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Gates Ajar – Vol.2 No.1 – FALL 1989

Tuesday, October 17th, 1989

RANALD MacDONALD: His Ancestry and Early Years

Jean Murray Cole of Ontario, Canada, an award-winning author, editor and historian, delivered a paper entitled “Ranald MacDonald: His Ancestry and Early Years”, during the 2nd annual Friends of MacDonald Seminar in Portland, Oregon on may 6, 1989.  Mrs. Cole, who is the great-great-granddaughter and biographer of Archibald McDonald, Ranald’s father, has generously presented a typescript of her presentation to Friends of MacDonald for the archives.  Her words paint a scholarly picture of a devoted, close-knit family, working hard to match “civilized” standards of education and religious training while stationed in the remote outposts of an uncivilized wilderness.  Excerpts follow:

RANALD MacDONALD was the product of two proud and powerful races, brought together by chance in this remote corner of the world.  His lineage was that of generations of free-spirited Scot Highlanders, joined with the blood of legendary Comcomly, Chief of the influential Chinook tribe who, in the early 1800s, held sway over all the natives around the Columbia River mouth (until  nearly 90 percent of them were carried off in the fever epidemic of 1830-31).  The sense of kinship was strong in both.  After infancy, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of half-brothers in a household that his father was determined should emulate as nearly as possible family life as he had known it in what he often referred to as the “civilized world.”

Archibald McDonald … was descended from the colorful Glencoe branch of the MacDonald Clan.  His grandfather, John, escaped as a child with his mother to the surrounding hills when King William’s troops carried out their infamous massacre of 38 MacDonalds in 1692.  Archy’s father, Angus, at the age of 15 served in the field at the Battle of Culloden in 1745 …

Although Ranald was in fact an “only child”, he grew up as part of a large, loving and happy family.  Later in life he said that he hadn’t realized, as a boy, that Jane Klyne was not his real mother, although this is difficult to reconcile with the fact that he also brings forth memories of his time spent in the lodge of his grandfather Comcomly.  He remembers that he was sometimes called “Comly” by his father’s fur trader friends, and “Qu`Ame” (grandson) or “Toll” (Chinook for “boy”) by Comcomly himself …

Ranald was born at the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort George, formerly (and later) Astoria, but when his mother, Princess Raven, died shortly after his birth he was taken to Comcomly’s lodge to be cared for by an aunt, his mother’s sister, Car-cum-cum.  There he remained until the following year when his father took another wife “in the custom of the country” – Jane Klyne.

[After Archy’s assignment to a new post, Fort Langley, near what is now Vancouver, Canada:] It was here that the little family began to grow up, and it was here that the father began what he referred to as his “thriving school” where he himself gave instruction to mother and sons alike.  McDonald firmly believed, as he said to friends, “There is nothing like early education,” and he was determined that his children would not suffer the fate of many of the offspring of fur traders who spent their childhood in the Indian country … [In late 1830] McDonald reported that his young wife had become “an excellent scholar” and that “Toll is a stout chap – reads his New Testament and began his copy the other day as he got out of his 7th year … ”

Much to his regret, that spring of 1833 McDonald was called back to Fort Vancouver … Ranald recalls this trip in his memoir, and at the age of nine he would no doubt have vivid memories.  I believe, though, that when he wrote of the Ft. Colville of his childhood, he was in fact recalling the years at Ft. Langley,  “Here, during three or four years, with younger half-brothers, under the tenderest and best, in every way, of parental care, I spent what I consider to have been the very happiest days of my life:  in a world of our own; little, singularly isolated from the haunts of men … ”  In fact the family was never all together at Ft. Colville.

There are many myths about Ranald, and there are many truths – it is not easy to sort them out.  It is documented, however, in contemporary records, that after those years at Langley the family was never all together again for any length of time.  Archibald McDonald was posted to Ft. Colville in the spring of 1833 … he decided to enroll Ranald in John Ball’s school at Fort Vancouver for the winter of 1833-34 … He had plans for the children: “It’s high time for me to … get my little boys to school …” [A journey east permitted him to see his family settled in Red River (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) while he was on furlough in Europe and to register the four older boys in the Red River school.]

Duncan Finlayson, who had charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company spring Express Party in 1834, brought Ranald with him from Ft. Vancouver to join his father at Colville before they moved on to the east together.  That brief time … was in fact the only period in Ranald’s childhood that he was there …

This myth about Ft. Colville brings up another confusing element … that [Ranald] was at Fort Vancouver when the three survivors of the shipwrecked Japanese ‘junk’ [Hojun-maru] were brought there [by Capt. McNeil on board the Llama] in the summer of 1834.  The truth is that Finlayson left Vancouver with Ranald in March of that year – they left Colville on April 18th, and arrived at the Committee’s Punch Bowl where Michael Klyne met them with horses to take them through the mountains to Jasper on May 2nd, and by June they were at Norway House at the Council Meeting.

