GRANT, WILLIAM, merchant, seigneur, office holder, and politician; b. 15 June 1744 in Blairfindy, Scotland, son of William Grant and Jean Tyrie; d. 5 Oct. 1805 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
William Grant, the son of the laird of Blairfindy, a Jacobite in the Scottish uprising of 1745, was one of at least three brothers to enter the British overseas trade. A bright lad, possessed of a liberal education, he was engaged about 1756 by Robert Grant, a kinsman from the valley of the River Spey, Scotland, and the agent in Halifax, N.S., of naval supply contractors based in London, England; Robert soon formed his own firm in London. In the fall of 1759, having secured a contract to supply the navy at Quebec, he sent William, who was only 15 but fluent in French, to the province of Quebec as agent for his company, Alexander, Robert, and William Grant. Indeed, Scottish firms were prominently represented among the merchants drawn to the colony, which, as a result of the conquest, entered a period of significant change in entrepreneurial control and metropolitan alignment.
Grant quickly established agencies at Quebec and Montreal for his kinsman’s firm. In 1763 he entered into partnership at Quebec with two other agents of the company, Peter Stuart and John Gray, and, in a context of economic instability, aggressively pursued various speculative opportunities. Among them were the supply of merchandise and the lending of capital to French and Canadian merchants obliged to rebuild their businesses. In September and October 1764, for example, he lent £750 to two Quebec merchants, most of which was drawn from the Grant firm. Like many other merchants, he also engaged in the fur trade. In September 1761 he associated with James Stanley Goddard and Forrest Oakes* to conduct the trade at Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). Four years later he acquired exclusive trading rights at that place and Baie-des-Puants (Green Bay, Wis.) from Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial. The nominal sale price was 160,000 livres, but Grant never paid it all; as a result of pressure from officials in the British Indian Department and rival traders, the purchase was voided in 1767. Another rival group of merchants, including the turbulent George Allsopp, was unsuccessful, however, in attempting to have declared void a lease granted in 1762 by James Murray* to Thomas Dunn and John Gray (in which Grant soon became a co-lessee) to conduct the fur trade at the government-controlled king’s posts on the lower St Lawrence River. It was possibly through this involvement that Grant became interested from about 1764 in the lucrative seal and salmon fisheries in the same region, where he exploited two posts in the Île Saint-Augustin with Jacques Perrault*, known as Perrault l’aîné. In 1766 he purchased from Dunn one-third of the seigneury of Mille-Vaches, also on the lower St Lawrence.
Considerable risk was involved in Grant’s exploits related to his speculation in the colony’s French paper currency between 1761 and 1770 [see James Murray]. Among the agents he used in France for conducting this and other business were Thomas-Marie Cugnet, former Quebec agent for the Compagnie des Indes, and Louis Charly* Saint-Ange, a Montreal merchant, both of whom returned to France in 1764 when Grant submitted a claim for 279,350 livres. Grant himself left for Britain and France in November to sell a vessel for John Gray, order goods from the proceeds, and probably to promote redemption by the French government of paper money. While at Bordeaux, perhaps motivated by spiralling debt, Grant let himself be persuaded by Irish merchants to use the ship instead to smuggle wine into the colony through his establishments in Labrador, that coast being a well-used contraband route. The ship was wrecked off the Strait of Belle Isle, however, with heavy loss to Grant. Following his return to Quebec he became involved in the wheat and flour trade; Samuel Jacobs*, a merchant from Saint-Denis, on the Rivière Richelieu, was one of his major suppliers of grain from about 1766.
