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DOBIE, RICHARD, fur trader, businessman, and militia officer; b. c. 1731 in Liberton, Scotland; d. 23 March 1805 in Montreal, Lower Canada.

Richard Dobie, who apparently was of quite humble origins, is believed to have been a merchant in Scotland before he came to the province of Quebec shortly after the conquest. In 1761 he rented a stone house on Rue Saint-Paul in Montreal, and before long he was engaged in the fur trade. In July 1764 he bought a canoe in partnership with Lawrence Ermatinger*. That September he chose a Canadian partner, Pierre Montbrun, who was to proceed to the trading posts. Dobie fitted out two canoes, assumed all the expenses, and was to attend to selling the furs. They may have been dealing with Indians in the vicinity of Fort Timiskaming (near Ville-Marie, Que.), since Dobie later recalled having sent 30 bales of goods to that post for the 1764–65 season, or they may have been trading in the region southwest of the Great Lakes. Profits were divided equally between the two men; their agreement lasted two years.

In 1767 Dobie went into partnership with Benjamin Frobisher*, who travelled to the trading posts and wintered there, while Dobie remained in Montreal. In the beginning the partners operated southwest of the Great Lakes; in 1767 they organized an expedition to La Baye (Green Bay, Wis.) and the following year they hired a number of men to go to Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). They endeavoured to make their first forays into the northwest in 1769 and 1770. In 1769 they received licences for five canoes bound for Michilimackinac. Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher tried to get into the northwest, but their expedition was stopped by Indians at Rainy Lake (Ont.). The following year the partners sent three canoes to Michilimackinac and Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). In November 1770 the partnership was dissolved for reasons and under conditions unknown.

Dobie’s business seems to have slowed down until 1777, when another phase in his career began, marked by the expansion of his role as an outfitter and financial partner. Thus, in the years following, Dobie stood out as one of the principal fur traders and outfitters southwest of the Great Lakes and in the region around Lake Superior and Lake Nipigon (Ont.). From 1777 until 1790 he stood surety, on his own or with others, for a number of expeditions carrying merchandise worth close to £100,000. The value of the expeditions varied from £2,500 in 1777 to £22,000 in 1783, and most of them went off to Michilimackinac, Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.), and Detroit (Mich.). Only two, with merchandise worth £3,224, proceeded to the northwest. These were led by Jean-Étienne Waddens* and his partner, Venance Lemaire, dit Saint-Germain, in 1778 and 1781 and consisted respectively of three and four canoes, which headed towards Grand Portage and beyond. After Waddens was murdered in 1782, Dobie seems to have abandoned his interest in the fur trade of that region.

Dobie apparently was most deeply engaged in the trade southwest of Michilimackinac and the Great Lakes. He maintained relations in this area with some of the leading merchants and fur traders, including Étienne-Charles Campion* and William Grant (1743–1810), as well as with other, smaller traders. Dobie agreed to stand surety for Campion when he was buying furs in 1780, serve as his attorney in Montreal in 1782, and be his guarantor when he received trading licences in 1781, 1782, 1783, and 1787. He continued to support him when Campion went into partnership with Jean-Baptiste Tabeau to send seven canoes and £3,000 of merchandise to Michilimackinac (by then located on Mackinac Island, Mich.) in 1789, and eight canoes with a cargo valued at £5,000 the following year. Dobie seems to have played the role of surety and outfitter for the short-lived General Company of Lake Superior and the South, which specialized in the fur trade as far south as the Illinois country and westward to the head of the Missouri; Campion joined it in 1785, and it was dissolved about 1787. Just like Campion, William Grant, a fur trader and Montreal merchant, held an important place in the business affairs of Dobie, who supplied him with surety on his expeditions in 1781, 1782, 1783, 1786, 1787, and 1788.

