RYLAND, HERMAN WITSIUS, office holder and jp; b. c. 1759, probably in Northampton or Warwick, Warwickshire, England, second son of John Collett Ryland and Elizabeth Frith; d. 20 July 1838 in Beauport, Lower Canada.
Herman Witsius Ryland no doubt received his early education from his father, a Baptist minister and teacher who later became a prominent educator. Young Ryland subsequently trained for the army and was appointed assistant deputy paymaster general to the British forces in North America. He arrived at New York in the fall of 1781 during the American Revolutionary War and was detached to the captured British troops in Lancaster, Pa. He fulfilled his duties competently and at the end of the war returned to England with the commander-in-chief, Sir Guy Carleton*.
Apparently discharged, Ryland spent nearly a decade in search of another position until Carleton, now Lord Dorchester and governor of Lower Canada, chose him as his civil secretary in 1793; he arrived at Quebec with Dorchester on 24 September. His duties included the issuing of letters patent and commissions and the maintenance of the governor’s correspondence. Britain being at war with France, he also kept copies of all documents relating to French intrigues in Lower Canada. The post was, as he claimed, “of as great a Trust as any in the colony.” With a salary of £200, he was able to bring to Quebec his fiancée of 10 years, an Englishwoman named Charlotte Warwick, whom he married about 26 Dec. 1794. They would have nine children, of whom only four would survive Ryland.
When Dorchester returned to England in 1796, Ryland was pressed to remain as secretary to the new governor, Robert Prescott*. As an inducement, he was made clerk of the Executive Council in succession to Jenkin Williams* with a salary of £100 and income from fees. In this position he registered orders-in-council, wrote warrants for payment of expenses, filed petitions, and prepared the public accounts. He quickly impressed the governor. A dispute arose between the two over a private matter, however, and Ryland resigned as secretary in May 1798, took leave of absence as clerk of the Executive Council, and, with his family, left for England in June to search for “a more eligible Provision.” His ship was captured by French revolutionary privateers, some of whom were taken prisoner when it was recaptured by a British vessel. In England Ryland successfully urged humane treatment for them and their exchange for British prisoners John Black* and Henry Cull*.
Supplied with information by Quebec merchant John Young*, Ryland worked in London for the recall of Prescott, who was engaged in an embarrassing public squabble with members of the Executive Council over the administration of crown lands. Ryland believed his actions effective, and indeed in 1799 Prescott was replaced in the administration of the colony by Lieutenant Governor Robert Shore Milnes. The colonial secretary, Lord Portland, urged Ryland to return to Quebec as Milnes’s civil secretary, using for persuasion the promise of an income of £1,000 per annum, to be attained in several steps. As a start Ryland’s salary as clerk of the Executive Council was raised to £400.
Ryland arrived back at Quebec in early July 1799 and immediately established the most cordial professional and personal relations with Milnes. As well, he re-established his excellent rapport with Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain*, the two men sharing certain preoccupations in religious matters. For Ryland, as for most public men of the time, religion had important political ramifications. “In a political point of view it is immaterial whether the mass of the People be Protestants or Papists, provided the Crown is in full possession of the Patronage of the Church,” he believed, “but a House of Assembly composed of Men differing in Religion language and manners from those of the Parent State is the most powerful engine of mischief that can be devised in a conquered Province . . . unless counterbalanced by an adequate influence and authority on the part of the Crown.” Ryland was not, however, indifferent to Catholicism, “a religion which sinks and debases the human mind.” Indeed he established as a personal objective “gradually to undermine the authority and influence of the Roman Catholic Priest.” He therefore urged Mountain to insist that the government place the Church of England on a prestigious basis in order to give the bishop weight “in the eyes of French Canadians who are accustomed to see . . . shew and splendour.” (Privately, however, this Baptist by birth and upbringing envisaged for the “Protestant Church establishment . . . as much splendour and as little power as possible.”) Meanwhile, he felt, priests should be licensed; this done, “the King’s Supremacy would be established, the authority of the Pope would be abolished, the country would become Protestant.”
