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ELLICE, ALEXANDER, merchant, shipowner, landowner, and seigneur; baptized 28 May 1743 in the parish of Auchterless (Kirktown of Auchterless), Scotland, eldest son of William Ellice of Knockleith and Mary Simpson of Gartly; m. c. 1780 Ann (Anne) Russell; d. 28 Sept. 1805 in Bath, England, and was buried 5 October in Bath Abbey.

The son of a prosperous miller, Alexander Ellice attended Marischal College (University of Aberdeen), and was admitted to the Scottish bar. Apparently foreseeing little opportunity for success in the legal profession or in his homeland, in 1765 he led his four brothers to Schenectady, N.Y. Early in 1766, with an investment of £714 11s. 10d., he entered into partnership with James Phyn, brother of his brother-in-law and possibly a cousin, and with John Duncan, to engage in the fur trade and general merchandising in upstate New York and the lower Great Lakes area. The firm, known as Phyn, Ellice and Company following Duncan’s retirement in 1767, prospered and expanded; in 1768 Ellice’s brother Robert*, and in 1769 the Detroit fur trader John Porteous, were taken into the partnership. To broaden its financial base, the company took on contracts to supply provisions for military posts and presents used by the Indian Department, and it moved into the grain trade. Ellice invested his profits shrewdly in mortgages and land in prosperous northern New York, including a valuable mill-site, acquired from Sir William Johnson*, at Little Falls. Thanks to his solid connections, in January 1770 Ellice was granted a royal patent for 40,000 acres near Cooperstown.

Until 1768 Phyn, Ellice and Company disposed of its furs at New York, but in that year, finding the New York market glutted, it sold in London. At the same time, dissatisfied with its New York suppliers, it began ordering goods directly from Britain, at first from William and Alexander Forsyth, Glasgow friends of the Phyn and Ellice families, and then, having discovered that it was cheaper to deal with London, from Neale and Pigou, who were located there. However, in 1769 the embargo placed the previous year by American merchants on British imports prevented Phyn, Ellice from delivering its goods to the interior. To circumvent the embargo in 1770, the company had its imports shipped to Quebec, where it obtained a licence to send trade goods valued at £6,000 to Porteous at Detroit. In 1771 and 1772 Phyn, Ellice, and Porteous evolved a scheme to beat their Montreal competitors by obtaining from the British government a virtual monopoly of the supply trade to the Indian agents in the North American interior. Ellice conducted negotiations in London in the spring of 1772, but the scheme fell through.

The partnership with Porteous was terminated in the summer of 1773, and one year later a new one was established with Alexander and William Macomb of Detroit. When in October 1774 the American colonies severed commercial relations with Britain, Phyn, Ellice and Company, which now did all its business direct with London, was placed in a difficult situation. It again circumvented the embargo by importing through Montreal, where it had engaged Isaac Todd as its agent, but the ruse was detected and Ellice was severely reprimanded by the committee of correspondence at Schenectady. Phyn and Ellice had already decided that their future in the fur trade lay with Britain. At the end of 1774 Phyn left to establish a London office; the following summer Ellice went to Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.), ostensibly on business, but instead of returning to Schenectady, in October 1775 he continued on to England. Most of the Schenectady assets were liquidated and the remainder transferred to Ellice’s brother James, who had been brought into the company some years before.

In 1776 Ellice came to Montreal, where he established Alexander Ellice and Company and began restoring Phyn, Ellice’s business with the fur-trade outfitters it had formerly supplied from Schenectady. The Canadian trade being as yet relatively unstructured, he was able as well to furnish simultaneously several of the major Montreal traders, including James McGill, Simon McTavish, and George McBeath. In 1777 Ellice’s investment in the fur trade of about £42,300 was by far the largest of any merchant based in the colony. That year he also stood security for other traders to the value of £84,500 and in 1778 to the value of £71,000. In 1778 Robert arrived at Montreal, and the following year he and John Forsyth* took over operations there under the name Robert Ellice and Company, freeing Alexander to assure communications between the London and Montreal offices.

