CLENCH (Clinch), RALFE (Ralph, Rolfe), army officer, office holder, judge, militia officer, politician, and farmer; b. c. 1762 in Schenectady, N.Y., son of Robert Clench and Hannah Vernon; m. Elizabeth Johnson, granddaughter of Sir William Johnson*, and they had at least 12 children; d. 19 Jan. 1828 in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada.
After the outbreak of the American revolution Ralfe Clench joined the 53rd Foot as a cadet and served in John Burgoyne*’s campaign of 1777. He escaped the débâcle that befell Burgoyne’s army and was detached as a volunteer in Captain Henry Bird’s company of the 8th Foot. He probably participated in Bird’s raids along the upper Ohio in 1779 and was described by the regimental commanding officer as a promising young man. For a short time he was a volunteer with John Butler*’s rangers and in April 1780 he was commissioned second lieutenant. Detailed to the company of William Caldwell at Detroit, he distinguished himself in the defeat of American colonel William Crawford near present-day Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in 1782.
A first lieutenant by 1784, Clench was reduced on 24 June, and he settled at Niagara. His war service appears to have stood him in good stead with government. In 1790 he was appointed the first clerk of the Court of Common Pleas for the Nassau District. By 1800 he had garnered the offices of registrar of the Surrogate Court, clerk of the District Court, and clerk of the peace in the Niagara District. He received many other appointments during his life, including judge of the District, commissioner of the Heir and Devisee Commission, commissioner of customs for Upper Canada, and commissioner for the administration of oaths. He assiduously sought these offices for himself as well as others for his son, Joseph Brant Clench*. Before the War of 1812, he was probably the only office holder within the district whose chief source of income was office.
Clench was very much a social and political animal. By 1792 he was a captain and adjutant in the local militia, rising by 1804 to lieutenant-colonel; two years later he was promoted colonel of the 1st Lincoln Militia. He was clerk of Niagara Township from 1793 to 1807 and again in 1812. During this period, he held three other township offices. A charter member of Masonic Lodge No.19 from 1787, he later served as its secretary, and he also belonged to the Niagara Agricultural Society, the Niagara Library, the Turf Club, and the local Presbyterian church.
Clench was that combination of sophisticate and frontiersman often produced in early Upper Canada. The noted traveller Patrick Campbell described him in 1792 as a “young man of liberal education,” equally capable of entertaining company on an organ and of translating speeches into Iroquois. On the other hand, Clench could also amuse listeners with many strange and grisly stories of his war experiences. Campbell was fascinated by the tale told by Clench and Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*] of the time when they “once brought boys, and a number of women and girls, prisoners to Detroit, and so served the whole settlement, which was much in the want of females.”
Clench first seems to have engaged in political controversy in 1795 when he supported Isaac Swayze in a local agitation against the intended wording of land deeds. In 1800 Clench and Swayze emerged as the most active leaders of local opposition to the regional élite, which was dominated by Scottish merchants such as Robert Hamilton*. That year they were elected members of the House of Assembly for the riding of 2nd, 3rd and 4th Lincoln; they were re-elected in 1804. Together they proposed legislation championing the interests of small merchants, local office holders, loyalists, and farmers. Clench was initially attracted by the parliamentary opposition of Robert Thorpe* and Joseph Willcocks*, particularly by its demand that land be granted on more liberal terms. But as an office holder and hence essentially a member of the conservative establishment, Clench was careful on most issues not to align himself with the group. Its initiatives drove him to the defensive and consequently destroyed his political effectiveness. His subsequent career as the member for 2nd Lincoln in the sixth (1812–16) and seventh (1817–20) parliaments was much quieter, although he did emerge as a staunch opponent of Robert Fleming Gourlay*.
During the War of 1812, Clench fought at Queenston Heights and was mentioned in dispatches. In March 1813 he became assistant quartermaster general to the militia forces stationed at Niagara. Three months later he was captured by invading American forces, and he spent the duration of the war as a prisoner.
Clench kept a fine home in Niagara which burned, along with all his personal papers, in February 1820. His orchard, described as the largest and finest in Niagara and destroyed during the war, had consisted of 114 trees producing six types of peach and five kinds of plum, as well as quinces, apricots, and nectarines. His second home, built in the 1820s and still standing, is described by architectural historian Peter John Stokes as the “finest example of its type surviving.”
AO, RG 21, Niagara County, Niagara Township, council minutes, 1793–1807, 1812; RG 22, ser.138, box 1, R. v. Isaac Swayze, 1795, affidavits of John Young et al., 16 March 1795. BL, Add. mss 21761: 41–42; 21762: 70; 21765: 211; 21786: 100. PAC, MG 23, HI, 1, ser.3, 6: 3; ser.4, vol.5, packet A7: 65–66 (transcripts); RG 5, A1: 2054; RG 8, I (C ser.), 690: 125; 692: 268; RG 19, E5(a), 3745, claim 324; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. PRO, WO 28/4: 13. P. Campbell, Travels in North America (Langton and Ganong), 165–72. Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank), 2: 15, 151. Farmers’ Journal and Welland Canal Intelligencer (St Catharines, [Ont.]), 30 Jan. 1828. Gleaner, and Niagara Newspaper, 21 Jan. 1828. U.E. Loyalist (York [Toronto]), 2 Feb. 1828. Armstrong, Handbook of U.C. chronology (1985), 173, 186. Quebec almanac, 1790. Carnochan, Hist. of Niagara, 179, 184, 251. P. J. Stokes and Robert Montgomery, Old Niagara on the Lake (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1971), no.24. London Free Press and Daily Western Advertiser (London, [Ont.]), 23 Feb. 1857.