Grant’s principal business activity in the 1760s was probably the acquisition of landed property, including some of the largest houses in Quebec and Montreal. Owners who had left the colony for France following the conquest had been given 18 months from the signing of the Treaty of Paris to dispose of their property and, operating in such a buyer’s market, Grant invested heavily. On 22 Oct. 1763 he purchased from Étienne Charest* for 30,000 livres a lot and stone house on Rue Saint-Pierre at Quebec, to which he soon added the neighbouring property; on them he constructed an important wharf, which eventually became known as the Queen’s Wharf. In 1765 he and John Grant (possibly his brother) obtained the concession of a beach lot also on Rue Saint-Pierre. About the same time Grant purchased for 22,500 livres from Joseph-Michel Cadet* another lot on the same street; in June 1769 he sold a house and one-third of the lot for 30,000 livres. As well as concentrating on the commercial thoroughfare of Rue Saint-Pierre, with its frontage on the St Lawrence River, Grant looked to the faubourg Saint-Roch as a long-term investment, since it seemed destined to receive the overflow of population from the old city. On 29 Sept. 1764 he purchased from Marie-Josephte-Madeleine Hiché, for 250,000 livres, all of her property at Quebec, consisting principally of the faubourg Saint-Roch, formerly belonging to her father, Henry Hiché*. Probably aware that development of the land would be slow, Grant, undoubtedly with the complicity of some local notaries and government officials, elevated what had been a simple roture to the rank of fief, and took the title of seigneur of Saint-Roch. He thus demonstrated a practical knowledge of the seigneurial system: the concession of lots with cens et rentes, and especially lods et ventes, would ultimately be more profitable to him through the rents and taxes they would bring than the sale of parcels of land in free and common soccage. At the same time the arrangement would give him a stronger hold over the inhabitants of the faubourg and a freer hand in its development. In 1766 he added to his holdings in Saint-Roch a large lot bought from François Mounier* and Jean (John) Marteilhe. In June 1769 he acquired the former residence of Lieutenant-General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm* in Upper Town on Rue des Remparts. In the Montreal area he had bought on 16 Aug. 1764 for 100,000 livres all the Canadian possessions of Charly Saint-Ange; two days later he purchased the Château Ramezay for 275,000 livres. At least some of Grant’s major purchases were to have been made in payment orders, with payment deferred over a specified period of time, during which the orders diminished in value.
Seigneuries also being available at low cost, Grant showed an early and constant interest in them. In September 1764 he purchased from François-Joseph de Vienne* for 30,000 livres the sub-fief of La Mistanguienne or Montplaisir, and in July 1768 he acquired the seigneury of Aubert-Gallion near Quebec for £100. Grant capped his early drive for the acquisition of seigneuries by marrying Marie-Anne-Catherine Fleury Deschambault, widow of the seigneur Charles-Jacques Le Moyne de Longueuil; having declared himself to be a Catholic, Grant was married secretly at Montreal by the Jesuit Pierre-René Floquet*, with special dispensation from Governor Carleton, and publicly on 11 Sept. 1770 by the Church of England minister David Chabrand* Delisle. The union placed at Grant’s disposal at least some of the Longueuil seigneurial resources, notably Mingan, and a farm on Île Sainte-Hélène, near Montreal.
By 1766, sustained by London credit, Grant was probably one of the leading British merchants at Quebec. His expenditures had brought him heavily into debt, but he received liberal extensions from the firm of Alexander, Robert, and William Grant toward an account evaluated at over £80,000 in 1768, a year after the London firm’s dissolution. With “great dexterity and cleverness,” he held out on any debt settlement and gained a notorious reputation in the mercantile community for his skilful manipulation of finances and commodity supply. In November 1767 Robert Grant had complained to an acquaintance that his firm’s Quebec debtors, and “particularly William Grant,” paid “less attention to their words characters and credit than the worst thief you ever knew in the Highlands of Scotland.” By 1772 Samuel Jacobs was also frustrated by Grant’s methods. “You promise and then think no more of it,” he charged. After the breakup of the Grant firm, William retained or reorganized his associations with clansmen at Quebec, Montreal, and London, and he eventually became a senior member of his “Family” in the colony.
Grant regarded politics as a legitimate forum for promoting commercial improvements, and had no more doubt of his political than of his commercial abilities. In 1764, having declared himself a Protestant in order not to be excluded from political office, he asked his London associates to lobby for his appointment to the governing Council of Quebec, but Murray, who had a low opinion of merchants in the colony generally, warned the home government against this “conceited boy.” In 1767 Grant earned the animosity of a large part of the merchant community by having printed in the Quebec Gazette an opinion of Attorney General Francis Maseres* on bankruptcy laws that gave concern to many creditors [see George Suckling*]. Grant was initially wary of such irascible critics of military rule as Allsopp. But by 1768 Grant’s “friends” were reportedly among the “wrong-headed small party,” composed mainly of merchants, “who are resolved to oppose the Govt,” and he supported demands for the repeal of the Quebec Act as an imperfect constitution, for representative government, and for the introduction of English commercial law (a difficult area since English mercantile law had not been codified). His youth and personal reputation hindered him, however, from aspiring to leadership until his marriage, by allying him with some of the oldest and most respectable families in the colony, gave him a proper social base. In 1773 he was elected by the merchants of Quebec to a committee to spearhead constitutional reform.
