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An unrecognized Native American prince's quest to see Japan

Young Ranald MacDonald didn't know he was the grandson of Concomly, Chief of the Chinook Tribe. But before anyone could tell him, he'd run away to sea — and in so doing, dramatically changed the destiny of three great nations.

Archibald McDonald, chief trader for Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest. (Image: Friends of MacDonald)

The two Scottish gentlemen must have cut very strange figures on the gritty streets of the New York City waterfront in 1843, poking their carefully groomed heads into every darksome Bowery flophouse and shanghai joint, combing through the Big Apple’s notorious maritime underworld.

But Duncan Finlayson and Archibald McDonald were desperate. They were looking for McDonald’s son, Ranald. The future of the Oregon territory depended on it. Unless they could find the young man, Oregon would almost certainly be lost to the British crown.

That’s because Ranald was the rightful ruler of the Oregon territory — or, at any rate, of the best part of it. Ranald was the son of a Chinook Indian princess named Raven, and the grandson of legendary Chief Concomly — the only surviving heir to Concomly’s ancestral tribal lands.

But Princess Raven had died shortly after Ranald’s birth, and Ranald had grown up calling another woman “Mother.” McDonald had never seen fit to tell him who he really was. And now, it was too late. Young Ranald, chafing at the frustrations of a dead-end job as a bank clerk in a small Canadian frontier town, had packed up and run away, signing on as a crewman on one of the Mississippi riverboats and making his way south to New Orleans and the sea.

He was chasing a lifelong dream — a dream that still seems puzzling and improbable for a young half-Native gentleman from the pre-Oregon wilderness: the dream of living in the mysterious, exotic land of Japan.

But he’d achieve that dream, and with it a more lasting legacy than he could ever have had by sticking around the Northwest, squabbling over his grandfather’s lands and battling to keep the Oregon territory in British hands.

A British Chinook prince

A very early daguerreotype photograph of Ranald MacDonald as he appeared in the early 1850s, in his mid-20s. (Image: Friends of MacDonald)

Ranald MacDonald (he spelled it “Mac” rather than “Mc,” as his father had) was born in 1824 in Astoria, in what was then known as British North America. His Chinook name — his real name, you might say, the name his parents called him as a baby — was Toole-Toole.

In his youth, Ranald’s father made sure he got the best education possible under the circumstances. But intellectually, those circumstances were rather straitened, even after he was sent off to the Red River Academy in what’s now Manitoba. He wanted to go on to a university, but the only one available was in Toronto, and he didn’t consider it worth attending — it was, after all, the early 1840s, and things were rather primitive. And his father couldn’t afford to send him off to England. So after he finished school at Red River, there he remained, working at the bank, stuck — getting more and more frustrated.

Archibald clearly divined that something was brewing, because his communications became somewhat frantic. He sent two different letters off to arrange a job for Ranald in the Hudson’s Bay Company and bring him back west. But it was too late. And the one letter that could have stopped him — the one that told him who he really was and why his father wanted him to return to the Oregon country, the letter that would quite probably have changed the destiny of nations — never got sent.

Ranald runs away

In running away, Ranald may have been motivated by the sense of alienation that one often finds in half-Native people of Ranald’s era, especially when they start pursuing romance. According to historian JoAnn Roe, “Bored with the career chosen for him, and disappointed by an unrequited love for a St. Thomas girl, Ranald conceived the idea of going to faraway Japan … .”

Given what happened to so many other “half-breeds” when they tried to date “white” girls, it’s not hard to imagine this mild reference covering over a substantial psychological trauma for the young man — a trauma that would have reinforced a growing sense of rootlessness, of being not quite English and not quite Indian. Growing up facing toward the east and England and idealizing education and European culture, he now knew that his father was working to drag him back into the wilderness, farther away from the civilization that he’d been relentlessly taught to value. Perhaps, feeling that he had nothing to lose, he decided to strike out and just see what might happen.

This is, of course, pure speculation. But what we do know is, before his father’s plans could be implemented, he was gone — down the river on a “palace boat,” working as a deck hand.

Ranald the sailor

This monument, located at the Fort Astoria park site, denotes the birthplace of Toole-Toole (Ranald MacDonald) there in 1824.

Ranald made his way along the Eastern Seaboard to New York City, working as a deck hand on coasting vessels. Upon arriving, he shipped out on the barque Tuskeny, bound for London.

He roamed the globe for a few years as an ordinary seaman before the mast, always seeking an opportunity to get within striking distance of Japan. He soon figured out that whaling ships were the best way to do this, since they just prowled the high seas looking for whales to kill. And in 1848, he finally found one that was going near Japan, and he made a deal with its captain: After completing the cruise, he would be put off in a small boat, which he would sail or row to shore, and pretend to have been shipwrecked.

Japan, at this time, had been strictly closed for hundreds of years. No outsiders could come in, and no citizens could leave. In fact, the year after Ranald left Fort Vancouver, three Japanese castaways arrived — blown across the Pacific Ocean on a trading ship — and when they tried to return, their ship was fired upon. (It’s probably from the stories of these three men, repeated throughout the Hudson’s Bay Company trading empire, that Ranald got his idea to go there.)

Arriving in Japan

When the time came, Ranald was put off the whaling ship near the coast of Hokkaido in a small boat with a few supplies. In exchange, he gave the ship captain his share of the proceeds of the trip — about $600 in 1848 currency — along with a letter to deliver to his father.

“God bless you, Mac!” shouted the other sailors from the deck of the whaling ship as he sailed off. They figured him for a goner. Even if he survived the journey across several miles of open ocean to the shore of Japan, everyone knew the Japanese were very strict about not accepting visitors. Surely when this funny Canadian appeared with his story of shipwreck, he would be killed on the spot, or maybe saved for torture or public spectacle, in keeping with the fearsome rumors that had grown up about Japan in the absence of real information.

But Ranald didn’t believe the rumors — or maybe he just didn’t care. He was, he said, going to throw himself upon the mercy of his captors and see what happened.

What happened, in the end, was the adventure of a lifetime, crowned with a substantial change in the destiny of a whole nation — which was somewhat ironic. After all, by simply disappearing before his father could help him claim his inheritance, this unrecognized Native American prince had already quashed Great Britain’s last best hope to claim sovereignty over the Oregon country. Now it was time for him to leave his footprints on the destiny of another great nation.

We’ll talk about that adventure in next week’s column.

(Sources: Roe, JoAnn. Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer. Pullman: WSU Press, 1997; friendsofmacdonald.com)