John McLeod: Overlooked Action Figure

Have you ever wondered where McLeod Lake, in downtown Stockton, got its name? I did. If you look at the Museum's earliest map of the Stockton area, which dates from the middle 1840s, you can see this very Scottish name right in the middle of what was then very Hispanic territory. How did this happen?

McLeod Lake, ca. 1900.

McLeod Lake, ca. 1900.

George Tinkham, the venerated early twentieth-century local historian, offers an explanation in his History of San Joaquin County (1923). He tells us that the lake got its name from a man named John McLeod. Tinkham also tells readers that McLeod was a trapper and a friend of Charles M. Weber, the founder of Stockton.

Historians Thomas Hinkley Thompson and Albert Augustus West give additional details. According to their History of San Joaquin County, California (1874), McLeod worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and in 1827 or 1828 led a trapping expedition from the Pacific Northwest into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. In addition, they claim that McLeod and his group camped on the south side of French Camp Slough during that visit.

What else do we know about McLeod?

For one thing, he may have been a notable Canadian. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography includes an entry for a fur trader named John McLeod who was born in 1795 in the parish of Lochs, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, and arrived in Montreal, Quebec, at the age of twenty-one with a six-year contract to work for the North West Company, a fur trapping enterprise. Soon afterward, North West merged with Hudson's Bay Company, which became McLeod's employer for the next three decades.

McLeod's responsibilities included clerking, overseeing the fur trade, and exploring in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, as well as the Northwest Territories. Over time, he gained the respect of coworkers and superiors. One report stated that McLeod had "steady habits of business and correct conduct" and described him as an "active well behaved Man of tolerable Education." It also found him proficient in the language of the Crees, with the ability to understand Chipewyan.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, McLeod set sail from British Columbia in 1838 on the Cadboro, a Hudson's Bay schooner, on a mission to search for company trappers lost somewhere in the Sacramento Valley. He found them with the help of Mexican officials and Russians, who were based at Bodega Bay. While there, he paused to discuss the fur trade with Ivan Antonovich Kupeianov, the Russian American Company's chief manager in Northern California.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography sees the record going silent soon afterward. In 1842, McLeod retired at the age of forty-seven and apparently returned to Britain. The date and place of his death are unknown.

So did John McLeod visit this area at least twice? Or were there, perhaps, two Hudson's Bay trappers of the same name who traveled here two separate times? Nobody seems to know.

Whatever the case, whichever person McLeod Lake honors should be seen as one of San Joaquin County's many unsung action figures. It doesn't seem inappropriate to consider the lake named after him as a monument not only to certain kinds of small, wild, valuable furry creatures once found here in abundance, but also to the wave of trappers whose presence helped blaze the path for European settlement shortly before the Gold Rush.

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