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McNIFF, PATRICK, surveyor; b. in Ireland; m. first Elizabeth McDonnell; m. secondly 1 Nov. 1775 Catherine McDavitt, and they had one son and three daughters; d. May 1803 in Detroit (Mich.). 

Patrick McNiff left Ireland in 1764 and settled as a merchant at Saratoga (Schuylerville, N.Y.). By the time of the American revolution, he “lived in ease and affluence . . . [with] property of upwards of £3,000.” Although he signed “one Rebel Association,” he did not serve in the militia. In July 1776 and again the following summer rebels looted his store. “Sent away from Saratoga . . . by order of a Committee,” McNiff resettled at Albany until the spring of 1779 when local rebels heard of “some intelligence he had conveyed to Canada.” McNiff fled to security behind the British lines at New York. The following year he built a house and store on Staten Island but in January 1782 rebels plundered him of goods worth nearly £300 and then imprisoned him. Released shortly after, he rebuilt his home only to abandon it in April 1783, claiming that he had been chased away.

On 6 Sept. 1783 McNiff was in New York City where he petitioned Sir Guy Carleton for aid to go to the province of Quebec. “Perhaps one of the most distressed men living,” he had been reduced to existing on the charity of friends. His plea apparently fell on deaf ears for on 30 October he again sought relief. In Sorel, Que., McNiff petitioned Governor Haldimand for assistance in bringing his family to the province. This memorial was accompanied by testimonies to McNiff s worthiness and honesty by such notable loyalists as Stephen DeLancey, Peter Van Alstine, and Abraham Cornelius Cuyler. Cuyler mentioned information which McNiff had provided during the war and also noted that he had “some knowledge of surveying.” In spite of such high praise McNiff was forced to write on 8 Jan. 1784 reminding Haldimand of his petition. This action was apparently successful and by the summer McNiff was working as a surveyor for Surveyor General Samuel Johannes Holland and possibly also Sir John Johnson* at New Johnstown (Cornwall, Ont.).

McNiff laid out the river lots in six townships, completing the plan on 1 Nov. 1786. The following year he was working near Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.) and in April produced a sketch of the Gananoque River. He did some work there for the prominent local loyalist Joel Stone* and by the summer of 1787 was well established at New Johnstown with a house and farm, which he sold four years later. On 4 June 1788 Deputy Surveyor General John Collins* instructed McNiff to go to the Ottawa River where he surveyed parts of several townships and produced a large-scale plan of his work. On 24 July Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] established four new administrative districts in the western area of the province, and the following spring McNiff was appointed deputy surveyor for the District of Hesse and ordered to Detroit. He and his family left Lachine, where they had been living, in May 1789, arriving in Detroit three months later.

A dispute over land claims by local Indians prevented McNiff from surveying until the matter had been settled by the “McKee Treaty” of May 1790 [see Wasson*], signed by the local deputy agent of the Indian Department, Alexander McKee*. On 2 July the district land board issued its first survey order to McNiff which he complained about as “so imperfect and inexplicit that . . . he could not comprehend nor execute it.” However, by the end of the month he had done sufficient work to be able to report to Collins that the general plan of survey, which laid out lots in neat, rectangular townships, could not be applied universally without jeopardizing the improvements already made by French settlers and loyalist squatters whose lots were located haphazardly. Moreover, swamps and marshes made huge areas uninhabitable. In August and September, after his instructions had been clarified, McNiff surveyed parts of the La Tranche (Thames) River and the townships of Colchester (Colchester South) and Gosfield (Gosfield South). Before he could complete his work, however, he fell ill.

On 31 Jan. 1791 McNiff complained to Collins that land speculators – he implied strongly that members of the land board, which included such prominent men as John Askin and Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Testard Louvigny de Montigny, were involved – were hindering the progress of settlement. He repeated these charges on 3 May to Hugh Finlay, chairman of the land committee of the Legislative Council. In April, while surveying at Detroit, McNiff had been accused by French settlers of tampering with their fences and sidelines but he denied the charges. In June the land board complained that his plan for the La Tranche River did not correspond to the general plan of survey, but he explained that swamps and the irregularity of settled lots necessitated deviations. In September he suggested the need for reform of existing regulations; he was still complaining about this problem in 1792. Finally in March 1793 the land board agreed to allow him to survey lots which were not the standard 100-acre size.

The province of Quebec had been divided in 1791, and the following year McNiff applied to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe for the post of deputy surveyor general of Upper Canada, extolling himself as having been the “oldest deputy surveyor in the Province of Quebec . . . the most experienced (without comparison) in settling a new country.” However, David William Smith* received the post and on 3 Oct. 1792 enquired of Richard G. England, president of the district land board, if he was satisfied with McNiff’s work. England’s response was positive, but not for long. In May 1793 he complained to Smith: “The shadow of a difficulty is sufficient to impede for years any service he [McNiff] is directed on.” Simcoe concurred with such a judgement and on 13 May wrote to Alured Clarke*, the acting governor-in-chief, that McNiff “is not competent . . . being of a very impractical disposition.” Simcoe must have been relieved when Francis Le Maistre, Dorchester’s military secretary, informed him on 27 Jan. 1794 that McNiff was no longer needed in the Engineer Department. The land boards were dissolved in November of that year, and McNiff’s fate was sealed. He was soon unemployed. In the spring of 1795 an exasperated England refused to employ him on further survey work or to recommend him for a farm lot. Clearly McNiff was not wanted; in June 1795 Abraham Iredell was appointed deputy surveyor for the Western District. In July 1796 the British evacuated Detroit in accordance with the terms of Jay’s Treaty; McNiff remained, keeping with him several important surveys which he sold to Major-General Anthony Wayne for $100. Colonel John Francis Hamtramck, who had arranged the deal, charged that “the privation of 15 shillings Halifax money per day has induced him to change his coat . . . this is the total amount of patriotism of that Gentleman.” Although perhaps not the base turncoat Hamtramck saw him as, McNiff undoubtedly had flexible ethics. While a surveyor he had complained bitterly and frequently about land speculation but he speculated himself when the opportunity arose. He owned about 15 per cent of the shares in a partnership including John Askin, John Askin Jr, and Alexander Henry* which had obtained rights to a huge tract of Indian land on the south shore of Lake Erie. This speculation, known as the Cuyahoga Purchase, came to an abrupt end in 1795 because Alexander Hamilton, the former American secretary of the Treasury, expressed doubts about the legality in the United States of the Indian deeds. Henry wrote to his partners, “We have lost a fortune of at least one Million of Dollars.”

