got the job. His first ship apparently was the Taskeny, and his first voyage took him to London. From there he wrote his father for the first time following his disappearance. A couple of years later his father and Duncan Finlayson went to New York trying to find him to return him home to assert a claim to the Indian title in the old Oregon country, as a lineal descendant of King Comcomly. Late in life, Ranald MacDonald, writing of this, referred to this heritage in somewhat humorous vein but it also seems that in his later years he seriously but unsuccessfully made claim to compensation for some of the lands.

Little is known of his experiences from the time that he shipped on the Tuskeny until he first sailed with Captain Edwards on the Plymouth. However, he has told of sailing on one boat that turned out to be a slaver. After picking up their cargo of Negroes, they were making the return voyage when chased by a British man-of-war. When it became apparent they would be overtaken, the Captain had the Negroes brought from below where they had been confined, and made them walk the plank dropping them one by one into the sea. MacDonald has reported that as a result, when the British ship hove alongside, "Our decks were clean as a hound's tooth." MacDonald was horrified, but powerless to intervene.


Again, asking his listeners never to retell the tale while he was living, he once related that on a voyage from Calcutta on a boat bound for Liverpool, England, with a cargo consisting, among other things, of several kegs of specie, they ultimately sailed to the coast of southern California, where the specie was removed to the shore and the vessel was scuttled and sunk. During the voyage, the crew had been to the bare number necessary to sail the ship. At California, this crew was paid and sent on their way with a vigorous and menacing warning never to tell what had appened. It seems he also made a couple of Cape Horn voyages. In 1845, when his abiding ambition to go to Japan was settled, Ranald MacDonald was in the Sandwich Islands. There he caught a whaler destined for the northern seas of Japan. It was the Plymouth, Captain Lawrence B. Edwards under whom he had sailed before. He applied for and obtained a berth.

About this time he wrote his father as follows:

"I again shipped for another Cape Horn voyage with the intention of being discharged at some of the islands that are on the Spanish Main. These intentions I have altered, and as Captain Edwards was going to China and from there to the Japan sea, I have thought it a good opportunity to crown my intentions that if I went with him, I would be discharged before he left the sea. He has kindly undertaken to teach me navigation -- he allowed me the choice of a boat out of seven -- he has also furnished me with a sail and anchor, quadrant and compass, bread, meat, and water -- in fact, everything to insure my reaching the shore. He tried to persuade me to give up the adventure, but I am going."

The terms of MacDonald's reshipment were a payment on share profit, the ordinary terms of a whaler, but with a very special condition on his part, that he could leave the ship somewhere off the coast of Japan at the time and place he should designate after the ship had attained a full load. As mentioned in his letter to his father, the captain was to teach him something about navigation. With the amount of experience he had before the mast, this should not have been too difficult and he should have proved an apt pupil. Although Captain Edwards remonstrated, he did agree, probably thinking that MacDonald would change his mind and that he would never be called on to complete the bargain. When the Plymouth was repaired and refitted it sailed and for two years it plied the Pacific in search of whale. Fishing was good, the catch was sizable and profitable and Ranald's account of this voyage was replete with Treasure Island -- and Robinson Crusoe -- like tales. Various islands were visited; a month's stop was made at Hong Kong where the ship was refitted for the cruise in the Japan Sea. They put in at Battan Island for vegetables, meat and water.

Parenthetically, by this time whaling in the Pacific had become big business. With the depletion of the Atlantic schools and the growing commercial needs for whale oil, new sources of supply had to be found. These were located early during the century in the Pacific, and rapidly whaling became a big and growing business. As early as 1822, it was possible to see as many as 24 whaling vessels anchored in the harbor at Honolulu at one time. The American investment in whaling by the middle of the nineteenth century amounted to $17 million in the Pacific. MacDonald reported that whaling was most easy in the Japan Sea. So numerous were the fish that chasing them was unnecessary. All that was necessary was lowering of boats, harpooning the fish and hauling them alongside for stripping.

