CROOKS, JAMES, businessman, militia officer, office holder, justice of the peace, and politician; b. 15 April 1778 in the parish of Kilmarnock, Scotland, son of William Crooks, shoemaker, and Margaret Ramsay; m. 8 Dec. 1808 Jane Cummings, and they had eight sons and five daughters; d. 2 March 1860 in West Flamborough Township, Upper Canada.
In 1791 James Crooks immigrated from Scotland to join his half-brother Francis, who about 1788 had established a mercantile concern at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) at the mouth of the Niagara River. In 1792, about which time Francis probably left a partnership with Robert Hamilton* to set up Crooks and Company, they were joined by James’s brother William. As a result of British plans in 1795 to improve the defensive works at Fort Niagara, the company’s premises were apparently expropriated, forcing the Crookses to move across the river to Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, where they resumed business. After Francis died in the West Indies in 1797, the brothers formed W. and J. Crooks, which became competitively engaged in numerous enterprises, particularly military provisioning, the shipment of grain and flour to Lower Canada, brewing and distilling, and the production of potash. To facilitate these operations the brothers chartered vessels, and in 1811 they had built at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) the schooner Lord Nelson, the principal vessel in their carrying business.
James Crooks quickly gained prominence within the local élite, which included many Scots merchants and office holders. Between 1794 and 1807 he rose from ensign to captain in the 1st Lincoln Militia. In 1797 he became postmaster at Newark. Three years later he campaigned with other Niagara merchants, notably Robert Hamilton and John Warren*, to secure the election of two mercantile candidates, Samuel Street* and William Dickson*, in Lincoln and of the influential Surveyor General David William Smith* in the riding of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex. In 1808 Crooks’s position within the community was strengthened when he married a daughter of a loyalist and former member of Butler’s Rangers, Thomas Cummings, of nearby Chippawa.
In the Niagara District after 1800 industrial and mercantile activities which were related to local agricultural needs and to the export trade in Lower Canada became increasingly important. In 1809, in an attempt to break Thomas Clark*’s domination of milling in the district, Crooks petitioned for mill-sites on islands near Chippawa, without success. As a result he looked elsewhere: he bought land in 1810 along the Trent River, in the Newcastle District, and the next year he purchased 400 acres at the head of Lake Ontario in West Flamborough Township from Elizabeth Russell*, sister and heiress of Peter Russell*, a former customer of W. and J. Crooks.
The War of 1812, in which Crooks fought, precipitated the collapse of his Niagara operations and had an indelible effect on his political outlook. On 5 June, 13 days before the declaration of war, the Lord Nelson had been commandeered on Lake Ontario by the American navy and later armed for service under the name Scourge. During the American occupation of Niagara between May and December 1813 invading troops seized or destroyed Crooks’s nearby homestead, Crookston, and his buildings and goods in Niagara; for these losses, as well as for those sustained in the sinking of the Lord Nelson during a storm that year, he later submitted claims totalling more than £9,700. Though allowed £4,450 on his losses at Niagara, he never fully recovered from these severe financial setbacks.
As a captain in the 1st Lincoln he commanded a flank company at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 Oct. 1812, for which action he was commended by Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe. Crooks later claimed that he had been authorized to recruit for a majority in the proposed incorporated militia during the winter of 1812–13 but the promotion was never officially recognized. Following the capture of York (Toronto) by the Americans in April 1813, Crooks and other men of standing in the Niagara peninsula petitioned Brigadier-General John Vincent* to institute strict measures to quell civil disaffection. Crooks later served on the grand jury which found true bills against Jacob Overholser* and others accused of treasonous activity. On 26 May 1813 the Crooks family, with James probably in the lead, had fled from the frontier. They resided for a time in Thorold, where James’s second son was born in July. During this period he remained on active military duty.
