ASKIN (Erskine), JOHN, fur trader, merchant, office holder, and militia officer; b. 1739 in Aughnacloy (Northern Ireland), son of James Askin, a shopkeeper, and Alice Rea (Rae); d. 1815 in Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada.
According to family tradition, the Askins were related to John Erskine, 23rd Earl of Mar, whose unsuccessful revolt in 1715 forced some of the family to move to Ireland from Scotland. John Askin came to North America in 1758 and was a sutler with the British army at Albany, N.Y. Following the capitulation of New France he entered the western fur trade and formed a series of partnerships, the most notable of which included Major Robert Rogers*. Bankrupted by Pontiac*’s uprising of 1763, the firm was dissolved, but Askin was not cleared of his debts until 1771. Meanwhile, some time in the mid 1760s Askin had moved to Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). He ran a trading store in the settlement, was commissary for the garrison, and farmed. It was at Michilimackinac that he formed the close ties with traders Isaac Todd, James McGill, and Alexander Henry* that were to be of such significance in his business and personal life. He also established a cordial relationship with Arent Schuyler DePeyster*, commandant during the 1770s, and had likely been on good terms with his predecessors as well. Not only were such friendships valuable in themselves to Askin; they were also important to his economic interests. Commandants were in a position to regulate trade with the Indians, allocate shipping space (private vessels being prohibited on the Great Lakes during and after the American revolution), and tacitly approve illegal purchases of land from the Indians. In 1780 a conflict with Patrick Sinclair, who had recently arrived to take charge at Michilimackinac, may have been instrumental in Askin’s decision to move to Detroit (Mich.).
In 1781 Askin signed a co-partnership agreement with merchants Robert Hamilton arid Richard Cartwright. He was to take care of the business (selling supplies to the Indian trade and the garrisons and buying furs) at Detroit and the upper posts while Hamilton and Cartwright managed affairs at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). The firm of Todd and McGill was to look after the Montreal aspects of the concern. When the co-partnership was dissolved in 1784 it was indebted to Todd and McGill for £9, 261. That same year Askin entered into partnership with William Robertson, a Detroit merchant, and this arrangement was not terminated until 1787. Meanwhile, in 1786, Askin joined with five other Detroit firms in the Miamis Company, an attempt to bring to the trading business south of the Great Lakes the efficiency and profitability of the North West Company. Circumstances were different, however. The animal population was declining and the Indians were in a state of more or less open warfare with the Americans [see Michikinakoua]. Fur exports from Detroit continued to drop – from 5,000 packs in 1784 to 1,900 in 1796. By 1789 the Miamis Company was dead. Askin was becoming increasingly indebted to his Montreal suppliers Todd and McGill and Alexander Henry but, although the situation prompted a number of requests for payment, the friendly relationships never deteriorated and these merchants, now among the foremost in Canada, continued to shield Askin from financial ruin.
Askin was not oblivious to the precarious state of the fur trade and he made many efforts to generate income from other sources. In 1788 the British had opened the Great Lakes to private vessels, and Askin took the opportunity to go into the shipping business. In 1793, probably through the influence of Todd and McGill, he obtained a contract to supply corn and flour to the NWC. Selling provisions to the garrison was always important to a merchant and from 1791 to 1795 particularly another chance of sales to the government presented itself – the furnishing of supplies to the Indians who had gathered on the Miamis (Maumee) River to make a last stand against the Americans. Askin did not neglect these opportunities.
Much of Askin’s hope for prosperity seems to have been pinned on his land speculations. As early as 1789 Todd and McGill reproved him for having £8,000 tied up in real property. “It is more than any man in business should keep from the circulation of his Trade and in the part of the Country where yours is placed the tenure of it is but uncertain . . . ,” wrote McGill, advising him to sell at least half what he owned. In the 1790s, however, Askin engaged in even larger scale speculation. By 1794 the British government had agreed to evacuate the posts south of the Great Lakes that it had retained – after the 1783 treaty with the United States, and many British residents of Detroit tried to accumulate land holdings from the Indians before the transfer to American authority occurred. With his son John, Patrick McNiff, and others he was a member of a partnership that acquired from the Indians a huge tract along the south shore of Lake Erie – the Cuyahoga Purchase. He was also involved in an attempt to get title to the entire lower peninsula of Michigan. The American government opposed these schemes and both came to nothing. Over the years Askin succeeded in accumulating numerous properties in Upper Canada, which was to become his home after 1802. As a merchant he was in a favourable position to acquire land for debts, and no doubt by this means as well as through various purchases he built up his holdings. From 1791 to 1794 he sat on the district land board, which dealt with the location of claims and title to them. Either he or his son John was appointed in 1798 to the Heir and Devisee Commission, a body that was to rule on the validity of certain types of claim. Both offices would have made their holder well informed about what land might be available for purchase.
