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FRANKS, JACOB (John), fur trader and businessman; b. c. 1768, probably at Quebec, son of John Franks and Appollonia –  ; d. 14 Nov. 1840 in Montreal.

Jacob Franks’s ancestors, a prominent family of Bavarian Jewish merchants, came to England during the second half of the 17th century, although some branches moved on to the Orient, the West Indies, and the American colonies. Jacob’s father had appeared in Halifax as a merchant by 1749, moved to Philadelphia around 1760, and settled at Quebec in 1761. In 1768 he was appointed overseer to prevent accidents by fire, the first recorded instance of an appointment by commission from the colonial government of a Jew in Canada. He was a member of the Shearith Israel congregation in Montreal [see Jacob Raphael Cohen*]. In his later years he was proprietor of a tavern at Quebec. He died in 1794.

By 1788 Jacob, then resident in Montreal, had become active as a fur trader in the upper Mississippi valley and at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). In 1794 he was in the area of present-day Wisconsin as a clerk for Ogilvy, Gillespie and Company, settling at Green Bay on Lake Michigan. On 8 August Franks obtained a 999-year lease from the Menominee Indians of 1,200 acres, located in two parcels on either side of the Fox River at Green Bay. In 1797 he returned from a trip to Montreal with his nephew John Lawe (the son of his sister Rachel) as clerk, and purchased the store at Green Bay from Ogilvy, Gillespie. Over the next few years his business as a merchant and fur trader grew to enormous proportions because of his ability to attract the “Indian trade” to his store. In 1805 he constructed the first saw- and grist-mill in the Wisconsin area, and there is evidence that he erected a distillery as well.

Franks had reached the peak of his economic success by 1805. Cession of the southwestern fur-trade posts by the British to the United States in 1796 had finally led in 1804 to the stationing of an American customs officer on Mackinac Island to monitor the fur trade, collect duties, and issue licences. The following year the Michigan Territory (Michigan and Wisconsin) was organized and previous claims of land ownership were thrown into question. In August 1804, in the midst of these changes, four British fur traders at Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi combined their resources with Franks at Green Bay in a partnership to protect their trade in the southwest. Robert Dickson* was given two of the seven shares in the partnership; James* and George Aird, and Allen C. Wilmot, the other Prairie du Chien traders, received one share each. It was a measure of Franks’s importance that he was given the remaining two shares – a position equal to Dickson’s. By 1805 the partnership was known as Robert Dickson and Company.

Increasing competition from American traders, coupled with a bad winter in 1805–6, doomed the firm. By June 1806 it owed £27,000 to its supplier James and Andrew McGill and Company of Montreal, one of its many creditors. After 1807 the firm formally ended although the partners continued their association, selling their furs to the Michilimackinac Company [see John Ogilvy*]. The Dickson firm was reconstituted in 1810 with the addition of John Lawe and Thomas Gummersall Anderson*, who had both served it as clerks, and Jean-Joseph Rolette, a Green Bay trader.

That year, for the first time, the Americans decided to restrict traders who were British subjects from entering the Indian country within the United States. To avoid the blockade, in the fall of 1810 all eight of the associates participated in a convoy of seven armed boats, laden with goods, which paddled at night from the British post at St Joseph Island (Ont.) past the American garrison on Mackinac Island to Green Bay, where there was as yet no official American presence.

By capturing Mackinac Island from the Americans on 17 July 1812 the British regained control of the upper Great Lakes and the southwestern fur trade. Franks played a significant role in the war effort. He was the second largest provider of equipment for the Indian forces that had served under Dickson at Mackinac. Franks himself had commanded a detachment of “Canadians or Boatmen” during the attack and a week later he provided the barge to move the British headquarters from St Joseph Island back to Mackinac. The following winter he allowed his house and store on Mackinac Island to be used by John Askin Jr as an office and commissary. During the British occupation of the island, which lasted until the summer of 1815, he supplied the garrison. He was asked to act as an evaluator of the articles found on the Scorpion and the Tigress, captured from the Americans on Lake Huron in September 1814 [see Miller Worsley*]. After the British gave up Mackinac Island, Franks’s house was one of two “wantonly pillaged” by the inhabitants. In compensation, he was granted a building lot at the new British military post, on Drummond Island (Mich.), in 1816.

