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GRASS, MICHAEL, office holder; b. c. 1735 in Strasbourg, France; m. first Mary Ann – ; m. secondly Margaret Swartz, and they had at least six children; d. 25 April 1813 in Kingston, Upper Canada.

Michael Grass was part of the considerable emigration of Palatinate Germans to North America in the 18th century. He arrived on 22 Sept. 1752 at Philadelphia, Pa, where he remained for a while, earning his living as a saddler. He subsequently moved to Tryon County, N.Y., where lie operated a saddlery in addition to farming and thereby achieved a modest prosperity. A captain in the local militia, he refused to join the rebels after the outbreak of the American revolution. In 1777 he fled to New York City where he served as a lieutenant in the volunteer militia.

Grass’s historical reputation derives from his connection with the settlement of loyalists at Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.) after the revolution. Family tradition and popular lore accord him the position of founder. These accounts maintain that he had been a prisoner at the old French Fort Frontenac (Cataraqui) during the Seven Years’ War, and thus, towards the end of the revolution, when the British commandant at New York City, Sir Guy Carleton, asked him about the area he was in a position to recommend it. Grass may have had some familiarity with Cataraqui; there is, however, no evidence to corroborate this version of the settlement’s founding.

A more plausible account is as follows. On 26 May 1783 Governor Haldimand ordered Surveyor General Samuel Johannes Holland to Cataraqui to consider “the facility of establishing a settlement” there. Two months later, Major John Ross* was ordered to prepare the site for a military post. In the mean time, numbers of loyalist refugees, including Grass, were awaiting evacuation from New York City to Nova Scotia; on 12 June Grass had written on behalf of a group of them that “we cannot think of going to another place in the Universe for the many Benefits that will flow from that Settlement [Cataraqui] to the Settler.” On 2 July he was given a temporary commission of captain for the second of the eight companies organized for transportation to Quebec. This group, many of whom were Associated Loyalists, probably numbered fewer than 500. Grass’s transport Camel was the first of nine to reach Quebec, arriving there on 12 August. Three days later, Haldimand’s military secretary, Robert Mathews, indicated to Ross the governor’s intention to settle many of the New York exiles in the neighbourhood of Cataraqui. The actual decision, however, was not made until Haldimand had received reports indicating the suitability of the area for farming. In early September, while most of the New York loyalists prepared to winter at Sorel, Grass and 37 men ascended the St Lawrence River with a survey party to mark out the settlements at Cataraqui. When he returned to Sorel in late fall he found there another company from New York led by Major Peter Van Alstine. The presence of a new group led to jealousy and factionalism; Grass and several other captains complained of persons who “Presume to Place themselves at our head without our consent or Approbation.”

In January 1784 Grass and others petitioned Haldimand for large-scale assistance in setting up their farms. They also indicated their preference for a “Form of Government . . . similar to that which they Enjoyed in the Province of New York in the year of 1763.” Haldimand informed them that their requests were impossible to meet and reminded them that if they were not happy with his plans he could provide them passage to Nova Scotia. Several months later the governor was angered by Grass’s seeming claim on behalf of himself and his “party” that they had “first found out and planned the settlement.” Grass demurred, however, reportedly claiming “he only ment that he was the first of the Loyalists who before they left New York pointed out that [Cataraqui] as the most desirable place to go to. . . .” After a winter of discontent, the loyalists began the trek to their new home on 24 May 1784. The settlement from the Bay of Quinte to Cataraqui was divided into numbered townships; Grass’s party of some 220 was granted Township No.1 (Cataraqui).

Grass’s leadership in the new community was short-lived. He was appointed a justice of the peace for the Montreal District (which then included the new loyalist townships) on 18 April 1785. In this capacity, he signed a petition for English land tenure, local courts, and municipal government, as well as for more schools and clergymen. However, when in 1788 Carleton (now Lord Dorchester) established four new administrative districts in western Quebec to meet loyalist needs, Grass was not appointed to any of the new civil offices. After this period his contribution to local society was limited; he was, for instance, a benefactor of the local Church of England congregation and served as vestryman in 1789.