To reduce Roman Catholic clerical influence, Ryland promoted state-controlled education, and he supported the establishment of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning [see Joseph Langley Mills*]. He advocated founding a college at or near Quebec, “under the eye of Government,” in which the classical subjects, but not theology, would be taught. The educational system would be financed by the consolidated revenues from the Jesuit estates, already in government hands, and the Sulpician estates, the appropriation of which, on “generous” terms to the clergy, was “pregnant with . . . extensive Consequences.” In July 1805 many of Ryland’s views, shared by Mountain and Attorney General Jonathan Sewell, found their way into a dispatch by Milnes to the colonial secretary, Lord Camden, on the political state of the colony.
With the assistance of Milnes and Lord Spencer, Ryland gradually obtained fulfilment of Portland’s salary commitment to him. In 1802 Milnes appointed him clerk of the crown in chancery to succeed Hugh Finlay* at a salary of £100, and in 1804 he was awarded a pension of £300 per annum. Milnes departed the following year, taking with him a petition to the king from Roman Catholic bishop Pierre Denaut* requesting legal recognition of the bishop of Quebec. The petition represented a tactical victory for the colony’s English party, of which Ryland had become a leading figure, it being presumed that the petition would be granted only in return for concessions, notably the licensing of priests. Denaut died in January 1806, and Ryland saw in the acceptance of a successor and the appointment of a new coadjutor splendid opportunities for the government to pressure the hierarchy into making concessions. Despite strong protests on Ryland’s part, however, the administrator of the colony, Thomas Dunn*, allowed the oaths of office to be taken by Joseph-Octave Plessis* as bishop, and by Bernard-Claude Panet* as coadjutor, without conditions. Ryland had come to see Plessis as a man of dangerous stature, diplomatic abilities, and independence of mind, while Panet was the brother of Jean-Antoine Panet*, speaker of the House of Assembly and a leader of the Canadian party. The coadjutor’s appointment, Ryland feared, would increase Plessis’s influence in the assembly and give the Canadian party, through the speaker, “the whole patronage of the Romish Church . . . and the prodigious influence attending it.”
The assembly had only recently become an object of concern for Ryland, who, until the revolutionary scare of the mid 1790s [see Robert Prescott], had held moderately liberal political views. He rightly saw that body as attempting to assume unilaterally the privileges enjoyed by the British House of Commons. The most disquieting of these, Ryland felt, was “the high and dangerous Power of arrest, Fine and Imprisonment,” which was used against newspaper editors Thomas Cary* and Edward Edwards* and Montreal businessman Isaac Todd* in 1805 for publicly criticizing the assembly. “Seeing myself, as I fear, for Ever cut off from my native Country, and my Children, in all probability destined to grow up Strangers to the happy land of their Forefathers,” Ryland wrote to Lord Spencer in August 1806, “I cannot but anxiously wish that every wise and eligible Means may be adopted for binding this distant Colony as long as possible to the Parent State, for uniting their Interests by assimilating their Religion, Manners and Government, and for rendering this Scion as like as possible to the original Stock.” Thus, although his views were diametrically opposed to those of the Canadian nationalists, he was motivated by the same considerations that preoccupied them: Lower Canada had become his home, and he wished to feel secure in the possession of it for himself and his descendants.
Ryland approved, therefore, of the union of the civil and military command of the colony under Lieutenant-General Sir James Henry Craig* in 1807. With the assistance of Mountain and Dunn, Ryland quickly ensured his continuance in the post of civil secretary under Craig, and there immediately sprang up between the two men an exceptional bond of friendship and a perfect meeting of minds on political matters. Ryland urged on Craig the need to reinforce, by the appointment of worthy Britons (as opposed to Canadian- or American-born colonists), both the Legislative Council, which he considered the first line of defence against assaults by the assembly on the royal prerogative, and the colonial judiciary. Having Craig’s entire confidence, Ryland coordinated intelligence operations as war with the United States became imminent, receiving reports from secret agents John Henry* (mainly to Montreal businessman John Richardson*) and Daniel Sullivan, an American under-secretary.