[Ranald’s] knowledge of Japan and its people, I suspect, came more from his reading and his later travels with the whaling fleet in the south seas, although he may well have heard something of the three survivors of the shipwrecked ‘junk’ who arrived at Fort Vancouver shortly after his departure from there.  (Eva Emery Dye’s assertions in her 1907 version of the story that Ranald was “detailed” by McLaughlin to look after the three Japanese as they recovered in the Fort hospital is totally without substance, although one can believe, as she says, that “Ranald listened to theories of his elders as to the other wrecks.”)  That he identified with the Japanese people cannot be questioned … once he had conceived his plan to shipwreck himself on the Japanese coast, nothing could deter him … His purpose was firmly fixed:  “to learn of them; and, if occasion should offer, to instruct them of us.”

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IN RANALD’S WAKE:  Steve Kohl’s FOM Experience in Japan

Prof. STEPHEN KOHL, Ph.D., Friends of MacDonald vice chairman, returned to Oregon this fall after a year in Tokyo as director of the Oregon State System of Higher Education’s exchange program in Japan.  Dr. Kohl, who is professor of East Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Oregon, will discuss his participation in Japanese Friends activities during the FOM membership dinner meeting.

July 5:  Katie and I met Prof.  Jukichi Suzuki in Shinjuku and discussed wording for a new Ranald MacDonald monument to be erected on Rishiri Island on the beach where it is thought MacDonald came ashore.

July 13:  Dr. Takahashi and Mr. Ushio came to Sapporo, where we were staying with friends, to take us to a MacDonald seminar on Rishiri.  Weather problems disrupted our seagoing travel plans and we instead went by train to Otaru, where we boarded a beautifully sleek cruiser and headed out through the breakwater into the open Sea of Akhosk, taking photographs as we followed MacDonald’s trail.

As we reached the point judged by Professor Tomita to be the place where MacDonald actually left the Plymouth, it became hard to see why he made for distant Yagishiri rather than the mainland of Hokkaido, which is clearly visible to us.  In our discussion of this matter we came up with several reasons:

1) It was foggy, as we know from MacDonald’s journal, and perhaps he could not see the mainland to the east but could see Yagishiri to the north. 2) There is evidently a northward current in these waters which may have made it more practical for him to go north rather than east.  3) Because long stretches of the Hokkaido coast were uninhabited in those days, MacDonald may have decided to seek out a smaller island as an easier and more likely place to find human habitation.

My own conjecture is that MacDonald did not get off the Plymouth at the point Prof. Tomita indicates, but, rather got off further north within five miles of Yagishiri as he indicates in his journal …

Mr. Isono, a local innkeeper and a man who knows all the details of local history, was our guide on Yagishiri.  MacDonald is thought to have landed on a sandy beach on the south side of the island.  After lunch at Mr. Isono’s inn, we re-boarded our cruiser and headed north for Rishiri into a strong north wind and heavy waves.  It was quite moving to approach the towering peak of Mt. Rishiri and to think that this is the same sea MacDonald sailed and that we were seeing the same mountain and island he saw.  None of this has changed in the past 141 years.  What is different is that Ranald MacDonald was going into the unknown, dread Japan; we were accompanied by friends who would insure our good reception.  But this is only possible, of course, because MacDonald made that first trip.

July 14:  In the afternoon we went to Notsuka, which is where we believe MacDonald must have landed on Rishiri.  Our plan was to retrace MacDonald’s route from there to Motodomari on the other side of the island, which was Samurai headquarters in those days.  At Motodomari we visited a local Shinto shrine which was built about ten years before MacDonald’s arrival.  MacDonald visited the shrine and so did we . . .

July 15:  A day-long adventure climbing up steep, rocky trails, but we made it to the summit of Mt. Rishiri.  If you like mountain climbing it was glorious – high, alpine meadows filled with flowers, steep gorges, cliffs, and still some snow in the high meadows.

Over dinner that night we talked more about MacDonald and discussed a number of questions that had been raised by Prof. Aihara and some of the other 50 FOM members in Japan – questions that will be of interest to many of us here.

