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ROBERTSON, JAMES, printer, publisher, and office holder; b. 1747 in Stonehaven, Scotland; d. 24 April 1816 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

According to his own testimony, James Robertson immigrated to North America in 1766 and was joined there by his brother Alexander two years later. For some time after his arrival James worked as a journeyman with the printing firm of Mein and Fleming in Boston, Mass., but by 1768 he was in New York City, where on 8 May 1769 he and Alexander began publication of the New-York Chronicle. They had apparently learned the printing trade from their father. A rival printer, James Parker, referring to them as “two Scots Paper Spoilers,” roundly condemned their workmanship but admitted that “from a large Portion of Impudence, and the National Biass of all Scotch Men in their Favour,” they had quickly gained a number of subscribers. The paper was nevertheless dropped the following year.

The Robertsons then removed to Albany, N.Y., where, with the patronage of Sir William Johnson*, they initiated the short-lived Albany Gazette, the first issue appearing on 25 Nov. 1771. Two years later, while maintaining their Albany printing office, they formed a partnership with John Trumbull to publish the Norwich Packet in Norwich, Conn. Although this endeavour yielded “a very handsome Profit,” they were obliged to give it up in 1776 because “they could no longer carry it on without making it subservient to the Cause of Rebellion.” Concentrating on their Albany enterprise, the brothers were active in publishing loyalist pieces. James later claimed that they had been the only printers in America openly to support the crown in an area where there had been no British troops to offer protection. Their activities made them “Obnoxious to the Americans,” and in 1776 James was forced to flee to New York City. Alexander, a cripple, was thrown into prison, along with their journeyman, William Lewis*, and was not exchanged until December 1777.

In New York James began a new paper, the Royal American Gazette, which he gave over to Alexander on his release, believing that the business could not support them both. James subsequently published the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) for a few months in 1778 and the Royal South-Carolina Gazette (Charleston) from 1780 to 1782. Reunited in New York at the end of the British occupation of Charleston, the brothers continued the Royal American Gazette until 1783. They then joined the exodus to Nova Scotia, settling in Shelburne, where they re-established their newspaper. At least from March to July 1784 James was in England, petitioning the loyalist claims commission for compensation for the losses he and his brother had suffered during the war. They estimated their total property losses to have been £650; the annual value of their business in Albany and Norwich was assessed at £350. Eventually they were awarded a settlement of £350.

After his brother’s death in 1784 James Robertson carried on the Royal American Gazette in Shelburne for at least two years. In 1787, however, at the invitation of Edmund Fanning, lieutenant governor of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, he moved his press to Charlottetown. There, on 15 September, he published the initial issue of the Royal American Gazette, and Weekly Intelligencer of the Island of Saint John, the colony’s earliest newspaper. Before Robertson’s arrival there had been no printing office on the Island, and neither the records of the House of Assembly nor the acts of the legislature had ever been published. In 1788 he not only brought out the assembly’s Journal for that year but began printing the collected statutes of the colony, revised by Attorney General Phillips Callbeck* and Solicitor General Joseph Aplin. In addition to his printing, Robertson served as deputy postmaster and also as sheriff for a time; he had taken part in local affairs at Shelburne as well, having been a justice of the peace there.

In 1788 the assembly and Council of the Island, supported by Fanning, petitioned Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton], stressing the need for a printing office in the colony and emphasizing Robertson’s inability to subsist “from the bare Emoluments and Profits of it.” “Without some governmental Assistance,” they concluded, “the attempt must be dropped, our public Fund being too scanty and inconsiderable, to admit of any provincial Salary or reward.” Although the British government was willing to grant Robertson a commission as king’s printer, it was reluctant to set a precedent by annexing a salary to the appointment. Apparently unable to support himself, Robertson went to Quebec in 1789, leaving his journeyman, William Alexander Rind, to carry on the printing shop and complete the publication of the statutes. By March 1790, however, Robertson was in England, outlining for the loyalist claims commission the inadequacy of its earlier award to him, a sum that had apparently gone to discharge his and his brother’s debts. Noting that no salary had been offered for the position of king’s printer on St John’s Island, he maintained that “it could answer no purpose for your Memorialist to accept of the Appointment, as the Circumstances of that infant Colony cannot support a Press.” Instead, he requested the annual allowance as a loyalist that he claimed other refugee printers in British North America had obtained. Whether his petition had any result is not known. Within a few years Robertson had set up as a printer and bookseller in Edinburgh, where he died in 1816.

Little evidence remains of his personal life. His first wife, Amy, had died in Norwich on 29 May 1776; his second wife was named Mary. No children are mentioned in his petitions to the loyalist claims commission; in 1790 he asked only for compensation “suitable to the support of Himself, and two children of his deceased Brother left in his Charge.”

F. L. Pigot

PRO, AO 12/19; AO 13, bundles 116, 137; CO 226/12: 190–91; 226/ 13: 222–23; 226/ 15: 13–16. The papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L. W. Labaree et al. (21 v. to date, New Haven, Conn., [1960]– ), 16: 140; 17: 56. C. S. Brigham, History and bibliography of American news papers, 1690–1820 (2v., Worcester, Mass., 1947). DAB. Tremaine, Biblio. of Canadian imprints. W. L. Cotton, “The press in Prince Edward Island,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, [1906]), 112–21. D. C. McMurtrie, The royalist printers at Shelburne, Nova Scotia (Chicago, 1933). Isaiah Thomas, The history of printing in America, with a biography of printers, and an account of newspapers . . . (2nd ed., 2v., Albany, N.Y., 1874; repr. New York, 1972). E. G. Carroll, 4 “History of printing,” Canadian Antiques Collector (Toronto), 8 (1973), no.[21]: 43–45. Marion Robertson, “The loyalist printers: James and Alexander Robertson,” Nova Scotia Hist. Rev. (Halifax), 3, no.1 (1983): 83–93.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

F. L. Pigot, “ROBERTSON, JAMES (1747-1816),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1747_1816_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1747_1816_5E.html
Author of Article: F. L. Pigot
Title of Article: ROBERTSON, JAMES (1747-1816)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: October 30, 2014