COVERT, JOHN, farmer, jp, businessman, author, and militia officer; b. c. 1770 in England, possibly in Christchurch (Dorset); m. Elizabeth – and they had at least two sons and two daughters; d. 5 Sept. 1843 at his farm, New Lodge, near Cobourg, Upper Canada.
When John Covert came to Upper Canada in 1820 he was a man well into middle age, yet with a young family. He arrived with money, for, after looking at land in the Rice Lake area, he decided to establish himself on a developed farm in Hamilton Township a township along the north shore of Lake Ontario that was attracting a number of British gentry and half-pay officers, among them Francis Brockell Spilsbury*. By 1821 Covert had purchased two lots at the front of the township and commenced farming. In later years he acquired neighbouring lands to create a large farm strategically placed on the Kingston road near Cobourg at a point which afforded a possible mill site.
Like many of his class, Covert quickly found himself drawn to the problems of establishing on the frontier a sound economic base and a more familiar social order. He received the first of several commissions as a magistrate on 4 Aug. 1821. Particularly interested in transportation, he was among those who petitioned the House of Assembly in 1825 for a pier or breakwater at Cobourg and two years later, as an owner of wild land in Otonabee Township, for a ferry on Rice Lake. In October 1827, continuing his efforts for improvements to the harbour at Cobourg, Covert was a leading figure in the creation of the Cobourg harbour committee. Another petition went to the assembly in January, signed by Covert and 143 others. The following month a select committee of the assembly recommended that work should be undertaken, by a private joint-stock company that would be allowed to charge tolls. The Cobourg Harbour Company was incorporated in March 1829 but Covert, though one of the first stockholders, was not a director. His son-in-law James Gray Bethune was to become heavily involved in the operations of the company in the 1830s.
In an effort to break free of what he considered Upper Canada’s single-minded dependence on wheat production, Covert took up the cultivation and processing of hemp. This crop had been unsuccessfully attempted earlier in both Upper and Lower Canada [see Charles Frederick Grece] – as Edward Allen Talbot noted in the early 1820s, “the two Canadas cannot at present afford a sufficient quantity to hang their own malefactors.” In 1830 Covert was the first to claim a government grant, under an 1822 act, for the purchase of machinery for dressing hemp. He presented documents in November 1830 attesting to his having erected a substantial water-powered mill. Four months later Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne* and his Executive Council acknowledged Covert’s efforts by awarding him the grant but, in accordance with the act, the machinery was placed in the name of the crown to ensure that it would be available for public use. To secure a market for hemp within the colony, Covert sent a sample of his product to Commodore Robert Barrie, the senior naval officer in the Canadas, who “pronounced it to be as good as the Riga or Peterboro’ hemp” and agreed to purchase 20 tons at £50 per ton. In May 1831, hoping to ensure a steady supply of the material and thereby make Cobourg the government depot for the commissariat at Kingston, Covert presented an address on the cultivation of hemp to his fellow members of the Northumberland Agricultural Society. Citing his own experience, he claimed that hemp would “yield on an average nearly double the value of wheat” and that a few of his neighbours, all well-to-do gentry farmers, had been induced to grow it. For a moment at least Covert was the leading advocate of hemp production in British North America, and his essay on the subject brought him a medal from the Natural History Society of Montreal. Yet his efforts proved ineffectual: few answered his call and within a short time his mill had to be converted to more conventional grist-milling.
The failure of this venture foreshadowed a series of personal tragedies and defeats that plagued Covert’s later life. His business affairs, which largely consisted of land speculation in and around Cobourg and in the townships to the north, became somewhat chaotic. In a particularly acrimonious will, written shortly before his death, Covert alleged that “through the misconduct if not treachery of a fancied friend,” Cobourg banker Robert Henry*, “the best part of my property and prospects have been sacrificed.” Moreover, James Bethune made calls on his financial surety in 1835 following Bethune’s spectacular misadventures as agent in Cobourg for the Bank of Upper Canada.
An important conservative and perhaps the leading Orangeman in Cobourg, Covert was also colonel of the 1st Regiment of Northumberland militia. His conservative politics became intermingled with his militia responsibilities when, beginning in April 1832, Covert attempted to discredit reform sympathizers in his regiment, especially Captain Wilson Seymour Conger. Covert’s questionable behaviour eventually led to his court martial in July–August 1836. Finding the colonel guilty of three of the eight charges brought against him by Conger, the court concluded that Covert had been “influenced by a misdirected zeal” rather than “vindictive or malignant motives.” However, in a general order dated 9 September, Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head* stated that “he cannot consider Colonel Covert as a fit person to exercise the command of a Regt of Militia in this Province: and he has therefore deemed it his painful duty to direct the Adjutant General to acquaint Colonel Covert that His Majesty has no further occasion for his services in the said Militia.” Covert’s predicament did not prevent his sons from being active in the militia: Henry was commissioned first lieutenant in 1838 and Frederick Peechy succumbed late that year to an illness contracted while on military service.
It was no doubt the turmoil of his business and military affairs that caused Covert to retreat from Upper Canada in 1837. During his time away he arranged through Jonas Jones, aide-de-camp to Head, to do some reconnaissance work in the United States following the outbreak of rebellion in December 1837. After a year-long absence, Covert returned to find that he had been struck off the list of magistrates. For at least the next three years he continued to petition the provincial secretary protesting the injustices done to him and seeking to recover his militia commission and to be restored as a magistrate. In the latter struggle, he finally succeeded, for his name was among the list of new magistrates published in the Cobourg Star on 30 Aug. 1843, less than a week before his death.
In spite of his many problems, Covert was able to leave his heirs substantial legacies consisting principally of valuable town-lots and speculative housing properties in Cobourg, at a time when that town was entering a boom period. Nevertheless, it was a disappointed man who wrote in his will of his only remaining son and principal heir, “Altho’ my son Henrys sentiments & feelings have not appeared congenial with my own nor respectful & affectionate toward an unfortunate & afflicted father . . . still it is a Christian duty to forgive the past . . . and I do hereby exonerate and release my son Henry from a Bond of one thousand pound value & also other monies I have loaned to him when his premature plans brought him into trouble.”
AO, RG 8, I-1-P, 3, Covert to Jonas Jones, 15 March 1838; Covert to S. B. Harrison, 27 Nov. 1840; RG 22, ser.187, reg.G (1858–62), will of John Covert, probated 8 May 1860. Northumberland West Land Registry Office (Cobourg, Ont.), Hamilton Township, abstract index to deeds (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 1, E3, 19:123–30, 193–202; 28:71–74; RG 9, 1, B3, 5, nos.255, 262, 265; B8, 3. Bank of U.C. v. Covert (1836–38), 5 O.S., 541. U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, 2, app.73; Journal, 10 March, 9 April 1825; 28 Jan., 12 Feb. 1828; 1828, app., report on Cobourg Harbour; 12, 17–18 Dec. 1832. Cobourg Star, 8 Feb., 31 May 1831; 21 Aug. 1833; 20 Aug., 6, 13 Sept. 1843; 26 Aug. 1846. P. M. Ennals, “Land and society in Hamilton Township, Upper Canada, 1797–1861” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1978). R. L. Jones, History of agriculture in Ontario, 1613–1880 (Toronto, 1946; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977). D. E. Wattie, “Cobourg, 1784–1867” (2v., ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1949).
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