DENSON, HENRY DENNY, army officer, landowner, and office-holder; b. c. 1715 in County Mayo (Republic of Ireland); d. 3 June 1780 at Falmouth, Nova Scotia.
Little is known of Henry Denny Denson’s background. He was married in 1735 but soon afterwards joined the British army as a lieutenant and left Ireland. His wife, Edith, lived in Dublin throughout her life. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth, who married George Cartland, a Dublin lawyer.
In 1743 Denson went on half pay and then disappears from view until 1760, when he was at Pisiquid (Windsor, N.S.) as an agent for the Nova Scotia government during the New England migration. He apparently decided to settle in Nova Scotia and was one of the first proprietors of the township of Falmouth on the Pisiquid (Avon) River. Since Denson was in Falmouth before the arrival of its New England settlers, he had his pick of choice lands and buildings abandoned by the Acadians. He was one of the first to build in the township and clearly intended to become a country squire. Undoubtedly he had recognized the difficulty of an Irish adventurer’s achieving such an ambition in Britain and had therefore chosen to establish himself in the new colony.
One basis of a squire’s position was his country estate, and Mount Denson, as Henry’s was called, gradually became prosperous and comfortable, although the number of its tenants did not approach that of neighbouring Castle Frederick, the home of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*. By 1764 Denson had installed Mrs Martha Whitefield as “housekeeper”; through an ingenious legal arrangement, she managed to realize most of his estate after his death, although only after a legal battle with Mrs Denson and the Cartlands. The census of 1770 shows Mount Denson’s household at 22 persons, mainly tenants and blacks, and livestock to a total of eight horses, 18 oxen, 34 cows, 34 young cattle, 150 sheep, and 12 swine. On hand were 250 bushels of wheat, 10 bushels of flax seed, and 40 bushels of oats. Such prosperity deserved a mansion house, and Denson built his around 1772.
Denson realized a substantial income through stock-raising. At his death, his inventoried estate included five black slaves, lavish household furnishings, and one of the larger private libraries in the province, including an extensive shelf of legal reference books. The inventory might well have been that of a comfortable Virginia planter or Sussex squire.
The successful squire not only held land but was also the political leader of his community. Denson dutifully accumulated a variety of elective and appointive responsibilities. From 1761 he was a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and, except for the years 1765 to 1769, a member of the House of Assembly for various constituencies until his death. He was a militia officer from the founding of Falmouth and road commissioner and collector of impost and customs for Kings County. In 1773 he served as acting speaker of the assembly during William Nesbitt’s illness.
Denson’s local leadership did not always go unchallenged in the county. In 1762 a substantial body of his neighbours complained to the Board of Trade of his “most arbitrary and illegal conduct,” including his “prophane Cursing, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, and other Immoralities.” They were also upset that Denson, under martial law, had collected farmers at hay harvest time and marched them 50 miles “to do Duty as Soldiers,” and they protested that because he held so many commissions from Halifax he informed, judged, and received in excise cases. Similarly, when Denson was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Loyal Nova Scotia Volunteers in 1775 by Governor Francis Legge he encountered much opposition from his Yankee neighbours on attempting to recruit for the regiment.
Throughout most of his political career in Halifax, Denson trimmed. He was neither one of the “Halifax Gang” nor one of its articulate critics. This neutrality changed in 1775 and 1776, when he supported Legge in his struggles with the assembly and Council. The classic squire to the end, Denson suffered from gout in his later years, which forced him to resign his military commission shortly before his death in 1780.
BL, Add. mss 19069, f.54. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), D46 (original estate papers of Henry Denny Denson). PAC, MG 23, A1. PANS, RG 1, 443, nos.2–17. Directory of N.S. MLAs, 89. Brebner, Neutral Yankees (1969), 185. J. V. Duncanson, Falmouth – a New England township in Nova Scotia, 1760–1965 (Windsor, Ont., 1965), 30.