After March 1810, when Craig found himself facing a full-blown crisis in his relations with the assembly, he turned to Ryland to justify in England the repressive measures he had taken and to obtain acceptance there for a wide range of proposals designed to increase executive influence and the British presence in the colony. In late July Ryland arrived in England with 16 dispatches for the colonial secretary, Lord Liverpool. After learning that the ministry was weak and that it feared offending the Canadian majority, he set himself to gauging “the particular sentiments and relative strength of the parties in and out of power” and to arranging lobbies by influential British merchants trading to the Canadas. His energetic and resourceful efforts notwithstanding, the mission bogged down as the British government became paralysed with its own concerns. Liverpool refused to risk the House of Commons on any of Craig’s proposals requiring legislative action, such as reunion of the Canadas.
In 1811 Ryland began to push for two measures that required only a ministerial directive to the governor, namely the appropriation of the Sulpician estates and government appointment to Roman Catholic cures. By dint of “a reasonable share of impudence and perseverence,” he succeeded in early April in having the two points referred to the law officers of the crown. Three months later they responded: the crown had the right to take both actions. Their opinion, however, was strongly qualified; a “sort of possessory title” had been for so long left to the church, they asserted, that only by “compromise or amicable arrangement” should the crown attempt to recover its rights.
This opinion Ryland transmitted to Sir George Prevost*, who succeeded to the administration of Lower Canada in September 1811 and who had agreed, under pressure from Liverpool, to retain Ryland’s services as civil secretary. Despite a lengthy stay in England, Ryland had decided that, given his age and large family, he must return to the colony: the very number of his positions there precluded all idea of exchanging to advantage. Indeed, Craig had added to them. In January 1811 the governor had appointed him treasurer of the Jesuit estates commission at £150 per annum and in June he became secretary; Ryland had been a commissioner (an unremunerated post) since 1807. In addition, Craig had strongly urged Liverpool to name Ryland to the Legislative Council. The appointment, made in December 1811 without Prevost’s knowledge, had been sought by Ryland for a number of years, in part to stiffen the council’s resistance to the encroachments of the assembly, and in part as a precaution against loss of the civil secretaryship.
By “the very cold reception” his communications met with from Prevost, Ryland suspected long before he arrived back at Quebec in June 1812 that his position as secretary was threatened. He was already depressed by the failure of a mission that had cost him £1,900, and he now discovered that he had been effectually displaced by the interim secretary, Edward Brabazon Brenton, and Brenton’s assistant, Andrew William Cochran. The house allotted to him as secretary had been emptied of his belongings and given to Brenton, and his pew in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity had been transferred to officers of the garrison. In the governor’s office, Cochran remarked, Ryland became “a mere cypher . . . and after having been so long Prime Minister the change . . . [was] extremely galling.” Prevost was publicly humiliating him, Ryland speculated, “to mark as decidedly as possible . . . [the governor’s] determination to deviate in everything from the system of his predecessor.” Not one to suffer insult meekly, Ryland refused to be pushed out of the secretaryship until, in April 1813, Prevost agreed to increase his salary and allowances as clerk of the Executive Council, enabling him to maintain his income and save face.
Prevost’s “deviation” from Craig’s system consisted in winning the support of the leaders of the Canadian party – notably Louis-Joseph Papineau* – and of Plessis and the Catholic clergy. On the other hand he ignored the English party, not even consulting Ryland about his mission. For Ryland, Prevost’s policies merely encouraged the assembly to pursue its efforts to acquire all the powers exercised by the House of Commons. Seeking to base in theory his objection to the assembly’s attempts, Ryland argued that the privileges of the Commons were not all applicable in the colony because they arose from immemorial usage in a specifically British context, that is, they were established by British common law. There might be “a Common Law with regard to the privileges of Provincial Legislatures” to be ascertained “from the practice in our former North American Provinces,” but, if additional privileges were required by the provincial legislatures, “they ought to be established by . . . Statute.” Curiously, Ryland’s insistence on formal legislation had a Gallic flavour that contrasted with the quintessentially British approach of the Canadian party, which was attempting to proceed by informal precedent. The idea of a colonial common law never caught on among thinkers of the English party, probably because the American colonies, having revolted, constituted a reference of doubtful value, but the concept of the British constitution as the unexportable product, in its purest form, of a specific historical context was gaining popularity, as Robert-Anne d’Estimauville* was to show later. Ryland also opposed Prevost’s courting of Plessis, who was “a tyrant to his clergy (though but the son of a blacksmith) and who in point of duplicity, bigotry and ambition has . . . never been surpassed!” Neither did Ryland, in common with the English party, approve Prevost’s strictly defensive strategy in the War of 1812. “Surely it will sooner or later be found out,” he reflected in May 1813, “that the wisest means of obtaining peace is to render war as distressing as possible to your enemy.” It seems almost certain, therefore, that Ryland was among a small group of legislative and executive councillors, including Mountain, Young, and Pierre-Amable De Bonne*, that conspired in 1814 to have the governor recalled.
