The Duel of Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell of Greenfield.

Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell (1784-1812) was son of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield (1750-1819) who came to Upper Canada, with his family and a number of clansmen, in 1792.

Of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield, Mrs. Grant of Laggan wrote as follows:

“A few lingering instances of the old superior Highland dress continued to be seen as late as the end of last (i.e. the eighteenth) century, one of its latest examples being afforded by Macdonell of Greenfield, Ceann Tighe of a cadet house of the Glengarry family, who in the latter part of the last century was celebrated for his handsome person, his courtly address, his exploits as a deer-stalker, and general character as a model of the Highland gentleman living in his time. He is described by several of the old people, by whom he was remembered, as dressed invariably in the Highland garb – a short round ‘cota goirid’ a bonnet plumed with a tuft of ostrich feathers; belted plaid worn over the trews. The house of Greenfield stood in a beautiful romantic situation, near the head of Loch Garry, on a green knoll.”

Upon coming to Canada, Greenfield settled in the Township of Charlottenburg, calling his new home “Greenfield,” after the home he had left. In the war of 1812, he commanded the 2nd Battalion Glengarry Militia. While still in Scotland, before the migration of 1773, he married Janet, elder of the two daughters of his namesake Alexander Macdonell of Aberchalder. Lt.Col. John Macdonell his son and the subject of this sketch, was, therefore, a nephew of his namesake and predecessor in the Legislature, Lt. Col. John Macdonell (Aberchalder).

Among the brothers of Lt. Col. John Macdonell (Greenfield) were Lt. Col. Duncan Macdonell and Lt. Col. Donald Macdonell, the latter of whom also, as we shall see, represented the county of Glengarry in the Legislature.

A frequent visitor at the home of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield was his wife’s first cousin, Alexander Macdonell of Collachie, and, as a result, the latter became much impressed with what he conceived to be the exceptional talent and ability of Greenfield’s son John. In consequence, he persuaded the young man to accompany him to York, where, on April 6th, 1803, he arranged for his protege’s admission as a student-at-law, his call to the Bar following in Easter term, 1808. John’s career at the Bar, though short, was exceptionally brilliant. He rose rapidly in his profession and in 1811, when only twenty-seven, was appointed by Lieutenant-Governor Gore to be Acting Attorney-General of the Province. William Firth had been Attorney-General, but his accounts for unathorised court attendances had been disallowed by the Board of Audit and his application for leave of absence to go England, to appeal from this decision, had been refused. He went, nevertheless, and the Lieutenant-Governor suspended him, and informed Lord Liverpool, in a letter dated September 30th, 1811, that “too much care cannot be exercised in choosing a successor to Mr. Firth.” On November 26th Gore appointed Macdonell to perform the duties until the pleasure of the Minister in England was known. He was not even at that time, a member of the Legislature but this was remedied at the General Election of June 30th 1812 when he was returned as one of the members for the County of Glengarry although he had for almost a decade been a resident of the Town of York Light is thrown upon Macdonell’s character by the following letter to the suspended Attorney General, by Doctor William Warren Baldwin (1775-1844), no friend of Macdonell’s, of whom he was plainly jealous:

York, 22nd April, 1812.
My dear Firth,

Mr. Macdonell, the Attorney-General – not pro temper, sed in ample – according to his address to the court and his signature to all public instruments, is such a paragon of excellence that he leaves no virtue, no commendable qualification for others to found pretensions on. He is made Colonel of Militia and Provincial Aid-de-camp to General Brock – the field, the Cabinet, the Forum are all to be the scenes of his renown. His honours rain not upon him – they come in tempests.

Lest you should charge me with envy, I do assure you I feel none towards him. I can with greatest indifference see him erect his crest and spread his spangled tail in the sunshine, and am only annoyed when I see him in his celestial adoration, forget those around him and set his foot upon them. Since you left here, I bore much of his insolence, however, at the last assizes he used expressions so wanton and ungentlemanly that I appealed to the Ch. J. who seemed to disapprove of his words. Mr. Macdonell repeated them twice afterwards in the course of his reply, without notice by the Ch. J. I could bear no more.

Lieutenant Taylor of the 41st was fortunately in Court. He is of Lincoln Inn (one of the Inns of Court) and has a great desire to be admitted to the bar here. I communicated to Mr. Taylor my determination of calling on Mr. Macdonell for an explanation. Taylor would have dissuaded me, but perceiving me to be resolved, he confessed he thought me right.