In November 1814, when Crooks again petitioned unsuccessfully for mill-sites in the Niagara River, he was still hoping to restore his Niagara base. By that time, however, he had settled in West Flamborough, no doubt conscious of that locale’s relatively secure position in the event of future hostilities and of its commercial potential. Within four years, in a remarkable display of energy and resilience, he had constructed there along Spencer Creek a grist-mill, sawmill, carding-mill, general store, cooperage, and blacksmith’s shop, forming a complex and small community later known as Crooks’ Hollow (near present-day Greensville). In 1818 he was granted a quay lot in Coote’s Paradise (Dundas) on Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour), a few miles from his prospering entrepôt. He quickly became active in district and provincial affairs. First commissioned as a justice of the peace in 1814, he was later named chairman of the Gore District Court of Quarter Sessions, in which office he was soon known for his vehement interest in removing the district seat from Hamilton to Dundas. In 1818 Crooks, Thomas Clark, Joseph Papineau*, and George Garden* formed a joint Upper and Lower Canadian committee on the improvement of navigation on the St Lawrence River. They recommended the construction of canals comparable in size to those in New York State. Crooks was elected in 1820 to the House of Assembly along with William Chisholm to represent the riding of Halton and two years later he became colonel of the 1st Regiment of Gore militia.
As an industrialist Crooks was woefully aware of the shortage of working capital in Upper Canada and he opposed any impediments thrown in the way of private enterprise. For development to occur, he believed, private and public interests must dovetail. Probably because of his strong commercial background and conservative inclinations, he was named in 1822 to the first board of directors for the Bank of Upper Canada [see William Allan]. In the assembly he energetically promoted both domestic manufacturing and the development of transportation systems, upon which the functioning of the province’s economy depended. In 1823 he sponsored the bill authorizing the construction of the Burlington Bay Canal, for which he became a commissioner [see James Gordon Strobridge*]. That year, to encourage the production of exportable goods, he also tabled a bill permitting the duty-free importation from the United States of hemp mills and other machinery. As well, he chaired a parliamentary committee on legislation for appropriating funds for the improvement of inland navigation.
Crooks apparently did not run in the general elections of 1824 and 1828, perhaps because of his preoccupation with the expansion of his commercial and industrial operations. In 1822 Robert Gourlay* had speculated that “Half the farmers of Halton probably have their names standing on the books of James Crooks . . . for goods furnished to them when prices were high.” During the 1820s, as before the war, Crooks operated a number of vessels in the carrying trade between Montreal, Niagara, and the head of the lake, notably for the export of flour and potash. In 1825–26, encouraged by an expanding domestic market, the British government’s imposition of a high tariff on paper imported into Canada from the United States, and the £125 prize offered by the provincial assembly, he established Upper Canada’s first paper-making mill, his most ambitious and innovative enterprise. Its inception was keenly supported by William Lyon Mackenzie*, for whose newspaper Crooks had been an agent. As well, by 1825 he had amassed more than 1,000 acres along the Trent River, where about 1828 he erected a grist-mill at what became known as Crooks’ Rapids (Hastings). By 1834 he had built mills on the Speed River, in the region west of Dundas, and his complex on Spencer Creek had been enlarged to include, among other manufactories, a tannery, distillery, potashery, agricultural implement factory, woollen-mill, and oil-mill.
To permit this industrial expansion, between 1827 and 1835 he secured mortgages on his West Flamborough property totalling £23,500, most of it from the Bank of Upper Canada and the trustees of the Montreal firm of Maitland, Garden, and Auldjo. Possibly because of the resulting financial burden, he spent much time lobbying and petitioning for half pay on his claimed majority during the war and for a settlement of his remaining war loss claims, including that for the Lord Nelson. (Only in 1930 was any compensation received by Crooks’s heirs for the loss of that ship.) He travelled to England at least once, in 1831, and to Washington twice to pursue his various claims. To generate capital on a larger scale, Crooks, whose reputation as a major land-holder was known even to “capitalists” in England, advertised in 1832 the sale of no less than 45,000 acres which he owned throughout the province.
During the late 1820s and 1830s he continued to be a highly visible proponent of schemes for developing the region around the head of the lake and of a mercantile system conducive to that development. In 1826 he promoted the linking of Burlington Bay and the Grand River by canal. Four years later he was chosen first president of the newly formed agricultural society for the Gore District and was a director of the Desjardins Canal Company [see Peter Desjardins*]. He was an initiator in 1833 of a grand proposal to join Dundas by railway to other commercial centres in western Upper Canada. In January 1830, at a public meeting in Hamilton which he organized and chaired, he had forcefully defended against American encroachment the monopoly held by the Canadas, under British statute, in trade with the British West Indies and in mercantile navigation on the St Lawrence River. Four years later in the Gore Balance he vigorously supported Upper Canada’s connection with Britain on the grounds that imperial protective tariffs provided the province’s produce with a “decided advantage” in British markets.
