Who was James McGill?

James McGill, founder of McGill UniversityJames McGill 1744-1813

James McGill was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1744 and studied at Glasgow University.

Sometime before 1766, he immigrated to North America and began trading in the Upper Great Lake region – the pays d’en haut. By 1775, McGill had established himself in Montreal and continued trading in furs and ammunition. As a successful merchant, McGill also engaged in the trade and importation of goods produced on enslaved-labour plantations in the West Indies.

In 1776 McGill married a francophone widow, Marie-Charlotte Trottier Desrivières (née Guillimin), and became stepfather to her sons. McGill was a volunteer Colonel with the Montreal militia and served as a city magistrate for many years, making him part of a council that was the de facto government of Montreal. He was also a member of a committee that reported on the need for a Legislative Assembly for the colony of Lower Canada, to which he would be elected three times.


At various times, the McGill household owned at least five enslaved Black and Indigenous people: Jack or Jacques, a Black man (c1760-1838); Sarah, a Black woman (c1763- 1809); Marie-Louise, a Black woman who had joined the household as a girl (c1765-1789); an Indigenous boy whose name is unknown (c1768-1778); Marie Potamiane, an Indigenous girl (c1773-1783).

Following his death in 1813, McGill’s will revealed a bequest to the Royal Institute for the Advancement of Learning (RIAL) intended to found a college that should bear his name. The RIAL became the governing body for McGill College, which was officially established in 1821.

McGill University recognizes that the wealth leading to its establishment was derived, in part, from James McGill’s engagement in the colonial economic system and the transatlantic slave trade. The University acknowledges the deep, long-lasting adverse impacts that these practices have exerted on Black and Indigenous communities.

In the 200 years since its establishment, McGill University has evolved to become a world-class institution of higher education marked by pluralism and diversity. It is proud to welcome exceptional students, faculty, and staff of all identities, beliefs, and origins who today call McGill University their intellectual home.

In 2020, McGill University appointed two Provostial Postdoctoral Research Scholars on Slavery and Colonialism whose projects will investigate the University’s historic connections to colonialism and slavery. The University will publish more facts about its early history as these become available through the work of these and other scholars.

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