HAMILTON, ROBERT, businessman, politician, judge, and office holder; b. 14 Sept. 1753 in Bolton, Scotland, son of John Hamilton and Jean Wight; m. first 1785 Catherine Askin, widow of Samuel Robertson, and they had five sons; m. secondly c. 1797 Mary Herkimer, widow of Neil McLean*, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 8 March 1809 in Queenston, Upper Canada.
The power and influence of Robert Hamilton derived largely from his association with the fur trade and the supply of the British army. Like many middle class Scots of the late 18th century he came to British North America through connections in the fur trade. In March 1778 he signed a three-year contract with the Ellice brothers in London, England. They were Lowland Scots long prominent in the southwest fur trade (below and to the west of lakes Huron and Superior) and were major provisioners of the British forces during the American Revolutionary War. By July 1779 Hamilton was in the province of Quebec where he served an apprenticeship as a clerk at Montreal and at Carleton Island (N.Y.) while building up a small trade at the upper posts on his own account. In May 1780 he left the Ellices to form a partnership with the New York loyalist Richard Cartwright at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). There they built a solid trade with the British army and its quasi-military adjunct, the Indian Department. British officers were impressed by the respectability, the patriotism, and the dependability of the firm.
Hamilton and Cartwright were supplied and, in part, financed probably by the Montreal firm of Todd and McGill, one of the oldest and most prosperous houses in the southwest fur trade. Isaac Todd and James McGill arranged a co-partnership between their Niagara associates and John Askin, their most successful client at Detroit (Mich.). Hamilton’s contacts with the military and new associations within the southwest fur trade laid the basis for the remarkable enterprises he built in early Upper Canada. Indeed, the Laurentian mercantile networks provisioning and supplying the military and the fur trade were the most highly developed organizations in the geographically fragmented and institutionally weak province before the War of 1812. Association with them brought a few privileged merchants the only substantial affluence and power the young colony had to offer.
In 1782 Hamilton and Cartwright opened a branch of their firm at Oswego (N.Y.) but, with the winding down of the war, they moved it to Carleton Island in 1783. The decade after the war was not a propitious time for Niagara merchants: of the 18 firms receiving goods there in 1783, only four were still functioning in 1789. The rest had been driven under by the post-war depression, the drying up of military demand, and the unpromising market offered by the pioneer loyalist community. Hamilton, however, operating in continuing partnership with Cartwright until 1790, not only survived this period but prospered by concentrating his efforts on forwarding and receiving for the fur trade rather than on local merchandising. The advantages of this decision were solid: the fur trade required little investment and yielded a steady profit not directly dependent on the price of goods or the state of the local market.
Some time in 1784 or 1785 Hamilton established himself at Niagara, and shortly thereafter began building a residence and shop at what was to become Queenston (Ont.). Cartwright established himself at Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.). By the late 1780s, according to one observer, they became agents for the shipping of all private goods on Lake Ontario. This thriving trade required extensive transportation facilities beyond the means of small up-country merchants such as Hamilton. Fortunately, capital was provided and construction undertaken both by leading Montreal merchants and by the British military. It was the good luck of Hamilton that his suppliers, Todd and McGill, were the first to build a major private vessel on the lake after the war. He then became the Niagara agent for the 120-ton Lady Dorchester, built in 1788, as well as for Todd and McGill’s second ship, the 137-ton Governor Simcoe, built in 1794. Their monopoly of private shipping ended that same year but the enterprise continued to be profitable thereafter. The transportation infrastructure – storehouses, wharfs, and portages – was built by the military, and initially Hamilton was able to use army facilities for his own carrying business. The profits he realized from the carrying trade while the local economy remained depressed and primitive provided a solid base for expansion of his enterprises and his subsequent rise to prominence.
The Niagara area was the major trans-shipment point on the route to the west. The main portage was located on the east (American) side of the Niagara River until the end of the revolution. Then the Montreal fur traders successfully lobbied for the right to portage their goods on the west bank and subsequently awarded their business to Hamilton and another local merchant, George Forsyth (brother of Joseph), who was also closely connected to the fur trade. In 1791, with the major Montreal trading companies providing support and financial sureties, Hamilton, Forsyth, John Burch*, and Archibald Cunningham won the lucrative contract for the portaging of all military goods. Since the army had already built transportation facilities, Hamilton’s overhead was low and, more important, his profits were high.