In business in the 1770s Grant consolidated his position in the Gulf region by purchasing the claims of some of the numerous co-seigneurs of Mingan and by leasing fishing and sealing rights from those who would not sell. Yet Grant and his partners, Dunn and Peter Stuart, had difficulty exploiting their holdings until 1774 when Labrador was returned to the jurisdiction of Quebec from that of Newfoundland. Like their predecessor Hugh Palliser*, governors John Byron* and Molyneux Shuldham* of Newfoundland wished to promote the ship fishery on the Labrador coast as a nursery for British seamen. Consequently, they ignored the title claims of the colonial proprietors, who annually saw their sealing grounds invaded by British ship fishers and colonial interlopers profiting from the lack of enforcement of property rights. At Quebec, Grant reclaimed lots in Saint-Roch from indebted holders, and in September 1772 he announced the completion in the faubourg of a new wind-operated grist-mill. He also speculated in land at La Canardière, and on 25 Aug. 1774 he sold to Ralph Gray for £1,500 the sub-fief of La Mistanguienne, by then known as Grandpré. Shortly before he had sold the Montcalm house to Allsopp.
In 1775, during the American revolution, Grant’s economic aspirations were confronted by the threat of invasion and the spectre of ruin. “Determined to stand or fall with the King’s Govrnmt,” Grant joined the militia of “undisciplin’d citizens” raised to defend Quebec and openly denounced the rebels: “the best & shortest way” of trying American prisoners, he proclaimed in September, “would be to shute them at once.” Britain should either give in to the rebellion or “pursue it with all her vigour.” “Government from its Supremacy is become despicable,” he candidly admitted. Beneath his bravado, however, lay anxiety, commercial apprehension, and frustration with the neutrality of the Canadians. Having moved from his “manor” at Saint-Roch to lodgings in Upper Town, both for security and in order to join in the defence of the city, on 15 November Grant dictated his will, leaving one-third of his estate to his wife and the remaining two-thirds to his relatives. His properties suffered heavily from American depredations in the winter of 1775–76. Many of his buildings were destroyed at Quebec and at Saint-Roch, where his house, after having been a “hornet’s nest” of skirmishing and shelling, was burned by the British for defensive purposes. He also lost a vessel destined for Boston with relief supplies, as well as several fishing posts, destroyed in retaliation for his razing of American stations and for his widely known anti-American sentiments.
Grant’s financial base, however, remained intact, and after the departure of the Americans, and perhaps a period of reconstruction, he renewed his property speculation and development. In October 1778 he bought a lot with a grist-mill and a sawmill at Cap-Santé near Quebec for 5,000 livres, selling it two years later for 7,200 livres. At Quebec in 1781 he acquired land around the Coteau Sainte-Geneviève in the faubourg Saint-Jean and two lots on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot, and sold a lot and stone house on Rue Saint-Pierre to Jean-Baptiste-Amable Durocher for 22,700 livres. At Montreal, after having rented the Château Ramezay to the government since 1773, in August 1778 Grant sold it for 2,000 guineas to Governor Haldimand for its continued use by the government. In 1779 he bought the seigneury of Beaulac and part of that of Chambly. Two years later he sold a share in the seigneury of Jolliet, probably acquired by marriage, to his wife’s relative Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau, with whom he had conducted business on several occasions.
Between 1779 and 1786 Grant strengthened his position in the lower St Lawrence by buying out several more of the co-seigneurs of Mingan and acquiring a share in the seigneury of Île-d’Anticosti. By 1783 he, Dunn, and Adam* and Mathew Lymburner also dominated sealing along the Labrador coast from Petit Mécatina to beyond Blanc-Sablon. Nevertheless, Grant’s fishing operations failed at least twice in the 1780s. At the same time he was expanding his milling facilities. In 1778 and 1779 he had begun constructing grist-mills at various locations, including Saint-Roch, the seigneury of Belœil, and Île Sainte-Hélène, from where David Alexander Grant, a son of his elder brother David, supervised his uncle’s milling, shipbuilding, and seigneurial interests in the Montreal region. The substantial amounts of capital required for these activities were secured in part through loans; although in March 1780 Grant was able to lend £1,058 to John Coffin, one year later he was obliged to borrow £4,076 from David Alexander Grant and in July 1784 £1,000 sterling from Attorney General James Monk*.
