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FAIRFIELD, WILLIAM, businessman, office holder, and politician; b. 1769 or 1770 in Pawlet Township (Vt), third child and second son of William Fairfield and Abigail Baker; m. first Elizabeth Billings, and they had four children; m. secondly Clarissa Fulton, and they had three children; d. 6 Feb. 1816 at Ernestown (Bath), Upper Canada.

In 1777 William Fairfield’s father, a farmer in southwestern Vermont who had managed to clear only a small portion of his 300 acres, lost much of his property to the American army that was advancing to meet the force led by John Burgoyne*. The following year, after Burgoyne’s defeat in the Saratoga campaign, Fairfield Sr joined the loyalist corps later commanded by Edward Jessup, and he served with this unit for the duration of the war. In 1779 his wife and children, including young William, moved to Machiche (Yamachiche), Que., and with the conclusion of hostilities in 1783 the entire family made its way to the lands west of the Ottawa River set aside for loyalist units. The men of Jessup’s Rangers were allotted townships No.6 (Edwardsburg), No.7 (Augusta), and part of No. 8 (Elizabethtown), all along the St Lawrence, as well as No.2 (Ernestown), west of Cataraqui (Kingston). By July 1784 Fairfield and his family had settled in Township No.2, where they received a grant of 550 acres of land. Within a short time William Sr had become a prosperous merchant, and in 1793 he finished building a large two-storey house, near present-day Amherstview, for his family of 12 children.

William Fairfield Jr, evidently in charge of a mill by the early 1790s, built a home in the village of Ernestown in 1796. During the years before the War of 1812 Ernestown grew rapidly, partly because of its location at the mouth of the Bay of Quinte and partly because of its role as the supplier of foodstuffs to Kingston. Several decades later the historian William Canniff* went so far as to claim that in the pre-war period Ernestown “rivalled even Kingston itself, in respect to rapid increase of inhabitants, the establishment of trade, building of ships, and from the presence of gentlemen of refinement and education.” William was a prominent figure in this flourishing community. A partner with his brothers Benjamin and Stephen in Benjamin Fairfield and Company, William was involved in milling, shipbuilding, and merchandising. After the death of their father in December 1812, the brothers carried on his mercantile business, contracting with the commissariat to supply the garrison at Kingston. William, although still maintaining a residence in Ernestown, managed the Kingston operations; Stephen was responsible for Cornwall; and Benjamin tended affairs in Ernestown. The brothers dealt in hay, pork, flour, tea, shoes, oil, tobacco, and snuff, but their main commodity was beef. In 1814, for instance, they contracted to supply 7,000 to 15,000 pounds of beef per week and had some difficulty fulfilling the contract until the commissariat gave them a permit to import cattle from New York State.

William was active in other ways as well. Besides serving as a justice of the peace and as a commissioner of the roads, he entered the House of Assembly in 1799 for the riding of Ontario and Addington, to sit in the place of Christopher Robinson*, who had died the previous year. The administrator of the province, Peter Russell, claimed that, in choosing Fairfield over Attorney General John White*, the voters of Ontario and Addington had revealed their “low Ignorance” and their preference for “an illiterate young Man of their own level & neighbourhood.” Along with his brothers Benjamin and Stephen and Robert McDowall*, Fairfield was on a local committee responsible for the establishment in March 1811 of Ernestown Academy. Founded with the object of instructing “Youth in English reading, speaking, grammar and composition, the learned languages, penmanship, arithmetic, geography and other branches of Liberal Education,” this institution was a symbol of popular opposition to the Kingston grammar school, which was widely disliked in the Midland District because of its classical curriculum and its monopoly of government funds. The academy also symbolized the wide gulf between the radicals of Ernestown, a group of which the Fairfields were apparently leading members, and the conservatives of Kingston, for its first “preceptor” was the American democrat Barnabas Bidwell*. Although Bidwell’s appointment provoked a vitriolic debate in the Kingston Gazette, the school continued in operation until the War of 1812, when it was converted into a barracks. After the war it served briefly as a church before reverting to its role as a school in 1818.

William Fairfield died on 6 Feb. 1816 at his home in Ernestown “after a confinement of 9 days, with a bilious fever, accompanied by an inflammation of the liver.” In the absence of a clergyman, Bidwell conducted the funeral. An obituary in the Kingston Gazette noted that “this is the first link that has been broken in a family chain of twelve brothers and sisters, all arrived at years of maturity. In his death not only his family, but also the Township and the District have lost a valuable member. . . . As a magistrate and a man, he was characterized by intelligence, impartiality, independence of mind and liberality of sentiments.”

Margaret Sharp Angus

Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Ont. Arch. (Kingston), St John’s Church, Ernestown, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials. BL, Add. mss 21786, 21822, 21828–29. PAC, RG 1, L1, 22: 516, 584; 25: 161; 27: 19; L3, 186: F3/77; 188: F10/7; 195A: F misc./35; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: ff.424, 428. QUA, Fairfield family papers. [E. P. Gwillim (Simcoe)], Mrs. Simcoes diary, ed. M. Q. Innis (Toronto and New York, 1965). Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston). The loyalist trail, comp. R. M. Bruce ([Kingston, 1965]). Parish reg. of Kingston (Young). “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 224–27, 283–85, 350, 654, 799, 867, 877–78, 909–10, 1019, 1021. “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1931: 88. Kingston Gazette, 26 March 1811; 10 Feb., 6 April 1816. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology. C. C. J. Bond, City on the Ottawa: a detailed historical guide to Ottawa, the capital of Canada (Ottawa, 1967). William Canniff, History of the settlement of Upper Canada (Ontario) with special reference to the Bay Quinte (Toronto, 1869; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1971). W. S. Herrington, History of the county of Lennox and Addington (Toronto, 1913; repr. Belleville, 1972). G. H. Patterson, “Studies in elections and public opinion in Upper Canada” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1969). Reid, Loyalists in Ont. E. R. Stuart, “Jessup’s Rangers as a factor in loyalist settlement,” Three hist. theses.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Margaret Sharp Angus, “FAIRFIELD, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fairfield_william_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/fairfield_william_5E.html
Author of Article:   Margaret Sharp Angus
Title of Article:   FAIRFIELD, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   December 2, 2023