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WRIGHT, THOMAS, surveyor, astronomer, politician, judge, and author; b. c. 1740, possibly in London, England, son of Thomas Wright and Martha Bisse; m. 6 Dec. 1769 Susanna Turner of Cumberland, N.S., and they had ten children; d. 7 Dec. 1812 on Prince Edward Island.

Little is known of the early life of Thomas Wright. According to his own testimony, he studied drawing and mathematics at Christ’s Hospital in London and in 1758 went to North America where he furthered his education with practical work under the surveyor general of Georgia. Returning to England in 1763, he came out the following year as deputy to Captain Samuel Johannes Holland, surveyor general of the Northern District of North America. Wright assisted in the survey of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island and Cape Breton Island and took charge of the survey of Anticosti. He returned to England in 1767 to deliver plans on which he had been working and two years later came out again to North America to observe the transit of Venus from Quebec. The survey of the Northern District continued, and Wright worked with Holland along the coast of the Bay of Fundy and in New England. During this time he requested a military commission but his application was unsuccessful. As a result, he offered to take the first civil employment in the colonies that would allow him to continue with the survey.

In 1769 St John’s Island was made a separate colony from Nova Scotia, and when Governor Walter Patterson* arrived the following year he appointed Wright a member of the Council, even though Wright was absent much of each year on the survey. At Patterson’s request Wright was appointed surveyor general of the colony in 1773, but he may have continued to work with Holland. The following year he became a judge of the Supreme Court on the death of Chief Justice John Duport, and he continued as an assistant judge after the arrival of Duport’s successor, Peter Stewart. His position as one of the senior members of the administration led to his being taken prisoner in 1775 by American privateers who raided Charlottetown, but he and the administrator, Phillips Callbeck*, were soon released by order of General George Washington.

As a member of the Council Wright almost unavoidably became entangled in the controversy over the land question. The British government had agreed to the establishment of a separate administration for St John’s Island on the condition that it be supported through the collection of quitrents. Proprietors were unwilling or unable to pay, however, and the colony soon found itself in financial difficulty. In 1781 Governor Patterson seized several townships for arrears of quitrents and had them sold at auction. Most members of the administration took advantage of the irregular way in which the sale was conducted to acquire property, but there is no indication that Wright benefited from the governor’s actions. Nevertheless, because he was later party to efforts to block the adoption of reversing legislation explicitly demanded by the Home Department after complaints by the proprietors, Wright was implicated in the affair. In an attempt to settle the dispute the British government in 1786 ordered Patterson to return to England and dispatched Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning to replace him. Patterson refused to give up his post on Fanning’s arrival and during the winter of 1786–87 the Island had two governors, both claiming to represent the crown. Along with some other members of the administration Wright continued to support Patterson and refused to cooperate with Fanning. Following the re-opening of communication with Britain in the spring of 1787, Patterson was formally dismissed and Wright suspended from the Council and the post of surveyor general. The suspensions lasted only a few months, but Wright’s return to the administration was also of short duration. Led by Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale and Robert Clark*, the proprietors brought criminal charges against Patterson and members of his government, and the case was finally heard before the British Privy Council in 1789. At the trial Wright presented his own defence and, according to MacDonald, “never was a human being made so ridiculous a figure. “Wright was removed from the Council and it was only by reason of his large family and his poverty that he was permitted to retain his post as surveyor general. The trial appears to have ended his direct participation in the government of the colony, although a Thomas Wright, either he or his eldest son, sat in the House of Assembly from 1797 to 1802.

Wright was more successful in his professional activities. In 1788 he was given a vote of thanks by the assembly for his efforts as a surveyor and for his work, unpaid, as a judge. But Wright soon found that he had only routine tasks to perform as surveyor general, since the colony, because of its land-holding system, had little crown land. Several of his sons took up surveying, and by 1791 Wright was complaining to Lord Grenville, the Home secretary, “I wish but to be useful to the publick as well to my family, here I am of little to either.” Throughout his career Wright experienced difficulty in obtaining his salary, which was originally to have come from the quitrents. Once it was understood that the payment of salaries from quitrents was unworkable, adjustments were made, and Wright claimed that his salary was reduced in error. By 1790 he was pleading that he and his family were in desperate circumstances, and he requested a post in the proposed new colony of Upper Canada or elsewhere. No action was taken on the request and his salary was not adjusted until 1806.