In addition to his partnership with Cartwright, his contacts with the army, and his associations within the fur trade, Hamilton developed a network of family alliances to secure his interests. In 1785 he married the daughter of his partner, John Askin, thus cementing an alliance that would serve both families for more than a generation. The marriage brought him other contacts at Detroit, most notably the powerful William Robertson. That same year Hamilton began to establish his own Scots relations in the Niagara peninsula. Over the next seven years, he sent home for four of his cousins: Thomas Clark* and the Dicksons, Robert*, Thomas*, and William*. Each served an apprenticeship in his enterprises before being placed in businesses that were, in fact, adjuncts of Hamilton’s own and were, as well, closely linked to the fur trade and military supply. Hamilton and his cousins remained closely allied during his lifetime. Their circle expanded to include even Old World acquaintances, such as Robert Nichol*, and the second generation of the Dickson–Clark families in a complex net of business agreements, partnerships, coordinated land speculations, and mutual lobbying for office and patronage.
The supply of the army and fur trade was the mainstay of Hamilton’s businesses. The victualling part of it was almost exclusively for the army because the fur trade tended to purchase its provisions closer to its western centres of operation. With the aid of Todd and McGill and the assent of the military, Hamilton became in 1786 the agent for the supply of flour to the Niagara garrison, which was the only significant market for local produce until shipment began down Lake Ontario to Lower Canada in 1800. Distance and fluctuating supply kept local prices high and the market proved capacious: until 1798, the military purchased all the produce the Niagara peninsula could offer. Because of the comparatively large garrison and Niagara’s strategic location as the major supply centre for western posts, by 1800 the army was buying 61 per cent of its total victualling requirements for the colony at Niagara. Hamilton claimed the lion’s share of the Niagara market, providing annually between 35 and 100 per cent of local military purchases by value. His virtual monopoly was a consequence of the military’s desire to buy in bulk, of the momentum generated by his early establishment in business, and, in no small part, of the preference and special privileges the military awarded him because of his reputation.
Portaging also retained its importance in the regional economy. By the late 1780s, the only period for which statistics are available, an average of 30 per cent of all trade goods by value were moving west by the lakes route over the Niagara portage; 40 per cent of all furs returned east by the same route. The southwest remained the major destination of these goods: 80 per cent of private supplies passing over the portage in 1790 were for Detroit or Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) rather than the far west. The volume of this traffic was substantially augmented by military items, in the main, provisions for the upper posts. Hamilton was fortunate; he continued until his death to receive an unbroken string of lucrative portaging contracts from the military. Total profits on the portage in 1798, for instance, were in the range of £2,500 New York currency, a substantial sum for the three up-country merchants then involved.
Hamilton’s provisioning and carrying operations were notable in providing him with a sizeable amount of disposable capital; at this early period all his customers paid him in specie, an important advantage for a merchant in a society where currency was always scarce. All indications point to the likelihood that he invested this money in local enterprises, particularly retailing and land speculation. Whereas the shops of most merchants were small, localized concerns, Hamilton’s Queenston store, where he sold large quantities of common goods and a wide selection of luxury items, was the equivalent of a modern regional retailing centre. It drew customers from the length and breadth of the peninsula, and by 1803 he had for some time employed an agent annually to collect his 500 to 600 accounts over as many as 22 townships. He also owned and operated a horse-powered grist-mill, a tannery yard, and a distillery. At his death in 1809, 1,200 individuals owed him the astounding sum of £68,721 New York currency.
Hamilton undoubtedly was the chief land speculator in early Upper Canada. The total known amount of land in which he held an interest by purchase, grant, or mortgage was 130,170 acres. If contiguous, his lands would have stretched one township deep from the Niagara River almost to Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour). About 50 per cent of them were located in his own county of Lincoln, with a second major concentration in the counties of Oxford and Norfolk. He had acquired his land rapidly, purchasing close to 43 per cent of his holdings in the peninsula (other than those obtained by grant or mortgage) between 1791 and 1799. Although he invested heavily in land, much of it undoubtedly came to him as payment for outstanding debts. Only 11 per cent of his total holdings came as direct grants from the crown.