During the American Revolutionary War Robert Ellice and Company and Phyn, Ellice’s Schenectady branch furnished military supplies to, and acted as messengers and paymasters for, their respective sides. Between 1778 and 1783 the Montreal company received £28,233 for its services to the British forces. After the war Phyn, Ellice appears to have moved into the triangular trade involving America, the West Indies, and Europe. Thirty-two departures of its vessels were recorded at Quebec between 1786 and 1804; although in most cases the ships were bound for London, some went to Newfoundland, to Cadiz, or to the West Indies. Like other firms of the time, Phyn, Ellice probably held shares in at least some of the vessels it used in order to ensure a certain control of transport to market. As well, in time of war, unless captured by privateers, sunk, or confiscated by the British navy, ships were good speculative investments. Formal agreements among a number of merchants for the use of a ship during a voyage or a series of voyages enabled them to spread the costs in case of loss. Ellice’s commerce in the Caribbean region and with the American Atlantic colonies led to his acquisition, for non-payment of debts, of sugar plantations in the former and landed estates in the latter.

It was as a financier, supplier, and middleman in the Canadian fur trade, however, that Ellice made most of his fortune. From 1781 to 1783 he stood security for traders to the value of £227,000 and in 1789 and 1790 to a total value of £77,200. He was heavily involved in the trade south and west of the Great Lakes through Robert Ellice and Company but the best profits were increasingly to be made in the northwest, where the trade was becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and larger co-partnerships. Beginning in 1784 Phyn, Ellice and Company furnished trade goods to McBeath and Peter Pond, each of whom owned a one-sixteenth share in the North West Company; yet it also supplied Gregory, MacLeod and Company [see John Gregory], the NWC’s major competitor until 1787. Following the formation of McTavish, Frobisher and Company [see Simon McTavish] in November 1787, Phyn, Ellice – known since a reorganization in January 1787 as Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis – obtained a contract to supply half of the new company’s goods.

Since 1779 Ellice had been travelling frequently between Montreal and London, apparently maintaining residences in both cities. He seems to have acquired the confidence of, and probably some influence among, merchants on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1778 he had been made a member of a committee of Montreal importers to determine a method, acceptable to both London and Montreal merchants, for the disposal of imported goods damaged in transit by salt water. The following year he was among eight surveyors elected to oversee the newly established procedure. In 1786 Ellice presided over a gala dinner held by London merchants trading to Quebec in honour of Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton], recently appointed its governor-in-chief, and William Smith*, the new chief justice. He was in the colony again in October 1790 and signed a petition for the establishment of a non-sectarian university [see Jean-François Hubert*]. When, however, a few days later, he took ship for London in the company of McTavish, James McGill, and John Richardson*, it was apparently to establish a permanent residence in the imperial capital. None the less, he returned occasionally to the province, where his business activities continued undiminished. Upon Robert Ellice’s death in 1790 the Montreal office was reorganized as Forsyth, Richardson and Company, Ellice being related by marriage to the two principals, John Forsyth and John Richardson. In 1798 Forsyth, Richardson became a partner in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), formed that year to compete with the NWC, and Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis found itself in the position of major supplier for both sides; indeed it became the London agent for the New North West Company. In 1804 Ellice and his son Edward*, ostensibly on behalf of the New North West Company, attempted to purchase a controlling interest in the HBC. Although unsuccessful, their bid of £103,000 provided a dramatic demonstration of Alexander’s financial power. When the rival Montreal firms united in the reorganized NWC that year, Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis was able to maintain its position as a principal supplier to the new co-partnership. In 1857 Edward would assert proudly, “My father supplied the great part of the capital by which the whole north-west trade was conducted.” Between 1802 and 1807 Ellice’s London office registered an annual gross balance in excess of £1,000,000.