A year after the establishment in 1796 of a commission to determine the boundary between New Brunswick and the District of Maine (then part of Massachusetts), Wright was appointed astronomer for the British side; Thomas Barclay* was Britain’s representative on the commission, Edward Winslow served as its secretary, and Ward Chipman* argued the British case. Wright had surveyed the entire area in 1772, and with Samuel Webber, the American astronomer, he now took highly accurate sightings to establish the exact location of the several rivers claimed to be the border. In the summer of 1797 he and Robert Pagan* excavated a small island in the St Croix or Scoodic River and uncovered the remains of buildings erected by Pierre Du Gua* de Monts and Samuel de Champlain* in 1604. By establishing which of the three rivers referred to as the St Croix was in fact the St Croix of the exploration period, their findings to a great extent ended the boundary dispute.

At the time of his death in 1812 Wright had been active in surveying and mapping the Atlantic shore of North America for almost 50 years; he had covered the entire coast of what are now the Maritime provinces of Canada and had worked as far south as Georgia. Surveyors who achieved more fame, such as Holland and Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*, used his reports to prepare the first accurate maps of the region. However, Wright is now known not for his cartographic contribution but rather for his political activities. His involvement with the land question almost ruined him, and after the “unfortunate business” Wright promised to “render my future conduct unexceptionable.” He succeeded all too well.

After Wright’s death the post of surveyor general went in turn to his sons Charles* and George* and to his grandson George*, who held the position until 1854. For an 80-year period, then, the Island’s only surveyors general were members of the Wright family. Even in an age of nepotism their hold on the office, like that of Charles Morris* and his family on the same position in Nova Scotia, was remarkable.

H. T. Holman

Thomas Wright is the author of Description of the island of Anticosti (London, 1768). Observations he communicated to the astronomer royal, Nevil Maskelyne, formed the basis of Maskelyne’s article, “Immersions and emersions of Jupiter’s first satellite, observed at Jupiter’s Inlet, on the island of Anticosti, North America, by Mr. Thomas Wright, deputy surveyor-general of lands for the Northern District of America . . .” Royal Soc. of London, Philosophical Trans., 64 (1774): 190–93.

PAC, MG 24, K2, 6: 53, 61, 121, 151, 260, 284 (transcripts). PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith-Alley coll., Thomas Wright docs.; RG 3, House of Asembly, Journals, 1788; RG 5, Minutes, 11, 18, 24 April, 23 May, 29 Oct. 1787; 15 Sept. 1790; RG 16, Land registry records, Conveyance reg., liber 1234: ff.2–5, 7–9, 15. Private arch., Mrs J. T. McIntyre (Calgary), Charles Wright papers, pp. 1–4 (photocopies at PAC). PRO, CO 5/115: 20–21; 5/154: 202–3 (mfm. at PAC); CO 226/1: 15, 23, 35, 53, 83; 226/10: 176–77, 331–32; 226/13: 337–38; 226/14: 341, 370, 380–81; 226/18: 118, 128, 131–32, 211, 219; 226/21: 145, 149–50, 157; 226/22: 219–20; CO 227/2: 26, 35, 43, 50–51, 61–62; 227/21: 26; CO 323/24: 623. Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, Administrations, file 23, Thomas Wright. [John MacDonald?], Remarks on the conduct of the governor and Council of the Island of StJohns, in passing an act of assembly in April of 1786 to confirm the sales of the lands in 1781 . . . (n.p., [1789]). Stewart, Account of P.E.I., 181–203. Canadas smallest prov. (Bolger), 45, 52–65. R. D. and J. I. Tallman, “The diplomatic search for the St. Croix River, 1796–1798,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1 (1971–72), no.2: 59–71.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. T. Holman, “WRIGHT, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_thomas_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_thomas_5E.html
Author of Article: H. T. Holman
Title of Article: WRIGHT, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: December 18, 2014