In 1796 McNiff was named surveyor of Wayne County (Mich.) and judge of the Court of Common Pleas; soon after, he was appointed conductor of military stores and barrack master at a salary of $40 a month. However, tranquillity was an infrequent visitor in McNiff’s life. On 15 Aug. 1798 Governor Arthur St Clair revoked his surveyor’s commission; in November his fellow judges refused to sit on the bench with him. Never known for easy acquiescence, McNiff immediately charged his colleagues with all manner of crimes. Countercharges followed and the upshot was the indictment and trial of McNiff and a fellow judge; both were acquitted. Between 1798 and 1802 quarrels among the magistrates virtually closed the court. Only McNiff’s death in May 1803 apparently ended the feud.

Simcoe’s description of McNiff as incompetent and of a “very impractical disposition” was only half correct. Although he surveyed throughout Upper Canada for a decade few errors were subsequently discovered in his work. However, examples of his “impractical disposition” abound. As historian Milo Milton Quaife put it, McNiff’s “positive temperament . . . caused him to be involved in numerous disputes.” McNiff was over-confident, stubborn, tactless, argumentative, and opinionated. He complained about everything from poor wages to a lack of stationery and he skirmished with virtually everyone he met. He remains, however, a demonstration that the squeaky wheel does not always get the grease.

Ron Edwards

AO, Map coll., J. F. Holland, copied from Patrick McNiff, “Hesse District, a map of Lake Erie, Lake St Clair, showing claims to lands in that district,” [1790]; Patrick McNiff, “Hawkesbury Township, Ont., survey,” [1795]; “Lake Superior, a sketch map of the north shore . . . collected from the journal of a coasting survey and remarks by Lieut. Bennet of the 8th Regiment,” 1794; “Plan of part of the east [north] shore of Lake Erie [and part of the east shore of the Detroit River] in the District of Hesse . . . ,” 1790; “A plan of part of the new settlement on the north bank of the south west branch of the St Lawrence River . . . ,” 1786; “A plan of the new settlements on the north bank of the south west branch of the St Lawrence River . . . ,” 1786; RG 1, A-I-1, l: 201; 2: 43, 71–72, 78; 55: 58, 74; A-I-6: 90–93, 19287–89, 23094–96; A-II-1, 1: 468; C-I-9, 2: 24. BL, Add. mss 21875: 74–76; 21877: 347–49 (copies at PAC). MTL, D. W. Smith papers. PAC, MG 23, HII, 1, vol.1: 309, 366, 368, 395–98, 426, 444; MG 30, D1, 21: 245–47; National Map Coll., H2/400–1786; R/400–1786; H1/400–1790; H1/400-[1790]; H1/400-[1790] (1924); H1/400–1790 (1905); V1/400–1791 (1909); H3/409–Hesse-1790; V30/409-Hesse-1815; R/410-Erie-1789; R11/410-Erie-1791; H12/410-Gananoque-1787; H3/410-Superior-1795; M/430-Camden-1794; M/430-Charlottenburgh-1796; M/430-Colchester-1794; M/430-Cornwall-1786; M/430-Cornwall-1792; H12/430-Lancaster-1802; H12/430-Sandwich-1798; V3/1000-1791 (1909); 1210-Detroit-1796; RG 1, E14, 10: 515–18; L4, 1–4. PRO, AO 12/27: ff.295–301 (mfm. at PAC); PRO 30/ 55, 8: 263–65 (mfm. at PAC). Corr. of LieutGovernor Simcoe (Cruikshank). “Documents relating to the proceedings of the district land boards,” AO Report, 1905: cxxxi–546. John Askin papers (Quaife). Windsor border region (Lajeunesse). F. C. Bald, Detroits first American decade, 1796 to 1805 (Ann Arbor, Mich., and London, 1948). F. C. Hamil, The valley of the lower Thames, 1640 to 1850 (Toronto, 1951; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973). Friend Palmer, Early days in Detroit (Detroit, 1906). A. P. Walker and R. W. Code, “Patrick McNiff,” Assoc. of Ont. Land Surveyors, Annual report (Toronto), 1931: 100–4.

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Cite This Article

Ron Edwards, “McNIFF, PATRICK,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcniff_patrick_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcniff_patrick_5E.html
Author of Article: Ron Edwards
Title of Article: McNIFF, PATRICK
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: November 22, 2014