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d. 28 Sept. 1916 in Liverpool, England


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COLTMAN, WILLIAM BACHELER, businessman, jp, politician, and office holder; b. in England; d. 2 Jan. 1826 in London.

William Bacheler Coltman arrived at Quebec aboard the Caroline in early July 1799, but whether for the first time is uncertain. Possibly by May 1805, but definitely in January 1807, he was established as a merchant at Quebec. In the latter year he purchased the schooner Sainte-Anne from a Cap-Santé mariner for £500 and had a quay and warehouse built at the mouth of the Rivière Portneuf. By 1807 he was a partner with his brother John in John Coltman and Company, the Quebec branch of a copartnership which also included William Hamilton and Francis Ridsdale; the copartnership operated in Leeds (West Yorkshire), England, as Francis Ridsdale and Company and in London as Ridsdale, Hamilton, and Coltman. John Coltman and Company sold wines, rum, sugar, timber, Upper Canadian flour, maritime supplies, and crockery, acted as a shipping agent, and operated its own vessels. In 1808, on its behalf, William Bacheler negotiated with Deputy Commissary General John Craigie* two contracts worth a total of £10,400 to supply flour to the army.

The copartnership with Hamilton and Ridsdale gave the Coltmans access to substantial capital, on which they drew liberally. In May 1807 John Coltman and Company acquired by assignment from the merchant Mathew Macnider the remainder of a 50-year lease on the seigneury of Sainte-Croix and the barony of Portneuf, which Macnider had obtained from the Ursulines in 1801. The company established an important commercial enterprise on the Portneuf barony, where it operated a banal mill, insured for £2,000, and where either Macnider or the Coltmans erected a manor-house and a sawmill. Between 1807 and 1810 John Coltman and Company acquired 31 lots in Nelson Township, four in each of the seigneuries of Lavaltrie and La Noraye, and two in Cap-Santé, as well as a lease on a beach lot at Anse des Mères, Quebec, and roture holdings and leases on valuable beach and other lots in Portneuf and Sainte-Croix; among the buildings on the Portneuf and Sainte-Croix lands were houses, wharfs, storehouses, and workshops. On 31 Dec. 1811 the partnership with Hamilton and Ridsdale, including John Coltman and Company, was dissolved. The following year John, and presumably William Bacheler, formed with Edward Hale the partnership of Coltman and Hale, which took over the assets of John Coltman and Company and a debt of more than £7,500 to Hamilton and Ridsdale. Then disaster struck. In August, John was crushed by a piece of timber being loaded aboard a vessel at the Portneuf installation. In May 1813 Ridsdale and Hamilton declared bankruptcy, and in 1816 the purchasers of their estate, Adam Lymburner*, David Barry, and Benjamin Howard, pressed for at least partial payment of the debt owed by Coltman and Hale. A complicated series of legal procedures ensued, designed to maintain for Coltman and Hale legal title to their assets while they paid £4,254 off their debt. In 1820, operating from stores on Rue Saint-Paul in the Lower Town commercial district, the firm offered for sale Lower and Upper Canadian flour, Newfoundland biscuit, “Upper Country Pork,” and a variety of iron products; it also offered to lease part of its premises and wharf. Coltman’s prominence in the Quebec business community is reflected in his presidency of the Quebec branch of the Bank of Montreal in 1820 and 1821.

Coltman had been made a justice of the peace for the district of Quebec in January 1810. On 13 Jan. 1812 he was appointed to the Executive Council of Lower Canada. Three years later he received a nomination to the unsalaried position of commissioner for the management of the Jesuit estates, a position he held until at least 1824. He and his fellow commissioners faced a wide range of concerns in supervising lands of nearly 900,000 arpents. Besides receiving and accounting for revenues from the estates, the commissioners were encouraged to improve them in the hope that the income would eventually be appropriated for the general benefit of the province.