Grant’s ostentatious loyalism in 1775–76 had borne fruit in 1777 when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. As well, through a business association with the absentee receiver general of Quebec, Sir Thomas Mills*, and the acting appointee at Quebec, Dunn, in April 1777 Grant was appointed by Mills deputy receiver general in Dunn’s place. These appointments brought some financial stability to a fluctuating commercial career, but plunged Grant into political controversy. Responsible as deputy for the collection and custody of provincial funds, Grant inherited an inadequate system of revenue collection and soon encountered problems with provincial officials over accountability and fees. His efforts to improve the system were ineffective; his proposal in the council to enforce collection of property transfer taxes – the quint from the seigneurs and the lods et ventes from holders of urban lots – was rejected for fear of the reaction it would cause. These problems were in any case overshadowed by political agitation in council, where, by October 1780, Grant had established himself before Haldimand as a self-seeking opponent of such wartime measures as the regulation of wheat pricing and of the governor’s postponement of war-loss claims (including Grant’s) and administrative reform.
Following Allsopp’s suspension from council in 1783, Grant became leader of the opposition to Haldimand’s policies. In the tumultuous session of 1784, he pressed for the introduction into the province of the “Common and Statute Law of England,” including habeas corpus, which had been suspended in 1774. Under the Quebec Act Canadians would remain subject to arbitrary government by council, he reasoned, and only the full extension of British rights would “secure and attach them to their King and Country – And render them beneficially and commercially useful to the present state.” He also pressed for an elective assembly, declaring that he looked on “Representation and Freedom in Government as absolutely necessary Springs to give Vigour and Motion to the new Commercial Machine.” On 22 April, however, at the height of his campaign, his proposal for an address by council requesting an “elective Grand Council,” British commercial law, and optional trial by jury – “that bulwark of English security” – was defeated.
Behind Grant’s presentments of 1784 seethed a confrontation with council and Haldimand over unauthorized fee claims Grant had made as deputy receiver general, irregularities in his accounts, and his resolve to claim war compensation from provincial funds. The receiver general’s accounts being traditionally uncontrolled by regular audit, Grant refused to submit to provincial inspection or to demands for some £8,000 in revenue that he had reputedly retained. In August 1784 he was obliged to sail for London to settle his accounts before the Treasury. Haldimand, who had regarded his conduct toward Grant as “indulgent and moderate,” nevertheless took the opportunity to name Henry Caldwell as acting deputy receiver general rather than David Alexander Grant, William’s nominee.
In London, operating from a circle of clansmen, Canadians, and sympathetic British merchants and politicians, Grant sought private contracts and lobbied, with others, for assembly government and for imperial trade regulations favouring merchants in the colony. In February 1785 he met William Smith*, a close associate of Sir Guy Carleton, and Smith listened sympathetically to Grant’s presentation of the merchants’ political position. He lent Smith, who hoped to be named chief justice of Quebec, several volumes on the laws of the colony. Along with Isaac Todd, Grant organized the London merchants trading to Canada in an effort to hasten the replacement of Haldimand by Carleton, who was more sympathetic to the merchants’ political aspirations.
Haldimand’s rapid replacement was important to Grant for personal reasons as well. He and Dunn, who was also in London, were anxious to renew their lease of the king’s posts. Their hopes lay with the London merchant Brook Watson, a friend of Carleton, while their rivals for the lease, George Davison* and his associates, counted on Haldimand, then also in England. “I find Mr. Grant has been using his influence among his Scotch friends to counteract your intentions as well as mine in favour of Davison,” the permanent under-secretary, Evan Nepean, informed Haldimand. Carleton became governor, but Haldimand’s influence ultimately prevailed in the matter of the king’s posts, even though, thanks to Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton* at Quebec, Grant and his partners retained the posts until October 1786. They subsequently sued Davison and his associates for more than £10,000 in claimed improvements and equipment at the posts, but in 1791 they settled out of court for £1,800. As a result of Carleton’s influence, however, no revenue charge was brought against Grant while he was in England.
Grant arrived back at Quebec in October 1786. He failed to oust Caldwell as deputy receiver general, and in the council yielded political leadership to Smith, now chief justice. However, encouraged by progress made during his absence, and occasionally advised by Allsopp, Grant resumed his strident demands for judicial and political reforms, venting his hatred of Adam Mabane* and the French party, which defended the Quebec Act, the existing judicial system, and the outmoded French mercantile code. Expert in both English and French laws, and experienced as a Court of Appeals judge (a function of legislative councillors), Grant was acutely aware of the merchants’ principal complaints about the judicial system: the lack of a definite commercial code in the colony and inconsistency on the part of provincial judges in receiving evidence and rendering judgements. Grant himself had figured in two relevant judicial rulings – those of the British Privy Council in 1785 on St Ange v. Grant, and Smith on Alexander Gray v. Grant a year later – from which the chief justice prescribed the use of English law where both litigants were British. As a member of the council committee organized by Carleton (now Lord Dorchester) in 1786 to inquire into commerce and police regulations, Grant further politicized mercantile interests by eliciting from the merchants at Quebec, the most radical reform element in the province, a petition for English law. In April 1787, in part as a result of his incendiary rhetoric, “party rage” broke out over judicial reform. Dorchester was obliged to order a full-scale inquiry into the administration of justice. Grant testified that the courts frequently resorted to equity, especially in commercial cases, confirming the practical difficulties of applying English or French law. The inquiry nevertheless ended, in confusion and impasse.
