James MacKay: Chesterfield’s Renaissance Man
By Ann Chrissos
In the sixteenth century, Leonardo DaVinci epitomized the “Renaissance Man”. He could do many things and he did all of them well. He was a painter, a sculptor, an inventor, an engineer, a scientist and an architect. James MacKay is Chesterfield’s version of a frontier “Renaissance Man.” He had many skills which were extremely useful in the eighteenth-century Missouri wilderness. He was an intrepid explorer, an accomplished trader, a skilled surveyor, an accurate cartographer, a town promoter, a political leader, a successful landowner and he was also multi-lingual. * These skills enabled James MacKay to literally and figuratively put the Chesterfield area on the map.
A surviving letter to MacKay’s oldest son provides the history of his ancestry. He was a descendant of an Irish prince who invaded and settled in northern Scotland five and a half centuries before his birth on May 1, 1761. He was born to Judge George MacKay and his wife Elizabeth McDonald in Sutherland County, Scotland and grew up with three brothers – Robert, George and John and two sisters – Jean and Catherine. Sometime between 1776 and 1777, MacKay emigrated to Canada where he spent five years exploring, learning the fur trade with various Native American tribes and learning their languages. The next five years he signed on with the Hudson Bay and North West Companies as an experienced fur trader. This gave him the opportunity to explore as far west as the Rocky Mountains. He left Canada in 1788 to visit his brother John in New York City and to seek more lucrative opportunities.
Such an opportunity arose when MacKay was asked to lead a trading and surveying expedition to Cahokia, Illinois. He found Cahokia to be a rich fur trading center and a desirable place to settle. Four years later the lure of adventure pulled him across the Mississippi River and into the Missouri territory. The Spanish lieutenant governor Xenon Trudeau’s invitation to lead an expedition up the Missouri River for the Missouri Company was too enticing to resist. MacKay hired John Evans as his second in command along with cartographer Nicolas de Finiels and surveyor Antoine Pierre Soulard to assist in mapping and naming places along 1500 miles of the Missouri River. The expedition left St. Louis in late summer of 1795 and returned in the summer of 1797. Spain received a detailed map drawn by MacKay and labeled in French. Spain paid MacKay with land grants of 3700 acres near Bonhomme Creek. MacKay then mapped the area with his signature fleur-des-lis at the north arrow although Nicolas Finiels is frequently given credit for it.
Spain permitted MacKay to form an American village in 1798 near his land holdings. Twenty-nine families, mostly from Kentucky, received land grants along the Missouri River in present day Chesterfield. The village was named San Andre (St. Andrews) and MacKay was appointed commandant. His map illustrated the names and locations of these early settlers. After the 1811 flood most residents moved their homes up on the bluffs, but continued to plant crops on their river bottoms land. In 1800 MacKay married Elizabeth Long (later known as Isabella Louise), daughter of John and Elizabeth Long. They had three sons -- John Zeno, George Anthony and James Bennett and four daughters -- Eliza Lucy, Catherine Mary, Jean Julia and Emilia Anne.
MacKay needed to safeguard his children’s legacies following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He hoped to ingratiated himself with the United States government by offering Meriwether Lewis his map of the Missouri River. His offer was accepted and his map was used for the first year of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He also served as Justice of the Peace under America’s jurisdiction and was elected to represent St. Louis County in the territorial legislature. Eventually, he purchased land in the City of St. Louis and in south St. Louis County. He and his family moved away from Chesterfield after his “mansion” ** was completed in south county. After a brief illness, he died at home on March 16, 1822. In spite of moving away, James MacKay remains important to the history of Chesterfield. He literally put the parts of Chesterfield which border the Missouri River and Bonhomme Creek on his maps. By inviting settlers and founding a town, he set the stage for future development in the Chesterfield area. He was truly a Renaissance man.
*MacKay could read, write and speak fluently in Gaelic, English, French and Spanish and he mastered several Native American dialects.
**MacKay described his south county home as a mansion.
Depiction of a Missouri fur trader.
Danisi, Thomas C. and W. Raymond Wood. Lewis and Clark’s Route Map: James MacKay’s Map of the Missouri River, The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2004.
The St. Louis Inquirer, 23 Mar. 1822. Obituary of James MacKay.
Widener, Helen, Mackays, Caithness. Org, 15 Nov. 2005.