In October 1816 Governor Sir John Coape Sherbrooke gave Coltman and John Fletcher*, a Quebec lawyer, commissions of the peace for the Indian territory of the northwest. Shortly after, they each received a special commission to inquire into crimes resulting from the life-and-death struggle between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company for hegemony in the fur trade. Violence had increased when the HBC allowed Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] to establish a colony of landless Scottish farmers on the Red River in 1812. In June 1816 it culminated in the deaths at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) of the colony’s governor, Robert Semple*, and some 20 settlers at the hands of a band of Métis under Cuthbert Grant*. In retaliation, Selkirk seized the NWC headquarters of Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.). It was these events, the conditions that led to them, and means of resolving the conflict that Coltman and Fletcher were to investigate. To reinforce their authority, they were given commissions of lieutenant-colonel and major respectively in the Indian Department. The choice of Coltman, who had legal training and a reputation for honesty and common sense, pleased both sides.

Having failed in an attempt to proceed to the northwest in 1816 because the season was too advanced, Coltman and Fletcher set out again in late spring 1817. They were armed with a dispatch from the colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, ordering the arrest of Selkirk, cessation of hostilities, and restitution of captured property by both sides; they also carried a proclamation from the Prince Regent making public the government’s desires. The commissioners were accompanied by a small detachment of troops. Fletcher remained at Fort William, and thenceforth Coltman conducted the work of the commission alone. He arrested Selkirk at the Red River settlement (Man.) and imposed on him bail of £6,000. Throughout the summer he worked 12 hours a day amassing evidence and taking depositions. After re-establishing a modicum of peace among the factions, he left for Lower Canada in the fall with Grant and Joseph Cadotte, who were to be tried in Montreal; Selkirk made his own way to Upper Canada to stand trial on the charges against him.

In his proceedings Coltman appears to have sought a compromise rather than a rigorous imposition of the law, which might have provoked renewed violence. A contemporary described him as “a good-natured Laugh and Grow fat sort of person who had no wish but to reconcile and tranquillize all parties.” Samuel Gale*, Selkirk’s shrewd and able counsel from Montreal, wrote that Coltman “took it for granted that Government looked upon all parties in almost the same light . . . and like a good subject he has laboured to fulfil what he conceived to be the wishes of the Government.” The Selkirk party considered this approach unjust, but could only admire the commissioner’s manner of proceeding. “Such is the man’s bonhomie and good nature,” Lady Selkirk acknowledged in December 1817, “that none of us can quite attribute bad intentions to him.”

Coltman submitted his report on 30 June 1818. Although justifying to some extent the fears of the Selkirk party that NWC partners, particularly William McGillivray, had managed to influence Coltman, the report nevertheless testifies, by its thoroughness, accuracy, and relative impartiality, to a genuine striving on the part of its author to be objective and fair. Coltman had doubts about the legal basis for the establishment of the Red River settlement and the legality and morality of Selkirk’s actions at Fort William; he also exposed sympathetically the arguments of the NWC that the colony represented a threat to its conduct of the fur trade. On the other hand, while condemning both protagonists for their recourse to violence, he particularly denounced the “system of intimidation and violence” employed by the NWC. Moreover, he acknowledged the sincerity of Selkirk’s opinion that the NWC was behaving as an enemy of the government as well as of the Red River settlement and that the exigencies of the situation authorized proceedings otherwise unjustifiable. Coltman’s commission and report had little immediate effect in discouraging violence in the northwest, but its conciliatory nature may have facilitated the union of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies three years later.

At Quebec Coltman enjoyed considerable social status. In 1811 he was elected to the managing committee of the Quebec Fire Society for Saint-Laurent ward. Four years later he was proposed as a member of a committee to promote the education, on non-sectarian principles, of the poor of Quebec [see Thaddeus Osgood*]. Having developed a special concern while in the northwest about the lack of education and religious instruction for the Métis and Indians, he supported efforts in 1818–19 by the Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis, to establish a mission at Red River [see Joseph-Norbert Provencher*]. In 1819 he became a committee member of the Quebec Emigrants’ Society. The following year he was elected to the committee of the Quebec branch of the Royal Humane Society of London for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned or Dead, a society devoted to methods of resuscitation.

Coltman enjoyed an excellent reputation with the colonial executive. In January 1817 Sherbrooke recommended him for a seat in the Legislative Council, but the nomination was never received from London. In May 1819 he was appointed to the newly constituted Board of Cullers [see Peter Patterson*], and five months later he was named chairman of the Board of Audit of the Public Accounts, a post with a salary of at least £400 per annum. His commission of the peace, which had been extended to the Western District of Upper Canada in 1816, was further extended throughout Lower Canada in 1821 and 1824.