Finally on June 27, 1848, Ranald asked Captain Edwards to make good on his bargain to release him from the ship. From the Captain he had previously bought a boat with the major share of his earnings from the voyage. This he had partially decked over by the carpenter so as to provide a cuddy or small cabin for shelter. He then assigned the balance of his earnings, about $600 and took off. To prove he was no deserter, Captain Edwards gave him this written discharge:

"Ship, Plymouth, Japan Sea, June 20, 1848. To Whom It May Concern: This will certify that Ranald MacDonald has been fully discharged from the Ship, Plymouth for the adventure to the Japan Islands, and that the boat and apparatus fairly and honestly belong to him. L. B. Edwards, Master of Ship Plymouth."

This account of leaving the ship was made by one of his shipmates and published December 1, 1848, in the Seaman's Friend at Honolulu, Sandwich Island. It reads,

"Thursday at 4:00 o'clock this morning, all hands were called, the reef shook out, the top gallant sails were set. We had a fine breeze on our starboard beam, steering for the Tee Shee Islands. It was a beautiful morning, a light mist hung around the island, but as we neared the island we could see plainly the green covered hills. We stood in until 9:00 o'clock, when all hands were called and the main yards were hauled back. We launched a boat, put water and provisions of different kinds into her. She was a center-board boat, partly decked over and very strong for one of her kind. One of the crew was to be its only navigator. After all these things were in the boat, he was towed astern by a line. Two men started to help him trim her. After the boat was trimmed, they came on board. He let go of the line and was clear from us forever. His little vessel dashed over the waves like an arrow. All hands had gathered tp see the last of the bold adventurer. He took off his hat and waved it, but in silence. The same was returned from the ship's company. Soon the order was given to brace the main yard, and the gallant ship was going in an opposite direction. From our ship's mast, he was viewed with the naked eye as long as he could be seen; then the spy glass was handed from one to another, that they might have a last look at the little vessel. He was watched from the mast head until he was gone from our sight forever."

"Every man on board felt sad to see a shipmate leave the ship under such circumstances. He was a good sailor, well educated, of firm mind, well calculated for the expedition upon which he had embarked. His intentions were to stay at this island and learn some of the Japanese language and from there to go down to Yeddo, the principal city of Nepon, and if the English or Americans ever open trade with the Japanese, he would find employment as an interpreter. He had other intentions which I never mentioned only in a secret manner. The last we saw of the little vessel, she was standing in for a small bay on the north side of the island."

The Plymouth sailed away one way, Ranald the other. As the space between them widened, the Plymouth hoisted the Stars and Stripes and dipped them several times, to which Ranald answered by dipping a little white flag which he carried with him. The nearest island was supposedly some five miles away and the Captain had given Ranald his bearing for it. He sailed for it but when he got close enough to observe the reef and breakers, he changed his course. He sailed on to another island where he landed, shot two seals with his pistol, left them and headed for another island where he again landed. It was uninhabited and had no suitable place for sleeping so he spent the night in the cuddy of his boat. He spent the next two days exploring the island and laying his plans. He wanted enough time to elapse between the departure of the Plymouth and his landing in Japan to avoid suspicion of the truth that he was voluntarily and intentionally seeking their shores. Here, in accordance with his plans he landed his supplies and things, intentionally capsized his boat to see if he could right it again. It was his design to appear to the Japanese as being in distress. Although he knew the reported penalty for foreigners landing on Japanese soil was death, he calculated that they might have some compassion for one in distress and treat him less cruelly. Regardless of the danger, reputed and real, Ranald MacDonald was bound and determined to breach the bamboo barrier.


