ERMATINGER, CHARLES OAKES, fur trader, merchant, militia officer, and jp; b. 1 Feb. 1776 in Montreal, son of Lawrence Ermatinger*, merchant, and Jemima Oakes; d. there 4 Sept. 1833.
Charles Oakes Ermatinger apparently entered the fur trade as a clerk for the North West Company in 1795. He was working along the North Saskatchewan River in late 1798 when he and another trader became lost in the wilderness. Ermatinger found his way out after 16 days, but his companion never returned. In the summer of 1799 Ermatinger was in the area of Fond du Lac (Superior, Wis.) and, as Alexander Mackenzie* of the NWC suspected, working surreptitiously for John Ogilvy*, a leader in the fledgling New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). In July 1800, however, William McGillivray of the NWC rejoiced that “Ogilvy’s haughty and imperious conduct” had induced Ermatinger to rejoin the older firm. Being more solid, it absorbed its rival in November 1804. By the agreement of union the NWC was authorized to designate three new wintering partners after the New North West Company had named six; thus in July 1805 Ermatinger and two other clerks were promised one share each in the enlarged concern, beginning with the outfit of 1808, “to stimulate them to continue their zeal & good conduct in the discharge of their duty.” In 1806 he was a clerk in the Lake Ouinipique department under William McKay.
In 1807 Ermatinger quit the NWC’s service and, in return for £600, promised not to engage in trade detrimental to the firm for a period of seven years. Possibly as early as 1808, but apparently by 1810, he was established as an independent trader and merchant at Sault Ste Marie (Ont.) on the north, or British, side of the St Marys River; some years earlier he had been the NWC’s agent at a post on the American side. His brother Frederick William acted as his banker and outfitter in Montreal. During the War of 1812 Charles Oakes participated as a militia captain in the expedition led by Captain Charles Roberts* from Fort St Joseph (St Joseph Island, Ont.) which captured Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) from the Americans on 17 July 1812. By August 1814 Ermatinger had what Gabriel Franchère* described as “an attractive establishment,” and had just completed a windmill, constructed “to encourage agriculture, for the inhabitants of Sault Ste Marie are not much addicted to work.” Ermatinger himself grew wheat and other cereals. He enlarged his operations in 1819 by purchasing the interests of the merchant Jean-Baptiste Nolin on the American side. About 1800 Ermatinger had married, according to the custom of the country, a 15-year-old Ojibwa girl, Charlotte Cattoonaluté, with whom he had eight children by 1815; one boy was sent in 1817 to be educated in Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada, and another was sent the following year to Montreal, both under the care of Frederick William.
A man of some influence at the Sault, Ermatinger had been made a justice of the peace by 1816. After the massacre that June of Governor Robert Semple* and some 20 Red River settlers by a party of Métis friendly with the NWC, Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] asked Ermatinger and another justice of the peace, John Askin, to accompany him to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in order to arrest the leaders of the company; both men declined, either out of fear of reprisals from the NWC or in the belief that Selkirk was acting irrationally. Ermatinger had, however, been forwarding supplies to Selkirk’s Red River settlement (Man.) for some years, no doubt in the face of opposition from the NWC, and; despite Selkirk’s evident disillusionment with him, the veteran trader continued to do so until at least 1821.
During this period Ermatinger constituted the only serious rival to John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company on United States territory around Sault Ste Marie. He displayed considerable ingenuity in circumventing restrictions placed by the Americans on British traders and goods; in 1817, for example, to trade British merchandise brought up from Montreal, he sold it to an American trader and then got himself employed as the trader’s agent to work the south shore of Lake Superior and the country beyond Fond du Lac. But the American Fur Company ultimately persuaded United States authorities to revoke all licences previously granted to Ermatinger and his men, and by the end of 1819 he was obliged to limit his trade on American soil. Still, he continued for a number of years to annoy Astor’s organization as a trader and to furnish British goods to other merchants in the region.
In 1822 Ermatinger’s establishment in the American Sault Ste Marie (Mich.), probably at Nolin’s former post, was expropriated by the military for the site of a fort, and only after a hard struggle did Ermatinger obtain compensation. He transferred operations there back to the British Sault and conducted trade around it, on Drummond Island (Mich.), and elsewhere. He built the first stone house in the area at the enormous cost of £2,000. The fur trader John Siveright* remarked in May 1823 that “Mr Ermatinger’s New Elegant Mansion is quite an asset when all others are buildings indifferent in appearance . . . besides he has begun two stone towers on each side of the house, one for a Mill & the other as inn house, all being on a grand scale, & do much credit to his good taste.” The house would become a centre of social life, but in 1823, Siveright noted, the deaths of three of Ermatinger’s sons the previous summer and fall “prevented the usual Winter Amusement further than a game of Whist now and then.”
Following the death of Frederick William in 1827, Ermatinger conceded his interests in the Lake Superior trade to the American Fur Company and, while retaining his establishment at the Sault, retired with his family to a farm at Longue-Pointe (Montreal). Late in 1829 he was sent by a group of Montreal merchants to London to settle their claims against the bankrupt firm of McGillivrays, Thain and Company, but the following year, when offered a commission as justice of the peace for the Montreal district, he was obliged to decline for reasons of health. On 6 Sept. 1832 he and Charlotte were married in Christ Church, Montreal. By that time they had had 13 children, four or five of whom had died in infancy; of the sons, Charles Oakes, the eldest, would inherit the establishment at Sault Ste Marie and become a cavalry officer in Montreal during the rebellions of 1837–38, and Frederick William* would become police superintendent of Montreal.
Ermatinger died on 4 Sept. 1833. He had acquired a reputation for his hospitality and jovial manner, particularly at Sault Ste Marie where he had encouraged the prosperity of the region by adding agriculture to trade. In his life he had witnessed the end of the independent fur trader and the arrival of an era when large corporations influenced decisively the economic life of the colonies.
[Charles Oakes Ermatinger’s stone house at Sault Ste Marie, Ont., is now a museum of local history and constitutes one of the few permanent reminders of the contribution made by the Ermatinger family to Canadian history. m.m.]
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