Accordingly, in the evening I wrote Mr. Macdonell a letter stating the offensive words, and requiring an explanation. He seemed astonished, told Mr. Taylor he did not think he said anything requiring an apology, and said he would get a friend to call upon Mr. Taylor with his answer. This friend was Mr. D. Cameron, who expressed himself much concerned that I should in the first instance have made so peremptory a demand of an explanation as he had no doubt that the misunderstanding might have been settled to our mutual satisfaction without going to this extremity, and that Mr. Macdonell could not now think of making an apology. Mr. Taylor saw that I could not pass it over, that my resolution was fixed, and that it only remained to fix the time and place, as Mr. Macdonell declined an explanation and proposed the following morning. Mr. Cameron assumed that Mr. Macdonell had public duties to perform which he could not omit and requested that it might be postponed until after the assizes.

Things remained thus for two days. The assizes ended on Thursday and Mr. Cameron called my friend to say that Mr. M. would wait on the Island at six o’clock on the following morning.

That evening I employed myself in writing to a few friends to you amongst them and also my will. I went to bed earlier usual that I might be early awake. I slept but little, as you suppose; however I arose at break of day and Taylor was with me. I was fortunate to escape alt observation of my own family.

We passed Mr. Cameron’s house before we set off. We walked; they passed us across the ice in a sleigh. I stopped at the block house to execute the will in presence of the necessary number of witnesses, and then proceeded to the Island.

Mr. Cameron and Taylor made their arrangements and then we were placed back to back. I was desired upon the first word to face about; upon the second to fire.

Upon the word I faced about. The word “fire” followed, but I observed Macdonell in his place with his arm down. I did not fire but held my hand pointed towards him, when Cameron called why I did not fire. Macdonell’s pistol still down. Mr. Cameron repeated, “He wants you to fire.” I then fired aside. Upon that Mr. Taylor and Mr. Cameron proposed shaking hands and Mr. Cameron came to me with much concern and feeling and said that he lamented that I had brought things to that extremity so suddenly that Mr. Macdonell came to the ground with determination to receive my fire only. I took this as an acknowledgement of his error. We joined hands and thus the affair ended. He has been sufficiently decorous since then.


This and the following letter are quoted in a manuscript life of Lt. Col. John Macdonell by the late A. McLean Macdonell KC.

Dr. Baldwin was a highly educated man, who was for many years prominent in the affairs of the Province. He was a graduate in medicine of the University of Edinburgh and was also a member of the Bar of Upper Canada. There cannot, however, be two opinions as to who cut the better figure in the matter of the above duel. Macdonell, as a Catholic, was evidently determined that he would not be guilty of the shedding of blood in a private quarrel. This was one of the last duels to be fought in Upper Canada, now Ontario.

He was soon, however, to rally to his Country’s call and to shed his own blood in the defence of the Province. Early in August, 1812, upon the breaking out of hostilities, Macdonell joined General Brock and left for the front. The first achievement of the British and Canadian forces was the taking of Detroit, on August 15th, and on the following day General Brock issued the following order:

The Major-General feels himself under much obligation and he requests Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell, Majors Clegg and Givens will be well assured that their zealous exertions have made too deep an impression on his mind ever to be forgotten.

On August 30th the General wrote the following letter to Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister:

York, Upper Canada.
30th August 1812.
My Lord:

The very important services which I have derived from John Macdonell, Esq. both in his civil and military capacity, since my assuming the administration of the Government of this Province, induces me earnestly to entreat your Lordship to move His Right Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, to be graciously pleased to confirm his appointment to the office of His Majesty’s Attorney-General in which Lieutenant Governor Gore, upon his departure, nominated him to act.

Mr. Macdonell stands high in the opinion of those better able to judge of his professional abilities than I am; but his conduct since the commencement of the war, particularly at a time when the invasion of the Province by the enemy, seemed to have intimidated a large portion of the population. was beyond all praise.

Mr. Macdonell accompanied me to Detroit as my Provincial Aid-de-Camp, in which situation he has afforded me the most important assistance. Indeed I feel so much obliged to him, and considering him in every way worthy of the protection of Your Lordship, that I shall be highly gratified in the success of the present application.

I have the honour to be
My Lord (etc.)
Isaac Brock
M.G. and Presid’t.

But Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell did not live to see the recommendation carried out. On October 13th he fell, with his leader General Brock, charging up the hill at Queenston Heights, and the bodies of both repose in the same tomb.

Extract from “Glengarry’s Representatives” supplied by Judge Ian M. Macdonell, Toronto.