BLEAKLEY, JOSIAH, fur trader, office holder, and militia officer; b. c. 1754; d. 22 Jan. 1822 in Montreal.
Josiah Bleakley was established in the province of Quebec, and possibly engaged in the fur trade, by November 1774 when he signed a petition from British merchants there for the repeal of the Quebec Act. He was in London with another colonial merchant, James Finlay Sr, in April 1778; they had returned to the province by July when they took two bateau loads of merchandise from Montreal to Detroit. Bleakley’s investment in the fur trade that year was about £1,250, which made him a small trader in comparison with James McGill*, who the same year invested more than £24,000.
In 1782 Bleakley accompanied two canoe loads of merchandise to the fur-trading community at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). By April 1783 he had secured government positions as clerk and Indian storekeeper, in charge of dispensing presents to visiting Indians. He continued to trade as well, and that summer, with Finlay and John Gregory*, he took eight canoes with a cargo valued at £4,500 from Montreal to Michilimackinac. Despite the uncertainty of property holding at Michilimackinac, which was placed in American territory by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Bleakley found the place to his liking; he purchased a house and lot in 1785 and enjoyed the fellowship of St John’s Lodge No.15, the local masonic lodge. During 1787 he served as a director of a short-lived fur-trade association called the General Company of Lake Superior and the South, or the General Society [see Étienne-Charles Campion*]. Although he established a permanent residence in Montreal about this time, and in 1787 was elected to the Beaver Club, he continued to travel west frequently.
The upper Mississippi River had attracted Bleakley’s attention as early as 1785–86 when he wintered there, possibly in the service of the General Society. In April 1793 he was at Prairie du Chien (Wis.). During the late 1790s he maintained trade connections with William Burnett at the mouth of the St Joseph River on Lake Michigan and Jacques Clamorgan, Loisel et Cie in St Louis (Mo.). In 1800 he was trading with Auguste Chouteau, also of St Louis, a tie he continued until at least 1809. Again at Prairie du Chien in 1806, he encountered the United States Army exploratory party under Zebulon Montgomery Pike. He doubtless eyed the soldiers apprehensively because, as a British trader, he was excluded from the rich lands along the Missouri River which the United States had recently purchased from France. He was one of the Montreal merchants who, in a memorial of 8 Nov. 1805, had protested this exclusion. In 1807 he was again in the west, trading in partnership with Jean-Baptiste-Toussaint Pothier*.
To meet the increasing American challenge to their trade in United States territory, a number of British and Canadian merchants, including Bleakley, had formed the Michilimackinac Company in late 1806 [see John Ogilvy*]. Bleakley was a negotiator for the new co-partnership in discussions with the North West Company that led to an agreement defining the boundary between their trading territories. In May 1808 he was in a brigade of eight bateaux belonging to the Michilimackinac Company when it was stopped and the bateaux seized by American customs officials at Niagara (near Youngstown), N.Y. Some of the partners journeyed to Washington to protest while Bleakley remained at Niagara to straighten out the affair. The year’s trade was thrown into disarray. However, by 1810, and again in the following year, Bleakley was sending men to winter on the Mississippi, and in 1812 he appears to have been associated with Jacques Porlier.
The War of 1812 probably disrupted Bleakley’s operations, but during 1814 he returned to the Mississippi country. In September he was back in Montreal dispatching a brigade of canoes with supplies to the British garrison at Michilimackinac. At the conclusion of the war British subjects were barred from trading on American territory, and Bleakly seems to have retired at that point. Over the years he had acquired a solid reputation and been called on as an arbitrator or given power of attorney by such important firms as Meldrum, Parke, and Miamis Company and James and Andrew McGill and Company. Thus John Askin’s description of him in 1807 as “that poor simple man” is somewhat perplexing but may explain in part why he never attained the status of a magnate in the trade.
On 24 Feb. 1798 Bleakley had married at Quebec Margaret McCord, sister of Montreal merchant Thomas McCord, in a ceremony at which the fur-trade merchant John Forsyth* was a witness. In 1803 Bleakley became a lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of Montreal’s militia; he retired at that rank in 1812 but became the battalion’s paymaster two years later. By 1819 he was secretary and treasurer of the Montreal Fire Insurance Company. At the time of his death in 1822 he was living in a stone house on the corner of Notre-Dame and Saint-Claude streets next door to Forsyth. This and other properties were seized by the sheriff in March 1823 for sale at public auction at the suit of the merchant Henry McKenzie, but by Margaret’s marriage contract she was guaranteed the first £1,000 from the proceeds of the sale. Apart from his widow, Bleakley left a daughter and two minor sons, the latter under the tutorship of Thomas Thain.
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