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FRASER, RICHARD DUNCAN, fur trader, merchant, militia officer, farmer, justice of the peace, politician, and office holder; b. c. 1784 in the province of Quebec, probably in Montreal, third son of Thomas Fraser* and Mary MacBean; m. by January 1812 Mary McDonell, and they had at least two sons and three daughters; d. 1 April 1857 in Fraserfield, Grenville County, Upper Canada.

Richard Duncan Fraser’s father, a captain in Edward Jessup*’s Loyal Rangers during the American revolution, settled in Township No.6 (Edwardsburgh) after the war and became a prominent landowner in eastern Upper Canada. Richard Duncan spent his early years in Edwardsburgh Township and was said to have been educated by John Strachan*. From 1802 to 1806 he worked for the North West Company as a clerk under Duncan Cameron* at Lake Nipigon. On his return to Edwardsburgh in 1807 he received a 200-acre land grant as the son of a loyalist and settled in the village of Johnstown. There he operated as a merchant until the outbreak of the War of 1812.

A lieutenant in the 2nd Grenville Militia, Fraser was attached to an artillery company at Prescott. Then, during the fall of 1812, he commanded a light gunboat on the St Lawrence. In late February 1813, after having rejoined the artillery, he was in charge of a field gun during the capture of Ogdensburg, N.Y. [see George Richard John Macdonell*] and shortly afterwards was promoted captain in the 1st Dundas Militia, of which his father was lieutenant-colonel. On the orders of Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost* but using his own funds, he recruited a troop of light dragoons which he led that November in the battle at John Crysler’s farm. Described in 1814 by the inspecting field officer of militia, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Pearson, as “an active and zealous officer,” Fraser was appointed assistant quartermaster general in February 1815. Before he could benefit from this position, however, news reached Canada that the war had ended.

After the war Fraser did not return to his mercantile pursuits, but was “oblidged to have recourse to farming” to support himself and his family. In addition he made several unsuccessful attempts during the next 15 years to obtain a government position. The only appointment he received, however, was in 1816 as a justice of the peace for the Johnstown District. Fraser’s difficulty in obtaining office despite support from his influential father may have been a result of his hot-tempered, violent behaviour. Before 1812 he had been convicted and fined on three separate assault charges, one involving an attack on Charles Jones* of Brockville. In 1813, as a militia officer, he had been charged with trespass, assault, and false imprisonment, and a judgement was made against him for civil damages in 1814. When Fraser applied for funds from the government to pay this two years later, William Campbell*, who had presided at the civil trial, reported that Fraser’s conduct had been “most violent and brutal” and refused “to offer any opinion, as to how far the interference of the Government . . . may comport with its honour and interest.”

In 1818 Fraser was again before the Court of Quarter Sessions at Brockville, this time charged with an assault against Robert Gourlay*. When Gourlay had arrived at Johnstown on his eastern tour of the province, Fraser called him “a Liar and a Blackguard” and proceeded to beat him in public with “a rod of correction.” Supporters of both men arrived and a small riot ensued. Unsuccessful in his attempt to disrupt Gourlay’s meeting by force, Fraser exercised his authority as a magistrate and arrested him on charges of seditious libel. In response Gourlay charged Fraser with assault. At the assizes, held that August at Brockville, Gourlay was acquitted on a reduced charge of libel; Fraser was tried before a sympathetic local court and assessed a small fine.

Given such a background, it was unlikely that an official post of any importance could be risked on Fraser. For the next several years he seems to have modified his behaviour; there were no further charges of assault. Finally in 1832 his persistence was rewarded with an appointment as collector of customs for Brockville. This came slightly more than a year after his election as a member for Grenville in the House of Assembly. In December 1831, during the session that resulted in the first expulsion of William Lyon Mackenzie* from the house, Fraser had chiefly distinguished himself by threatening to horsewhip Mackenzie. In the general elections of October 1834, Fraser withdrew his candidacy before the opening of the polls. During a by-election for Leeds in the spring of 1836 he allied himself with Ogle Robert Gowan*, but the two tory candidates were defeated by reformers William Buell* and Mathew H. Howard. Until the rebellion of 1837–38, Fraser had to content himself with his duties as magistrate and as customs collector.