Perhaps here some mention should be made as to why the Japanese empire was sealed off from general intercourse with almost the rest of the world. When the Spaniards and Portugese first went to Japan, they were welcomed. But after 32 years of dealings, the Spanish were ousted. The Portugese were allowed to continue trading at Nagasaki 15 years longer. Then they, too, were barred. The Japanese Shogun (Governor) was obsessed with the conviction that these people, and particularly their religions, planned some kind of aggression and takeover. This fear together with the further feeling that their presence menaced the stability of the existing local government, prompted these ousters and led to the adoption of a most complete national isolation. In 1636 it became the law of Japan that no Japanese subject or ship should travel to or in foreign lands. Soon the Spaniards were to be expelled and later the Portugese as well. The construction of ocean going vessels was prohibited and the punishment for the proscribed acts was death.

So greatly did the Japanese fear the foreign priests and church interferences that picture images of Christ or the Virgin Mary and Child, came to symbolize the devil or Japanese equivalent. So, a practice was adopted to have all inhabitants, children included, tramp on such a picture. This was to signify that they were not members of any "wicked sect." In the Nagasaki neighborhood, this ceremony was required in the first month of each year and was continued until its abolition in 1856. While suspicions attached even to the Dutch, they were nonetheless allowed some trading privileges, but under the most strict and humiliating regulations. Among other requirements, on occasion, they had to send representatives to the future Tokyo where they were required to advance to the Shogun on their bellies (no small feat for Dutch merchants, as one writer put it). This they were required to follow with a song and dance act and another simulating drunkenness. The English lasted only a short time in the Islands, finding the restrictions onerous and the profits too small. So from the early 1600s until 1854, no Japanese could lawfully leave his country and travel abroad and no foreigner, except Dutch and Chinese under special limitations, could lawfully enter Japan.

MacDonald knew Japan was forbidden territory but this seemed only to whet his appetite to solve the mystery of what lay behind the wall of secrecy around Japan. His purpose, he writes, "was to learn of them; and, if the occasion should offer, to instruct them of us." He wanted to learn of the people, their manner of life, what wealth they might have, and "their feelings and tendencies -- if any -- towards association or friendly relations with other peoples, especially us, neighbors of theirs east?" His scheme was to present himself as a castaway and rely on their humanity.

Having found, after practicing the capsizing of his boat, that he could right it again, he sailed on July 1st, early in the morning, for a large island he believed to be inhabited. A few miles from the island he intentionally upset his boat, and since he had negligently left his chest unlocked, lost much of his clothing, some of his books and all of his bedding, pistols and bailer. (Curiously enough, about this time he observed a ship passing about eight miles away. This ship picked up his lost rudder and in the Sandwich Islands reported finding it. On this it was conjectured that Ranald MacDonald had been lost at sea and this surmise was communicated to Ranald's father who had by then removed to eastern Canada.) Again MacDonald righted his boat and tacked toward the large island. He had not gone ashore that night, but stood off from the island during the darkness, fearing the rocks indicated by the breakers.

In the morning, apparently having been observed from the shore, a boat set out to meet him. He was towed in and on landing was greeted by a hundred people, men, women, and children, seated cross-legged on the beach. Here he was given a pair of sandals, escorted some distance to a large house. His clothes still being wet, he was given a gown to wear and led to a bedroom. With curiosity he examined some books in the room, including an almanac. Shortly after, he was fed boiled rice and good fish, ginger, preserved shellfish and a variety of pickles. His host, with true hospitality several times offered him some "grog-yes." From the smell, he determined it was alcoholic and being a total abstainer, this hospitality he passed up. It was, of course, Japanese saki. The name came from an earlier experience with a more typical American sailor who, on being offered a libation, replied, "Grog? Yes. Fetch it on." After breakfast, although under close watch, he had his only freedom in Japan, which was to take a short walk out of doors.

The official Japanese records are interesting and corroborate Ranald MaeDonald's recollection in many particulars. Here are some of the memoranda sent forward with him to Nagasaki.

"On the second day of the sixth month of the same year (July 2, 1848) a foreigner at Notsuka in Rishiri Island; on the 25th day of the 7th month (August 23) he was forwarded in a Japanese junk from Soya to Esashi. His age was estimated at 23 years, his height at 5' 8½. As the junk arrived at this town (Matsumae), the foreigner was forwarded in a Kago (Japanese palanquin) to the village of Eramchi.