Grant continued to be preoccupied in council with the political articulation of the merchants’ commercial aspirations. In 1789 he was appointed superintendent at Quebec of inland navigation, responsible, among other tasks, for the registry by owners residing there of vessels plying the Great Lakes. In 1790 and 1791 Grant’s committee on commerce and police regulations inquired into inland navigation and produced a bill recommending that the fur trade be freed of many of the government restrictions that encumbered it. “Left to itself it will flourish and expand – Touch it, it decays or dies,” he asserted. Among the restrictions that the bill recommended for abolition was that on the sale of rum to Indians; at the time Grant was proprietor of two of the colony’s five distilleries, which, “owing to the difficulty of procuring molasses, shipping and other local and temporary inconveniences,” according to the merchant community, were producing at only half capacity. The bill, which became law in 1791, swept away the system of regulatory fur-trade passes in operation since 1764. Grant also took a lively interest in regulations bearing on fishing and the wheat and flour trade (in both of which he was still engaged) as well as those concerning piloting.
The late 1780s were difficult years for Grant. Not only did he lose the king’s posts, but like others he was affected by a general depression and instability that had settled on the colony following the American revolution. Moreover, the collapse of the system of provincial financing, which began in 1782 and involved mercantile purchase of Treasury bills [see James Dunlop], drew Grant, among others, perilously close to ruin. In February 1787 he contracted a major debt of £2,250 to Peter Stuart. By 1788, however, his seigneurial possessions were bringing in rents of £300 per annum. At Quebec he continued to accumulate land around the Coteau Sainte-Geneviève. In June 1791 he rented 23 Rue Saint-Pierre, with wharf and dependencies, to Fraser and Young [see John Young]. In the Montreal area his interests were still administered by David Alexander Grant, and in February 1791 he sold a major portion of them to his nephew for £6,000. By August, when Grant was in a position to lend nearly £550 sterling, he seemed to have emerged from his most trying period of difficulty. In October he was paid £1,000 by the Montreal merchant William Maitland not to press claims to the estate of Maitland’s deceased wife (and Grant’s sister), Jane Elizabeth.
Having always been active in the merchants’ political struggles, Grant was in the forefront when, in the late 1780s and early 1790s, new social institutions began to emerge at Quebec, often dominated by the merchants. In April 1789 he was among the 21 charter members of the Quebec Benevolent Society, founded to support members in need as a result of illness, old age, or other causes. Between 1789 and 1795 he was four times a trustee of the Quebec Library; he was a charter subscriber to the Agriculture Society in 1789 and a director in 1791 and 1793. In January and February 1792 he was the principal organizer and president of the Constitutional Club, reputedly composed of those 165 citizens of Quebec who had gathered at Franks’ Tavern on 16 Dec. 1791 to celebrate the Constitutional Act. A debating society that met fortnightly, the club sought to promote knowledge of the British constitution and “diffuse . . . a spirit of Commercial and Agricultural industry.” Recognizing the improving grasp by Canadians of British parliamentary authority, Grant carefully scheduled a discussion on “the rights of Canadian citizens” under the Quebec and Constitutional acts. On 26 Jan. 1792, in ostentatious display of his standing in the colony, Grant received to dinner at Bijoux, his country home near Quebec, Prince Edward Augustus, his suite, and Lieutenant Governor Alured Clarke*. In 1794 Grant was deputy grand master of the Moderns order of freemasons in Lower Canada.
