David Ross McCord | The Canadian Encyclopedia


David Ross McCord

David Ross McCord (born 18 March 1844 in Montreal, Quebec; died 12 April 1930 in Guelph, Ontario), lawyer, alderman, military officer, collector and museum founder. McCord amassed a collection of roughly 15,000 artifacts related to Indigenous peoples and Canadian history and culture, which he presented to McGill University in 1919. The collection was made accessible to the public with the opening of the McCord National Museum in 1921 (now part of the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal).

David Ross McCord, 1908

The McCords of Montreal

David Ross McCord was the fourth of six children of John Samuel McCord (1801–65), a judge and art collector, and Anne Ross (1807–70), a watercolour artist. The McCords and the Rosses were among the most prominent Anglo-Canadian families in 19th-century Montreal. McCord’s great-grandfather John McCord was a Protestant Ulster Scots merchant who immigrated to Quebec from County Antrim (now part of Northern Ireland) in the 1760s, after the fall of Quebec City to the British in 1759. (See Battle of the Plains of Abraham.) John McCord sold alcohol to British garrison troops in Quebec, then opened a store on La Fabrique street, supplying the inhabitants of Quebec City with clothing, food, drink and hardware. John’s fifth son, Thomas McCord, became a substantial landowner in Quebec, and both of his sons, John Samuel and William King, served as judges on the Superior Court of Lower Canada.

John Samuel McCord

Education and Career

David Ross McCord’s parents encouraged their children to pursue a wide range of interests, including science, languages, classical civilizations and art. Both McCord and his mother received drawing lessons from Montreal-based artist James D. Duncan. McCord received his secondary education at the High School of Montreal, then attended McGill College (now McGill University), earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1863 and master of arts and bachelor of civil law degrees in 1867. After articling with the firm of Charles-André Leblanc and Francis Cassidy, McCord was called to the bar in 1868 and maintained a private practice, becoming Queen’s Counsel in 1895. McCord also served as a lieutenant in the reserves. He was the alderman for Montreal’s Centre Ward from 1874 to 1882, advocating for improved living conditions for the city’s inhabitants.

Letitia Chambers, 1876
David Ross McCord, 1868


On 21 August 1878, David Ross McCord married Letitia Caroline Chambers (c. 1841–1928), head nurse of Montreal’s Civic Hospital. McCord and Chambers met through his work as an alderman seeking to improve public health and sanitation. Chambers was also a poet, whose work was published in the 1901 collection Poems and Songs on the South African War. The couple settled at Temple Grove, a house on the south side of Mount Royal commissioned by McCord’s father. They did not have any children.

David Ross McCord and Letitia Chambers, 1910


From the 1880s, the McCords increasingly focused their attention on collecting objects related to Canadian history. Around 1900, David Ross McCord relinquished his law practice and focused on collecting, supported by rental income from the McCord family landholdings, mortgaging properties and selling land to developers.

McCord recognized the cultural significance of Indigenous peoples as one of the founding nations of Canada. He was concerned about the removal of Indigenous artifacts from Canada to American museums and wrote to a donor to the original McCord Museum in 1919, “I will also make [the museum] as Indian as I possibly can — a museum of the original owners of the land.” In 2021, however, the Canadian Society of Decorative Arts concluded that McCord’s “collection decontextualized Indigenous objects, silencing their voices from their intended cultural meanings and traditions.”


McCord studied the work of both English-Canadian and French-Canadian historians and was especially interested in the impact of New France, the British Empire and the city of Montreal on Canadian history. The best-known artifacts in the McCord collection include an early-19th-century headdress reputed to have been worn by Shawnee military leader Tecumseh during the War of 1812, George Townshend’s watercolour portrait of General James Wolfe and 31 watercolours by William George Richardson Hind painted during an 1862 expedition to British Columbia.


David Ross McCord suffered a stroke in 1908. By 1914, his collection had outgrown his home at Temple Grove. With the assistance of fellow lawyer William Douw Lighthall and McGill University librarian Charles Henry Gould, McCord arranged for his collection to be acquired by McGill University, with an endowment to support the opening of a museum of Canadian history.

In 1919, McCord wrote a letter to Lady Laurier, wife of former prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, requesting artifacts from Laurier’s political career for the museum. McCord explained his vision for a national museum of Canadian history, writing, “I have created and continue to create a national museum in the true and widest sense of the word. McGill [University] has come forward to help achieve this most desirable objective, hitherto neglected in Canada.” McCord believed that the museum had the potential to bring together the histories of English Canadians and French Canadians to create a unified national narrative. “You will see that I am pursuing the same policy and teaching the same principles as those to which your marital partner dedicated his life — the union of the two races.”

McCord couldn’t attend the opening of the McCord National Museum on 13 October 1921 because of his health, but he played a key role in curating the museum’s first permanent exhibitions. From 1921 until his death in 1930, McCord held the title of curator, but his arteriosclerosis prevented him from assuming an active role in the museum’s operations. He died of myocardial failure in 1930.


After David Ross McCord’s death, McGill University closed the McCord Museum as a cost-saving measure during the Great Depression. While artifacts were loaned to other museums, the McCord Museum itself was not reopened to the public until 1971. In 1987, the museum received a donation from the McConnell Foundation and became independent of the university — a process that sparked some controversy as McCord had donated his original collection to McGill University.

In 1992, McCord and his family were the subject of an exhibition at the McCord Museum that emphasized their impact on the development of Montreal and their preservation of historical artifacts significant to Canadian history.

The present-day McCord Stewart Museum, comprising collections from the original McCord National Museum, Stewart Museum and Fashion Museum, is one of the largest museums in Canada devoted to social history.

Further Reading