Since Ryland could no longer influence executive policy as civil secretary, the Legislative Council became his principal forum. From 1814 to 1831 he would attend nearly 80 per cent of its meetings, an exceptional record. Very quickly he became an acknowledged expert on procedures and privileges, and a watchdog of the council’s interests vis-à-vis the assembly. This role made him a prime target at a time when, under the influence of James Stuart*, the assembly was pursuing a strategy of impeaching leading office holders opposed to its objectives, beginning with chief justices James Monk* and Sewell. In early 1815 it succeeded in trapping Ryland in a conflict of roles involving two of his offices. Summoned as clerk of the crown in chancery to explain to a committee of the assembly a technical irregularity in an election writ, Ryland was, as a legislative councillor, unable to do so without authorization from the council, which was adjourned. Ever resourceful, Ryland had Prevost replace his commission as clerk with a joint commission naming himself and one Thomas Douglas, whom he delegated to appear on his behalf. The assembly was ultimately constrained to admit defeat, but Ryland did not escape unscathed. A motion in the assembly to consider “the gross Faults and Neglects, and Malversations in Office” of which Ryland was accused in the committee’s report was reprinted in the press. From this notoriety, Ryland complained to a confidant, Provincial Secretary Thomas Amyot, he had “no hope of redress . . . in the public opinion,” since members of the assembly “may publish what Libels they please without fear of the Pillory!” Prevost urged the Colonial Office to replace Ryland as clerk of the crown in chancery, but the governor himself was recalled, to Ryland’s unalloyed delight, before any action was taken.
Prevost’s successor, Sir Gordon Drummond*, was more receptive to Ryland’s opinions; indeed, he employed only Ryland to present his messages to the Legislative Council. Drummond’s administration was too short to be influential, however, and that of his successor, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke*, marked a return to Prevost’s policies and “the tyranny of the most oppressive . . . democracy that ever existed.” “Arrests and Commitments, terror and dilapidation, accusations and impeachments are the order of the day,” Ryland wrote to Amyot in February 1817. “The Press is brought into compleat subjugation to the Assembly. . . . Persons accused by this Body have no tribunal to appeal to within the Province.”
It was in part to obviate this difficulty and in part to insure a more satisfactory handling of impeachments than had existed that in 1817 the Prince Regent conferred on the Legislative Council authority to adjudicate the impeachment of judge Louis-Charles Foucher on accusations brought forth by Austin Cuvillier. Ryland, sensing an undermining of the royal prerogative and fearing that office holders would be left at the mercy of the legislature, argued ingeniously to Sherbrooke that the council could judge only the accusations and not the accused, in the manner of a grand jury, and that the crown alone could pronounce and execute the sentence. Ryland’s position was also dictated by his concern for an apparent weakening of the Legislative Council after additions had been made to it by Prevost and Sherbrooke. “It may be argued,” he wrote to Amyot, “that as you have a Mob in the Lower House, you ought also to have one in the upper to contend with them.” But it was less the number than the type of members that concerned him, and he complained in February 1818 that the council had been “new modelled” by the introduction of Plessis the previous year. In 1819 his efforts to have removed from a bill authorizing construction of the Lachine Canal a clause which protected the Sulpician estates as private property was voted down in council; however, Ryland eventually succeeded, with the complicity of Sherbrooke’s successor, the Duke of Richmond [Lennox*], in reviving efforts to have the estates appropriated by the government [see Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux*].