In 1830, when he was returned to parliament for Halton, Crooks was clearly in the upper realms of the province’s social and industrial hierarchy. A year later he was appointed to the Legislative Council, a position he held until his death. Much of his energy in politics continued to be expended on commercial matters aimed at economic development. In 1831, for example, he supported the bill of incorporation for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District; six years later, with Absalom Shade*, Crooks managed to get substantial funds voted for the improvement of the Dundas and Waterloo road, along which they owned property.
As for the partisan issues which most inflamed Upper Canadian politics, Crooks rejected not only radicalism but the extreme toryism of the controlling, largely Anglican élite led by the Reverend John Strachan*. In the early 1820s what Crooks and William Lyon Mackenzie saw as tory misgovernment had drawn them together in a close but short-lived liaison. Crooks’s position was largely defined, however, by his long association with William Morris, another moderate tory and the leading spokesman for Scottish interests in Upper Canadian politics. In 1821 Crooks had supported the movement led by Morris and John Beverley Robinson* to prevent the American-born reformer Barnabas Bidwell* from sitting in the assembly. Two years later Crooks joined Morris in moving the passage of a highly contentious bill calling for the recognition in Upper Canada of the Church of Scotland as a state church, along with the Church of England, and for its right to share equally in funding from the clergy reserves. The bill pitted Morris and Crooks decisively against the Strachanites. Yet he steadfastly refused to advance the Kirk’s claims to the point of interfering with those of other denominations. In 1822–23, for example, he voted in favour of extending the legal right to solemnize marriages in Upper Canada to churches other than his own or the Church of England. His position on church-state affairs could not have been made easier by the marriage in 1827 of his daughter Jane Eliza to the Reverend Alexander Neil Bethune*, an adherent of Strachan.
Following his appointment to the Legislative Council, Crooks frequently and eloquently enunciated a view of that body as the bulwark in Upper Canada for the defence of the British constitutional balance of executive, appointive, and elected elements. Canadians, he proclaimed in the Western Mercury in 1834, must “cling to the connection with the Mother Country as to the ark of our safety” against American expansionism, whether overtly military or political. He disliked both majoritarian democracy, which he perceived many reformers to be advocating, and oligarchical tyranny, which he feared the élite behind Strachan was trying to impose, especially in the reactionary wake of the civil disorders of 1837–38. In January 1837 Crooks had opposed Strachan on the bill to amend the charter of King’s College (University of Toronto) because, Crooks believed, both the disproportionate allocation of school lands to that institution and provisions for the support of district schools were detrimental to the establishment of a system of “free Grammar Schools.” These he contended would best foster open competition and opportunity in society. More indicative of his status as a squirearch than of his political views was Crooks’s enrolment of four sons, including Adam*, at Upper Canada College between 1839 and 1845.
By the end of the 1830s Crooks’s political prominence had reached its peak. Opposition to Strachan by the so-called “Scotch party” in council, led by Crooks and Morris (who had become a legislative councillor in 1836), continued in 1839 over the Clergy Reserves Bill, a contentious piece of legislation which proposed the denominational division of the reserves, a principle accepted by Crooks. Passed in the assembly by a bare majority, the bill was opposed in council early in May only by John Simcoe Macaulay and Strachan, whose defeat greatly gratified Crooks. During the same session, however, the moderate faction on council lost a struggle to have him appointed to a joint committee on education in Strachan’s stead when, on an amended motion, Macaulay was substituted.
Though Crooks, like so many others, publicly condemned the factionalism which permeated the ranks of tories and reformers alike, he was repeatedly drawn into political alignments within the Legislative Council. In 1839 he agreed with the view expressed in the report of Lord Durham [Lambton*] that the cause of political unrest in Upper Canada was monopolistic control of government by the “family compact,” but he disagreed with the proposed remedy, responsible government. He preferred instead the fine-tuning of existing constitutional checks and balances by drawing executive members from all parts of the province and by making their number equal to assemblymen, introducing a court for the impeachment of government officials, and providing for joint addresses from the assembly and the Legislative Council. The institution of responsible government, he felt, would be merely an exchange of one constitutional disequilibrium for another, in which the assembly would control the executive. A committee composed of Crooks, John Simcoe Macaulay, and Adam Fergusson*, another Scottish associate, was formed in council in April 1839 to consider the Durham report. On 11 May, the last day of the session, Macaulay deviously submitted a report without ever having consulted Crooks or Fergusson. The moderates’ motion in council to have this procedure investigated was defeated, but Crooks, William Morris, Fergusson, Peter Adamson, John McDonald, and Alexander Fraser entered a dissenting opinion on this decision on 9 December.