Hamilton considered land a commercial speculation. He did not believe in the social desirability or economic potential of establishing great landed estates for himself or his heirs. Rather he saw economic development depending upon yeoman farmers, preferably of American origin, who would clear and work one or two lots; to such individuals he planned to sell his lands. In the main, Hamilton showed little concern for either the quality or the saleability of his acquisitions. A large portion was interior and isolated, with poorly drained soils, land that would not come under cultivation rapidly. With the financial resources at his disposal, he was confident that his family could hold large parcels of land, even poor land, long enough for it to become marketable. This was long-term speculation; during his lifetime, he disposed of only 13 per cent of his total holdings.
From an early period, the political power of Hamilton’s economic patrons assured him office. When the government in distant Quebec made its initial appointments for the upper country, it sought recommendations from those who knew the region best – officers of the British military and Indian Department and prominent members of the Montreal fur-trading community. Hamilton’s patrons in these circles, particularly Sir John Johnson*, assured his appointment in 1786 as one of the original justices of the peace at Niagara, in 1788 as a member of the land board of the Nassau District and as a judge of the district Court of Common Pleas, and finally, in 1792, as a member of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada. Hamilton proved assiduous in attending to his official duties. Although he seldom exploited his offices directly for personal gain, he was able to use them to affect general matters related to his commercial activities.
The political and social goals of Robert Hamilton were pragmatic and limited; he showed little interest in institutional or social development. In the council, he was rarely concerned with any issue not directly touching himself or his mercantile connections. Despite the restricted nature of his politics, he was nevertheless embroiled in political controversy throughout much of his career. He was at the centre of a commercial élite extending to Kingston and Detroit that dominated affairs along the Great Lakes. His economic power gave him an unparalleled influence over regional society and that power and influence were, not unnaturally, resented; indeed, they became a major issue of the early politics of the peninsula.
The sharpest challenge to Hamilton’s ascendancy came during the administration of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. The most immediate concerns of contemporaries were economic: the transfer of land, the satisfaction of claims for debt, and the control of the market of greatest significance to the province, army provisioning. It is a measure of Hamilton’s prominence that he, with Cartwright, was the focus of debate on these issues and for a time the Simcoe administration was marked by a clash between the regionally based major merchants attempting to defend their privileges and the newly established provincial executive trying to centralize power in its own hands. Simcoe’s initial disdain for merchants, shared by many of his 18th-century military colleagues, contributed to the animosity between the two groups. The political élite, often unaware of or naïve about local conditions, was spurred to action by regional grievances against mercantile domination.
The first significant dispute between the two groups emerged from province-wide agitation over the control of army provisioning. Todd, in conjunction with Robertson, had lobbied successfully for a contract giving preference to their foremost Upper Canadian clients, Cartwright, Hamilton, Askin, and David Robertson, William’s brother. The resulting monopoly generated much controversy and Simcoe manœuvred to secure cancellation of the contract in 1794. Although successful, his action had little impact on the pattern of supply because the government took no additional measures to loosen the economic grip of the major merchants. A second bone of contention was the supposed influence of merchants such as Hamilton in the local courts and land boards. Simcoe attempted to address this complaint by altering the structure of the courts and by abolishing the boards. Because of the merchants’ entrenched social power, however, these moves were only partially successful.
Transfer of land was the third, and potentially most contentious, issue. Before 1796 land holding was based on certificates that gave possession, but not necessarily ownership and the right to alienate. Land speculators, Hamilton chief among them, who had acquired a good deal of land by purchasing certificates, feared the government might not uphold their legality. In this matter, Simcoe proved sympathetic; however, a final solution was not reached until 1797 with the establishment of the first Heir and Devisee Commission, whose commissioners, including Hamilton, were allowed great latitude in recognizing the legality of land transfers.
Towards the end of his administration Simcoe increasingly acknowledged the legitimate and, indeed, the necessary influence of merchants on the economy and even on the politics of the colony. One signal of this change was his appointment in 1796 of Hamilton as lieutenant of the county of Lincoln, the most important office in the region [see Hazelton Spencer]. After Simcoe’s administration Hamilton’s interest in legislative politics declined sharply. The major conflict had been between officials and entrepreneurs over their respective powers and prerogatives. Now that those battles had been fought and the relationship between the political and economic élites had been defined to his satisfaction, Hamilton, from being a frequent opponent of government, became a staunch, if generally quiescent, supporter of it.