Dobie generally carried on his business as outfitter and financial backer alone, but occasionally he joined other merchants to put up surety for a fur trader. Among those merchants were John Grant and his partner Robert Griffin, William Grant and Campion, who became partners in Grant, Campion and Company in 1791, and Thomas Forsyth, one of the partners in Robert Ellice and Company. In 1788 Dobie decided to take in Francis Badgley* as a partner, to reduce the burden of running his business and to permit him to devote more time and energy to the fur trade in the Timiskaming region. The company was to look after outfitting fur traders and to buy and sell furs, and Badgley was to receive a third of the profits. The association ended in 1792.

In 1787 Dobie had formed a partnership with James Grant* to go into the fur trade at Fort Timiskaming for a period of seven years. Dobie was to supply everything that was needed, and he was authorized to collect a commission on all transactions. Grant was to winter at the post and take care of trading during the first two years at least. Dobie took two-thirds of the profits in the first three years, and one-half of them after that. In order to be able to trade at Timiskaming, Dobie paid £2,900 to acquire the accounts receivable of the firm of Sutherland and Grant, which previously owned the trading rights there. He obtained trading licences for the years 1787–90, and he invested large sums: £4,600 in merchandise and 12 canoes in 1787; £3,500 and 12 canoes the following year; £6,100 and 14 canoes in 1789; and £3,000 and 12 canoes in 1790. About a hundred voyageurs went to Timiskaming every year. Dobie ended his participation in the fur trade of the region in 1791 when he sold all his interests to the firm of Grant, Campion and Company in Montreal.

Although by far the most important, furs were not the only staple in which Dobie was interested. For several years he bought wheat from various rural merchants and exported it through the port of Quebec. In 1773 he received a few bushels from a merchant in Varennes as payment for dry goods. Five years later he bought 2,600 bushels, and in 1786 he went into partnership with William Maitland and Alexander Auldjo* to buy 10,000 bushels, which were shipped overseas.

Dobie was also interested in production. In 1769, for example, the company of Dobie and Frobisher bought ginseng from Pierre Foretier. Five years later Dobie tried to organize production of that root. He hired someone named Laforge and a team of men to go to La Galette (near Ogdensburg, N. Y.) and stay there, and he instructed Laforge to work “primarily at having ginseng of the best possible quality produced.” Similarly in 1784 he advanced money to Alexander Milmine, a potash manufacturer at Île-Jésus, Que., so he could buy ashes, convert them, and supply Dobie with at least 18 tons of potash in the eight months following the signing of the contract. Dobie was also interested in wood; in 1779 he owned a small sawmill near Sorel, probably on he Ronde, which turned out 30 to 40 boards a day.

Dobie imported from Great Britain a great variety of products which he sold not only to the fur traders but also to merchants in the countryside around Montreal, particularly at Chambly, Varennes, and Terrebonne. He even supplied goods to a merchant in Cornwall (Ont.).

There are numerous indications that Dobie played a role as financial go-between for the government of the colony during Governor Haldimand’s term of office. In the summer of 1779, for example, Dobie was working for Haldimand and seems to have travelled as far as Niagara. His main function was to pay accounts and advance money to various governmental services. Thus, between June 1782 and June 1784 Dobie advanced £8,403 to the engineers and £2,386 to the Indian Department. In July 1784 he paid an account for £2,418 owed by that department at Detroit, and he received sums that were owing to it. That year Dobie was also responsible for distributing various amounts to recruiting agents. In the winter of 1782 the lieutenant governor of Michilimackinac, Patrick Sinclair, had drawn four promissory notes on Dobie and William Grant for £34,586 in all. Unfortunately the government refused to reimburse £3,563 of that amount, and Dobie had to face the holders of the notes by himself. At the same period, 1783–85, Dobie was the Canadian agent for William Cullen of London for remitting money to half-pay officers from several regiments.

Around 1790 Dobie retired from business and invested his capital in order to draw a comfortable income. He lent both modest sums, such as £125 to a barber to repair his house, and much larger amounts, such as £1,650 to Simon McTavish in 1795 and £6,750 to the firm of Parker, Gerrard, and Ogilvy in 1804.

