HENRY, ROBERT, fur trader, businessman, justice of the peace, and office holder; b. c. 1778 in Albany, N.Y., son of Robert Henry and nephew of Alexander Henry* the elder; m. 2 Nov. 1817 Christine Farrand, née Bethune, and they had two daughters; d. 10 May 1859 in Cobourg, Upper Canada.
Robert Henry was the son of a merchant-trader in Albany who, during the American revolution, provided the Continental Army with supplies brought from the province of Quebec. These supplies were procured with specie and when he was not repaid in full he faced financial ruin. Following the war, the Henry family moved to Montreal, where Robert was educated. He entered the North West Company as a clerk in 1806 and subsequently worked on the English (upper Churchill) River under Donald McTavish* and John Duncan Campbell. Henry became a company partner in 1810, at which time he was trading on the Churchill River. Between 1810 and 1815 he served in the Athabasca department, and upon coming back to Montreal in 1815 was elected to the Beaver Club.
In the spring of 1816 Henry returned to the northwest, where he played a minor role in asserting the interests of the NWC as tension grew between it and both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Red River settlement [see Thomas Douglas*]. He was called upon in June to lead a group of Indians from Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) to the Red River as a show of force; in late 1816 he participated in the harassment of HBC men who had built Fort Wedderburn on Lake Athabasca [see John Clarke]. The strain which Henry felt during this period of hostility prompted him to remark in August 1816 that he was “much inclined to leave this rascally Country for ever.” Because trade was sagging, the company needed every man in the field and Alexander Henry persuaded him to remain another winter.
Robert Henry retired from the fur trade in 1817 and settled at Hamilton (Cobourg), Upper Canada. With James Gray Bethune*, he purchased property there that September and erected a grist-mill. Under Henry’s management, the operation came to be the principal mill in the Newcastle District. Two months after the purchase of the property, Henry married Bethune’s sister Christine and thus became the brother-in-law of Angus, another NWC partner, and Alexander Neil*, who became the Church of England rector at Cobourg in 1827.
After selling the mill for £6,000 in 1831, Henry operated a private bank in his house in Cobourg and by 1832 had become agent there for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District. Despite later efforts by others to charter a Cobourg bank, Henry’s was the only one in the community. This enterprise made him a target of the celebrated “Cobourg conspiracy,” one of the Patriot-inspired border incursions launched from the United States in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1837–38. In late July 1839 a group of dissidents led from New York by Benjamin Lett and Samuel Peters Hart conspired to rob and murder Henry and to attack other area residents, including George Strange Boulton* and his nephew D’Arcy Edward Boulton (prominent Cobourg tories), Maurice Jaynes (a wealthy farmer), and Sheppard McCormick (a participant in 1837 in the capture of the Patriot supply ship Caroline). The attack was presumably designed to spark both an invasion by other filibusterers and an uprising in an area where several Hunters’ Lodges, formed to change Canada into a republic, had appeared. As the conspirators hatched this plot, one of their number, Henry J. Moon, became agitated by the murderous intent of the band and revealed the plan to an intended victim, D’Arcy Edward Boulton. A force was mounted and the conspirators were stopped before they could carry out their attacks. During the ensuing trial, at which Boulton acted for the defence, the conspirators and two local sympathizers were found guilty. Henry was described by the prosecution as one of Cobourg’s “most respectable and inoffensive inhabitants.”
Henry served as a justice of the peace from 1818 until the late 1830s, and as Cobourg’s first treasurer in 1837 after its establishment as a police village. Although aligned by social standing with Cobourg’s oligarchy of political leaders, American-born businessmen, and British half pay officers, he was less active than many in local institutions and politics, nor did he invest in local improvement schemes. He presumably preferred conventional investments, which included bonds and securities, and the poor record of such local ventures as the Cobourg and Peterborough Rail-way vindicated his caution.
Although Henry prospered he did not die an exceptionally wealthy man; his estate totalled $28,000. It is possible that he lost money covering some of the debts of James Gray Bethune, who had suffered bankruptcy in 1834. Henry nevertheless lived quietly in his old age surrounded by a number of former NWC and HBC fur traders such as Jacob Corrigal, William Nourse, and John Dugald Cameron who had also chosen the Cobourg area for their retirement.
ACC-T, Church of St Peter (Cobourg, Ont.), reg. of baptisms, burials, and marriages, 1819–37 (mfm. at AO). AO, RG 22, ser.191, Robert Henry. PAC, MG 19, B3: 55, 95; E1, ser.1, 6: 2378; 22: 8729–32 (transcripts); MG 23, B3, CC 41/4: 33–38; RG 1, L3, 231: H14/2; RG 4, B46, 1: 434; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 431, 502. West Northumberland Land Registry Office (Cobourg), Abstract index to deeds, Cobourg: 216 (mfm. at AO, GS 4172). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Frances Stewart, Our forest home, being extracts from the correspondence of the late Frances Stewart, ed. E. S. Dunlop (2nd ed., Montreal, 1902), 18–19, 23–24, 52, 64–65, 70, 72, 128. Valley of the Trent (Guillet), xliii, 49, 59. Cobourg Star, 18 Sept. 1839. Montreal Herald, 15 Nov. 1817. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology, 201. Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots, chap.17. D. E. Wattie, “Cobourg, 1784–1867” (2v., ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1949). Jennifer Brown, “Ultimate respectability: fur-trade children in the ‘civilized world,’” Beaver, outfit 308 (spring 1978): 53. A. H. Young, “The Bethunes,” OH, 27 (1931): 559.