BETHUNE, JAMES GRAY, businessman, office holder, jp, and militia officer; b. 1 April 1793 in Williamstown, Upper Canada, son of John Bethune* and Véronique Waddens; m. 4 Feb. 1830 Martha Covert, and they had a daughter who died in infancy; d. 13 Oct. 1841 in Rochester, N.Y., and was buried in Cobourg, Upper Canada.
James Gray Bethune was the fourth son of the Reverend John Bethune, a prominent loyalist. About 1812, after attending John Strachan*’s school at Cornwall, he took up residence in the frontier hamlet of Hamilton (Cobourg) on the north shore of Lake Ontario. By 1817 he had opened a store, built a sawmill, was operating a distillery, and had been appointed first postmaster of Hamilton, a function he carried out in his store until 1834. As a merchant-storekeeper Bethune endured where others failed because he was able to forge a solid mercantile connection with Montreal merchants through his brother Norman, a well-placed merchant and forwarder there. But it is also clear that Bethune was an aggressive and innovative businessman who championed the economic development of the Newcastle District, and particularly trade connections through Cobourg to its hinterland.
This developmental goal was pursued in several ways. In 1826, to head off rival merchants from Port Hope, he opened a branch-store in Peterborough and later began wholesaling to inland storekeepers. He was actively interested in real estate, serving in 1819 on the first land board for the Newcastle District. Privately he acquired speculative land holdings in several parts of the district during the 1820s, including a large block in Cobourg strategically located adjacent to the harbour. In 1831 he became the local agent for the Canada Company and two years later authored a promotional pamphlet for prospective immigrants, A schedule of real estate in the Newcastle District. More important was his determination to develop better facilities for transportation between Cobourg and the back country. In 1827, along with John Covert, he was a leading force in the establishment of the Cobourg harbour committee (incorporated in 1829 as the Cobourg Harbour Company), serving as its treasurer. In 1832 he began the first steamboat service on Rice Lake and the Otonabee River. A year later he opened large warehouses at Peterborough and Cobourg, launched a steamboat on Chemung Lake (north of Peterborough), and was active in having a bridge built across the Trent River, probably at the present-day village of Hastings. In addition, he led the group of investors, including Zacheus Burnham* and John Gilchrist*, which built the steamship Cobourg in 1833 for service on Lake Ontario and was involved in the Cobourg Rail Road Company, chartered in 1834 to build a railway between Cobourg and Rice Lake. Not surprisingly, in 1833 Bethune was appointed to the provincial commission for the improvement of navigation in the Newcastle District.
Bethune’s commercial zeal and irrepressible appetite for internal improvement schemes made him a prominent and admired man in the district. As a brother of the respected Anglican cleric at Cobourg, Alexander Neil Bethune*, and as a justice of the peace and a commissioner in the district Court of Requests, he was also a trusted figure. He was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Northumberland militia in 1831 and was active in a number of community organizations, including the Northumberland Agricultural Society and the Newcastle District Emigrant Relief Society (formed during the cholera epidemic of 1832). With solid personal and business connections to such members of the province’s commercial and political élite as John Strachan and John Macaulay*, it is not surprising that Bethune was appointed Cobourg agent for the Bank of Upper Canada in August 1830 and cashier of the branch in September 1832. However, his banking activities led to his downfall.
In the tight economy of Upper Canada, Bethune made liberal credit available to clients and to himself through such speculative practices as reciprocal note endorsements (often involving his brothers Norman and Donald*) and the issuance of accommodation drafts which lacked hard backing – all in contravention of the central bank’s policy. Overextended as a result of his speculation in steamboats and hampered by tardy and defaulting debtors, he was on the road to ruin by the summer of 1833. In June his bank was mysteriously robbed of more than £3,000; according to John Langton*, some believed that Bethune had removed the money. When an investigation initiated by the bank’s president, William Allan*, revealed that Bethune had allowed nearly £8,000 in credit to default, he was forced to resign in November 1833. In spike of his assets he was unable to cover his losses and in 1834 was declared bankrupt. Also hit hard by his demise were his financial guarantors (his father-in-law, John Covert, and George Strange Boulton*) and those in the district who had entrusted their savings to his care.
Undeterred, he ran as a tory for the House of Assembly in October 1834 but was defeated by John Gilchrist and Alexander McDonell*. Thereafter Bethune’s financial problems hounded him and during a brief stay in debtor’s prison in Amherst (now part of Cobourg) in 1836 he continued to sort out his accounts. Discredited as the “great man” of the Newcastle District, he moved to Rochester, N.Y., where, after a long illness, he died in 1841.
J. G. Bethune, A schedule of real estate in the Newcastle District to be disposed of at public sale; on the first day of August 1833 . . . (Cobourg, [Ont.], 1833). In the MTRL’s copy, the date has been corrected in
ACC, Diocese of Toronto Arch., Church of St Peter (Cobourg), reg. of baptisms, burials, and marriages, 1819–37; vestry minute-books, 1827–93 (mfm. at AO). AO, ms 78, William Allan to Macaulay, 31 Aug., 2 Sept. 1833; John Strachan to Macaulay, 11 Sept. 1833; ms 107, reg. of baptisms and marriages, 16; ms 524, J. G. Bethune to Peter Robinson, 6 March 1827, 19 May 1836; MU 502, Zacheus Burnham to J. G. Bethune, 25 April 1829; MU 2883; RG 1, A-I-6, 12–13; RG 22, Newcastle District, clerk of the peace, reg. of tax payments, 1821–30. MTRL, William Allan papers, John Macaulay to Allan, 5 July 1832, 2 July 1834. Northumberland West Land Registry Office (Cobourg), Abstract index to deeds, Cobourg, vol.1, lot 16, concession A; lot 18, concessions A and B (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 443, 451, 466, 490. John Langton, Early days in Upper Canada: letters of John Langton from the backwoods of Upper Canada and the Audit Office of the Province of Canada, ed. W. A. Langton (Toronto, 1926). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, app., 1828, “Report on Cobourg harbour”; 1829: 28†–29†; 1831: 97; 1833–34: 111. Cobourg Star, 8 Feb. 1831–20 Oct. 1841. P. [A.] Baskerville, “The entrepreneur and the metropolitan impulse: James Gray Bethune and Cobourg, 1825–1836,” Victorian Cobourg: a nineteenth century profile, ed. Jaroslav Petryshyn et al. (Belleville, Ont., 1976), 56–70. E. C. Guillet, Cobourg, 1798–1948 (Oshawa, Ont., 1948), 13. D. E. Wattie, “Cobourg, 1784–1867 (2v., ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1949). P. [A.] Baskerville, “Donald Bethune’s steamboat business; a study of Upper Canadian commercial and financial practice,” OH, 67 (1975): 135–49. A. H. Young, “The Bethunes,” OH, 27 (1931): 560.