Dobie’s participation in political life reflected his interests as a merchant engaged in the fur trade. For example, he added his voice to those calling for the trade to be reorganized after the conquest, and he intervened several times to defend the interests of the merchant-traders. He was one of the spokesmen for the Montreal merchants when they asked for a house of assembly. In a letter to Christian Daniel Claus* he said of Governor Guy Carleton, “Tho his head is weak and soft, I consider his heart and intentions are good.” He also informed Claus of his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the old subjects of Great Britain were being treated. “French fawning and flattery enough will answer your purpose superior to your long and faithful service to your King and Country.” His antagonistic relations with the governor had consequences for others, since Chief Justice Peter Livius* was dismissed in 1778 as a result of a trial involving Dobie [see Jean-Louis Besnard*, dit Carignant].

Dobie held a place in the public life of Montreal that witnessed his success in business, his wealth, and his prestige. He was a member of the grand jury of the District of Montreal on a number of occasions, and he was also active in the British Militia of the Town and Banlieu of Montreal, with the rank of captain from 1788 until 1797, and major from 1798 till 1803. He was a member of the Presbyterian congregation of Montreal, and in 1791 he was elected chairman of its prestigious and powerful committee to manage temporalities [see Duncan Fisher], an office that he seems to have retained until 1800. He became a member of the masonic lodge known as St Peter’s, No.4, Quebec, at Montreal, in 1772 and was master several times.

Dobie accumulated an impressive fortune in business and the fur trade that enabled him to enjoy a comfortable, even luxurious, standard of living. This fortune also gave him the means to see to the material well-being of the numerous members of his family. His illegitimate daughter, Anne Freeman, who had probably been born before he arrived in Montreal, married John Grant. At least four children were born of this marriage, three daughters and one son: Ann, who married Samuel Gerrard*; Catherine, the wife of Jacob Jordan*; Elizabeth, who was married to James Finlay; and Richard. Dobie made a substantial gift to his son-in-law soon after his marriage to enable him to buy a house and establish a trust fund to protect his family from need. Subsequently he provided the three Grant daughters with generous dowries, and bequeathed a substantial part of his estate to them and their offspring. He also demonstrated that he attached great importance to his family by his attention to the provision of financial backing for his son-in-law and his granddaughters’ husbands in their business careers. Thus he helped John Grant and his partner Robert Griffin from 1784 to 1786, Jordan in 1801, and Gerrard on different occasions.

Richard Dobie was a man of considerable importance but he has seldom attracted the attention of scholars. This omission seems to be closely linked to the fact that he was not one of the promoters of the fur trade in the Canadian northwest and that he was not in the North West Company. He was interested in the fur trade in a region that was highly profitable and important in its time, but which after 1794 was handed over to the Americans and disappeared, as it were, from the field of interest of Canadian historians. As a merchant and outfitter Dobie contributed to the emergence of a greater concentration of both fur traders and merchants. Associated informally with William Grant and Campion, and in partnership with Badgley, he collaborated in setting up a relatively stable network of fur traders whom he outfitted virtually exclusively. This network, as well as Dobie’s interest in Timiskaming, seems to have been taken over completely by Grant, Campion and Company in 1791. That firm, along with Forsyth, Richardson and Company, Todd, McGill and Company [see Isaac Todd; James McGill], and Alexander Henry*, subsequently negotiated the division of the trading zones with the NWC in 1792 and confronted it in the Canadian northwest after Jay’s Treaty in 1794.

Joanne Burgess

[The author wishes to thank Alan Stewart of the Groupe de recherche sur les bâtiments en pierre grise de Montréal for letting her consult some of his research materials.  j.b.]

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Cite This Article

Joanne Burgess, “DOBIE, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dobie_richard_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dobie_richard_5E.html
Author of Article: Joanne Burgess
Title of Article: DOBIE, RICHARD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: July 23, 2014