Each time the escorts are listed. Again it tells that the foreigner was forwarded to Nagasaki in the Tenjin Maru. A report to the Shogun's government from an official of Matsumae and Yezo, dated July 22, 1848, reads:

"On the second instant, about the hour of 4 p.m., a foreigner was driven in a boat to the shore of Notsuka, in Rishiri Island, in my domain of western Yezo. As he had wet clothes on and seemed very tired, he was immediately taken to the guardhouse at Notsuka and given food, etc.

"On being informed of the event, some of my retainers at the guard station of Soya went to Notsuka and tried to get information from the foreigner. As, however, they could not understand each other, the questions were put by signs and the foreigner also answered by signs so that the precise facts could not be ascertained, but he was understood to say that he left the mother ship in the boat and after some time, the wind and the sea getting high, his boat capsized twice; that his compass dropped into the sea, and he was drifting aimlessly when he saw a high mountain, and rowing towards it landed on the shore. As the boat had suffered no damage, he was told by signs to sail home, but he seemed to hesitate to go out into the wide sea in that small boat. He was, therefore, told by signs that he would be allowed to stay and as he nodded assent, he was taken to the guard station of Soya and was well treated and escorted.

"The preceding is a report of my retainers at the station: According to the report, the boat in which the foreigner me is about 26' 9 ½" long, and about 5' 11½", broad. The boat and all the gear are kept in the station. They have also sent the appended list of articles in his possession. I inform you of the above and wish to know what is to be done with this foreigner."

And here is the draft of instructions affixed to the above report:

"The foreigner whose landing is here reported ought to be examined at Nagasaki. He should, therefore, be forwarded to that place as you did with the foreigners who arrived some time ago. All the books in the foreigners possession should be put under seals in the presence of your officials and care taken that no one should see them without leave."


These records show a complete inventory of all the articles in MacDonald's possession. From then on, Ranald MacDonald was kept confined in Japan and always under close surveilance, walking some, carried in the palanquin some, by a series of voyages and junks, he was taken from the island where he landed, finally to Nagasaki. Here he underwent a brief examination on the junk before being landed, questions being put to him through the interpreter, Murayama. For Murayama, MacDonald's companion for much of his stay in Japan, he acquired a high regard and affection.

MacDonald reported, everything about him seemed to excite the curiosity of th Japanese. Where he came from, size of the United States, its physical aspects and all his effects, particularly his books and letters all aroused their interest. While he was in custody, many came to stare at him; all sorts of men, professional, officials, officers, priests, and the like. Women, however, were excepted. They were not allowed. He relates that one of his guards did, one time, ask his consent to bring his wife and daughter, and three of their females to see MacDonald. He, of course, agreed and they did come. Thereafter, he reports, he saw no more of his captain of the guards.

On inquiry, he was told the captain had been decapitated for breaking the law. But another incident, contemporaneous to this, makes one wonder if the Japanese were always as sanguinary as they claimed. On his journey to Nagasaki, Ranald was lodged overnight in Matsumae Castle. Here in the room where he was kept he observed some English letters. Looking for more he saw a patch of new boarding over a hole in the ceiling. The Governor, with whom he was staying, observing his inquisitiveness, indicated by signs that 15 Americans had escaped through the hole, had been caught, dragged back, and had their throats cut. Later, Ranald met the 15, their throats intact, and learned the facts. Two of them had really made an escape, had been recaptured, but suffered no corporal punishment and were simply more closely guarded than their fellow prisoners.

Having arrived at Nagasaki, MacDonald was kept aboard the junk for two days, then taken on land to a small enclosure adjoining the "Town Hall." Here he met Murayama, again, who told him he would have to face a court of inquiry to be conducted by the Governor. Murayama encouraged him, told him not to fear, and informed him his first test would come before he entered the Court. That near the entrance of the court there would be a metal plate in the floor. That on this plate was an image of the devil of Japan and that he, MacDonald, must put his foot upon it. Ranald said he would do so because he did not believe in images. When he did so he could not see it plainly but the picture seemed to be that of the Virgin and Child.

