DEBLOIS, STEPHEN WASTIE, businessman, office holder, and politician; b. 16 Jan. 1780 in New York City, eldest son of George Deblois and Sarah Deblois*; he had two sons and a daughter with Jane Catherine Witham, whom he later married; d. 26 Dec. 1844 in Halifax.
Stephen Wastie Deblois’s father, an Englishman of Huguenot descent, emigrated in 1761 from Oxford to Salem, Mass., and set up as a general merchant. Forced to flee Salem in 1775 because of his loyalist beliefs, he took refuge in Halifax and in 1777 moved to New York City, where he continued in trade. Towards the end of the war, George Deblois returned to Halifax. He resumed his career as a merchant and began to edge into the local oligarchy, becoming a justice of the peace in 1793. His premature death in 1799 precipitated a family crisis but Sarah Deblois assumed control of her husband’s firm. Stephen was probably working in the family business before 1808, the year in which his name first appears in newspaper advertisements as head of the firm.
Nothing is known about Stephen’s education and business training but it is apparent that he possessed the skills required to succeed in trade. His early career undoubtedly benefited from the prosperity that Halifax enjoyed during the closing phase of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as prize goods flooded onto the local market, Deblois specialized his operations by becoming an auctioneer. When peace returned he continued as an auctioneer, concentrating on the sale of foodstuffs and related commodities imported from the United States. His activities, which represented a major innovation within the Halifax market, provoked the ire of more traditional merchants, who complained that auctioneers constituted unfair competition because they required little capital in order to operate and were in effect agents for merchants outside Nova Scotia. Deblois persisted, however, and by the early 1820s was dealing with an annual turnover of goods valued at more than £10,000.
Throughout his career Deblois operated with partners. In 1816 he recruited the first, William Bowie, who probably brought the capital and connections required to survive the post-war commercial dislocation. Following Bowie’s death as a result of a duel with Richard John Uniacke* Jr in 1819, Deblois was associated with his brother William Minet Deblois, then Samuel Mitchell, and finally James W. Merkel. By the mid 1840s the firm had grown to control assets in excess of £25,000, two-thirds of which belonged to Deblois as senior partner. A leading man of property on the Halifax waterfront, Deblois supplemented his income by lending money in return for mortgage securities. One of his largest transactions involved a debt of £9,000 incurred by a hard-pressed Samuel Cunard* as he fought off bankruptcy in the early 1840s.
Deblois’s entrepreneurial prominence was reflected in his election to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and a term as vice-president of that organization. He invested in and served as a director of such enterprises as the Halifax East India Company, the Shubenacadie Canal Company, the Albion Fire Insurance Company, the Nova Scotia Marine Insurance Company, and the Bank of British North America. As his business career developed, Deblois accumulated public and honorific offices such as commissioner of the Halifax Commons, commissioner of public cemeteries, marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and vice-president of the St George’s Society. In addition, he served one term in the House of Assembly as member for Halifax Township.
Deblois’s presence in the legislature at a time of growing agitation for political reform generated the bulk of the controversy that is associated with his name. Nominated as the candidate of Halifax’s oligarchy to contest the election of 1830, Deblois challenged the sitting member, Beamish Murdoch*, a lawyer then associated with the reform cause. The contest provoked physical violence and impassioned rhetoric, with Murdoch assailing the loyalists as “the scum of the United States” who, out of “pretended” allegiance to the crown, “had fled from debts and incumberances.” Having won decisively, Deblois quickly achieved prominence in the assembly, employing an aggressive and hectoring oratorical style to champion vested interests. An enthusiast for progress in such areas as canal construction and steamship navigation, he insisted that monopoly and privilege were essential for Nova Scotia’s economic development. For example, while in favour of a bank and paper money, Deblois opposed incorporation of the Bank of Nova Scotia on the ground that its competition with the existing Halifax Banking Company would jeopardize business stability. Similarly, he argued that Halifax, “the heart and soul of the Country,” should not be deprived of its exclusive right to control the importation of goods from foreign states through its status as the only free port in the province. When hard times disrupted the local economy in the mid 1830s and intensified demands for political change, Deblois blamed commercial distress on outport smugglers and told the public to remain faithful to their traditional leaders.
By the time of the 1836 election, Deblois had become anathema to the growing mass of reformers in Halifax. Renowned as a reactionary, he attracted further odium because his brother served in the corrupt municipal administration. A public meeting held to review the qualifications of those seeking election howled down Deblois’s name when it was placed in nomination. By this time even members of the oligarchy had come to see that Deblois’s extreme partisanship had made him a laughing-stock within the community. Exclusion from the legislature did not, however, end Deblois’s political career. Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s he continued to oppose all forms of constitutional change, devoting money and influence to sustain die-hard resistance to the coming of responsible government.
During the last years of his life, Deblois remained prominent within Halifax’s business and social élite. His 13-room residence on Gottingen Street, valued at £1,000 and with furnishings worth over £400, embodied the contemporary definition of genteel comfort. Annual household expenditures, including pew rental at St George’s Anglican Church, a subscription to the Halifax Library, and deportment classes for the children, came to more than £400. Living standards within the Halifax élite are further indicated by Deblois’s will, which gave both of his sons £3,000 on their reaching maturity and £2,000 to his daughter. Deblois’s wife was secured by a marriage settlement of £1,500. The heirs obtained more than paper promises, since Deblois died leaving assets of over £23,000.
An obituary said of Deblois that he had possessed “some eccentricity of disposition.” One suspects from this description that he was not a likeable personality. He certainly gave offence to those in the reform movement and could also disconcert Halifax’s establishment when it suited his purposes. The curious nature of his domestic affairs must have provoked comment, especially in an era of growing middle-class propriety. In short, Deblois appears to have been something of a renegade, a man guided more by ego and ambition than by any consistent intellectual design. Nevertheless, his career provides an insight into the cross-currents of change in early 19th-century Nova Scotia.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, D33; no. 113 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 71: ff.323, 325 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 1, 55, nos.1237, 1357; RG 1, 171: f.61; 173: f.265; 174: f.269; 244, no.103; 289, no.122; 314, no.26. PRO, CO 217/101: 50. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 18 Jan. 1821, 25 Feb. 1822. Acadian Recorder, 1 June 1816; 13 March, 18 Sept. 1830; 4 March, 9 Sept. 1837. Halifax Journal, 17 July 1820. Halifax Morning Post & Parliamentary Reporter, 31 Oct. 1843, 28 Dec. 1844. Novascotian, 15–23 Sept. 1830; 23 Feb. 1832; 18 April 1833; 23 Jan., 13–20 March 1834; 30 July 1835; 18 Feb., 17 Nov. 1836; 2 April 1840. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 30 July 1799, 14 Feb. 1827. Times (Halifax), 30 March 1841; 30 Jan., 31 Dec. 1844. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–44. W. E. Boggs, The genealogical record of the Boggs family, the descendants of Ezekiel Boggs (Halifax, 1916). A. W. H. Eaton, “Old Boston families, number one: the De Blois family,” New England Hist. and Geneal. Reg. (Boston), 67 (1913): 6–13. E. A. Jones, The loyalists of Massachusetts: their memorials, petitions and claims (London, 1930). Wallace Brown, The king’s friends: the composition and motives of the American loyalist claimants (Providence, R.I., 1965).