Although Grant had taken an active interest in obtaining the new constitution, he was not reappointed to the Legislative Council. Determined to remain a political leader, however, in June 1792 he sought election in Upper Town Quebec to the first House of Assembly. With the energetic support of Charles-Louis Tarieu de Lanaudière, a long-time friend and vice-president of the Constitutional Club, and the merchants Mathew and John Macnider, he was elected with Jean-Antoine Panet, largely on the support of artisans, eligible labourers, and Canadian and British businessmen. Thanking his English-speaking electors in the Quebec Gazette, Grant, never one to underestimate his own capacity, implored heaven to “enable me to do that which may be for the good of the EMPIRE and agreeable to your wishes”; the French text of his letter made no mention of the empire. Viewed as a potentially influential member of the assembly, he confidently lent other representatives his many volumes by John Locke, Sir William Blackstone, Baron Montesquieu, Voltaire, and others on political theory and constitutional law. In December 1792 Grant was proposed as speaker by James McGill, one of his former clerks, on the strength of his bilingualism, his knowledge of constitutional law, and his experience in government. Objections were raised to Grant’s nomination, ostensibly because his election had been contested by a defeated candidate, Allsopp, on the grounds of Grant’s “having opened houses of entertainment. giving cockades etc. To the prejudice of a Free Choice.” Grant then nominated McGill. The Canadian majority, however, unified by an emerging national awareness, preferred Panet. Allsopp’s petition, signed by only 15 of the more than 600 voters, was rejected by the assembly in March 1793, but the defeat of Grant and McGill for the speakership was the first indication that the British merchants had been over sanguine in their expectation of dominating the assembly and using the power of taxation and control of tariffs to forge a new commercial environment in the colony.
In the first parliament, which lasted until 1796, Grant was very prominent, acting frequently in 1792–93 as spokesman for Chief Justice Smith, obtaining for fellow members the privileges accorded members of the British House of Commons, and proposing legislation. Most of his bills, however, including two to establish a system of welfare for the poor and another to promote parish schools, were defeated. He generally voted with the minority English party, favouring, among other measures, freehold tenure, public rather than church-controlled education, and the primacy of English as the legal record of assembly proceedings. But, as one of the most independent ministerial supporters he also voted against a proposal by John Richardson* to prevent the use of French in the legislative process, and effectively killed another by Thomas Coffin* that would have taken from the Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec the exclusive right to divide Catholic parishes. In 1794, still distrustful of the colonial judges, Grant opposed a judicial reform bill “in the most artful way he could,” according to a long-time antagonist, Attorney General Monk. Supported by Joseph Papineau* and others in the Canadian party, Grant sought vainly to have inserted in the bill a radical clause, initially Smith’s invention, by which the proceedings of the proposed court of king’s bench would conform completely to those of the English court in all cases in which the crown was a party. Re-elected in 1796, Grant supported the English party more consistently in the second parliament, siding with it in 17 of 21 votes. He did, however, vote for Panet as speaker in preference to John Young. In 1800 he was defeated in the elections for Upper Town by Augustin-Jérôme Raby*.
Commercially, in the prosperous 1790s Grant rebounded from his difficulties of the previous decade. His mills, bakeries, wharfs, timber-yards, and warehouses bustled; according to John Grant, a supply contractor at Halifax, N.S., his flour “was very well liked by the bakers.” Grant continued to function as a wholesale importer, supplying merchants like Edward William Gray of Montreal with goods ranging from Jamaican rum, sugar, and coffee to the varied cloths of John Hounsom, a linen-draper in London. With Adam Lymburner he operated a fleet of schooners to service their Labrador fisheries. The partners strengthened their position in that region even further by acquiring in 1792 from John Young a debt of £545 owed to him by rival traders Nathaniel and Philip Lloyd, along with Young’s mortgage on the Lloyds’ seigneury of Saint-Paul in Labrador; in 1796 they bought out more of the co-seigneurs of Mingan and Île-d’Anticosti. The following year Grant added to his seigneurial holdings that of Pierreville, acquired jointly with David Alexander Grant and Nicholas Montour, and in March 1799 another share in the seigneury of Chambly. That year he divided the first two ranges of Aubert-Gallion into 118 lots for concession. In 1792 and 1793 he had acquired at Quebec, for £286, 17 of the 48 shares in the Dorchester Bridge over the Rivière Saint-Charles [see David Lynd]. He also added to his holdings in and near the faubourg Saint-Jean, notably in 1796 and 1798 around the Coteau Sainte-Geneviève. On Chemin Sainte-Foy he acquired several lots and a house, called Upper Bijou House, which in 1797 he rented to the schoolmaster James Tanswell, for seven years at £40 per annum. The following year he purchased from Pierre-Louis Panet a three-storey stone house on Rue Saint-Pierre, which was rented by Allsopp in 1799.