From 1813 Franks had continued in the Indian trade in partnership with Lawe and James Aird. In 1816, however, Congress declared that only Americans could conduct trade southwest of the upper lakes. By the end of June that year, when Franks arrived at Drummond Island, having wintered in Montreal, it was clear that the British fur trade south of Lake Superior had ended. In a restrictive trade climate, Franks found he could no longer rely on the North West Company (with which the Michilimackinac Company had merged) for supplies or as a market for the few furs he and his partners were able to obtain. For his supplies, he turned to David Stone and Company of New Hampshire. For his market, he chose Montreal, where he planned to sell the partnership’s furs because he had “no intention of sacrificing them by selling them at Mackinac as we have formerly done for these many years past.”

At the same time, he decided to marry and move permanently to Montreal. He and his country wife at Green Bay, Thérèse de Gère, dit Larose, had had three sons and two daughters. On 13 Nov. 1816, in Montreal, he married Mary (d. 1826), a daughter of Levy Solomons*, with whom he had a “blood connexion”; they were to have no children. In trade Franks continued in association with Lawe at Green Bay for three more years – each return being worse than the last. By 1818 Aird had quit the partnership and Franks had come to the conclusion that with “all the restrictive measures of the American government” their trade could continue only “by employing young Americans to take out the goods.” On his trip to the west in the summer of 1819 he took “but very few goods” with him, those being provided by his brother-in-law Henry Joseph* and by David David* of Montreal. Franks never recovered the cost of those goods and he never again returned to the west. But he did try one more fur-trading venture, in 1819 at Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Oka), not far from Montreal. Within a year he had sold out to the NWC at a small loss.

Franks retired to a farm at Les Cèdres in 1820. “I certainly thought,” said his wife Mary, “that after slaving so many years as he has done, he would have scraped up sufficient to enable him to live with some little ease the remaining few years he might have to live, but unfortunately its not the case and we must only do the best we can.” Jacob Franks moved to Montreal in 1839, the year before he died. To the end he had retained a connection with Montreal’s Jewish community, leaving a legacy to the synagogue in his will.

Throughout his career on the frontier, Franks was recognized as a Jew and treated as an equal. When Anderson first met him and his nephew at Green Bay in 1800, he noted that “an English Gentleman Jacob Frank, and his nephew John Lawe, Jews, were extensively embarked on the fur trade here.” Anderson credited Franks with having given him “the first good counsel” he had heard in the west and Franks and his nephew “tendered me much friendly advice how to conduct myself with the Indians, to beware of the cunning deceit, treachery, etc., of the traders, with whom I was about to mix up.”

Sheldon J. Godfrey

ANQ-M, CM1, Jacob Franks, 22 nov. 1839. Bayliss Public Library (Sault Ste Marie, Mich.), Samuel Abbot, notary-book, Mackinac, 1806–18: 33–39; Misc. coll., partnership agreement, Robert Dickson et al., 16 Aug. 1804; Port Mackinac, records, 1808–9. Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 2: ff.41, 75, 79, 154, 202 (mfm. at PANS). PAC, MG 8, G67 (mfm.); RG 8, I (C ser.), 256: 219–23; 257: 200–1; 515: 108; 673: 230; 678: 158–59; 1219: 336–38. PANS, RG 1, 410: 1 (mfm.). Wis., State Hist. Soc., Grignon, Lawe, and Porlier papers; John Lawe papers, box 1; M. L. Martin papers, box 1. “Jacob Franks,” American Jewish Hist. Soc., Pub. (Philadelphia), 9 (1901): 151–52. Mich. Pioneer Coll., 10 (1886): 607; 15 (1889): 193–95, 246–47, 664–74; 16 (1890): 172, 307–8, 478–79; 25 (1894): 608–10. Wis., State Hist. Soc., Coll., 9 (1882): 145–46, 178–79; 10 (1888): 90–91, 94–96; 15 (1900): 3–4; 18 (1908): 463; 19 (1910): 316–17, 357–60, 365–69, 461–63; 20 (1911): 34–36, 52–53. Montreal Gazette, 19 Nov. 1840. Montreal Herald, 16 Nov. 1816. First American Jewish families: 600 genealogies, 1654–1977, comp. M. H. Stern (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1978), 83. Jeanne Kay, “John Lawe, Green Bay trader,” Wis. Magazine of Hist. (Madison), 64 (1980–81): 3–27.

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Cite This Article

Sheldon J. Godfrey, “FRANKS, JACOB,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/franks_jacob_7E.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/franks_jacob_7E.html
Author of Article:   Sheldon J. Godfrey
Title of Article:   FRANKS, JACOB
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 18, 2024