Donald Alexander Smith

Donald Alexander Smith - Lord Strathcona

Donald Alexander Smith was born on August 6, 1820, the second of three sons of Alexander Smith, a tradesman of Archiestown and his wife, Barbara, daughter of Donald Stewart of Leanchoil.

Educated at Anderson Institution, he joined the town clerk’s office at the age of 16, but two years later, emigrated to Canada to join the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Success came very slowly. After counting skins at the Lachine warehouse for three years, he was promoted to junior trader at remote Tadoussac on the St Lawrence River, and then at the even more secluded Mingan. In 1847, he deserted his post and was banished to Rigolet, a tiny post in eastern Labrador.

Without complaint, Smith toiled there and in North West River engaging in the fur trade and exporting seal oil, salmon and cranberries. He built a cannery, imported livestock and grew vegetables.

In 1853, he married Isabella Sophia Hardisty, daughter of the chief trader in North West River, and in that same year Smith became chief trader. He was promoted to the post of chief factor in 1862, with control over all of Labrador, and in 1869 became head of the company’s Montreal department.

In his new position, Smith played a key role in the pacification of the Red River uprising of 1869-70, his negotiations assisting in the creation of the province of Manitoba. Smith’s political career saw mixed success, winning the Selkirk Manitoba seat for the Federal Tories in 1871 and for the Liberals in 1873 and 1878.

The 1878 contest was declared corrupt and his seat declared vacant. He returned to politics in 1887, and in 1896 was given the position of Canada’s High Commissioner in London. But it is as a businessman that Smith’s fame lies. He began to build his fortune while employed in Labrador, investing his, and his colleagues, surplus earnings in outside enterprises, principally the Bank of Montreal.

He used his own funds and those of the trusts he managed to purchase the Hudson’s Bay Company shares for himself, shrewdly realising that the company’s future lay in the settlement of the north-west prairies.

Smith became governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1889, presiding over its transformation from a company solely involved in the fur trade to one dealing in real estate, natural resources, and wholesale and general retail business. The boy from Forres had matured into an astute and incredibly successful businessman.

Donald Smith, later Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal of Glencoe and Colonsay. Smith also played an important role in the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was completed in 1885. While his partners looked after the challenging financial details and even more challenging construction problems, Smith formed the North West Land Company to maximise profits on the railway’s land grant. At the same time, he took control of the Bank of Montreal, becoming its president in 1887. One of his partners in the Canadian Pacific Railway was his cousin from Dufftown, George Stephen.

Through his business acumen and control of these companies he benefited enormously from the immigration boom in the western Canadian prairies.

By the turn of the century, he was easily the wealthiest Canadian of his time. His business commitments never faltered, and towards the end of his life he served as chairman of Burmah Oil and the newly created Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

Smith was knighted in 1886 and became Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal of Glencoe and Colonsay in 1897. He was a noted philanthropist, particularly generous to Aberdeen University, although many other institutions of higher learning as well as hospitals benefited from his magnanimity.

Smith was open-handed in regard to his home county, with Leanchoil Hospital a major beneficiary. He was given the freedom of the Burgh of Forres in 1900. During the Boer War, he personally funded an entire mounted regiment, Strathcona’s Horse.

He died in London on January 21, 1914, and was buried at Highgate cemetery.

In this Year of Homecoming, when we look to those of Scottish descent finding their roots, Canada, where so many settled, owes a tremendous debt to the boy from Forres.