Recognized by many as Japan’s first English teacher, Ranald MacDonald was buried in an Indian Cemetery on the east side of Customs Road, on a hill that overlooks the Kettle River below. His grave site is the smallest state park in Washington State.
Ten and a half miles from Curlew, Washington in a small graveyard overlooking the Kettle River, lies the remains of Ranald MacDonald, who was a sailor, a gold miner, a writer, an explorer, and (briefly) a teacher. Relatively unknown to the citizens of his own country, MacDonald is fondly remembered by the Japanese for the role he played in helping them learn more about the English language and Western culture.
Ranald MacDonald was born February 3, 1824 in Fort George (Astoria, Oregon). He was the oldest son of Archibald MacDonald, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk, and Chinook Princess Raven (Koale’zoa). After his mother died, his mother’s sister cared for the young MacDonald at the Chinook Concomly lodge. He rejoined his father upon his father’s marriage to a frontier woman named Jane Klyne.
When young, he was educated by his father. He received his formal education at Ball Academy at Fort Vancouver in Oregon and completed his education at the Red River Academy in Winnipeg. At 15 he accepted an apprenticeship at a bank in Ontario, but abandoned his apprenticeship to become a sailor.
In 1845, MacDonald signed on to the whaling ship, Plymouth, and served as a harpooner and a navigator. Long fascinated by little-known Japan, in 1848 MacDonald struck a bargain with the ship’s captain. In exchange for MacDonald’s whaling profits, MacDonald asked to be given a small boat and put to sea near Japan’s shoreline. MacDonald understood that he was risking death or imprisonment by defying the Imperial Japanese edict which denied foreign access to Japan, but he was reportedly curious to learn if there was any ancestral relationship between the Japanese and his own Native American relatives.
In June 1848 he set out alone for the coast of Japan. Before making land, he partially swamped his boat in the hopes of convincing the Japanese that he was a castaway. On July 1, 1848, he was rescued by Ainu fisherman on Rishiri Island near the shores of Hokaido, Japan. He was taken captive by the Japanese and ultimately transported to Nagasaki where he stood trial. When questioned by his captors, MacDonald claimed to be the victim of a shipwreck and claimed to have peaceful intentions. Officials accepted MacDonald’s story and sentenced him to house arrest for his illegal entry into Japan.
It is said that his last words to her were, “Sayonara my dear, sayonara.”
Well treated by his captors, MacDonald was put to work teaching them English. For the next seven months, he shared his language and culture with fourteen Japanese students, including Moriyama, the translator who helped MacDonald negotiate his trial and later helped negotiate a trade agreement between Japan’s government and Admiral Perry, which helped open Japan to the West.
In April 1849, the American warship Preble arrived in Nagasaki looking for survivors of the Lagoda, an American whaler, that had wrecked on the Japanese coast. When the commander of the Preble learned that MacDonald was in Nagasaki they secured his release. MacDonald was then transported to Macau.
After he left Japan, MacDonald briefly returned to the U.S., then resumed his travels, beginning with Australia, where he enjoyed success as a miner in the gold fields in Ballarat. As an employee of the Canadian government, he joined the Brown expedition to explore minerals on Vancouver Island and later led a similar successful expedition to the Horsefly Mining District.
In 1882, at 60 years of age, MacDonald joined his brother Donald at the abandoned Hudson’s Bay Fort Covile, where his father had once been Chief Factor. There he claimed 156 acres of land near the Columbia River and built a cabin. (The cabin is now located under water.) In the following years, he continued to pan for gold in the gold-rich creeks that fed the Kettle and Columbia rivers. In the summer of 1894, Jenny Nelson Lynch, the daughter of his half brother Benjamin, drove a horse and buggy across Sherman Pass to bring a very ill Macdonald back with her to her home in Curlew, Washington. She intended to nurse him back to health, but he died soon after in her cabin above Toroda Creek. It is said that his last words to her were, “Sayonara my dear, sayonara.”
Ranald MacDonald was buried in an Indian Cemetery on the east side of Customs Road, on a knoll overlooking the Kettle River, 10-1/2 miles north of Curlew, Washington. His grave site has the distinction of being the smallest state park in Washington State. Open daily; year round.
Traveling north on Hwy 21 turn left on Kettle River Road; travel 9-1/2 miles and then turn right at the bridge crossing the Kettle River. From the bridge, turn left on to Customs Road (unmarked). Watch for signs marking the grave site (it’s easy to miss the cemetery entrance). Note: The Ferry County Historical Society’s mural is located approximately one mile from the gravesite.
The Ferry County Historical Society conceived the design and comissioned artist Charlene Peyton-Holt to paint an attractive and informational mural to commemorates the life of Ranald MacDonald. They received financial help from the Ferry County Commissioners and the Curlew Job Corps. The mural is located approximately one mile from the entrance to the cemetery. For more information about Ranald MacDonald, contact:
The Ferry County Historical Society: Visit the page dedicated to Ranald MacDonald and download the informative article by Mary Stow Warring, “Who Was Ranald MacDonald.”