The legend of Michael Grass, founder of Cataraqui, cannot be sustained by the evidence. But there remains, to his credit, an image of a determined, possibly even imaginative, leader who resisted the normal direction of refugee emigration from New York City and helped not only to influence, but to push to conclusion, the decision to settle the wilderness later known as Ontario. Perhaps he is best remembered for a letter that he wrote to the Kingston Gazette in 1811, harking back to the days when, “strong in my attachment to my sovereign, and high in the confidence of my fellow subjects, I led the loyal band, I pointed out to them the scite of their future metropolis, and gained for persecuted principles a sanctuary[,] for myself and followers a home.”

Larry Turner

BL, Add. mss 21716: 132; 21723: 212–13; 21784: 9–14; 21786: 42–44, 92–95; 21798: 322, 326, 343–45, 360–63; 21806: 65; 21808: 151–55, 158, 168, 174; 21825: 110, 117, 124, 133, 143, 145, 152; 21827: 1–4, 300, 351; 21828: 68, 80; 21875: 133–34 (transcripts at PAC). Frontenac Land Registry Office (Kingston, Ont.), E270 (will of Michael Grass). PAC, RG 1, L3, 203A: G3/63; 204: G6/3; 205: G10/38; 206: G12/30; 206A: G12/81; 222: G misc., 1789–95/104–5; G misc., 1794–1830/67. PRO, ADM 9/9; AO 13, bundle 13: 118–20 (mfm. at PAC); CO 5/111: 118; PRO 30/55/11; 30/55/21; 30/55/38; 30/55/50–51; 30/55/73 (copies at PAC); T 1/1597; WO 36/3; WO 60/22–23; 60/27; 60/32–33. “Early records of Ontario,” ed. Adam Shortt, Queens Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.), 7 (1899–1900): 51–59. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1928: 148, 167, 169. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston), xlii, 25, 36–37, 49–51, 72–73, 91–95, 138. Loyalist narratives from Upper Canada, ed. J. J. Talman (Toronto, 1946), 75–76. Minutes of the Albany committee of correspondence, 177578 . . . , ed. James Sullivan and A. C. Flick (2v., Albany, N.Y., 1923–25), 2: 1142–43. The settlement of the United Empire Loyalists on the upper St Lawrence and Bay of Quinte in 1784; a documentary record, ed. E. A. Cruikshank (Toronto, 1934; repr. 1966), 37–38, 40–42, 67, 78–79, 111–12. “Settlements and surveys,” PAC Report, 1891: 11–12. “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 1257–58. Kingston Gazette, 10 Dec. 1811. DCB, vol.4 (biog. of John Ross). Pennsylvania German pioneers: a publication of the original lists of arrivals in the port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808, comp. R. B. Strassburger, ed. W. J. Hinke (3v., Norristown, Pa., 1934; repr., 2v., Baltimore, Md., 1966), 1: 572–73. Reid, Loyalists in Ont., 131. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists, 2: 522. H. C. Burleigh, “Captain Michael Grass,” H. C. Burleigh, Forgotten leaves of local history: Kingston (Kingston, 1973), 81–86. William Canniff, History of the settlement of Upper Canada (Ontario) with special reference to the Bay Quinte (Toronto, 1869; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1971), 650–51. Dennis Duffy, Gardens, covenants, exiles: loyalism in the literature of Upper Canada/Ontario (Toronto, 1982). E. R. Stuart, “Jessup’s Rangers as a factor in loyalist settlement,” Three hist. theses, 76–78, 137. D. E. Grass, “Michael Grass and the Grass family of Kingston,” Hist. Kingston (Kingston), no.12 (1964): 6–10.

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Cite This Article

Larry Turner, “GRASS, MICHAEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grass_michael_5E.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/grass_michael_5E.html
Author of Article: Larry Turner
Title of Article: GRASS, MICHAEL
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: October 24, 2014