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d. 25 May 1917 in Montreal


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ELLICE, ROBERT, merchant and fur-trader; b. 1747, probably in Auchterless (Kirktown of Auchterless, Grampian), Scotland, third son of William Ellice of Knockleith and Mary Simpson of Gartly; d. 1790, probably in Montreal (Que.).

Robert Ellice was the son of a prosperous miller, who prior to his death in 1756 had provided his children with some education and who may have left them a modest estate. In 1765 the five Ellice brothers emigrated from the Aberdeenshire family homestead to America, their mother and two sisters remaining behind. The brothers made their way to Schenectady, New York, a small farming and commercial centre on the frontier. Alexander*, the eldest, formed a partnership with John Duncan and James Phyn, two local merchants, in 1766. Duncan had been active in the fur trade around the Mohawk valley, Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.), and Detroit; his new partners aggressively expanded the business into grain and general merchandise. Following Duncan’s retirement in 1767 the firm, now known as Phyn, Ellice and Company, moved into larger quarters. Their affairs prospered, and in the autumn of 1768 Robert Ellice was brought into the firm. Additional business arrangements, including a co-partnership with John Porteous, a Montreal-based merchant, were established in Detroit, Albany, New York, Montreal, London, and Bristol. These reflected the growing volume of business but were also a deliberate response to the mounting friction between the American colonies and Great Britain. The firm was aware that Montreal merchants had been unaffected by the non-importation agreements in force in the American colonies in the late 1760s, and as early as 1770 they made arrangements to import their trade goods for the interior and market their furs through Quebec.

As an adjunct to the fur trade, during the late 1760s the firm sought and obtained government contracts to supply goods and provisions to military posts on the Great Lakes, principally Detroit and Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). It also secured contracts with the Indian department to supply presents for the Indians. In addition to proving quite profitable, these government contracts helped to secure access to regions beyond the posts, and Phyn, Ellice and Company often transported non-government goods along with the official supplies. The contracts continued throughout the American revolution and quite likely up to the British evacuation of the frontier posts in 1796.

In 1774, anticipating further strife between Britain and her American colonies, James Phyn established a London office while Alexander Ellice established one in Montreal. Most of the firm’s assets were converted to cash and bills of exchange and were safely removed to England. Late in 1775 the remaining assets in the colony of New York were transferred to James Ellice, also a partner in the firm, who protected the firm’s interests at Schenectady during and after the American revolution. Robert Ellice also appears to have remained in New York, for in 1776, despite taking the oath of allegiance to the state, he was turned back at Fort Stanwix (Rome, N.Y.), on his way from Schenectady to the interior to collect some of the firm’s debts. He sailed from New York City on 11 Sept. 1778 and joined Alexander in Montreal, where the outbreak of hostilities had afforded merchants new opportunities in the shape of supply contracts with the British military for foodstuffs and other goods.

In 1779 the Montreal concern became Robert Ellice and Company, managed jointly by Ellice and John Forsyth*. By purchasing outright the assets of the Detroit firm of Graverat and Visgar instead of utilizing the system of transactions specified by contractual agreements, Ellice was able to take a leading personal role in expanding the trade to the areas south and west of the Great Lakes and subsequently in the region beyond Lake Superior. John Richardson* had joined the Ellices as an apprentice in 1774, and upon Robert’s death in 1790 the firm was reorganized as Forsyth, Richardson and Company; this partnership, tied to the Ellice house in London, subsequently became part of the XY Company. In 1787 Robert Ellice became a partner in the London firm, from that year known as Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis. Through these interlocking partnerships, reinforced by kinship ties, the Ellice’s supplied a substantial portion of the trade goods for the interior (dealing with such early North West Company traders as Peter Pond*, Simon McTavish*, and Benjamin Frobisher), acted as middlemen at the fur depots, and marketed furs in Europe. They owned vessels on both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and acquired extensive landholdings in North America. The keys to their success were bold planning, fortunate timing, careful accounting, and financial acumen. Although Robert Ellice’s early death prevented him from sharing in it, the family amassed a considerable fortune which played a significant role in early Canadian commerce.

James M. Colthart

BL, Landsdowne mss LXXII, ff.455–58. National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), Dept. of Manuscripts, mss 15113; 15115, f.1; 15118, ff.1–12; 15125, ff.82–99; 15130, ff.1–76; 15131, ff.1–177; 15135; 15138; 15176, ff.75f.; 15193, f.33. PRO, BT 6/190; C047/80–82. J. M. Colthart, “Edward Ellice and North America” (unpublished phd thesis, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., 1971). R. H. Fleming, “Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady,” Contributions to Canadian Economics (Toronto), IV (1932), 7–41. H. A. Innis, “The North West Company,” CHR, VIII (1927), 308–21. W. S. Wallace, “Forsyth, Richardson and Company in the fur trade,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XXXIV (1940), sect.ii, 187–94.

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Cite This Article

James M. Colthart, “ELLICE, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ellice_robert_4E.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_robert_4E.html
Author of Article:   James M. Colthart
Title of Article:   ELLICE, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   May 25, 2024