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Gates Ajar ~ Winter 1988-89

Saturday, November 12th, 1988

FROM STICKS TO STONE:    Monuments Tell MacDonald Story

He doth raise his country’s fame
with his own

And in the mouths of nations yet
His praises shall be sung; Death
comes to all
But great achievements raise a
Which shall endure until the sun
grows cold….
~Georgius Fabricius (1516-1571)

1894 Ranald MacDonald, 70, suffering from some “pains in the joints”, had gone up the Kettle River to Toroda.  His newly-widowed niece, Jennie Nelson, wanted his company.  He died there, August 5, 1894, whispering the Japanese word for Farewell:  “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara …”

He was buried in a desolate old Indian cemetery near Toroda, his grave unmarked and soon almost forgotten.  However, a 1917 photograph shows a wooden cross, apparently the first of three markers mounted over the old traveler’s final resting place.

1938 FOM MEMBER Richard M. (Dick) Slagle of Republic, WA, was in the party which placed a cast concrete marker on the grave in 1938.  He took photos of the ceremony with his “little $1 box camera”.

“I was a recent high school graduate,” he writes, “and in June of that year was approached by our local scoutmaster …  He had been asked to have the Boy Scout troop participate in a ceremony at a grave and to make a marker.  Not having any other information and only several days’ time, we set about the task of making a cement cross.  When the cement was poured we scratched in the name as neatly as we could:  Ranald MacDonald.

“On the day of the ceremony we loaded the cross into a school bus and rode to the Kettle River location, about 30 miles north of Republic.  It was a warm summer day and about a dozen or so people assembled in the little Indian cemetery on the edge of a bench.  It overlooks the Kettle River, the mouth of Toroda Creek and the ranch where Ranald MacDonald was visiting at the time of his death.

“Among the people gathered were Judge William C. Brown of Okanogan, a man with a lifelong interest in regional history and especially the history of the native people.  Judge Brown had organized the vent and as he spoke I first heard the story of Ranald MacDonald.

“However, the high point of the program was to hear Mrs. Jennie Lynch (the former Jennie Nelson).  At that time she was probably in her 70’s, an active Indian lady and a favorite of her uncle Ranald.  As our group stood on this spot and looked over the scenic Kettle River valley she told the story of her memories of her uncle and his fondness to visit their ranch and of his last trip and final illness … ”

1951 The British Columbia Historical Quarterly reported on an event on October 27, 1951: The Committee on Historical Sites of the State Parks and Recreation of Washington held ” … a dedication service at the Indian Cemetery at Toroda, on the Kettle River, to mark the grave and honor the memory of Ranald MacDonald, one of the most colorful figures of the early fur-trade days, whose varied experiences took him as far afield as Japan.”  Fifty-seven years after his death, the stone, which is still in place, told the story:


MacDonald’s grave with rocks from Rishiri Island.   Photo by Frederik L. Schodt

Another 30 years passed.  Then, as the Oregon-Japan connection gained strength, the story of Ranald MacDonald was rediscovered.  In Japan, Prof. Torao Tomita published a translation of MacDonald’s memoir.  The story was featured in a novel, “Ocean Festival“, by Akira Yoshimura.  Other publications followed in Japan.

1987 On July 2, 1848, Ranald MacDonald made his official landing in Japan at Notsuka Cape on Rishiri island, just off the Hokkaido coast.  Some 143 years later, on July 4, 1987, the Rishiri Rotary Club unveiled an historical monument erected on the rocky, black lava cape.  The memorial was made from a rough log of Ezo-matsu (spruce) native to the small island.  It was 3 meters (almost 10 feet) high and 35 centimeters (about 14 inches) in diameter.  Vertical Japanese writing described Ranald MacDonald’s landing on this island.  Next to the log was a large explanatory sign:

“The memorial stands facing the Pacific Ocean, looking out toward Oregon in North America,” says Masaki Takahashi.  As a member of Rishiri Rotary, he first urged construction of the monument and four years later saw it unveiled.  Funds were provided by Rotary and supervision by Prof. Jukichi Suzuki, a Rishiri native who strongly supported the concept of a commemorative marker for “the first spontaneous cultural exchange between Japan and North America.”

“Large numbers of tour buses stop every day,” says Dr. Takahashi.  Tourists ” … admire and are excited by the brave deeds of MacDonald of Oregon, who was dedicated to mutual understanding between Japan and North America in a time long gone, and who took his life in his hands to achieve it, 140 years ago.”  (The writer notes that, at the time Ranald MacDonald entered Japan, “it was a closed country, and entry by an outsider was usually punished by death …”

1988 A two-sided monument, Japanese text on one side , English on the other, was erected on the site of Fort Astoria, Ranald MacDonald’s birthplace.  It was dedicated to his memory in sunlit ceremonies at Astoria, Oregon on May 21, 1988. [See Vol. 1 No. 1 of this newsletter for details.]