In January 1838, with the threat of a Patriot invasion, Fraser as colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Grenville militia was stationed at Prescott. Four months later he was aboard the steamship Sir Robert Peel when it was attacked and pillaged by William Johnston*, Donald M’Leod*, and other Patriots. In November he commanded the left flank at the so-called battle of the Windmill near Prescott [see Plomer Young*]. During this period of tense relations between Upper Canada and the United States, Fraser became involved in a minor diplomatic incident when in May 1839, as customs collector, he seized the American schooner G. S. Weeks at Brockville for failure to declare a cannon as part of its cargo. Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur conducted a personal inquiry and condemned the behaviour of both American and Canadian participants in the affair. Arthur considered that Fraser had been “popularity-hunting” and that his ill-considered and unauthorized actions in seizing the vessel and subsequently releasing it had laid the foundation “for all the mischief that followed.”

By this time Fraser was also in trouble with the government because of his failure to pay over his customs duties. In September 1838 he had been questioned about the default and, when the government persisted in its demands despite his claim that the money had been lost with the Sir Robert Peel, he offered to make partial payment that December. It is apparent that Fraser was, at the least, unable to manage the funds he received through his official positions. Certainly his business abilities appear to have been poor. By 1840 he owed £4,000 in outstanding civil judgements to creditors amongst whom were the Bank of Upper Canada, the Bank of Montreal, and the Commercial Bank of the Midland District. The combination of his mismanagement of government funds with the lack of judgement demonstrated during the Weeks affair as well as his virulent toryism left him with few allies powerful enough to assist him when the reformers came to power in 1842. Fraser was replaced as customs collector in January 1843. That September Brockville reformer William Buell Richards* claimed that Fraser’s decisions as a magistrate were “far from satisfactory” and recommended his removal from a position that he was “totally incompetent to fill.” The following month Fraser’s name was struck from the district commission of the peace.

Retaining only his position as militia colonel, Fraser retired to Fraserfield in Edwardsburgh Township, the farm fronting on the St Lawrence which he had inherited in the early 1820s from his father and his brother John. Although Fraser seems to have left active politics after the 1830s, he reappeared briefly during 1849 as a delegate to the convention of the British American League [see George Moffatt*] in Kingston. He died eight years later at Fraserfield.

C. J. Shepard

AO, MS 35, alphabetical list of students, 26 Nov. 1827; RG 8, ser.I-1-H, 2: 42; ser.I-1-P, box 4; RG 21, United counties of Leeds and Grenville, Edwardsburgh Township, census and assessment rolls, 1811–20, 1848; RG 22, ser.12, 1: 190, 225, 233; 2–6; ser.14, boxes 2–3; ser.131, 1, 4; ser.134, 4; ser.155, will of Thomas Fraser; ser.179, John Fraser; Mary Fraser. MTL, Robert Baldwin papers; R. D. Fraser, “Journal, from Edwardusburgh to Nipigon and other places in the North or Indian country.” PAC, RG 1, E3, 30A: 224–35; L3, 188: F9/8; 189: F10/37, F11/77; RG 5, A1: 11450–62, 12127–30, 12465–68, 13982–83, 25948–50, 30952–53, 49558–59, 51281–83, 52468–70, 93132–38, 103272–73, 108363–64, 114278–81; C1, 14, file 1748; RG 8, I (C ser.); RG 31, A1, 1851, Edwardsburgh Township; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841, 1841–67. PRO, CO 42/390: 188–91; 42/460: 144–54; 42/518: 70–75. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Elgin–Grey papers (Doughty). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1831–34. Brockville Recorder, 22 Dec. 1831, 10 Oct. 1834, 9 April 1857. Kingston Gazette, 7 July–22 Sept. 1818. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology. Duncan Fraser, William Fraser, Senior, U.E., and his descendants in Fulton County, New York, and Grenville County, Ontario (Johnstown, N.Y., 1964). Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving). Patterson, “Studies in elections in U.C.”

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

C. J. Shepard, “FRASER, RICHARD DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_richard_duncan_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_richard_duncan_8E.html
Author of Article: C. J. Shepard
Title of Article: FRASER, RICHARD DUNCAN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: October 31, 2014