Grant’s investment in Saint-Roch began to pay handsomely as the settlement of the faubourg expanded rapidly after 1795. Unfettered by city ordinances, since local justices of the peace had decided that they did not apply to Saint-Roch, Grant had a free hand in conceding lots and in laying out streets that he made only half the width of those in the city. In January 1797 he leased to his miller, George Miller, a large meadow lot with house, bake-house, barns, and two windmills for five years at an annual rate of £245. Just as the rhythm of Grant’s concessions in Saint-Roch was accelerating, however, his subterfuge in having elevated his roture holding to a seigneury was brought to the attention of Attorney General Jonathan Sewell*, and in 1798 Grant was sued by the crown in a case that was to last for several years. The same year the Court of King’s Bench ruled in a suit that Monk had launched on behalf of the Treasury in 1793 over irregularities in Grant’s accounts as deputy receiver general; the court established crown priority in all cases against Grant. As well as legal vexations, Grant experienced continuing financial worries in the 1790s despite the recovery of many of his enterprises. In 1797 and 1798 he borrowed at least £1,365 from three creditors.
In 1801 the ever-enterprising merchant undertook the experimental cultivation of hemp, the British government having been persuaded that Lower Canada might become a secure supplier of the material, which was vital to the navy. In May 1802 Grant was appointed to the newly formed Board for the Encouragement of the Cultivation of Hemp. Yet it is doubtful that he was any more successful in this ill-fated enterprise than James Campbell or Charles Frederick Grece* would be. In May 1801 he made his last seigneurial acquisition, that of Rivière-David, from Montour for £1,271. In 1800 he had been granted, according to the leader and associates system [see James Caldwell], the patent on Grantham Township, comprising 27,000 acres; this acquisition was a blatant example of the rampant acquisitiveness of British merchants for lands in the Eastern Townships. Three years later he purchased several hundred acres in Barford, Granby, Milton, and Clifton townships. In 1803 Grant, Stuart, and Dunn leased to McTavish, Frobisher and Company for 19 years at £500 per annum their share of the fishing and sealing grounds in the seigneuries of Mingan and Île-d’Anticosti; Grant received half the rent. About this time his association with the firm of Lymburner and Crawford for fishing and sealing in the lower St Lawrence was running into difficulty. Lymburner and Crawford was forced into bankruptcy by mid May 1804, at which time Grant owed it nearly £11,000. That month their operations on the Labrador coast from Itamamiou (Étamaniou) to Bras d’Or (Brador) were advertised for auction by John Jones. Grant, however, bought Lymburner and Crawford’s half of the enterprise for £4,750 on 19 Sept. 1804, and then, three days later, sold one-third of the operations to Charles William Grant, eldest son of David Alexander, for £3,166. In April, William paid £1,125 for Lymburner and Crawford’s share in the seigneuries of Mingan and Saint-Paul. Meanwhile, having stood security for £11,700 of Lymburner and Crawford’s debts, he had been obliged in December 1804 to pay £2,700 of them.
Grant’s operations in the lower St Lawrence region, however expensive, seem not to have affected his property transactions at Quebec between 1800 and 1805. He acquired land along and north of the Grande Allée, just outside the city in Charlesbourg, and again around the Coteau Sainte-Geneviève and in Saint-Roch. In the last place he also reclaimed concessions for debt, and, the population continuing to grow rapidly, made new concessions and even sold land outright. In February 1803 he leased the Queen’s Wharf to the merchant George Symes for seven years at £600 per annum, and two years later he rented a three-storey stone house on Rue Saint-Pierre to the auctioneering firm of Jones and White. Grant’s overall transactions in this period nevertheless buried him deeper in debt. Between 1801 and 1803 he borrowed at least £955; in 1803 he owed Stuart and Dunn £1,315 for merchandise furnished on credit and was ordered by the Court of King’s Bench to pay £777 to Charles Ward Apthorp of New York.
Since his electoral defeat in 1800 Grant had remained marginally active in politics. In 1802 he supported a petition for land on which to build a Presbyterian church at Quebec. From May to July 1805 he acted as adviser to the coadjutor bishop, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, in negotiations with Sewell and Lieutenant Governor Sir Robert Shore Milnes* to have recognized in law the title and position of the Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec. Grant had established good relations with the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a commissioner, since 1792, for the construction and repair of churches in the District of Quebec. In 1798 he had been an adviser to Plessis when the coadjutor had sought, unsuccessfully, to have legislation passed that would recognize in law the boundaries of existing and future Catholic parishes. In 1804 the irrepressible merchant was returned as representative for Upper Town in the assembly. In the first session, the following year, he voted seven times with, and four times against, the English party. His most notable breaking of the ranks occurred during a vote on a controversial bill to finance the construction of prisons at Quebec and Montreal through a tax on imports rather than on land. Merchant though he was, it was the landowner in Grant that dominated, and he was the only British member to vote for the bill. In 1805 the veteran office holder received his last appointment, that of deputy master at Trinity House of Quebec, organized that year for the supervision of navigation.
