CAMPBELL, ALEXANDER (baptized Alexander Colvin), shipbuilder, businessman, militia officer, justice of the peace, judge, politician, and office holder; baptized 9 Feb. 1795 in Pictou, N.S., son of William Campbell and Margaret Henderson; m. 10 March 1825 Mary Archibald, and they had four sons and four daughters; d. 13 April 1854 in Tatamagouche, N.S.
Alexander Campbell began his career in the employ of Edward Mortimer* at Pictou. After the latter’s death in 1819, Campbell continued with the company of William Mortimer, Edward’s nephew, and George Smith, moving about 1823 to Tatamagouche to manage the firm’s timber contracts with the mills controlled by Wellwood Waugh*. The next year Mortimer, Smith and Company began shipbuilding at Tatamagouche, with Campbell supervising construction of the 91-ton schooner Elizabeth. In 1826 the firm expanded in a significant new direction, with the 281-ton brig Devon built on speculation for sale in Britain. Although small coastal vessels had been built locally since at least 1804, this marked the beginning of an industry which was to be Tatamagouche’s economic mainstay for some 50 years.
Some time after the construction of the 133-ton brig Mary in 1827, Campbell left Mortimer, Smith and Company to continue shipbuilding. Beginning in 1831, several vessels, with which Alexander was probably involved, were registered in the names of his brothers James and William. From 1834 ships were registered in Alexander’s name and he continued to work at times with his brothers and later with his nephew John Millar. Alexander’s forceful ambition apparently precluded any long-term, harmonious partnerships, but he nevertheless rapidly became the most productive local builder, and the only one successful in the risky overseas market.
Involved as he was in a purely speculative business, he none the less found himself responsible for Tatamagouche’s economic continuity. After new premises were opened on the French River about 1840, the yard, which frequently employed 200 to 300 men, became Tatamagouche’s dominant economic force. Although he normally did not pay salaries per se and inextricably controlled his employees through the company store barter system, his large work-force had no desire to return to their marginal farms in an era of agricultural recession. As well as building some 90 vessels in his lifetime, Campbell founded a sawmill, grist-mill, oat kiln, and mercantile establishment as commercial adjuncts.
Although Campbell appeared to be a successful entrepreneur, maintaining an elegant home, servants, and a high profile in the community, his financial position was never secure. His chief difficulty was insufficient capital. Financing for vessels came from prospective buyers in England, or sometimes in Halifax, Pictou, and Charlottetown, with repayment dependent upon successful sale. Hull timber and plentiful labour were available locally, but sails and hardware had to be purchased elsewhere at considerable expense. Brokerage and interest fees were high, the demand for certain types of vessels fluctuated, and the yard did not always provide a high quality product. Campbell continually courted financial disaster, but he survived, even through years which ruined other builders. Although tempted to retire on his occasional profits, he was compelled by economic responsibilities to continue.
Campbell’s local prominence and ability were early recognized. In 1826 he was appointed a justice of the peace; he also served in the local militia, being commissioned captain in 1823 and second major in 1829. In 1837 he was appointed judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for Colchester County, a position which he reputedly held with ability, and the following year he was nominated to the Legislative Council in Halifax. He also served as custos rotulorum for Colchester County from 1848, was named school commissioner for Stirling District in 1850, and was a strong supporter of the area’s secession Presbyterian church. In addition, he was the local agent for the estate of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*, and used this position to accumulate gradually a portfolio of prime Tatamagouche property. It was inevitable that his prominence and forceful character would eventually fuel local dissension. Beginning in 1840 Campbell sided against the Reverend Hugh Ross in a church dispute over doctrinal interpretation, and the conflict was continued into the Colchester County by-election the next year. Campbell strongly supported the liberal candidate, Thomas Dickson, ensuring his victory by personally appearing at the poll. Ross, who did not attend or vote but who did support the conservative opponent, bitterly denounced “the nefarious wickedness of . . . such a polluted scene” and railed against the interference of “Baillie Bottle Nose.” Ross was forced from Tatamagouche in 1842, after having been burned in effigy, an incident in which Campbell was again reputedly involved.
Although such actions undoubtedly stemmed from strong religious and political convictions, they did little to enhance Campbell’s reputation. Following his sudden death in 1854, he was remembered as capable, energetic, and honest. According to author Israel Longworth, “He was a true-hearted and good man; and many a youth blesses his memory for words of encouragement and deeds of substantial kindness.” Nevertheless, a young Tatamagouche resident called him “a cross old bugger,” and it was conceded that few dared to challenge him, since he was domineering and intolerant of opposition. His death signalled the end of an era in Tatamagouche, for he had been regarded as the father of local shipbuilding as well as the foundation of the town’s economy. The settlement of his estate was lengthy and complicated and, although his sons David and Archibald salvaged the yard and continued building into the 1880s, the decline of sail power denied them any real success.
Colchester County Court of Probate (Truro, N.S.), Estate papers, no.416 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 4, James Presbyterian Church (New Glasgow, N.S.), reg. of baptisms, 9 Feb. 1795 (mfm.); RG 1, 174: 126; 175: 49, 66–70, 362; 176: 11; 214 1/2F: 189; RG 22, 26: 299, 354. Univ. of King’s College Library (Halifax), Israel Longworth, “A history of the county of Colchester” (ms, 2 pts., Truro, 1866–78; typescript at PANS), pt.1. Presbyterian Witness, and Evangelical Advocate (Halifax), 7 (1854): 63. Mechanic and Farmer (Pictou, N.S.), 17 Feb. 1841. Observer (Pictou), 22 March, 12, 19 April, 3, 17 May, 7 June 1842. F. H. Patterson, The days of the ships, Tatamagouche, N.S. (Truro, 1970); A history of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1917; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973); Tatamagouche, N.S., 1771–1824 (Truro, 1971).