As was his custom, Ellice invested part of his profits in land holdings. Although these investments were essentially a means of achieving financial security, Ellice evinced a certain interest in agriculture, for in 1794 he became a member of the Montreal branch of the Agriculture Society. In 1795 he bought for £9,000 from Michel Chartier* de Lotbinière the seigneury of Villechauve, commonly known as Beauharnois, which measured 324 square miles. Ellice evidently intended to retire there eventually, but in the mean time, through a manager, he built a large manor-house, renamed the sub-fiefs of the seigneury for members of his family, and laid out areas for new development. To complement the seigneury he acquired most of the adjacent townships of Godmanchester and Hinchinbrook. Other lands were acquired in settlement of debts, such as 16,000 acres in Upper Canada from the fur-trading firm of Leith, Jameson and Company. In 1803 Ellice was granted 6,690 acres in Clifton Township, Lower Canada. The same year he sold the seigneury of Champlain, purchased from Joseph Drapeau in 1797, to Joseph Frobisher and his partners in the Batiscan Iron Works Company.

In 1803 Ellice, having been in poor health for some time, retired from Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis. He died two years later, leaving an estate worth in excess of £450,000. It included nearly 350,000 acres of land in New York and the Canadas, as well as property in Prince Edward Island, Britain, and elsewhere, shares in the London and Montreal companies, ships, stock holdings, and mortgages. The estate was divided fairly equally among his widow and ten surviving children, some of whom had been born in Canada since Ann had often accompanied her husband on business trips. The diverse and generally successful careers pursued by the brood, including the army, the navy, the church, business, and landowning, were typical routes to prosperity followed by the sons of the rising upper middle class; none of Ellice’s inheritors, however, benefited more from his father’s work, or managed his heritage with greater astuteness, than Edward, who became the true successor to the Ellice empire.

In his remarkable 40-year business association with the Canadas, Alexander Ellice had contributed much to their economic life, which depended so heavily on the fur trade. The place he had opened for the Ellices in colonial affairs would endure, with modifications, until the seigneury of Beauharnois passed out of the family in 1866.

James M. Colthart

GRO, Reg. of births and baptisms for the parish of Auchterless, 28 May 1743. National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), Dept. of mss, mss 15113–15, 15126, 15139. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Smith, Diary and selected papers (Upton), 2:94. Bath Chronicle (Bath, Eng. ), 28 Sept. 1805. Quebec Gazette, 9 Sept. 1779; 7 Sept. 1780; 23 Aug. 1781; 28 Oct. 1784; 28 Oct., 4 Nov. 1790; 11 July 1793. Langelier, Liste des terrains concédés, 4, 13–14. P.-G. Roy, Inv. concessions, 4: 229–30. C. R. Canedy, “An entrepreneurial history of the New York frontier, 1739–1776” (phd thesis, Case Western Reserve Univ., Cleveland, Ohio, 1967). J. C. Clarke, “From business to politics: the Ellice family, 1760–1860” (d.phil. thesis, Univ. of Oxford, Eng., 1974). J. M. Colthart, “Edward Ellice and North America” (phd thesis, Princeton Univ., N.J., 1971), 12–24. Merrill Denison, Canadas first bank: a history of the Bank of Montreal (2v., Toronto and Montreal, 1966–67). Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1956), 195. D. E. T. Long, “Edward Ellice” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1942), 4–12. Miquelon, “Baby family,” 184, 188–89. Rich, Hist. of HBC. Rumilly, La Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, 1: 50, 62, 76, 88–91, 259. R. H. Fleming, “McTavish, Frobisher and Company of Montreal,” CHR, 10 (1929): 140; “Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady,” Contributions to Canadian Economics (Toronto), 4 (1932): 7–41. H. A. Innis, “The North West Company,” CHR, 8 (1927): 314–15. Ouellet, “Dualité économique et changement technologique,” SH, 9: 256–96. W. S. Wallace, “Forsyth, Richardson and Company in the fur bade,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 34 (1940), sect.ii: 187–94.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James M. Colthart, “ELLICE, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ellice_alexander_5E.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/ellice_alexander_5E.html
Author of Article:   James M. Colthart
Title of Article:   ELLICE, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   April 16, 2024