In the 1880s when MacDonald wrote the story of his Japanese adventure, he stated that having been required to sit as the Japanese did, he was instructed that on the entrance of the governor, he was not to look at him, but to bow low. He then wrote that notwithstanding this injunction to bow low, he didn't, he wouldn't "kotow" to any man, and he looked the governor fearlessly but respectfully full in the face. However, in his sworn statement to Captain James Glynn, Commander of the U. S. Ship Preble on which MacDonald sailed from Japan, the statement made April 30, 1849, MacDonald said:

"In the Town House I was requested to kneel, after the Japanese fashion, upon a mat. I attempted one knee, but they insisted upon my getting down on both knees, which I finally assented to. Soon after this I heard a hissing noise, and was told by the interpreter that the govenor was coming, and that I must make "compliments to him;" which was to bend low, and not look up. I made a low bow to the Governor, though not before I had taken a good look at him."

MacDonald was asked the expected questions, his name, place of birth, port from which he sailed, residence and the like. They required the name of the ship he had left, the captain, and his reasons or motives for leaving the ship. He told them he had had some difficulty with the captain. In his statement to Captain Glynn he said,

"They finally asked me if I believed there was a God in heaven. I answered, yes, that I believed in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. I was then told that I had permission to leave the Hall; and I was then taken in a Kago, attended by a number of soldiers, to my prison, which I was told was a sort of temple or priests house. During this time I was taken to the Town Hall twice and also questioned on several occasions at my prison. The day after being put in this prison, I asked for my books, particularly my Bible. The interpreter told me, with a good deal of fervor or interest, not to speak of the Bible in Japan, it was not a good book.' During these interviews, the object of their questions appeared to be to ascertain if I had any influential friends at home who would seek for me. If I had, they would send me away; if I had none, then they would imprison me for life in Japan."

Years later in writing of this, he said one of the questions which he had been asked before, was if he believed in a God in Heaven. He was asked what that belief was and answered, he believed in one God who was omnipresent always. The interpreter Murayama, then inquired what he believed in respect to God in Heaven. SO Ranald began to recite the Apostle's Creed. When he reached the language, "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, born of the Virgin Mary" his interpreter excitedly and quickly stopped him. MacDonald believed that Murayama did this to protect him and thus saved him from mistreatment. Was this later version embellished a bit or did he feel Glynn didn't need the details?

After this, MacDonald was given a second hearing when he was again asked what relatives he had, the business of his father, whether his captain would be punished, and whether an inquiry would be instituted about him in his port on the arrival of his vessel. It was observed that "He must have a great heart to leave in a little boat." He was excused and for the next several months he was kept prisoner. Pleasantly, courteously, and well treated he was given little freedom. Almost daily, Murayama, the interpreter, and 13 others were his pupils in English. At the same time he was teaching English, he was attempting to learn as much as he could of the Japanese language. He tells us all Japanese could both read and write. As mentioned before, the Japanese were greatly curious, not only about MacDonald, but about the outside world. They inquired about whaling, how many ships were engaged in it. Ranald tells us he subtly tried to suggest to them the need for bases of supply, that Japan would be a good place for ports to which these whaling vessels could resort. When he asked them if the English, Americans, French or Russians, seeking to open trade with them would have their consent, they vehemently said "no."

And he quotes Murayama as having emphatically said, "No ship can approach the coast; no ship can enter our harbors; it is against the law." In his imprisonment, Ranald communicated daily with many people of many sorts. They were curious, sociable and friendly. Strangely enough, the authorities did not seem to place any special restraint on these visits. He came to have a high regard for these people, their intelligence, their kindness, and their bravery.

