FRASER, ALEXANDER, army officer, militia officer, office holder, justice of the peace, politician, and farmer; b. 18 Jan. 1786 in Glendoemore, near Fort Augustus, Scotland; m. first Catharine Grant (d. 1818); m. secondly Ann McDonell, daughter of Archibald MacDonell (Leek), and they had two sons and four daughters; d. 12 Nov. 1853 in Fraserfield, near Williamstown, Upper Canada.
In 1803 Alexander Fraser joined the Canadian Fencibles in Scotland and was one of the non-commissioned officers to be retained when most of the regiment was discharged the following year. He accompanied the staff to Quebec in September 1805 and shortly thereafter assumed command of the regiment’s recruiting department at Montreal. Four years later he became quartermaster and served in that capacity throughout the War of 1812. Placed on half pay in 1816, he established himself in Charlottenburgh Township, Glengarry County, where he purchased lot 40, north of the Raisin River, from his first wife’s family. He was to build the 200-acre farm, which he called Fraserfield, into a 1,281-acre estate by 1851. His acquisition of other property through purchases and grants, including his wives’ loyalist claims, had given him “a large stake” in the county as early as 1820.
Unlike many of those prominent in Glengarry, Fraser was not connected with the fur trade (though his brother Paul was). But he occupied a position in Glengarry society equal to that of the great fur traders such as Simon Fraser* and William McGillivray*, with whom he founded the Highland Society of Canada in 1818; Alexander Fraser served as the society’s treasurer until 1825. Though a Scottish Catholic, he became close friends with the Presbyterian lay leader and former fur trader John McGillivray (Dalcrombie) and with the Reverend John McKenzie of St Andrew’s Church, Williamstown. Fraser’s experience with public office seems to have been less smooth. In spite of a strong recommendation from legislative councillor Neil McLean*, he was not appointed county registrar in 1819. The registry office was kept at Fraserfield, however, and for some time Fraser served as deputy registrar. His innumerable letters dealing with land transactions reveal a deep if paternalistic concern for the problems of the early settlers. In 1820 Fraser received his first of several commissions as justice of the peace for the Eastern District. Later that year, despite his lack of militia connections, he was recommended by Alexander McDonell* (Collachie) to command the 1st Regiment of Glengarry militia. His appointment over senior militia officers such as Duncan Macdonell (Greenfield) was the source of considerable friction within the county. Fraser’s feud with the powerful Greenfield Macdonells lasted for several years and culminated in the winter of 1825–26 with a petition to the House of Assembly drawn up by Duncan’s brother, sheriff Donald Macdonell*, accusing Fraser of “Unconstitutional and Unofficer like conduct.” The outcome of the petition is not known, but Fraser clearly emerged unscathed. He was elected with Alexander McMartin to the assembly for Glengarry in 1828 and continued to serve there until 1834, supporting the conservative cause and, especially, the interests of his friend Bishop Alexander McDonell*.
In the 1830s Fraser devoted his energies to acquiring more land, avoiding his creditors, improving Fraserfield (mentioned by Thomas Rolph in 1836 as “a fine farm, well cultivated, with a handsome residence on it”), and seeking appointment to local office. He was made registrar of Glengarry County in the winter of 1836–37 and held that position until his death. During the rebellion of 1837–38 Fraser was commended by Sir John Colborne* for his role in “dispersing the rebels” in Lower Canada. He and his regiment were stationed at Saint-Philippe-de-Laprairie in February and March 1838. That November, with fighting breaking out anew, they made a foray into Beauharnois. Although the action was brief, the subsequent pillaging forced even Fraser to admit that his men were “looked upon as savages.” Many of his Glengarries, it was said, had “marched out . . . as infantry . . . and returned as cavalry” on “stray French ponies.”
On the recommendation of Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur, who described him as “a farmer and possessed of large real estate,” Fraser was sworn in as a member of the Legislative Council in December 1839. There he supported the moderate, pro-union position of Governor Charles Edward Poulett Thomson* (soon to become Lord Sydenham) and Attorney General William Henry Draper*. For the 1841 elections to the first Legislative Assembly of the united provinces, Fraser and his fellow legislative councillor John McGillivray selected John Sandfield Macdonald* as their candidate for the single Glengarry seat, thus launching the future first premier of Ontario on his long political career. Although Sandfield Macdonald would desert his patron politically the following year when Robert Baldwin and the reformers replaced Draper in the government, he and Fraser kept up their deep personal friendship and their mutual concern for Glengarry.
In June 1841 Fraser became a legislative councillor for the province of Canada. As such he supported Sydenham’s bill to divide the annual proceeds from the clergy reserves among several denominations. Yet his moderate political position was severely tested when Sydenham and Draper successfully pushed through a bill to replace the old courts of quarter sessions, dominated by appointed justices of the peace, with elected councils. Fraser joined hard-line tories in vainly opposing a measure which would have undermined his local power. He also opposed the government’s bill to make the naturalization of Americans easier. Draper could ill afford to alienate Fraser; he quickly had him named the first warden of the Eastern District, the only appointed position on the new district council. Thus placated, Fraser was able to adjust to the new age and to secure control over elections to the council. He held the wardenship until early 1850 when it too ceased to be an appointed office.
