Captain McNeill and His Wife the Nishga Chief, 1803-1850


256 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88839-472-1
DDC 971.1'02'0922




Reviewed by Kerry Abel

Kerry Abel is a professor of history at Carleton University. She is the author of Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, co-editor of Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects, and co-editor of Northern Visions: New Perspectives on the North in Canadian History.


The Canadian fur trade had its share of fascinating characters and
amazing stories, yet most Canadians know nothing of either. Nor has our
literature developed a tradition of swashbuckling adventures at sea, in
spite of the importance of oceans to our history. The story of Boston
seaman William Henry McNeill, who joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, has
all the ingredients for a literary classic: a boy at sea in the age of
sail, mutiny, murder, international intrigue, and a love story.
Unfortunately, in spite of the author’s obvious enthusiasm for his
subject, that story never really comes alive in this telling.

The writer, a retired physician, ferreted out journals and letters by
and about McNeill, then turned to anthropological observations of the
Haida and Nisga’a to extrapolate what he could about the life of one
of McNeill’s wives, Matilda. The details of their daily lives are
convincing, but the overarching storyline is disconnected from both a
narrative thread and the more general historical context. As a result,
we are never quite sure how or why things happen, and we are never able
to engage fully with the main characters. How did William and Matilda
meet? Why did they marry, and how was the arrangement perceived by them,
their families, and their communities? How were their children received
in the changing society at Victoria? How did the marriage affect
William’s career? Obviously the limited source material makes
definitive answers to these questions difficult, but a more experienced
historian could have made more of the sources and provided at least
suggestive interpretations. The production of the book itself does not
serve the story well. Old maps are juxtaposed with modern ones for
comparison, but the quality of the reproductions are so poor that none
of the details are legible. And further, there are no citations to
indicate the sources of quotations. A good editor could certainly have
helped to smooth out the rough edges.

There are some very fine passages in the book when the author, himself
a sailor, describes the activity on board a sailing ship. Nonetheless,
the history of William and Matilda McNeill remains to be more fully


Percival Smith, Robin., “Captain McNeill and His Wife the Nishga Chief, 1803-1850,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,