Japanese castaways

For what happened next it becomes necessary to go back to 1834, the year Ranald attended school with the three Japanese. According to a story told by Erward Everett Hale, when he was Chaplain of the United States Senate, while in Japan MacDonald was once asked, "Who holds the highest rank in your country?" MacDonald answered, "The people ... What, greater than the President," exclaimed the astonished Japanese. "Yes, the people are greater. "

[Hudsons Bay Company Factor] McLoughlin wanted to help them return to their home land, but alive to possibilities he foresaw for trade between the United States and Japan, he sent the Japanese sailors straight to England rather than across the Pacific. Thus, the Hudson's Bay Company would be able to make use of them in an attempt to open communications with Japan. (In all possibility these were the first Japanese to visit England. Their transportation and outfitting cost the company a substantial sum.) But for some reason the Hudson's Bay Company could not undertake such an enterprise and turned their charges over to the East Indian Company, which was not interested, and December, 1835, sent the Japanese to Macao, China. There they found refuge in the domicile of Charles Gutzlaff, a German missionary and linguist. Here they helped translate Christian writings into the Japanese language. In 1837 they were joined by four more Japanese castaways. It was then that Charles W. King, financed and sponsored by the American Board and Messr. Otyphant & Company, chartered the ship Morrison for a goodwill expedition to repatriate the seven Japanese seamen, contrary to Japanese law as we have already seen. As can be judged from the identity of the sponsoring parties, the venture had both trade and religious con-notations.

Besides the Japanese, there were Gutzlaff, Dr. Peter Parker, pioneer American medical missionary to China, and S. Wells Williams. A stock of medicines was taken but no arms, and out of deference to Japanese religious animosity, no Christian literature. (Later Gutzlaff attributed the failure of the expedition to loss of Divine favors because of this last omission.) Some wives were also among the passengers, it being believed their presence would evince their peaceful intentions. They thought the nature of their mission, the return of the Japanese nationals, and the possibility that Japan might have relaxed its policy of foreign exclusion, would gain them a respectful and not unfriendly greeting. This was only wishful thinking.

The Morrison sailed July 4, 1837, and arrived in Tokyo Bay July 30, 1837. The Oregon castaways were overjoyed to be back home, having been gone five years and circumnavigated the world. But all efforts to make connection or communicate either orally or in writing failed. The Japanese boarded the ship, accepted gifts, drank Sake and ate the goodies provided, but left to prepare their shore batteries for the next morning's cannonade. They considered the ship an intruder, a violator of ancient law, and in the morning drove it off with cannon fire. Fortunately unharmed, the Morrison returned to China with all its people. The venture had cost the American business firm $2,000. The Japanese castaways returned to work for Gutzlaff, and two of them worked in S. Wells Williams’s printing office, where they helped him translate parts of the Bible which later assisted him in interpreting for Commodore Perry.

This expedition was widely publicized in the United States and led to various proposals of a mission to Japan. In 1845 a resolution was proposed in Congress that called for "immediate measures ... for effecting commercial arrangements with the Empire of Japan." Commodore Biddle was sent, but lost face with the Japanese and failed.

The next American contact came in the spring of 1849, when Captain Glynn sailed the Preble into Nagasaki to get the 15 American seamen who had deserted off the coast of Japan. The Japanese tried to evade, but Glynn stood firm and brisk to get his men, the 13 survivors, for two had died, one by the suicide route. To his surprise he also got Ranald MacDonald. He had not known of Ranald's presence and only sought the deserters, but the Japanese apparently assumed he did know and that he was after all Americans in Japan. The other seamen were those who had preceded MacDonald in one of his prisons and who, he had been told, were executed. Captain Glynn took a comprehensive statement from MacDonald and included it in his report to Washington.

From then on the pressures to open Japan to western trade and communication grew and intensified rapidly. How these culminated in Commodore Matthew Calbraight Perry being sent in 1853 with "black ships of evil men" to perform the delicate mission of prying open the doors of Japan to social and commercial intercourse without starting a war, and how he did the job, is an extraordinary, exciting story in itself; a fascinating sequel to our friend MacDonald's preliminary adventure, but not pertinent here, in view of time limitations. Suffice it to say he did succeed in opening the door and this led to an entire new era.

