Ranald MacDonald made a suggestion and it changed the world. He’s not to be confused with Ronald McDonald the food chain clown mascot. Ranald was born and raised in the Oregon Country frontier — his mother the daughter of a Native American chief, and his father a fur trader.
Ranald was one of Scotsman Archibald MacDonald’s 13 children, and was born at Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1824. His mother was Princess Raven — also called Ilchee — daughter of “one-eyed chief” Comcomly “King of the Chinooks.”
Biographer Ralph P. Edgerton, a Spokane County Superior Court judge, described the wedding:
“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.”
Sadly, the princess died shortly after Ranald was born. The next year, Archibald McDonald journeyed to today’s Winnipeg and married a second wife, Jane Klyne, daughter of a French-Canadian postmaster and prominent Métis family mother.
They had 13 children, and remained together until Archibald’s death.
The family returned to the Northwest, living in Kamloops, B.C., where Ranald was raised with great affection by his stepmother and became a favorite of his one-eyed grandfather.
Around age 10, the youngster attended a school at Fort Vancouver taught by Dartmouth graduate John Ball, who also taught English to three castaway Japanese sailors whose disabled ship drifted for nearly a year before being beached on the Olympic Peninsula — all the other crewmembers having perished.
Before the Japanese arrived, the MacDonalds had moved to Fort Colville north of Spokane, where Archibald was appointed chief factor by Hudson’s Bay Company.
Ranald was taught mathematics by his father, who then sent the boy to his friend, Edward Ermatinger, at the Red River settlement in Manitoba for schooling for the next four years.
It was about that time that he first learned that his real mother was an Indian. The matter arose when he fell in love with a Canadian girl, and his Indian bloodline proved to be an insurmountable barrier that ended their relationship.
But it did spur his interest in Japan as the possible source of his ancestry and planned to go there and see for himself.
After finishing his formal education, Ranald took a job as a bank clerk in the town of St. Thomas. He didn’t like it and decided on going to sea.
In New York, he found a job on a Sag Harbor whaler called the Tuskeny. Later in Hawaii he switched to another whaler, the Plymouth. He made a deal with its captain, Lawrence B. Edwards, to be allowed to leave his job when they neared Japan, using a small sailboat he bought from the captain to reach shore.
Ranald knew his plan to enter Japan illegally was dangerous. The xenophobic Tokugawa government considered foreigners a threat to national security and to their hold on power. Ranald was undaunted.
“I resolved, within myself, to personally solve the mystery (of Japan) if possible, at any cost of effort — yea life itself,” he wrote.
“My plan was to present myself as a castaway and to rely on their humanity. My purpose was to learn of them; and, if occasion should offer, to instruct them of us.”
Ranald was popular with his shipmates on the Plymouth. One of them described him as “a man of about five feet, seven inches; thick set; straight hair and dark complexion … He was a good sailor, well educated, a firm mind, well calculated for the expedition upon which he embarked.”
Whale oil was used in lamps and in much demand. American whaling was at its height between 1845 and 1850, with 680 ships, 34 brigs and 22 schooners at sea one of those years.
The Plymouth enjoyed excellent hunting all across the Pacific during the two years Ranald was aboard, but whaling was doomed after oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859.
One interesting event was when the Plymouth stopped at Pagan Island in the northern Marianas for wood and water, and Ranald encountered two English seamen who had been marooned there for some 20 years, leading a Robinson Crusoe life.
They were “Liverpool Jack” and “Spider Jack” who lived with a sickly wife about a mile north — the men feuding over who fathered her child.
MacDonald gave little credence to all the tales, but one was interesting:
Both castaways claimed they’d buried a treasure chest taken from a boatload of wealthy people escaping from a South American revolution bringing all their valuables with them.
Supposedly, they showed it to another Plymouth crewmember who confirmed he’d seen the chest filled with silver coins.
The crewmember was urged to desert the ship and join them on the island, but he refused, fearing he would be murdered.
