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HUMPHREYS, JAMES, printer, publisher, merchant, and politician; b. 15 Jan. 1748/49 in Philadelphia, Pa, son of James Humphreys and Susanna Assheton; m. Mary Yorke, probably of Philadelphia; d. there 2 Feb. 1810.

In 1763 James Humphreys entered the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) to begin the study of medicine. Soon disenchanted, he left the college before receiving his degree and was apprenticed by his father to William Bradford, a well-known Philadelphia printer who remained a strong supporter of the British crown until the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765. Under Bradford, Humphreys learned the printing trade and possibly some of his loyalist political philosophy. By 1770 his apprenticeship was completed, and two years later he established his own business.

Humphreys’s first recorded imprint, a pamphlet for the Society of the Sons of St George, appeared in 1772. The following year he produced a Greek grammar for the College of Philadelphia, probably the first book of its kind printed in the Thirteen Colonies. In the 1770s his establishment issued at least 80 separate items. Among those printed before the revolution were a few novels, a five-volume edition of the collected works of Laurence Sterne, an occasional almanac, and a number of pamphlets on politics, religion, and agriculture. He also began publication in 1775 of a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Ledger: or the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, & New Jersey Weekly Advertiser. Although the Ledger claimed to be “Free and Impartial,” Humphreys stated several years later that he had become unpopular amongst Philadelphia rebels because of his paper’s commitment to the British cause.

Refusing to renounce his allegiance to Britain after the outbreak of revolution in 1775, Humphreys was frequently denounced as a traitor by the local committee of correspondence. His loyalism also made him a convenient target for Benjamin Towne, a rival newspaper publisher who proved extremely adroit at using anti-tory sentiment to drive his competitors out of business. In mid November 1776 Towne published a letter, purportedly from Humphreys but probably written by Towne himself, in which “all friends of arbitrary government” were urged to come to the assistance of the British forces. Shortly afterwards Humphreys, fearing reprisals for his loyalist sympathies, abandoned the Ledger and fled from Philadelphia into the countryside. It was not until the fall of 1777, when Philadelphia was occupied by British troops, that he returned to the city and resumed publication of his newspaper.

During the British military occupation of Philadelphia, Humphreys received the major share of government printing: about 50 broadsides, mainly proclamations on army and naval matters or notices of benefit concerts for war widows, appeared under his imprint. When the British troops evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, Humphreys accompanied them to New York, where he established himself as a merchant and, in partnership with Valentine Nutter, printed Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan’s The duenna. At the end of the war he went to England to present a petition to the loyalist claims commission, a petition that was supported by testimonials from Joseph Galloway, one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent loyalists, and William Franklin, the last royal governor of New Jersey. Eventually, after he had moved to the new loyalist settlement of Shelburne, N.S., Humphreys was awarded the substantial sum of £800, two-thirds of the amount he had claimed, in compensation for his losses.

Humphreys arrived in Shelburne some time in late 1784 or early 1785 and immediately resumed his career as printer and merchant. In May 1785 he launched his four-page weekly, the Nova-Scotia Packet: and General Advertiser, the third newspaper in the town. Unlike its competitors, James Robertson’s Royal American Gazette and the Port-Roseway Gazetteer; and, the Shelburne Advertiser, Humphreys’s paper concentrated almost entirely on news, notices, and advertisements of local interest. As Shelburne’s population dwindled, the Nova-Scotia Packet was issued in a smaller format and less frequently; by 1790 it seems to have suspended publication. In the years that followed Humphreys continued his mercantile activities, selling such miscellaneous items as farm and household goods, books, and spirits. He also served as a justice of the peace, and from 1793 to 1796 he was a member of the House of Assembly.

Discouraged by prospects in Nova Scotia in general and by French privateering attacks in particular, Humphreys returned to Philadelphia some time between June 1796 and April 1797. After a brief attempt in 1798 to publish another newspaper, the Weekly Price Current, he concentrated on book-printing, assisted by several of his sons and daughters, who continued the business for two years after his death in 1810. Described by a contemporary as “a good and accurate printer, and a worthy citizen,” he was buried in the cemetery of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

Gertrude Tratt

Christ Church in Philadelphia (Philadelphia), Reg. of burials, 4 Feb. 1810. PRO, AO 12/38: 101; 12/95; 12/100: 149; 12/109 (mfm. at PAC). Royal commission on American loyalists (Coke and Egerton). DABDirectory of N.SMLAs. Charles Evans et al., American bibliography . . . (14v., Chicago and Worcester, Mass., 190359; repr. New York and Worcester, 194159; repr. New York, 194167), 4–5. C. K. Shipton and J. E. Mooney, National index of American imprints through 1800 . . . (2v., Worcester, 1969), 1. G. E. N. Tratt, A survey and listing of Nova Scotia newspapers, 1752–1957, with particular reference to the period before 1867 (Halifax, 1979). Tremaine, Biblio. of Canadian imprints. D. C. McMurtrie, The royalist printers at Shelburne, Nova Scotia (Chicago, 1933). J. P. Edwards, “The Shelburne that was and is not,” Dalhousie Rev., 2 (1922–23): 179–97. W. O. Raymond, “The founding of Shelburne; Benjamin Marston at Halifax, Shelburne and Miramichi,” N. B. Hist. Soc., Coll., 3 (1907–14), no.8: 212, map facing 228. J. J. Stewart, “Early journalism in Nova Scotia,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 6 (1888): 91–122. D. L. Teeter, “Benjamin Towne: the precarious career of a persistent printer,” PaMagazine of Hist. and Biog. (Philadelphia), 89 (1965): 316–30.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gertrude Tratt, “HUMPHREYS, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/humphreys_james_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/humphreys_james_5E.html
Author of Article: Gertrude Tratt
Title of Article: HUMPHREYS, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: September 18, 2014