After 1843 Fraser made only rare appearances in the Legislative Council. He was there in 1845 to support Draper’s unsuccessful attempt to establish a federated university structure which would guarantee financial support to the various denominational colleges. Indeed Fraser’s main political thrust involved support for education, especially state aid for schools in the Eastern District. Many local schools benefited greatly from these efforts. Fraser often worked with reformers on matters of local interest. In 1848 he and Sandfield Macdonald each put up a £500 surety to enable Fraser’s brother-in-law Donald Aeneas MacDonell*, a defeated Stormont reform candidate, to be appointed district sheriff. The following year they succeeded in preventing the Eastern District from being split into separate county jurisdictions under the Municipal Corporations Act. The district kept its integrity as the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. But the Rebellion Losses Bill of 1849 was too much for the old soldier to swallow. Though Sandfield Macdonald’s newspaper, the Cornwall Freeholder, praised Governor Lord Elgin [Bruce*] for his deep grasp of responsible government, Fraser made two rare appearances in the upper house that spring to denounce the “disastrous advice” tendered the governor over the bill. To show his displeasure with the reformers Fraser ran for election to one of the five seats on the newly established Charlottenburgh township council in 1850, despite attempts by Sandfield Macdonald to dissuade him. He secured election but came fourth, well behind Macdonald and his own son-in-law, reformer Dr Daniel Eugene McIntyre. When the full council of the united counties met, it was McIntyre, not Fraser, who was chosen warden. An era had ended.
Nevertheless Fraser remained a central figure in local society. In 1846 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the 1st Battalion of Glengarry militia, in the newly organized regiment of the Eastern District, precursor of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and in 1851 he was elected president of the Highland Society. He and his wife saw their children marry into prominent families on both sides of the political and religious divide and continued to hold court at Fraserfield. In the late 1840s two wings had been added to the square core of the large and imposing mansion, which is still standing, and the farm was a model of diversified agriculture, in the vanguard of dairy farming for the region. Fraserfield was mortgaged, however, and codicils in Fraser’s will provided for the sale of much of his remaining property to pay off his debts. In May 1853 an ailing Fraser made his last appearance in parliament to speak in favour of a reform-sponsored bill increasing representation in the assembly. His sons-in-law Daniel McIntyre and Donald Alexander Macdonald*, at the instigation of the latter’s brother Sandfield, had persuaded the old man to make the difficult trip to Quebec. “If anything happened, the little woman will never forgive Donald and myself,” McIntyre wrote. Fraser died that November. His body was piped from Fraserfield to his well-attended funeral in Williamstown.
A portrait of Alexander Fraser is reproduced on p.51 of A history of Glengarry, cited below.
AO, MS 266; MU 1968. MTL, Robert Baldwin papers. PAC, MG 24, B30; 13, 10; RG 1, E3, 70: 46–48; L3, 189: F10/40, 62; 190: F12/84, 107; RG 5, A1: 24580–81, 25579, 40733–36, 67384–93, 69719–21, 70631–34; RG 31, A1, 1851, Charlottenburgh Township: 211–12. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Thomas Rolph, A brief account, together with observations, made during a visit in the West Indies, and a tour through the United States of America, in parts of the years 1832–3; together with a statistical account of Upper Canada (Dundas, [Ont.], 1836), 139. Montreal Gazette, 16 Nov. 1853. [J. F. Pringle], The genealogy of Jacob Farrand Pringle and his wife Isabella Fraser Pringle ([Cornwall, Ont., 1892]). John Fraser, Canadian pen and ink sketches (Montreal, 1890). B. W. Hodgins, John Sandfield Macdonald, 1812–1872 (Toronto, 1971); “The political career of John Sandfield Macdonald to the fall of his administration in March, 1864: a study in Canadian politics” (phd thesis, Duke Univ., Durham, N.C., 1964). Royce MacGillivray and Ewan Ross, A history of Glengarry (Belleville, Ont., 1979). J. F. Pringle, Lunenburgh or the old Eastern District; its settlement and early progress . . . (Cornwall, 1890; repr. Belleville, 1972). Elinor [Kyte] Senior, “The Glengarry Highlanders and the suppression of the rebellions in Lower Canada, 1837–38,” Soc. for Army Hist. Research, Journal (London), 56 (1978): 143–59.
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Cite This Article
Bruce W. Hodgins, “FRASER, ALEXANDER (1786-1853),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_alexander_1786_1853_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||Bruce W. Hodgins|
|Title of Article:||FRASER, ALEXANDER (1786-1853)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 26, 2023|