MacDonald said the treasure “may be there yet!”
In June 1848, the Plymouth entered the Sea of Japan off the northern tip of Hokkaido.
Ranald told the captain it was time to leave — much against the wishes of all aboard, fearing for his safety. On June 27, he launched his little sailboat — well provisioned for the short trip to Japan.
After landing on Ishiri Island, he was soon captured by some Ainu. Authorities were notified and he was eventually taken by junk to Nagasaki a thousand miles south and placed under house arrest.
Next to the city was the small man-made island of Deshima — the only place where trading with foreigners was allowed — but only the Dutch and Chinese.
Noticing his respectful conduct and that he was reading books he’d brought with him, the authorities sent him 14 Japanese interpreters to learn English and also about Western ways.
One of them was a brilliant young man named Enosuke Murayama, who would play an historic role several years later.
While MacDonald was teaching English, he learned as much Japanese as he could.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government learned that there were 15 American seamen being held in Nagasaki and sent Capt. James Glynn and the sloop-of-war USS Preble to rescue them.
He succeeded in doing so, along with the unexpected release of Ranald MacDonald.
From that time on, the pressure to open Japan to western trade and communication was unstoppable.
Ranald MacDonald strongly urged the United States to open diplomatic and trade relations with Japan, and his advice was accepted.
On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry led four warships into Tokyo Bay and opened up Japan to the U.S. and the rest of the world — changing history.
The interpreter for the Japanese at that historic event was Murayama Enosuke — Ranald MacDonald’s student.
The half-Scottish and half-Native American MacDonald made his mark in world history. Fifteen years later Emperor Meiji swept away 200 years of Tokugawa feudal rule and led Japan into the modern world.
The Preble dropped MacDonald off in Macao and he wandered around China, India, Australia and Europe before returning to the Pacific Northwest.
There, he busied himself running pack trains to the gold mines in Cariboo, B.C., and supposedly made some $60,000, and then lost it all.
Little is known of some of Ranald MacDonald’s time at sea.
One account however reported that he once served on a slave ship.
“After picking up their cargo of Negroes, they were making the return voyage when chased by a British man-of-war,” wrote biographer Ralph Edgerton. “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.’”
In the summer of 1894, Ranald MacDonald’s niece, Jenny Nelson Lynch, drove her horse and buggy to pick him up because he was very ill, and nurse him back to health at her cabin above Toroda Creek in Curlew, Wash.
His last words were, “Sayonara my dear, sayonara.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Idaho connection…
When Ranald MacDonald was a boy and sent to the Red River Valley in Manitoba for his education, it was a colony established by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk from Scotland for poor Scottish farmer immigrants. The Selkirk Mountains that extend from British Columbia to Mica Peak located between Post Falls and Liberty Lake are named after him.
A knockout Down Under…
Ranald MacDonald was not combative by nature, but while gold mining in Australia, he got in a brawl with a stranger and knocked him out. That evening while visiting with some locals, one of them offered him a championship belt — telling him he’d just flattened the Australian title holder.
A man of character…
“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.”
— Ralph P. Edgerton, biographer
Revered by the Japanese…
“MacDonald is recognized by many Japanese as Japan’s first English teacher. He later wrote that he had purposefully traveled to Japan, where ‘a gentle kindness…pervaded their general regard and treatment of me.’ After leaving Japan, MacDonald worked as a gold miner and rancher in Australia and Canada before returning to the United States. He never married.”
— The Oregon Encyclopedia
Star interpreter Moriyama…
The Japanese interpreter Moriyama Enosuke taught English by Ranald MacDonald was a samurai during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and an interpreter of Dutch and English. Twice he was called upon to interpret English — the “Manhattan Incident” of 1845, during which the American whaling ship Manhattan came to Tokyo (then Edo) to repatriate 22 castaway Japanese seamen, and in 1853 when Commodore Perry’s fleet arrived to open up Japan to foreign trade.
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