Though he professed support for political union with Lower Canada, Crooks harboured a strong disdain for French Canadians, a sentiment which pervaded proposals he put forward on union later in December: the location of the seat of government in Upper Canada, the use of English alone in parliamentary debates and proceedings, and the creation of electoral divisions in Lower Canada which would assure a “due proportion of the representation in the United Legislature to the British inhabitants” of that province. He was, nevertheless, appointed to the Legislative Council of the united provinces in 1841. In the post-union era he was past his prime as a politician. He viewed developments such as the appointment of a reform majority in council in 1843, during debate over the move of the seat from Kingston to Montreal, as an erosion of executive authority and hence a diminution of the imperial tie. In November 1843, to protest the reform majority’s repeal of resolutions blocking the change of capital, Crooks, Adam Fergusson, William Henry Draper*, Levius Peters Sherwood*, Thomas McKay, Peter Boyle de Blaquière, and seven others took unprecedented action by walking out of council. Six years later Crooks, citing his role in the War of 1812 in maintaining the province as a British colony, deplored the Rebellion Losses Bill [see James Bruce*] as a device for compensating treasonous activity and as evidence of the constitutional imbalance inherent in responsible government.
Queenston Heights had been the ultimate testing ground for Crooks’s fervid sentimental attachment to the motherland. During the 1850s he enthusiastically supported the Upper Canadian militia and championed unequivocal loyalty, principally by trying to keep memories of the war alive in the public consciousness. In council in 1851 he supported the issue of medals to living veterans of the battles of Queenston Heights, Ogdensburg, and Lundy’s Lane. Two years later he wrote his recollections of the war, which he submitted to Thomas Maclear* for possible publication in the Anglo-American Magazine as a supplement to the articles on the war written by Gilbert Auchinleck. In 1857 Crooks was still promoting compensation for militia officers who had served in the war.
Concurrent with his belief in British patriotism as essential to social and political well-being was his constant, statesmanlike support for efforts to achieve social, religious, and political harmony, a pragmatic approach he had set forth on numerous occasions since the 1830s. Like Egerton Ryerson*, the superintendent of education who was also a political moderate, he opposed denominational schools, maintaining in council in 1855 that the “settled policy of every Government is to provide that all its subjects live in amity . . . , and that whatever difference may exist among them, as to forms of Religion, or any other matter, it is deemed good policy that the youth, . . . be brought together at Public Schools of Education at an early period of Life.” Unity and fellowship, he repeatedly maintained, were urgent goals in a young colony that had experienced foreign invasion, bitter political and religious feuding, and armed insurrection.
Crooks remained active in business until the early 1850s, by which time water supplies at Crooks’ Hollow had diminished and industrial competition in the region had increased substantially, largely as a result of railway development. In 1851 Crooks’s complex contained four mills, a clothing works, distillery, tannery, cooperage, and machine-shop. Later that year, however, at the age of 73, he sold both his paper-mill and his mills at Crooks’ Rapids. In 1860 he died at his home in Crooks’ Hollow. All that remains of his once mighty commercial estate on Spencer Creek is the skeletal ruin of a solitary grist-mill.
James Crooks is the author of Statement of the seizure of the British schooner “Lord Nelson,” by an American vessel of war, on the 5th June, 1812, 13 days before the late war with the United States, published anonymously in Hamilton, [Ont.], in 1841. His account of the battle of Queenston Heights, along with a covering letter to Thomas Maclear, dated 17 March 1853, is in PAC, MG 24, G39, and photocopies are available in the AO’s Miscellaneous coll., MU 2144, 1853, no.14. The account was later published under the title “Recollections of the War of 1812, from manuscript of the late Hon. James Crooks,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.] (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), no.28 (n.d.): 28–41.
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Cite This Article
David Ouellette, “CROOKS, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/crooks_james_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||David Ouellette|
|Title of Article:||CROOKS, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|