John McDougall is one of the most well known missionaries of the old Canadian west.
Born in Owen Sound (Upper Canada) in 1842, he played multiple roles in southern Alberta: missionary, scout, commissioner, and government agent.
He was educated first at mission schools in and around Owen Sound and then at Victoria College from 1857 to 1860. His early life was spent in the outdoors around Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. He worked in trading stores between 1855 and 1859.
He came to the West in 1860 when his father, George McDougall, traveled to the Rossville mission at Norway House, and subsequently began ministering by 1860. During that ministry period, John married Abigail Steinhauer, a member of a well known Stoney family.
She described an early Christmas with robust humour:
“No Christmas tree, for there was nothing to put on it; no Christmas gifts, for there were none to buy, and nothing to make them of. Even the Christmas turkey was missing. Indeed it was difficult to get up a dinner one thousand miles away from the nearest town, no butcher, no baker, no grocer, all the people depended upon coming from St. Paul, Minnesota, or London, England. A bag of flour cost thirty dollars, and we had only two for that year, all the missionary could buy at Fort Garry the previous summer. White flour, indeed, was a luxury, kept for sickness, holidays, or Sundays, barley flour being used in its stead.
Buffalo meat, turnips, potatoes, plum pudding and barley cake a novel Christmas dinner!”
Tragically, Abigail died in 1871 of smallpox, leaving her husband with three young daughters. In the same year his father the Reverend George McDougall – whose wife was worn out for a time by rugged pioneer living – moved to the Hudson Bay post at Edmonton. That same year they built the city’s first church. Restored, it stands there still today in the heart of the city’s business district.
In 1872, the young man returned east and was ordained in the Methodist church. There he met Elizabeth Boyd and the two were married that fall. Their honeymoon was spent trekking west from Fort Garry to Fort Victoria (West of Edmonton).
In 1873, the McDougalls founded the mission at Morley, East of Calgary, where their church still stands. Following his father’s death in a blizzard following a late fall buffalo hunt, John maintained the operation of this mission for over twenty five years.
Aside from his work at Morley, McDougall served as chairman of the Saskatchewan District of the Methodist Church and superintendent of Indian missions for Manitoba and the North-West Territories.
An important presence at the signing of Treaty Seven, McDougall was designated to explain the treaty process to the Blackfoot Confederacy. At Blackfoot Crossing he also served as a translator, was signatory to that document and later was a special commissioner investigating both the Red River and North West Rebellions.
His reports on the whisky trade helped convince the Canadian Government to form the North West Mounted Police. He organized native peoples involvement in the first Calgary Stampede (much to the chagrin of both the Federal Government and other local religious leaders).
He was responsible for the building of Morley Church (renovated recently by heritage restorer Pat Coyle).
All in all, John McDougall was not modern day’s image of the traditional missionary. An experienced hunter and trapper, he was well able to survive pioneer life in the early Canadian West.
John and his brother David (who together carved out a portion of the Calgary-Edmonton Trail), it’s alleged, were especially fond of tall tales and were always trying to outdo one another in their telling.
One old timer once said, "There are three liars in the territories; the trader David McDougall is one and his reverend brother, the other two".
When John McDougall died in 1917, he left behind his wife, five sons and four daughters to carry on his legacy. When the funeral cortege passed through the streets of Calgary, crowds thronged the route. The North West Mounted Police mounted a Guard of Honour and there were many veterans of the North West Rebellion attending as well as many First Nations chiefs in their finest headdresses to honour the passing of a good friend.