Richmond’s premature death in August 1819 constituted a blow to Ryland’s political policies and to his ambitions to place his maturing sons in provincial offices. Richmond’s successor, Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], initially proposed to bring “the general business [of government] under my own hands with the aid of old Mr Ryland . . . who tells me that he did all the business himself & only referred the matter of form to be executed in Council”; indeed, in March 1821 Dalhousie assured Ryland that he and Sewell were the only ones from whom “advice and confidential Council” were solicited. However, Dalhousie disliked “the grasping at places” of which Ryland was an eminent practitioner, and he had Ryland’s eldest son, William Deane, removed as Amyot’s deputy at Quebec and recommended Ryland’s own removal as clerk of the crown in chancery. In addition he planned to replace by a single commissioner the entire Jesuit estates commission, on which Ryland, as commissioner, secretary, and treasurer, exercised influence politically and administratively.
When Dalhousie returned to England on leave in 1824, therefore, Ryland was disposed to promote the administration of his interim replacement, Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton*, in hopes that the arrangement would be made permanent. The major political problem in the colony being the struggle for control of government finances, Ryland pointed out to Burton that he could gain much credit were he to resolve the problem and would lose nothing should he fail in the attempt. Ryland even outlined the strategy Burton should employ to get an acceptable supply bill through the assembly, and once that had been accomplished he ensured the bill’s passage through council by forging a temporary alliance with Plessis to defeat Richardson, the leader of the English party there. He then collaborated closely in Burton’s defence when Dalhousie charged that the supply bill had sold out the independence of the colonial executive. Ryland, in fact, was probably Burton’s closest adviser, privy to dispatches, consulted on delicate matters, and asked to draft public statements and replies to important correspondence. In accepting this role he adopted a language hitherto anathema to him. In reply to Dalhousie, Ryland assured Burton that he had been right in “pursuing a conciliatory course which was calculated to bring [the assembly], by degrees, to a constitutional and liberal mode of proceeding with respect to supplies.”
The return of a rancorous Dalhousie in 1825 and the departure of Burton under censure marked Ryland’s political eclipse. Dalhousie announced in April 1826 the abolition of the Jesuit estates commission and in June had Ryland’s salary as clerk of the crown in chancery stopped. The beleaguered office holder complained bitterly of this treatment to a trusted friend, Sir James Kempt*, lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, whom he kept informed of political developments in Lower Canada. When Kempt replaced Dalhousie in 1828, Ryland urged him to have passed a supply bill similar to Burton’s in order to break a deadlock between the assembly and the executive that was costing office holders dearly in unpaid salaries. Kempt did so the following year, and Ryland combined with Sewell to squeeze the bill through the Legislative Council.
Kempt’s successors, lords Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer] and Gosford [Acheson], consulted Ryland more on administrative than on political matters, profiting from his vast experience in procedure. However, they accepted courteously his political advice, the copies of his London correspondence of 1810–12, and several memoranda on political issues which it had been the lot of every governor since Craig to receive. Under Aylmer, Ryland’s conciliatory tack on government finances ended abruptly when the assembly refused to respond favourably to the Revenue Act of 1831, by which control of all colonial revenues was given unconditionally to the assembly in hopes that it would vote a civil list of some £6,000. The executive thus found itself without revenues to pay even the limited number of salaries and pensions it had maintained in recent years when no supplies were passed. Thenceforth, rather than seek an accommodation with the assembly, Ryland urged repeal or amendment of the act, a recommendation that the Gosford commission would make in 1836. Like many in the English party, Ryland also favoured union of the Canadas, an idea he had promoted consistently since 1810 at least. He remained a stalwart defender of the Legislative Council, but, consistent with his earlier opposition to the assembly’s actions in similar cases, he vainly opposed imprisonment by the council of newspaper editors Daniel Tracey* and Ludger Duvernay* for having published articles “libellous” of it. He also increasingly acted in that house as the regional representative from Quebec, introducing and defending petitions for improvement of the town’s roads, bridges, and markets.