The monument is gray granite.  A pentagonal bar across the top suggests the gate to a Japanese shrine.  The text tells MacDonald’s story and also incorporates the names of organizations and individuals in Oregon and Japan whose gifts made the monument possible.  The monument reflects a suggestion made almost 80 years ago by Eva Emery Dye, an early Northwest author who corresponded with MacDonald and published a book based on his life:

Of all Oregonians,” she wrote, “Ranald MacDonald deserves a statue pointing to Japan.”

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From our perspective, many people have been involved in the promotion of knowledge about Ranald MacDonald.  Probably the most valuable contribution has been the “living history” project at Ft. Astoria.  Sponsored by the Clatsop County Historical Society with a grant from the Committee to Promote Astoria (which distributes income from motel tax), two young men, Brian Johnson and Troy Baker, dressed in the garb of fur traders of 1822, were on duty seven days a week to talk with visitors about important events at Ft. Astoria.  Although the main topic is the founding of Ft. Astoria in 1811 as the first American business enterprise on the Pacific Coast, the presence of the Ranald MacDonald birthplace  monument makes MacDonald’s life story an inescapable subject for discussion.  It is estimated that 2,000 people heard the “trappers” during the past summer.

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Mt Rishiri photograph by Eiji Nishiya


WHY ON RISHIRI? MacDonald’s Landing Place in Japan

(Some interesting points to ponder in connection with Ranald MacDonald’s initial landing in Japan are raised in the following material, provided by Masaki Takahashi and Yuji Ushiro of the Friends of MacDonald in Rishiri.)

RANALD MacDONALD BOARDED the whaler Plymouth for Japan in December 1845.  About five miles southwest of Teuri and Yagashiri islands (off the west coast of Hokkaido) in June of 1848, Ranald left the Plymouth in a small boat.  His efforts to land on Teuri were unsuccessful and he landed instead on the southwest beach of Yagishiri, where he spent two days.  Early on July 1st he headed for Rishiri Island.

Why did he choose Rishiri Island after leaving Yagishiri?  These may be the reasons:

1 – It’s likely that Ranald assumed Yagashiri was an inhabited island.  To attain his purpose, he had to meet Japanese people.  When he realized that Yagishiri was, in fact, uninhabited, he knew he had to find another place to land, hopefully a place with people.  Ranald may have surmised that the mainland – Hokkaido – was too large to permit locating inhabitants easily.  An island, on the other hand, would be small enough to find people.  Rishiri has a high, snow-capped mountain peak and it is clearly visible on a clear day.  Ranald may have assumed that, with such a large mountain, the people who lived there would have been forced to live along the beaches and thus be easier for him to find.

2 – Japan’s cruel treatment of foreigners was notorious.  Ranald wanted to avoid danger.  He may have reasoned that casting away on an island – rather than on the mainland – would afford him the best possible chance of meeting commoners rather than government officials (who would likely immediately capture him).  He may have also thought that if there were fewer people, “commoners” rather than officials, they might be more sympathetic to his plight as a castaway and would be kind to him.

3 – If there were still no inhabitants (on Rishiri) he could move on to the mainland; to leave the mainland for one of the islands would have been more difficult.

4 – Douglas Williams – a reporter for Hokkaido Broadcasting Co., and a member of the film crew which visited Astoria for the monument dedication – thought that, because there is a high mountain in Oregon (Mt. Hood, which is quite visible from the Ft. Vancouver area where Ranald grew up) MacDonald may have unconsciously (or unconsciously?) have been drawn to Mt. Rishiri.

5 – From mid-June to July the shores of the Sea of Japan along the northern part of Hokkaido are often blanketed with thick fog.  Mt. Rishiri may have been the only visible landmark.  About 50 miles separate Yagishiri from Cape Notsuka, Rishiri; it is impossible to row all of the way from one island to the other. According to MacDonald’s own story, he sometimes hoisted a sail or simply allowed his small boat to be carried by the ocean currents.  (Presumably the time he had spent in the Sea of Japan on the whaler Plymouth would have given him some knowledge of the currents thereabouts.)  An experienced sea captain familiar with the area explains that tidal action alone could have carried MacDonald from Yagishiri to Rishiri.

Why Cape Notsuka?  Wind.  It likely carried Ranald’s small boat to Cape Notsuka on northern Rishiri rather than to Minamihama or another sandy beach on the southern coast.

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