The Northern Missionaries - Bishop Stringer - The Bishop who ate his Boots

William Kirkby  | Robert McDonald  |  William Bompas  |  J.W. Ellington  |  Isaac & Sadie Stringer

Robert McDonald
(1829-1913)

Robert McDonald was well suited for mission work in the North. He had grown up on the Canadian frontier, had previously worked with a native population, and had a gift for languages.

Born in 1829 of mixed parentage, part Ojibway and part Scottish, McDonald grew up in the Old Red River settlement (Manitoba). He attended St. John's College and was ordained in 1852. For the next 9 years he worked at the Islington mission in Manitoba. Here he mastered the Ojibway language and began the translation work for which he is known.

In 1862, McDonald responded to Kirkby's request to establish a mission at Fort Yukon. He began in earnest to learn the native language. His work was cut short when devastating epidemics of influenza and scarlet fever swept across the North. The diseases wiped out large populations of natives and McDonald himself became ill. Fearing he would not survive his illness, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sent William Carpenter Bompas to replace McDonald. However, before Bompas arrived, McDonald had regained his health. He owed his recovery to a tonic the natives gave him made from a plant root called "Toayashi". The English translation of this word meaning "it helped cure his uncle".

Although not credited, McDonald is believed to be the first man to discover gold in the Yukon. In 1863, while visiting natives on Birch Creek, he reported seeing gold and scooped a spoonful which he sent to the British Museum for analysis. McDonald was interested to learn that the substance was indeed gold, but he did not wish to pursue the life of a miner. He was more concerned that news of a gold discovery would trigger an influx of gold miners and feared the devastating effects the miners would have on the native way of life.

McDonald travelled extensively, visiting native camps throughout the area. He had a natural empathy and respect for their culture and concerned himself with teaching them to read in their own language so they would have access to the teachings of the Bible during his absences. Two years after his arrival at Fort Yukon, he baptized the first Gwitch'in converts. Over the course of his 42 years in the North, he baptized 2,000 adults and children.

McDonald remained at Fort Yukon until 1872 when the first Alaska/Yukon boundary dispute was settled and the mission was relocated to Rampart House, located inside the Yukon border. After a year at Rampart House, McDonald moved to Fort McPherson (Northwest Territories) and in 1875 he was appointed Archdeacon of the Mackenzie Diocese.

Robert McDonald's greatest legacy is his translation work. Assisted by his native wife, Julia Kutug, he translated the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and many hymns. He also prepared a scholarly grammar of the Tukudh language, a book of family prayers to be used in native camps, and a primer for teaching the Gwitch'in people how to read. Julia would repeat words over and over to him until he understood the phonetics. From the phonetics he composed a written language. His syllabarium of phonetics and his translations are still used today by the Gwitch'in people.

In 1905, McDonald retired from the ministry. He died in Winnipeg in 1913 in his 84th year.

Old Log Church Museum 2002
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