FISHER, WILFORD, merchant, shipowner, and office-holder; b. 1786 at St Andrews, N.B., son of Turner Fisher and Esther Foster; m. Sarah Elizabeth Ingalls, and they had two children; d. 6 May 1868 at Grand Manan, N.B.
As a youth of 18 Wilford Fisher moved with his family to Grand Manan Island where they applied for and received a land grant. Though this was at a time of immigration from New England and competition for land, his father’s record as a Boston-born loyalist who had joined the Royal Navy and become a sailing master presumably aided the claim. Wilford Fisher probably received no more than elementary education, but his intelligence and natural ability, combined with a gift for leadership and planning, soon launched an amazing career. He acquired land at Priest Cove and ownership of High Duck Island, near Woodwards Cove, where he built a plant for salting and processing herring and ground fish. On this cove he also operated as a general merchant, outfitted fishermen, and received exclusive rights to the catches. He thus became “laird of the port” and a leading figure in the larger island community.
Commissioned a captain in the 3rd battalion of the Charlotte County militia in 1832, Fisher was responsible for the weekly drill and general training of a company. With no immediate threats of enemy action, many looked upon the militia as an objectionable and unnecessary burden that interfered with their calling as fishermen. As early as 1836, Fisher was appointed one of the magistrates for the island and was expected to attend sessions at St Andrews, the shiretown, where by-laws were made and local officials appointed. Because of his position he had virtual control of the constables, hog reeves, and other officials, as well as administering and interpreting the law between sessions.
His name appears as one of the prime subscribers on many petitions to the provincial government, and he evidently wrote a majority of these submissions. Consequently he was one of the few leading citizens consulted by visiting officials. He served as chairman at meetings of the local inhabitants, such as that of 8 Sept. 1838, called to inform the master of a British fisheries patrol vessel about the intrusion of American fishermen. One of his petitions to government requested that “the islands in the Passamaquoddy, And Grand Manan be erected into a separate and distinct County,” though this was never acted upon. By 1838 Fisher was a director of the Bank of Charlotte County, an indication of his progressing fortunes. In the same period, as a commissioner for roads, he had authority to auction off contracts for sections of highway improvements, receiving a commission on the government funds expended.
In the decade following 1820 the Church of England had established St Paul’s Church on a reserved lot at Grand Harbour. Fisher was the largest subscriber toward the cost of the “parsonage house” and a regular contributor to the Church Society of the archdeaconry. As a mission church, St Paul’s had depended upon the ministry of students and short term rectors. In 1832, after spending two summers there as a student rector, the Reverend John Dunn was posted to this island parish. At first he and Fisher appear to have got on well. Soon, however, trouble developed over management of the glebe lots where there was some of the finest virgin timber available, for which the church received a stumpage fee. Fisher was interested in shipbuilding as well as the potential lumber trade; Dunn was under pressure from his parishioners who wanted access to the timber and resented a monopoly by one individual. Dunn accused Fisher of attempting to control elections to the vestry of persons likely to support his proposals. The breach widened, and soon there were two camps, one supporting the rector, the other supporting the magistrate.
On the night of 9 Oct. 1839 Dunn and others living nearby were roused from their sleep to see St Paul’s Church in flames. Rushing to the scene, but too late to save it, they found, casting a gruesome shadow, a figure hung in effigy dressed so as to leave no doubt that it represented the rector. The deliberate destruction of the church had repercussions far beyond the confines of the parish, symbolizing as it did open conflict between church and state.
William Boyd Kinnear was sent to Grand Manan to conduct an investigation, and on circumstantial evidence such as the clothing of the effigy a charge of arson was laid against “Wilford Fisher and others.” The case was tried in the Supreme Court at St Andrews in April 1840, where the jury acquitted the accused without even leaving its box. In 1844 Dunn was willingly transferred to Douglas, N.B., where he served until his death in 1849.
Exoneration by the court did not, however, still the clamour against Fisher. Prior to the fire there had been complaints; now petitions and letters were rushed to Fredericton charging misdemeanours and worse in his capacity as road commissioner, magistrate, and holder of other public positions. On 3 Sept. 1840 militiamen were ordered to march from Grand Harbour to the parade grounds at Woodwards Cove, “but all refused except very few.” Ordered out again on 4 and 5 September, they still refused to obey and were in fact in mutiny against authority. The militiamen asked for the government’s help, “before we are condemned to that state of slavery which has too long been suffered to deprive us of our rights as British subjects . . . .” Saint John businessman Lauchlan Donaldson, sent to investigate the new disorders, said of Fisher: “he has been much more the Dictator of this location, than [Sir John Harvey*] has been or is Governor of the Province, and to such an extent, that for years I have called him ‘Emperor of Grand Manan, King of the Duck Islands.’” Despite such a harsh appraisal, no action was taken, though militia training was allowed to lapse for a time.
In a petition to the assembly on 6 Feb. 1841, Fisher recounted how he had been “unjustly charged with setting fire to the Episcopal Church,” causing him heavy pecuniary expense and other serious loss, and asked for “such relief as may be deemed just and reasonable.” A select committee reported a week later that they could not in principle recommend a grant of money be made, although praising “the high character and respectability of Mr. Fisher.”
For a time it appeared Fisher would be forced to leave his island domain. In a letter to Donaldson he wrote: “now I am perfectly willing to leave the Island . . . but I will never be drove off.” However, he soon had picked up the threads of his affairs and even ventured into new enterprises. He joined with Harris Hatch and Thomas Wyer, both of St Andrews, as a commissioner for running a packet, carrying mail and passengers between the shiretown and the county islands. On 26 Dec. 1845 he was appointed first postmaster for Grand Manan, serving until 1854. Though still in favour with mainland officials, he fared less well locally, and when he died in 1868 his total estate was valued at only $9,500. His will stipulated that he should be buried at North Head alongside his mother, but “never at Grand Harbour.”
The complete story about the burning of St Paul’s may never be revealed, but a distinguished and perhaps impartial observer, William Fitzwilliam Owen*, proprietor of Campobello Island and a New Brunswick mha, noted on 24 March 1842: “Mr. Fisher has within my knowledge been made the butt of a most wicked and atrocious conspiracy against his life, his peace and his character.”
PAC, MG 9, A1, 96–109, enclosures, “Complaints against local officials.” John Dunn et al., Church burnt: statement of the proceedings arising from the burning of the Episcopal Church at Grand Manan [together with a sermon] (Grand Manan, N.B., 1839) (incomplete copy at Grand Manan Museum). References to Fisher can also be found in articles written or edited by L. K. Ingersoll for the Grand Manan Historian (Grand Manan Island, N.B.), “The great debate of 1877,” XII (1968), 47–51, 68–69; “Grand Manan as part of the new dominion,” XI (1967), 10; [M. H. Perley], “The Perley report on the fisheries of Grand Manan (1850) . . . ,” X (1966), 12–15; [John Robb], “Report by Captain John Robb, R.N., on the state of the fisheries, the condition of the lighthouses, the contraband trade, and various other matters in the Bay of Fundy . . . (1840) . . . ,” IX (1965), 8–11; “Report of the commissioners appointed . . . to procure information respecting the state of the herring fishery at Grand Manan . . . (1836),” VII (1964), 42–44.