Coltman’s social and political prominence encouraged him to seek a seat in the House of Assembly in the elections of 1820. Defeated in Upper Town Quebec by Joseph-Rémi Vallières* de Saint-Réal, he tried again in Hampshire, but withdrew before the close of the poll in a bitter contest won by Charles Langevin of the Canadian party with the assistance of François Huot. Coltman’s position in the executive government, his interest (if not a continuing career) in commerce, and his skirmishes with the Canadian party all made him sympathetic to the movement that developed in 1822, chiefly among British merchants and office holders, for a legislative union of Lower and Upper Canada. At a meeting in November he was elected president of the Quebec branch of a provincial organization to promote this cause. He asserted forcefully that, as a consequence of the division of 1791, “a majority of the Legislature almost inevitably led astray by Party Spirit, have adopted measures tending to foster National Prejudices and distinctions, instead of such as should have tended to allay them and assimilate the whole People; thus for retaining the monopoly of power . . . they have perhaps unconsciously rejected as connected with British feeling and making part of the British Colonial System, the various advantages offered to the Public . . . by the adoption of the more liberal views of the Commercial Spirit.” Coltman’s arguments were representative of the movement’s justifications for union. The project met immediate and stiff opposition led by the Canadian party and the Roman Catholic Church, but, although it had little chance of success from the outset, it was not finally abandoned until 1824. Coltman left for his native England on 3 November of the following year and died in London on 2 Jan. 1826.

In collaboration with Roy C. Dalton

William Bacheler Coltman is the author of “A general statement and report relative to the disturbances in the Indian Territories of British North America . . . ,” 1818, a copy of which is in PAC, MG 19, E2. This document does not bear the signature of John Fletcher, Coltman’s fellow commissioner. More extensive than a text in the Colonial Office correspondence (PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 148: 278–315, 551–66), it should also be compared with that printed in G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1819, 18, no.584: 1–288, Papers relating to the Red River settlement . . . , which was reprinted in N.Dak., State Hist. Soc., Coll. (Fargo), 4 (1913): 451–653, as “Summary of evidence in the controversy between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.”

ANQ-Q, CN1-16, 31 oct. 1816; CN1-262, 16, 23 janv. 1807; 22 mars, 25 mai 1808; 11 mai 1812; 14 févr., 2–3 mai 1817. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 144–45, 147–48; RG 4, B46; RG 8, I (C ser.), 0: 1956; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. SRO, GD45/3/86. Documents relating to northwest missions, 1815–1827, ed. G. L. Nute, (St Paul, Minn., 1942). HBRS, 1 (Rich), xx. Quebec Gazette, 11 July 1799; 24 Oct. 1805; 5 Nov. 1807; 25 Jan. 1810; 11 April 1811; 7 May 1812; 16 March, 13 April, 13 July, 21 Dec. 1815; 15, 22, 29 May, 25 July, 7, 14, 21 Nov., 19 Dec. 1816; 13 March, 13 Nov. 1817; 1 Jan., 26 Feb., 6, 9 Aug., 7 Dec. 1818; 20 May, 1 July, 2, 9, 12 Aug., 14 Oct., 23 Dec. 1819; 6, 30 March, 26 June, 23 Oct., 29 Dec. 1820; 21, 25 Nov., 2, 19 Dec. 1822. Quebec almanac, 1821–22. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” Wallace, Macmillan dict. D. [G.] Creighton, The empire of the St Lawrence (Toronto, 1956). R. C. Dalton, The Jesuitsestates question, 1760–1888: a study of the background for the agitation of 1889 (Toronto, 1968), 60–77. J. S. Galbraith, The Hudsons Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821–1869 ([Toronto], 1957). William Kingsford, The history of Canada (10v., Toronto and London, 1887–98). C. [B.] Martin, Lord Selkirks work in Canada (Oxford, Eng., 1916). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (Thomas; 1973). W. L. Morton, Manitoba: a history (Toronto, 1957). E. E. Rich, The fur trade and the northwest to 1857 (Toronto, 1967).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

In collaboration with Roy C. Dalton, “COLTMAN, WILLIAM BACHELER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/coltman_william_bacheler_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/coltman_william_bacheler_6E.html
Author of Article:   In collaboration with Roy C. Dalton
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 28, 2023