GERRISH, BENJAMIN, merchant and officeholder; b. 19 Oct. 1717 in Boston, Massachusetts, youngest son of John Gerrish and Sarah Hobbes (Hobbs); m. 1744 Rebecca Dudley in Boston; d. 6 May 1772 in Southampton, England.
Benjamin Gerrish was reared in Boston, where his father was a prosperous merchant, and he was probably involved in business there with his older brother Joseph after their father’s death in 1737. Following his brother, Gerrish moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, apparently in 1751. Like other New England merchants who established themselves in Halifax at this time, he was attracted by the prospects of the profits to be gained from supplying both the military and the civilian sectors of the population and from exploiting the area’s resources. He entered into partnership with Joseph Gray, and their firm became one of the most successful in Halifax, partly because of profits realized during the Seven Years’ War.
The Gerrishes were among those New England merchants who applied pressure on Governor Charles Lawrence* and the Board of Trade in the mid 1750s to establish a house of assembly in Nova Scotia. They achieved their goal in 1758. When Joseph, who was elected to the first assembly, was appointed to the Council the following year, Benjamin successfully contested his seat. His appointment to. three positions of importance in 1760 indicated his standing as a member of Halifax’s political élite; he was named a captain of militia, a justice of the peace for Halifax County, and finally, the most lucrative of all, Indian commissary. The latter post made him in effect the director of a government monopoly, in which the government assumed all the risks, paid his subordinates, and guaranteed him a percentage of proceeds from all sales to the Indians and purchases of furs from them. In addition, he was permitted to retain his private business and provide goods for the trade from his own store. Gerrish appears to have profited considerably from the appointment.
When Lawrence died in 1760, his successor, Jonathan Belcher, sought to cut the enormous losses being incurred in the Indian trade by turning the monopoly over to a private contractor. In the spring of 1761 the Council recommended Michael Francklin, but Belcher insisted that Francklin was a cover for Gerrish and awarded the contract to Alexander Grant. Gerrish was permitted to retain the nominal title of Indian commissary, but he protested to the Board of Trade, claiming that the provincial government owed him some £2, 500. To press his case in London, he enlisted the support of Joshua Mauger; he eventually received about one-quarter of his claim.
The Indian trade affair proved to be one of several factors which led to an anti-Belcher movement among the Halifax merchants, supported by Mauger. In 1761, when the Lords of Trade instructed Belcher to allow the lapse of the debtors’ act, a measure which stopped foreign creditors from prosecuting their Nova Scotian debtors in Nova Scotia courts, the Gerrishes led the resistance. They organized a boycott of the assembly by such members as Jonathan Binney*, Philip Augustus Knaut, and Malachy Salter, which prevented Belcher from obtaining a quorum during the winter of 1761–62. The debtors’ act, which had been renewed in 1760 until the end of the first session after 1 Oct. 1761, was thus extended into 1762. The Gerrishes’ task was made easier because the Halifax group had successfully contested elections in a number of communities outside the capital and thus virtually controlled the assembly. The merchants, supported in person by Mauger, also denounced Belcher to the Board of Trade. The eventual outcome was Belcher’s replacement by Montagu Wilmot* in 1763. Although Benjamin and his brother had been removed from nearly all their offices for their role in the boycott, they were immediately reinstated upon Belcher’s removal. Benjamin was elected to the assembly from Halifax in 1765 and three years later was appointed to the Council.
A leading Congregationalist layman and member of Mather’s (St Matthew’s) Church, Gerrish undertook with Salter in 1770 to appeal for financial aid from large churches in Boston on behalf of the Congregational churches and clergy in Nova Scotia. The generous response, much of which came in the form of scarce commodities, may well have strengthened Nova Scotian sympathies for the American revolution, at least during its early stages.
Gerrish, however, seems not to have become directly involved in the growing revolutionary controversy. He appears to have been something of a commercial opportunist who supported or disobeyed British regulations according to his own interest. While doing business with the British military he also participated, under Francklin’s authority, in defying British restrictions on the export of coal from Cape Breton Island in 1767–68.
Gerrish made his will at Boston in 1772 before leaving for England, where he died. He left considerable property in Nova Scotia, including a large farm and mansion named Gerrish Hall in Windsor; most of the estate went to his wife and his nephew, Benjamin Gerrish Gray*.
Mass. Hist. Soc., Andrews-Eliot papers, Benjamin Gerrish and Malachy Salter to Andrew Eliot and Samuel Cooper, Halifax, 18 Jan. 1770; Benjamin Gerrish to Andrew Eliot and Samuel Cooper, Halifax, 10 May 1770; Nehemiah Porter to Andrew Eliot, Yarmouth, 16 Nov. 1770. Akins, History of Halifax City, 52, 61, 237, 253. J. G. Bourinot, Builders of Nova Scotia . . . (Toronto, 1900), 133, 146. Brebner, Neutral Yankees (1937), 18–22, 71–73, 78–79, 81–82, 84–89, 136–37, 191, 216n, 218n. MacNutt, Atlantic provinces, 68–69. A. W. H. Eaton, “Old Boston families, number two: the family of Capt. John Gerrish,” New England Hist. and Geneal. Register, LXVII (1913), 105–15. W. S. MacNutt, “The beginnings of Nova Scotian politics, 1758–1766,” CHR, XVI (1935), 41–53.