"Manifest destiny" was on the move. Our concern with it here is only that our subject may have made some contribution to Perry's success. He had taught English to Murayama, Japanese interpreter, during the negotiations that led to the American Japanese treaty. While prisoner to the Japanese he had made friends of many of them and taught them there was a world outside of Japan. His report made the American government through Captain Glynn, furnished some insight into Japanese ways and ideas, and perhaps had some influence on the decision to send the Mission to Japan. Another curious circumstance, remotely connected to MacDonald, that illustrates how slight contacts and connections may run full cycle and eventually come together, is the fact that the very Japanese Ranald first met at Vancouver also had some part in the Perry affair. As mentioned before they finally arrived and lived in China where they taught S. Wells Williams Japanese which helped him interpret for Perry.


To return to the narrative -- MacDonald sailed on the Preble to Shanghai, and then left the ship at Macao. From there he wandered widely, in the Orient, China, India, Australia, and finally Europe. Of these travels we know little. Gold probably lured him to Australia, and while on that continent, although not ordinarily pugnacious by nature, MacDonald got into a fight with some stranger and knocked him out. That evening he was paid a visit by some of the local male inhabitants who proffered him a championship belt and informed him he had flattened the Australian title holder. MacDonald thanked them but declined the honor.

Eventually he returned to America, visiting the family home in eastern Canada where his father had died shortly before. Then he returned to the Northwest. Various enterprises kept him busy in the Cariboo, British Columbia. There he managed a supply house, ran pack trains to the gold mines, explored and secured a permit from the Provincial Government to establish a toll trail but it was never a commercial success. He was reported to have made $60,000 in the Cariboo mines, but one way or another lost it all. When necessary he was a good rough and tumble fighter, but at the same time he has been described as being a jolly, likeable fellow, an entertaining talker who liked to dance all night with the ladies, show them little courtesies and polished attention, "noticeable for their absence among the rougher elements of the West."

Later when he had moved back to old Fort Colville where he lived until his death in 1894, he was visited by [George Armstrong] Custer's widow [Elizabeth Bacon Custer]. He fascinated her, and in a sketch she wrote of him she said:

"I can scarcely think of anything more incongruous than this aristocratic old man, with his highflown expressions, of which we know nothing ... and yet the clothes he wore, and the straggling gray hair and beard, looked to me far more interesting than the dressed up and commonplace looking man who occupied a panel of the family album and represented Ranald when he was in the outside world. Then another incongruity was the slip he sometimes made into everyday talk and the introduction, in the very midst of his most lofty flights of rhetoric, of slang phrases, which seemed all the more absurd associated as they were with the stately language of bygone days.

"Our host drew our attention to a trap-door, into the cellar, and his eyes danced with the memories, he recalled as he spoke of the good old Jamaica rum that was once there in abundance. There were guns and deer-horns on the walls, and in this large, low, cheerful room I could picture the convivial party about the open fireplace brewing warm drinks and pressing the guests to "take a drop more." One of the old Hudson's Bay men has since told me that they always expected the company they entertained to end the evening under the table ...

"As the quaint old man went on talking about the days when the Hudson's Bay Company was in its most flourishing condition, the whole place became transformed to me. I saw the bustle of traffic, the industry of the little community, the military discipline and precision with which everything was conducted: for though the governor of the company was not an officer, he was an autocrat, such as can scarcely be conceived in those independent days. The nearest court of justice was 600 miles away."

Ranald MacDonald did not achieve renown, but he had the elements of greatness. Intelligent, courageous, proud, rugged yet gentle, he exemplified all these qualities throughout his life, but especially in his chief exploit, his self-engineered trip to Japan. There he displayed the most careful and efficient planning, cool sagacity, tenacity of purpose, bold execution, and adventurous spirit. A tough fighter when occasion demanded, he had the good manners and deportment of a gentleman. He deserves more than the footnote history books accord him.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You