HERON, SAMUEL, businessman, office holder, and militia officer; b. 1770 in Kirkcudbright, Scotland; d. 1817 or 1818 in York Township, Upper Canada.
Samuel Heron emigrated from Scotland at an early age, and after a short stay in New York City he moved to the Niagara peninsula in Upper Canada, where by 1793 his brother Andrew was a merchant in the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). In the spring of that year Samuel settled on a 200-acre tract of land near Ashbridges Bay on Lake Ontario; there Mrs Sarah Ashbridge and her family had just settled, and on 14 Dec. 1794 he married Mrs Ashbridge’s daughter Sarah.
On 3 Sept. 1793 Heron petitioned the Executive Council for a town lot in York (Toronto) and 200 acres of land, but was granted only a back town lot. It is not clear when Heron settled at York, but by January 1795 he had opened a general store in the town and was selling goods to William Berczy’s settlers in Markham Township. That June he was reported among the 14 heads of households at York.
Heron must have developed close contacts with Berczy, for in 1795 or 1796 he was the latter’s partner in the construction of a grist-mill on the Don River, the mortgage of Berczy’s land, and, after Berezy’s departure from the province, his agent in several business matters. In 1796 he began a shipping service between York, Newark, and the Genesee River (N.Y.) in partnership with Abner Miles. Heron’s business in York apparently prospered: by 1799 it included a tavern and by 1800 a shop for two tailors. His success seems to have enabled him to become a local financier as well as agent or trustee for the disposition of the land and property of many settlers in and near York.
Heron was an avid land speculator, though on a small scale. On 30 Aug. 1794 he had petitioned the Executive Council for 200 acres of land and was granted a lot on Yonge St in Vaughan Township, which he leased to John Lyons. In 1796 his petition for another 200 acres was turned down, but in 1797 and 1799 he was successful in obtaining two 200-acre grants. He hoped to sell these lots quickly for profit rather than settle on them as the government intended. Heron also purchased considerable land, notably a mill site on lot 9, Yonge Street, on the west bank of the Don River (later to be known as Hogg’s Hollow or York Mills). By 1801 he was advertising for sale a total of 3,000 acres in Scarborough, Vaughan, and Norwich (Whitby and East Whitby) townships.
By the late 1790s Heron seems to have become a respected figure in York society: he was collector of municipal assessments in 1797 and 1798, a town warden in 1797 and 1799, and an assessor in 1802. In 1797 he also became a master freemason and the following year he was made lieutenant in the York militia. Heron was anxious for recognition of his status. Although he already had two town lots, he petitioned twice in 1797 for a prestigious waterfront lot; his requests were refused. In 1799, however, after two more petitions, his grant in York was increased to an acre.
In 1800 Heron’s widespread contacts with farmers and townsfolk in the York area probably prompted him to seek a seat in the House of Assembly at the first election for the new constituency of Durham, Simcoe, and the East Riding of York. His name was proposed on 22 March in the Upper Canada Gazette by “A Farmer,” who was concerned that the man elected should “neither directly, or indirectly receive any emoluments from, or in office under government.” Admitting that Heron lacked “a refined education,” the writer argued that with “a large share of mother wit and good sense” he was “an honest, upright and just man.” The campaign shaped up as a contest between gentleman office holders and a humbler man in closer contact with the settlers. Curiously, on 12 July Heron announced that he would not be a candidate. But when polling began on 24 July he was definitely in the race. As the candidates, judge Henry Allcock, Provincial Secretary William Jarvis, John Small*, and Heron, brought forward their adherents, Heron appeared to be gathering support from the countryside, and Jarvis gave his backing to Allcock. When a disturbance developed over the arrest of a drunken supporter of Heron, the poll was adjourned. But at the insistence of Allcock’s scrutineer, William Weekes, two more votes for his candidate were subsequently recorded, giving the judge a majority of two. Then he successfully demanded that the poll be closed. Heron immediately protested, but the riot act was read and the crowd dispersed. Later that day Heron and 97 others petitioned Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter for a new election; however, Hunter referred them to the assembly. In June 1801 the assembly unseated Allcock and ordered a new election; Heron did not stand and the petitioners’ advocate, Angus Macdonell (Collachie), was elected.
Heron’s election defeat was followed in February 1801 by the death of his wife. His marriage on 10 Dec. 1802 to Sarah Conott (Connott) may have lifted his spirits, but he faced serious financial trouble. Like merchants such as Miles, Heron was pressed by the colony’s shortage of cash and by problems arising from his own land speculation. Each year between 1799 and 1801 he ran notices demanding payment of outstanding debts and advertising for sale some of his “excellent wood land”; in fact, in 1800 he announced prematurely that he was “about to decline business.” Later that year he mortgaged all his property to the Montreal merchant John Gray* for £1,875, one-half of which sum was due early in 1802. On 12 Feb. 1803 Gray foreclosed – as he had another York merchant, William Willcocks – and put up for sale Heron’s property in York and in Scarborough, Vaughan, York, Crowland, and Norwich townships, totalling more than 2,500 acres valued at £1,338.
Heron, now simply a “Yeoman” and perhaps hoping to make a new start, was granted in the summer of 1804 a lot in the town of Niagara. Simultaneously arrangements were under way to pay off Berczy’s longstanding debts, his principal creditors being Heron, Willcocks, and Gray. For the £1,937 owed him Heron was awarded 600 acres of land worth £550, Berczy’s 400-acre farm worth £300, and £459 cash. This infusion of funds probably allowed him to remain on his mill site on Yonge Street, where he constructed a grist-mill and sawmill. In 1805 he was elected an overseer of highways and fence viewer. His attempt to obtain a tavern licence was unsuccessful, but by 1810 he was running a distillery “capable of making 18 gallons of Whiskey per day,” and a potashery. Financial problems still troubled him, and every year between 1809 and 1812 he attempted to sell off some or all of his property. After his death he was still indebted to Gray. On 5 Jan. 1817 Heron was granted a tavern licence in York Township. In the spring of 1819 the annual census listed Heron’s third wife, Lucy, as a widow.
Samuel Heron had risen from humble origins in Scotland to local prominence as a pioneer merchant on the Upper Canadian frontier. Yet his eagerness for social recognition had been checked by the self-styled gentry who occupied the chief offices of the provincial government. Heron’s final downfall, however, was his own doing. After a few years of mercantile success his plunge into land speculation was fatal to his business in York. He finished his life in quiet obscurity in the backwoods of York Township, without ever abandoning his enterprising schemes.
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