From the American revolution to 1796 Detroit was under military government, with little civil jurisdiction. In 1789 Askin became a justice of the peace there, and in this capacity took part in the enforcement of “such regulations . . . as are generally practiced in the internal polity of the towns of Quebec and Montreal and which are most conducive to prevent public nusances, and to preserve the health and convenience of the inhabitants.” Although Askin continued to reside in Detroit after it was turned over to the Americans in 1796, he chose to remain a British subject and became a jp for the Western District of Upper Canada in 1796.
In the spring of 1802 Askin moved to Sandwich, a change of location he had apparently been intending to make for some time. Although much of his land passed to Todd and McGill in payment of his debts, they gave him back the property on which he established his estate, Strabane, near Sandwich, and he acted as land agent for them. He continued to hold extensive lands of his own, acquiring the nickname the Count of Kent. As in his early years he took a great interest in farming, recording in a diary the day-to-day activities of his farm. He seems to have lived in considerable comfort. An inventory of his estate in 1787 listed among other things carriages, silver plate, mahogany furniture, and a well-stocked library.
Although Askin’s first three children, John, Catherine, and Madelaine, were probably born to the Indian slave Manette (Monette) whom he freed in 1766, he made no distinction between them and the nine children of his marriage to Marie-Archange Barthe, contracted at Detroit on 21 June 1772. His connection with the Barthes, a prominent local family, soon gave him a relative in high office, since in 1774 his wife’s sister married Alexander Grant, an officer in the marine forces on the Great Lakes and later an executive councillor. John Askin Jr became collector of customs for Amherstburg in 1801 and storekeeper for the Indian Department at St Joseph Island, Upper Canada, in 1807. Askin’s other children married British military officers or members of locally influential families. Catherine’s second marriage was to Robert Hamilton. Thérèse married Thomas McKee, son of the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, Alexander McKee*.
Askin’s correspondence with those of his children who lived at a distance reveals a great fondness and pride. Looking back in his old age he wrote, “All my Children . . . continue to behave as I could wish And I think Mrs Askin and I have lived so long at peace with each other that I do not dread any rupture will take place in future.” His kindness extended beyond his own family. In a letter of 1778 from Michilimackinac to trader Charles Paterson he rebuked Paterson for allowing a child “that every body but yourself says is yours” to be sold to the Ottawas. Askin had retrieved the child and he informed Paterson, “He’s at your service if you want him, if not I shall take good care of him untill he is able to earn his Bread without Assistance.” Mixing good sense with humour he wrote to another colleague, Sampson Fleming, who had recently become the father of a baby boy, “I beg you will not kill him with d-m-d Physick. . . . If I hear any more of your tampering with him & Mrs Fleming permits me, I will go down & take him from you.”
His attitude towards his role as lieutenant-colonel of militia is equally charming. “On[c]e a year,” he reported in 1805 to DePeyster, “I put on my best Cloths & as Colonel Commands the Militia . . . make them Fire in Honor to the best of Kings. If we dont all Fire at once thats no matter[.] a Drink generally closes the Scene.”
Distant though Askin was from the cultural centres of his time, his letters ring with the rationalist assumptions of his age. Writing to Alexander Henry in 1796 he remarked, “I think before a man’s two hours dead he Knows more about . . . [religion] than all those who remain behind. at Same time surely there can be no risk, in being what all the world agrees is good; and this is in the power of all who are disposed to be so.”
During the War of 1812 Askin had four sons, two sons-in-law, and ten grandchildren fighting for the British and one son-in-law for the Americans. As his health failed, his son Charles took over responsibility for the family estate and Askin died at the age of 76.