John McNab was born in 1755 in the village of Aberdour, Fife. He seems to have received some medical training, and used the title ‘Dr.’, though no record has yet been found of any formal qualifications. Medical skills would have been highly valued at remote fur trade posts, and in 1779 he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a surgeon and was sent to Albany Fort, on James Bay. McNab then spent five years as Master of Henley House before returning to Albany, where he eventually became Governor. He also spent one year as the Governor at Churchill and the years between 1802-07 as Governor of York Factory. For historians of the fur trade, his most notable achievement was to be the first HBC man to lead an overland journey from Moose Fort to Montreal. Due to severe weather conditions, the Company’s ship The Prince of Wales was forced to spend the winter of 1812 at Hudson Bay. Without the efforts of McNab and his expedition team the year’s mail would not have reached London for many more months. This would have had serious consequences for the future provision of the Company’s posts.
Albany Factory from the south east, 1804-1811.
© Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Artist William Richards. P-118.
Maintaining his ties to Scotland must have been important to John McNab, though he was never to return permanently, and his family life was based around Hudson Bay. By 1817 he had a farm in Kennoway Parish, Fife, which he leased out, and he arranged for at least one of his two sons to be educated in Scotland. He was also extremely supportive of his grandson, John Bunn, who followed in his footsteps and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
John McNab and his ‘country wife’, Jane Cook, had three children, and today numerous descendents from this family live across Canada. Many of these are from the Gordon First Nation, in southern Saskatchewan; others live in the cities of Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary. John McNab’s portrait has been a point of connection for some of these descendents to make links with relatives on both sides of the Atlantic.