Hamilton exercised immediate personal control over patronage within his own area from the establishment of the Nassau District in 1788 until his death. When he became lieutenant of the county of Lincoln he had the right to appoint or recommend justices of the peace and to nominate militia officers. Moreover, he had great power over the selection for offices in the whole area west of York (Toronto). By his use of a potent combination of political and economic influence, he was able to place his sons, his cousins, and the whole second generation of the Askin family in official as well as commercial posts. Hamilton was not part of any local compact of office holders nor did he stand in a client-patron relationship to a provincial “family compact.” His power over patronage rested largely on his own local influence. So far as it did depend upon the provincial political structure, it rested squarely upon his personal connection with the lieutenant governors. His most profitable association in this regard was with Peter Hunter. Of the 13 appointments outside his own district that Hamilton influenced, 8 were made during Hunter’s administration. Indeed, the reformer Robert Thorpe* complained of the “scotch pedlars” who “had insinuated themselves into favour with General Hunter . . . there is a chain of them linked from Halifax to Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, York, Niagara & so onto Detroit. . . .” Thorpe labelled these Scots a “Shopkeeper Aristocracy.” As he implied, Hunter was connected to many of the merchants by their Scottish origins. He had served as an officer in British North America in the immediate post-revolutionary period when links between the military and the Laurentian traders were especially strong. He had been commandant at Fort Niagara in 1788 and, from 1789 to 1791, he had served at Montreal. During this period he became acquainted with a number of merchants and maintained these relationships up to his return to the province in 1799 as lieutenant governor.
In his later years Hamilton’s immediate concerns were to protect and nurture the patronage and influence obtained from the provincial government, for himself and his connections, and to defend his interests in the regional politics of the peninsula. He was, however, less successful in the politics of his own area than in provincial politics and patronage. Indeed, the privileges Hamilton and the merchants associated with him derived from outside contacts fuelled popular resentment. Hostility to monopoly which had first broken out in 1791 reached its peak in 1799 and 1800. A proposal by Hamilton, Clark, and George Forsyth to make extensive improvements to the Niagara portage, to be financed by higher charges, caused a local furore and resulted in a massive petitioning campaign. This hostility to the merchants carried over into the election of 1800, when loyalist officers such as Ralfe Clench* and office holders such as Isaac Swayze* campaigned successfully against the merchants’ candidates and excluded them from seats in the peninsula. Hamilton, however, in conjunction with his cousins and other connections such as John Warren and Thomas Welch, was able to secure the election of Surveyor General David William Smith* in the riding of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex. The division between the major merchants and the coalition of officers, office holders, and petty merchants diminished after 1806 with the rise of a parliamentary opposition, usually associated with Thorpe, William Weekes, and Joseph Willcocks. The perceived radicalism of this group drove the merchants and their former opponents together in common cause against their radical foes.
In his private affairs, Hamilton adopted to the full the lifestyle of a gentleman. In 1791, when others in the peninsula might be considering the construction of their first permanent homes, Hamilton began to build an impressive Georgian mansion. Perched on the escarpment, high above the Niagara River at Queenston, the house with its two-storey greystone façade, side wings, and covered galleries, rose incongruously above its modest wooden neighbours and the pioneer clearings. Hamilton entertained lavishly at his home and his guests included Prince Edward Augustus, who, in 1792, stopped there for refreshment during his visit to the falls at Niagara. Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe [Gwillim*], wife of the lieutenant governor, was a constant companion of Mrs Hamilton. Surrounding his home, Hamilton kept a fairly extensive farm, a practice that reinforced his public image as a man of the landed gentry. He and his children showed a marked respect for books and learning. To indicate his own status and to prepare his offspring for their future social roles, Hamilton was assiduous in their education; all received their higher education in Scotland.
His respectability was based upon more than possession of the trappings of gentility. Hamilton closely associated himself with those institutions that provided concrete opportunities for benefitting the community, such as the Niagara Agricultural Society. He was a founding member and its second president, succeeding Simcoe. The society kept a small library that it eventually donated to the Niagara Library, another institution of which he was a founding member. He was also a provincial deputy grandmaster in the Masonic Lodge of Upper Canada.