Kempt, Aylmer, and Gosford all promoted, with suitable restraint given the financial restrictions imposed on the colonial executive, Ryland’s claims to compensation for the loss of positions, salaries, and pensions that he had suffered both under Dalhousie and through the assembly’s refusal to vote supplies. In November 1830 he was awarded 2,205 acres of land in Chester and Tingwick townships, but he had no success in efforts to obtain advances on his back-pay or appointments for his sons. Having been scrupulously honest as an administrator of public funds in all his offices, he spent his last years under increasingly severe financial restraint. His only other known property was a “small Estate” at Beauport, acquired in 1805 and added to substantially in 1813. Joseph Bouchette noted that its “two handsome stone dwelling-houses with gardens and summer-houses, surrounded by a wall” attracted much attention because of “the rich prospect they command over the basin of Quebec.” A veritable symbol of British dominance by its wall and commanding position, this summer retreat and experimental farm developed into Ryland’s permanent residence from 1817. Fluent in French, entertaining excellent personal relations with the habitants, and being prominent in government, he was called on occasionally by local residents to defend their interests against the bureaucracy, a role which eminently suited his combative nature.
Ryland’s health gave out about 1834. On 18 June 1838 he requested leave of Governor Lord Durham [Lambton] to retire as clerk of the Executive Council in favour of his son George Herman, his assistant for 17 years. He died a month later, probably not knowing that after so many previous failures to place his sons, this last effort would succeed.
The real Herman Witsius Ryland has been distorted by a century and a half of hostile historiography. Not given to introspection and self-questioning, he can be perceived only through the tone of his writings and glimpses provided by contemporaries. Plessis said that he was “an astute diplomat and good enough when one knew how to approach him,” but also that he was “not a man one could pump.” Mathew Bell described him in 1825 as “a bullying old servant of the Public.” Ryland enjoyed solitude, family life, and the quiet of the country, yet was comfortable with the highest imperial officials in London. He was a man of passionate nature; in 1821 Kempt remarked to him that “[your] inevitable Sanguin temperament Still leads you to indulge in excesses of various Kinds; you continue to love a Man . . . With all your heart and Soul, or to hold him and all that he does in utter aversion.” His friends lauded his discretion, loyalty, and generosity; his enemies reproached his secretiveness, “duplicity,” and pettiness. His only humour was biting sarcasm. He had a surprising number of intimate friends: Mountain, Young, Milnes, Craig, Amyot, Burton, Kempt, François Baby*, and Sir George Pownall*. Almost all were British-born; Ryland looked down on colonials, Canadian and American, including Sewell.
As a Georgian office holder Ryland was typical in his insatiable hunger for posts and pensions for himself and his sons; he was less so, perhaps, in his scrupulous honesty and evident competence. The assembly’s attacks on his administration were shots in the dark and, though often investigated, he was never impeached; it was his political views and influence that attracted its fire. He was a colonial tory, suspicious of democracy, popular politicians, and colonial ways, a defender of aristocracy and the royal prerogative, nostalgic for the mother country. The nature of his posts, especially those of civil secretary, clerk of the Executive Council, and legislative councillor, and the nature of Lower Canadian government, particularly the brevity of tenure in the highest office, made a man of Ryland’s experience and forcefulness highly, if discreetly, influential; he was an éminence grise. In politics he could be diplomatic and manœuvre with the best; he was patient and persevering. His intensity and tenacity matched that of the leaders of the Canadian party and sprang from a similar source; unlike British administrators and many office holders and merchants, but like the Canadians themselves, Ryland knew that he and his posterity were in Lower Canada to stay, and that their future depended on what became of the colony. Whereas the Canadian nationalists saw Lower Canada as an offshoot of French culture, Ryland saw it as an outpost of Britain. He shared the “garrison mentality” – as historian Frank Murray Greenwood aptly describes it – of most British occupants of the colony, yet he did not live behind defensive walls in isolation from the habitants; in Beauport he was aware of and involved with their social and economic concerns. He probably assessed correctly a lack of militancy in the habitants around Quebec, but he surely underestimated the intensity of dislike for foreign dominance to which nationalists could appeal. The roots of the rebellions of 1837–38, which he had anxiously foreseen, were more profound than he perceived, and for that reason the policies he advocated played a major role in bringing them about.
[The author wishes to thank Jacqueline Roy for her assistance in analysing the personality of Herman Witsius Ryland. A portrait of Ryland is held at the PAC. j.h.l.]
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