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Ranald MacDonald

Considered one of the first to teach English in Japan, Ranald MacDonald lived an adventurous life that brought him across the world. He was born in 1824 in Fort Astoria in the Pacific Northwest, an area known as the Columbia District or Oregon Country, to Archibald McDonald and Koale’xoa, also known as Princess Raven, the youngest daughter of Clatsop Chinook leader Comcomly. When his mother died not long after MacDonald’s birth, his father went on to marry Jane Klyne. It was not until much later in life that MacDonald discovered that Jane was not his real mother, but when he did learn the truth, he professed the same love for her as if she had been his own mother (Edgerton). It was also said that he did not know his Native American ancestry and discovered it around the same time, however, the circumstances regarding this revelation are unclear.

MacDonald’s education started from home but he was eventually sent to school in the Red River Settlement, a colonization project set up in 1811 in the area now known as Winnipeg, Canada. He was thinking of an army career which disturbed his father for he couldn’t afford a commission in addition to not thinking it was the right vocation for his son (Edgerton). However, by the time he was 18, he was apprenticed with Edward Ermatinger, a fur-trade banker. By 1845, he left his job at the bank and went to sea, spending several years as a navigator and harpooner on a whaling ship.

It is unclear where MacDonald’s interest in Japan came from, but he was determined to travel there. By prearrangement with the captain of the whaler, in 1848 he left the ship in a small boat when it was near Rishiri Island, in northern Japan (Oberst). As Japan had closed its borders to the outside world for over 200 years, this was very dangerous as the reported penalty for foreigners landing on Japanese soil was death. His shipmates account of MacDonald leaving for Japan states:

“His little vessel dashed over the waves like an arrow. All hands had gathered tp see the last of the bold adventurer…Every man on board felt sad to see a shipmate leave the ship under such circumstances. He was a good sailor, well educated, of firm mind, well calculated for the expedition upon which he had embarked. His intentions were to stay at this island and learn some of the Japanese language and from there to go down to Yeddo, the principal city of Nepon, and if the English or Americans ever open trade with the Japanese, he would find employment as an interpreter. He had other intentions which I never mentioned only in a secret manner. The last we saw of the little vessel, she was standing in for a small bay on the north side of the island (Edgerton).”

He was careful regarding his landing in Japan. He calculated that the Japanese might have some compassion for one in distress and treat him less cruelly if it was thought to be shipwrecked so he spent the next two days exploring and laying his plans as to avoid the suspicion that he was voluntarily and intentionally seeking their shores (Edgerton). When he finally reached the Japan, he was brought to Nagasaki where he was closely watched. For many months, he was a tutor to 14 Japanese interpreters, primarily teaching English conversation and pronunciation in which one such pupil, Einosuke Moriyama, who would later become the chief interpreter on behalf of the Japanese when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy’s East Indies Squadron arrived in Japan to demand that the Shogunate open its door to America (Oberst).

After spending 10 months in Japan, MacDonald had the opportunity to leave the country. The USS Preble arrived to liberate thirteen U.S. seamen who had been shipwrecked and imprisoned and MacDonald joined the liberated group and left Japan with them (Oberst). Although MacDonald left Japan, his life remained filled with adventure. This included the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition which crossed the largely unexplored interior of Vancouver Island four times and the next year he led a government-sponsored expedition to explore for minerals in the Horsefly area of the Cariboo (Wallace). His travels also included Australia where he was a rancher before moving back to the west.

Ranald MacDonald died in 1894 at the age of 70 having never married.

Further Reading

a story on his life based on her contact with MacDonald when he was alive


Ranald MacDonald Memorial at the Nozuka Observation Deck on Rishiri Island


Works Cited

Edgerton, Ralph P. Edgerton. “Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), Adventurer.”, 26 Oct. 2005, Accessed 14 June 2024.

Oberst, Mary. “Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894).”, 6 June 2022, Accessed 13 June 2024.

Wallace, David H. “Biography – MACDONALD, RANALD – Volume XII (1891-1900) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.”, 1990, Accessed 14 June 2024.

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