Since 1790 Grant had been gradually withdrawing from direct involvement in some business interests. He remained, none the less, an active man until his death on 5 Oct. 1805, of an “inflamation in his bowels, after a short illness,” at his home on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais). “None of those close to him dared call a priest, or speak in any way of religion to the sick man . . . ,” Plessis wrote to Bishop Pierre Denaut. “After his death, a Catholic burial was discussed, but Col. [Louis-Joseph de Fleury] Deschambault refused to come and make the proposal to me, foreseeing that I would reject it.” Grant was buried on 8 October from the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
William Grant had been an enigmatic man. Intelligent, shrewd, and visibly ambitious, he was known closely by only a few friends and relatives; to others he appeared an impetuous and often presumptuous character. In 1789 another British resident, Alexander Fraser, had given what would seem to be a just assessment of him: “Mr. Wm. Grant is a man of first rate Abilities thoroughly vers’d in the French Laws, and well informd in those of England, particularly such as relate to commercial business. . . . He has a readiness in discovering Men’s Characters, & the talent of profiting by their foibles when he has any purpose to serve and his own thoughts are unfathomable, being a complete Master of every art of simulation or dissimulation, & possesses a shameless composure of temper and countenance that cannot be removed by reproach or abuse. – He is besides this a plausible and good Orator; quick with his Pen, and when requisite of indefatigable application.” One of the most aggressive members of the British bourgeoisie at Quebec, Grant had married into the seigneurial nobility but never divested himself of his strong attachment to the mercantile group. He left for his executors, John Richardson, the powerful Montreal merchant who had married his niece, and Dunn, who soon renounced the responsibility, an enormous and tangled estate. Among Grant’s possessions was an imposing and varied library of nearly 600 volumes, many of them on law and history. Debts owed Grant totalled at least £9,300, of which his associates in the Labrador fisheries owed nearly £9,000. His own debts totalled at least £23,700; more than £13,500 were directly related to the Labrador operations. Among the numerous large creditors was the London firm of Brickwood, Daniel and Company, possibly Grant’s principal supplier. His estate was ordered in 1807 to pay £8,756 to the government, Grant having during his lifetime evaded reimbursement of the shortfall in his receiver general’s accounts. In 1809 his estate was condemned to compensate the crown £9,729 for lods et ventes collected by Grant as “seigneur” of Saint-Roch. Richardson contested the latter judgement, but the ultimate resolution of the matter is unknown.
Grant’s property holdings at the time of his death were vast. He owned all of the seigneuries of Aubert-Gallion, Beaulac, and Rivière-David, one-half of those of Mingan and Île-d’Anticosti, one-third of Mille-Vaches, small fractions of Saint-Paul, Saint-Joseph-de-la-Nouvelle-Beauce, and Deschambault, and a total of 45,000 acres of land in Grantham, Granby, Milton, Clifton, and Barford townships. At Quebec he owned most of the faubourg Saint-Roch, as well as properties (many with stone houses on them) in the faubourg Saint-Jean and on Rue Saint-Pierre, Rue du Sault-au-Matelot, and Rue des Pauvres; he still held, too, his 17 shares in the Dorchester Bridge. All his possessions, however, were insufficient to cover his debts, and in 1807 his universal legatee, Charles William Grant, renounced his rights to the succession. Grant had left a lifetime annuity of £200 to his wife, who died in 1818. By 1811, in order to settle claims, Richardson had disposed of virtually the entire estate.
A pencil sketch of William Grant was published in Gilbert Parker and C. G. Bryan, Old Quebec: the fortress of New France (Toronto, 1903), 221, in Gwillim, Diary of Mrs. Simcoe (Robertson; 1911), 98, and finally in F.[-J.] Audet and Édouard Fabre Surveyer, “William Grant,” La Presse (Montréal), 7 mai 1927: 21, 24. According to John Ross Robertson*, an engraving at the PAC was the basis for the sketch but neither the sketch nor the engraving appears among its present holdings.
AAQ, 20 A, III: 149; 210 A, IV: f.196. ANQ-M, CE1-63, 11 Sept. 1770. 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