Ranald MacDonald:
Not Your Average Gaijin

NOTE: I know this article is not entirely accurate. I have received several letters on the subject over the years, and the inaccuracies are based on faulty source materials. I should probably remove this article entirely, but I think that might stop some folks from being led to info about Ranald MacDonald, and that would be sad. So here's some corrective information:

I wrote this article way back in 2000. At that time, virtually no info about Ranald MacDonald was available, and this was a fairly quick small research project I stumbled into during research for a Japanese history course I was taking at the time. Unfortunately, some details in my source materials were erroneous, and I translated those mistakes into my own writing. As I state, the essay is a summary/response to James Seward's chapter in his book Strange But True Stories From Japan. Obviously, this is not a really geat source.

Here's an example of the letters I've gotten from concerned readers:

Ranald MacDonald did not die in the arms of his only daughter .   He died in the arms of his niece.  Her name was Jenny MacDonald Nelson Lynch! .

In addition h e is not interred in an Indian cemetery in an unmarked grave. Please see the following from Wikipedia :

MacDonald rests today in the Ranald McDonald Cemetery , Ferry County, Washington (48?56'51"N, 118?45'43"W) . Ranald McDonald's Grave is 18 miles northwest of Curlew Lake State Park on Mid Way Road and is a satellite of Osoyoos Lake State Park. The grave bears the following inscription:

      RANALD MacDONALD 1824-1894





    You can find the entire article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranald_MacDonald   I know that sometimes the information on Wikipedia is not accurate, but in this case I can verify that it is because I have personally visited the cemetery .  Ranald MacDonald is my great, great, great , great, great uncle.  Jenny MacDonald Nelson Lynch is my great , great grandmother.

    Thank you,

    Teri Chlanda

While I don't want to spread faulty info, I also don't have the time to rewrite the essay and research the actual facts. So let's just agree that this essay is flawed, and all future readers are hereby forewarned: Do your own additional research to discover the flaws in this article. If I get more time, I will rewrite this essay, but, in truth, it is not a very popular piece of writing, and it is a legacy of a time long, long ago. Right now I don't see it in my future to revamp the content that has been abandoned on this old website. Check in with my current website, ShawnRider.com, for the latest info and updates.



Ranald MacDonald was born in 1824, the son of a Scottish trader and a Chinook Princess, in what was at that time the Oregon Territory. MacDonald’s mother died early in his life, and he was raised for the most part by his father, who remained friendly with his mother’s tribe and worked hard to insure MacDonald’s continued education. MacDonald succeeded: He attended grammar/high school in Portland and later went to college at a university in Canada. This highly educated, mixed-blood Oregonian was the person needed to attempt one of the most daring and exciting feats of the 19th Century.

Ranald MacDonald was the first American English teacher in Japan. Jack Seward, author of "The First American Teacher of English in Japan," an essay published in his collection, Strange But True Stories From Japan, tells the story of MacDonald and his tumultuous life. MacDonald was spurred on to visit Japan because of an event that happened while he was still in Portland.

October 11, 1832 saw the departure of a Japanese fishing boat, Hojun-maru, from Toba, bound for Edo. Fourteen sailors were caught in a storm, blown off course, and their mast was destroyed by the harsh winds. They floated for fourteen months across the North Pacific, eventually landing at Cape Flattery in what became Washington State. Only three survivors remained aboard the ship: Kyukichi, Otokichi, and Iwakichi. These three Japanese fishermen were taken in at first by an Indian tribe who enslaved them, and eventually rescued by British naval officers. Thinking the British could use the Japanese to force Japan to open their doors to Western trade, the naval officials sent the three fishermen to English classes in Portland. While they were there, MacDonald saw them and became fascinated. His Chinook descent gave MacDonald facial features that looked distinctly Asian; indeed, many of the Northwestern tribes bear a facial resemblance to Asian peoples.

MacDonald made it his goal to get to Japan in a time when foreigners were often killed for tresspassing. After finishing his school career, he began to sail the world, working on different ocean-going vessels, and occasionally visiting the Sea of Japan, but never the islands. Eventually, MacDonald hired a ship to take him to the Sea of Japan and allow him to embark on his own, in a rowboat, to the shore. MacDonald landed on the shore of Yagishiri, an island in northern Japan, and was discovered by two Ainu men. MacDonald was a bizarre find – not only did he not look like the other Westerners the Japanese had seen, but he carried with him none of the usual precious objects the Japanese had come to associate with the west. Instead, MacDonald’s bag was full of books: grammar books, history books, and geography books.

After a short stay in Yagishiri, the Shogun ordered MacDonald to be moved to Nagasaki and imprisoned in a temple called the Daihian. From his cell in the temple, MacDonald taught fourteen young Japanese English, Western history, and geography. Many of the boys/men he taught became the rulers of the government during the Meiji Restoration.

MacDonald spent seven months teaching from his cell and enjoying what he termed the greatest Japanese hospitality. At the end of the seventh month, MacDonald heard cannon fire. An American warship had come to try to force Japan to open their doors to trade. This all took place in 1848, and the ship was the Preble, under the command of Commander Glynn. Glynn, needless to say, was unsuccessful, but the Shogunate did decide that MacDonald should be sent back to America aboard the warship.

MacDonald left Japan, never to return, but did not go to America. Rather, he spent several years touring the world, especially Asia and the South Pacific. He eventually returned to Fort Colville, Washington, and lived his remaining days there writing his autobiography. He never finished his autobiography, but he did write incredibly complimentary things about his stay in Japan. He died a pauper, in the arms of his only daughter, and, according to Seward, his last words were: "Sayonara, my dear, sayonara." MacDonald’s body was interred in an Indian cemetery in an unmarked grave.

It’s probably obvious why this story appeals to me: I’m an English teacher and I love Japan. I can sympathize with MacDonald’s curiousity about Japan, and I think his effort is quite noble. Obviously MacDonald was an incredibly intelligent man, and I think it’s very sad that he could not have been so successful or important had he focused his attentions on America. But by travelling the world over, he brought genuine curiousity and intellectual adventure to the places where skin tone and facial features were not such an issue. I wonder if he’s buried near here?




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