Robert Hamilton died on 8 March 1809 after a prolonged illness. His passing was accorded the respect owed by his community to its most prominent citizen. “His funeral, as you may imagine, was attended by a vast concourse,” wrote a former tutor of the Hamilton children, “and since the first settlement of the country nothing of this kind has occurred to occasion so much real sorrow.” Hamilton’s enterprises survived him only for the remarkably brief span of three years. The pillars of his commercial edifice, provisioning and portaging, had been cracking in the last decade of his life. After 1800 army provisioning had become progressively less significant in the local economy with the opening of an export market in Lower Canada. This development stimulated major competition to Hamilton’s firm from men such as James Crooks* and Richard Hatt and slowly lowered its effectiveness. Again, after 1800, portaging became less profitable with the decline of fur-trading activity, most notably in the southwest. Military shipping also declined as agricultural output in the vicinity of the army posts became sufficient to supply garrisons’ needs. Finally, the establishment of a powerful and well-financed portaging rival on the American side of the Niagara River exacerbated Hamilton’s situation.
His heavy investment in land and extensive use of credit in his retail operation made it difficult for Hamilton to offset his declining profits in portaging and provisioning. This situation was complicated after his death by the ineptitude of his heirs, the coming of the War of 1812, and a complex will that virtually froze the assets of his estate until 1823. Although some of his sons such as Alexander*, George*, and John* rose in time to be successful entrepreneurs, office holders, and public figures in the higher echelons of Upper Canadian society, none succeeded to the social and political predominance that his enterprises had made Robert Hamilton’s prerogative.
AO, ms 75; MU 492, “The Goring family,” Hamilton to Goring, 4 Oct. 1779 (transcript); MU 500, Richard Cartwright, letterbook, 1793–96; RG 22, ser.155, will and inventory of Robert Hamilton. BL, Add. mss 21785: 25; 21786: 73; 21787: 127. Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Soc. (Buffalo, N.Y.), AOO-261 (Robert Hamilton papers), “Hamilton family genealogical chart.” Donly Museum, Norfolk Hist. Soc. coll., Thomas Welch papers, 1641–42 (mfm. at PAC). DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., John Askin papers. GRO, Reg. of births and baptisms for the parish of Bolton, 16 Sept. 1753; Reg. of marriages for the parish of Bolton, 17 Oct. 1748. Middlesex East Land Registry Office (London, Ont.), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). Middlesex West Land Registry Office (Glencoe, Ont.), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). Niagara North Land Registry Office (St Catharines, Ont.), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). Niagara South Land Registry Office (Welland, Ont.), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). Norfolk Land Registry Office (Simcoe), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). Oxford Land Registry Office (Woodstock, Ont.), Abstract indexes to deeds (mfm. at AO). PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 71-1: 234–37; 305: 189; MG 19, A1, 3 (transcripts); A3, 20: 6532; F6, 1: 144; MG 23, HI, 1, ser.3, 2: 329; 8: 471, 475; 10: 16; ser.4, 1–8 (transcripts); MG 24, B130, Thomas Clarke to Helen Clarke, 11 Oct. 1803 (copy); D4; 126; RG 1, E1, 9: 195–96; 28: 284–85, 289; RG 4, B28, 5: 43–44, 46–49; 9: 206; 115; RG 5, A1: 490–91, 1574–75, 1588–91, 1774–81,1785–86, 1932–37, 3107–28, 3509–10; RG 8, I (C ser.), 108: 132; 115D: 1, 50, 129, 131. QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, letterbooks (transcripts and mfm. of transcripts at AO). UWO, William Robertson papers, Robert Hamilton to Robertson, 20 Oct. 1791; Robertson to Hamilton, 14 Jan. 1805, 17 Jan. 1806. Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter). Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank). “District of Nassau: register of the lots in the townships of that district; book no.3,” AO Report, 1905: 337–47. Douglas, Lord Selkirk’s diary (White). [E. P. Gwillim (Simcoe)], Mrs. Simcoe’s diary, ed. M. Q. Innis (Toronto and New York, 1965), 14–15. John Askin papers (Quaife). “Names only, but much more,” comp. Janet Carnochan, Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], 27 (n.d.). Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology. Chadwick, Ontarian families. J. R. Robertson, The history of freemasonry in Canada from its introduction in 1749 . . . (2v., Toronto, 1899), 1: 181, 367. Wilson, “Enterprises of Robert Hamilton.”
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Cite This Article
Bruce G. Wilson, “HAMILTON, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_robert_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:
|Author of Article:||Bruce G. Wilson|
|Title of Article:||HAMILTON, ROBERT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|